7 Things Doctors Want You To Know About IBS

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Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is one of those health conditions that can be difficult to talk about. And when you're struggling with things like diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating, that's completely understandable. But there are still things doctors want you to know about IBS, including the fact it's not as uncommon as it may seem.

In fact, IBS and all its uncomfortable symptoms, affect between 25 to 45 million Americans of all ages. And two out of every three of those people are women. So if you've got it, there's a good chance you know someone else who does, too.

That doesn't, however, automatically make things easier. "IBS has a huge impact on my patients' lives," Natasha Bhuyan, MD, of One Medical, tells Bustle. "Some patients will experience cramping or bloating. Others will feel a sense of urgency to use the restroom and can have alternating loose stools or constipation. Some of my patients fear going out for too long, as they aren't sure when a flare will strike." And it can all add up to create a situation that's incredibly tough to deal with.

"Luckily, there are several great ways to manage IBS," Dr. Bhuyan says, including eating foods that are easier to digest, managing stress, and even going to therapy. Read on below for a few more things doctors want you to know about IBS, so you can find ways to feel better.

1. It Isn't "All In Your Head"

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"IBS is a real condition that is crippling for many Americans," Dr. Bhuyan says. "I have had patients who have been told over and over again that it's 'all in their head,' and that their symptoms are not real." And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

2. Mental Health Can Play A Role

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That said, mental health can play a big role when it comes to symptoms and flare ups, with many people feeling worse whenever they're anxious or stressed.

"In medicine, and primary care especially, we [...] need to pay close attention to mental health," Dr. Bhuyan says. "For overall health, it's just as important to reduce your stress as it is to eat healthy! Nurturing a patient's mental health can also have a positive impact on their IBS."

By chatting with a therapist, and finding ways to cope with stress and anxiety, you might be able to manage symptoms, psychotherapist Kim Hollingdale, tells Bustle. She recommends things like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing, as well as learning how to express emotions.

3. Other Diseases Need To Be Ruled Out

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Since nobody knows for sure what causes IBS symptoms, doctors often check for a variety of gastrointestinal-related issues first, to make sure those aren't to blame for what's going on.

“To diagnose IBS, a physician should rule out a diagnosis of IBD, [or inflammatory bowel disease]," Dr. Kenneth Grant, pediatric gastroenterologist at CHOC Children’s, tells Bustle, which includes things like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. If tests for those issues come back negative, a doctor may diagnose you with IBS.

4. Many IBS Sufferers Have Food Sensitivities

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"Food sensitivity is a big trigger for many patients," Dr. Bhuyan says, which is why, along with therapy, a dietary change is often recommended as a form of treatment.

For example, Dr. Bhuyan says many people find relief when they follow a low FODMAP diet. She says this plan focuses on eating foods that are easier to digest.

5. Everyone's Symptoms Are Different

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"The underlying mechanism of IBS is still not well understood," Dr. Bhuyan says, "however, we know there are several triggers — and these triggers may be different for different people." This also means everyone will have different symptoms, so there will never be one defining trait for IBS.

6. There May Be A Gut/Brain Connection

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Experts believe IBS may have a gut/brain connection. As Dr. Grant says, "Nerve signals or chemicals secreted by the gut or brain may cause the gut to be more sensitive to triggers that normally do not cause significant pain (such as stretching or gas bloating). The nerve dysfunction also results in change in bowel motility leading to constipation or diarrhea.”

7. You Should Let A Doctor Know

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"The most troubling thing is that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is vastly under-reported by patients," Jason Reed, PharmD, tells Bustle, possibly due to the stigma surrounding symptoms.

But it can help to remember that doctors have heard it all before, and aren't going to be grossed out by tales of diarrhea and constipation.

So, if you happen to be struggling with symptoms of IBS, keep in mind how common the condition really is, and consider how speaking up may be a good first step towards feeling better.