9 Signs It's Not IBS, It's Your Daily Habits

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
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If you've been experiencing serious problems with your digestion lately you might wonder if you have irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. This, experts tell Bustle, is a serious diagnosis, but it's also easily confused for other disorders — and the symptoms can be caused by lifestyle habits or changes, rather than an underlying conditions. The signs your stomach issues aren't IBS can be sussed out with a doctor's help.

"IBS is a functional disorder of the digestive tract that is characterized by abdominal pain with an associated change in bowel habit (either diarrhea or constipation)," gastroenterologist Dr. Peyton Berookim, the founder of Westwood Wellness, tells Bustle. If that's what you've been feeling, though, there are many other things that may be causing it.

The symptoms of IBS can be far-ranging. Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum, director of the Center for Medical Mycology at Case Western Reserve University and author of Total Gut Balance, tells Bustle that they can include "abdominal pain, bloating and feeling of abdominal distention and passage of mucus," and in severe cases the feelings can be continuous for over three months at a time. However, he points out that other medical conditions like functional dyspepsia, noncardiac chest pain, and functional anorectal pain can have the same abdominal symptoms, so if your symptoms do have a medical cause, IBS might not be the reason. And experts explain that the answer may not be medical at all: it could be your lifestyle. Here are nine lifestyle habits that can give you IBS-like symptoms.


You Tend To Eat Quickly & On The Run

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If you have a tendency to experience gas and indigestion, how quickly you eat your food may be to blame. Clinical nutritionist Sara Kahn tells Bustle, "If you are eating on the run, eating in your car, eating in a hurry or eating in front of the TV, chances are that you are not chewing your food well enough. The process of digestion begins in the mouth."

Many of us eat quickly or in swift intervals throughout the working day, and that might be causing digestive issues. The problem with improperly chewed food, explains holistic nutrition consultant Stephanie Papadakis, founder of Gut Of Integrity, is that it skips a key part of the digestive process. In the mouth, she tells Bustle, "salivary enzymes begin the process of breaking down food. If you don’t chew your food because you’re eating too fast, it can get stuck in your stomach, causing it to expand." The result is gas, bloating, burping and indigestion.


Your Diet Has The Wrong Amount Of Fiber

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Getting the right balance of digestive fiber is important for avoiding digestive symptoms that can mimic IBS, experts tell Bustle. "Lack of fiber (fruits and vegetables) in one's diet can lead to constipation," Dr. Berookim tells Bustle. However, Dr. Ghannoum explains that the opposite is also true. "Eating too much fiber could lead to bloating," he says. The correct amount of dietary fiber differs for each person, but the American Heart Association currently recommends ingesting 25 to 30 grams of it from food daily.


You're Not Drinking Enough Water

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If you're prone to constipation, Kahn says not drinking water may be to blame. "One of the colon's jobs is to add water to your food waste to create a bowel movement that is easy to pass," she tells Bustle. "Dehydration can lead to constipation, dry, hard stools, straining or incomplete evacuation." Drink more water throughout the day and see if that might affect your bowel movements positively.


You're A Caffeine Fiend

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Ingesting huge amounts of cold brew to get through the day? Dr. Berookim warns that excessive caffeine use can have a serious effect on the digestive system, and that can mimic IBS. Kahn lays out the process: "The caffeine in coffee (and other caffeinated beverages) can stimulate contractions in the colon and stimulate the urge to have a bowel movement. In people who are sensitive to caffeine, too much coffee can lead to diarrhea."


You're Stressed Out

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The modern rat race can be incredibly stressful, and that can have knock-on effects on our digestive systems, leading to distressing symptoms, experts tell Bustle. "Inadequate sleep, excessive caffeine or alcohol intake, and our ability to cope with stress can all affect our digestive system," Dr. Berookim says. If you lead a high-octane life with late hours and a lot of exhaustion, that may be causing IBS-like symptoms.


You Exercise Infrequently


Not getting to the gym lately? That could be causing your digestive system to work more slowly, says Kahn. "A lack of exercise can cause constipation," she tells Bustle. "Exercise can help food move through the body by stimulating the muscles of the intestines." Even a small amount of exercise daily, particularly after meals, can help resolve this issue and make constipation and indigestion less likely.


You Eat Late At Night

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Experiencing heartburn and indigestion at night may not be due to IBS; it could be down to the fact that you're eating a bit too late. "If you’re eating late at night, you’re likely going to have heartburn symptoms while you sleep," Papadakis tells Bustle. "While laying flat, food can leave the stomach and come back up into the esophagus." Midnight snacks should be off the menu if you tend to feel a bit uncomfortable while trying to sleep; Papadakis advises eating no later than three hours before you go to bed, to see if that might help.


You Drink Too Much During Meals


This may seem like an odd issue, but Kahn explains to Bustle that it can actually cause digestive distress. "Drinking too much liquid during meals can lead to feelings of fullness and reflux," she says. A full meal plus a lot of liquid in your stomach is more likely to lead to bloating and discomfort. "Instead of drinking liquids with meals, try drinking throughout the day or before and after you eat," she suggests.


You Tend To Drink Carbonated Drinks


Dr. Berookim notes that carbonated water and sodas can cause abdominal bloating, which is often a key symptom of IBS. Love soda? Kahn suggests substituting plain water with flavorings like lemon or lime to ease the bloating.


If you're concerned that you have IBS, it's important to try and get a proper diagnosis, experts tell Bustle. "There are many serious conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease that can mimic symptoms of IBS, so an accurate diagnosis is crucial," Dr. Berookim says. If you identify with any of the habits on this list, Kahn suggests you do some detective work by changing them and seeing if that helps your symptoms. Eat too fast? Chew each bite at least 20 times before swallowing. Tend to drink a lot of coffee? Cut down by a third each day, she says.

However, if nothing seems to help, a GP visit is a necessity. "It is not easy to know if you have IBS because of the overlap with many conditions and personal habits," says Dr. Ghannoum. "You should consult with your physician to ascertain that."

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