What Causes I.B.S.? – The New York Times

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I.B.S. is the most frequently diagnosed gastrointestinal disorder. Although symptoms can vary from patient to patient, they commonly include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, intestinal gas, and diarrhea or constipation, or both. The disorder affects more women than men and is most common in people under 50. The annual medical costs of the condition exceed $1 billion in the United States alone.

It’s a chronic condition that requires continual management strategies, like always knowing the location of the nearest bathroom or having to wear diapers when restroom access is limited. The emotional distress it can cause often results in depression and anxiety and may prompt others to think incorrectly that the bowel disorder is self-inflicted.

There is a known connection between the brain and the gut, and undue stress can certainly aggravate the symptoms of I.B.S. Cognitive behavioral therapy may benefit some patients, and many find it helpful to practice relaxation techniques like positive imagery, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation.

Yoga and other types of physical activity may also diminish symptoms of I.B.S. and improve patients’ quality of life. One clinical trial involving 102 patients found that those who engaged in vigorous physical activity three to five days a week experienced reduced physical and psychological symptoms.

Another soothing technique that can be done anywhere, anytime, to help relieve pain and stress is diaphragmatic breathing, the opposite of sucking in your gut. Instead of pushing out the chest as the lungs fill with air, the diaphragm is pushed down toward the stomach, causing the belly to rise. Practice by placing one hand above your navel to feel your abdomen rise as you inhale slowly through your nose, and then retract as you exhale through your mouth.

Patients can also minimize their symptoms by avoiding the foods or drinks that seem to trigger them. Common troublemakers include wheat and other gluten-containing foods, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage and related gas-causing vegetables, and carbonated drinks. People may also react badly to spicy or fatty foods, coffee or alcohol.

Some patients find dramatic relief from adopting a strict FODMAP diet that eliminates all fermentable starches and sugars, then gradually adding back one food at a time to determine which ones cause symptoms and are best avoided. The FODMAP diet favorably alters the population of microbes that live in the intestines, reducing gas-producing bacteria that thrive on fermentable foods. (Details of the diet can be found at this website.)