Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a term for a group of problems primarily involving abdominal pain, abdominal bloating and constipation and/or diarrhea. Until recently, medical science believed that IBS had no physical cause and was simply the result of patients’ becoming distressed about the functioning of their bowels. They were prescribed this or that medication (usually laxatives or anti-diarrhea drugs) and then shoved off on their merry way. But now physicians are starting to realize that IBS is a real disorder with physical causes. Nonetheless, the science underlying our understanding of IBS remains limited by what we can measure.
What we do know is this: The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain, the relief of that abdominal pain with bowel action, passing mucous through the bowels and a feeling of incomplete evacuation. IBS typically flares up now and again and then it seems to go into remission. The average symptom flare-ups last about seven days per month with two bouts per day (lasting on average an hour each). Flare-ups are often associated with stress such as anxiety or depression, and some theorize that because of the mind-gut connection, flare-ups even cause anxiety and depression.
IBS is a very common problem and it’s actually the second most common reason people miss work, right after the common cold. At least 10-15% of the general population suffers from IBS, with some population estimates reaching as high as 20%.
IBS occurs more frequently in women than in men. The most common conventional treatments involve symptom management through either medication or lifestyle changes (things like eliminating dairy products or increasing exercise).
When initially diagnosed with IBS, many people receive the discouraging news from their doctors that they may be stuck with this misery for the rest of their lives. But data actually show that half of all IBS patients have recovered by their next follow-up visit. Also, resolving stressors (divorce, bankruptcy, etc.) helps some people with IBS to significantly improve, because the mind-body connection works both ways. It can help set off illness and it can also help resolve illness.
You can imagine that, during a bout of IBS, the affected person might be thinking “Why, oh why me?” as IBS sounds dreadfully miserable. Recent developments in science are indeed working on the question of “Why anyone?” As the connection between brain and gut becomes more apparent in study after study, it is easier to see how major stressors (mind) can impact the immune system (body). This connection is yet another clear example of why continuing to believe in the mind-body split is so last-century. Now let’s dive further into the details.