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April is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) awareness month and according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) approximately 10%-15% of the world suffer from it; many go undiagnosed and are unaware. [1] Individuals with IBS report that their IBS was diagnosed six years after they started experiencing their first symptoms. IBS is a chronic condition, characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, or other gastrointestinal disturbance. Because the brain regulates digestion and other gastrointestinal tasks, the disorder is sometimes referred to as a brain-gut disorder.

Although 10%-15% of the world population may not seem significant, the percentage amounts to between 25 and 45 million people[2].  While IBS can affect either gender or age group, it has been documented that two thirds of IBS sufferers are women, and likely under the age of fifty.

While IBS is not directly associated with a higher risk of contracting other diseases or disorders, a lower quality of life and economic burden makes IBS an oppressive condition for sufferers. Symptoms arise unpredictably, making dealing with the symptoms debilitating, embarrassing and difficult to manage. Imagine experiencing diarrhea, gas, or bloating in the middle of an importing meeting or going on dates and worrying about which foods to avoid in hopes of decreasing chances of a flare up. The emotional toll of worrying and being uncomfortable can deprive an individual from enjoying otherwise pleasant activities. IBS can make traveling, pregnancy, intimate relationships, and experiencing college life challenging, stressful, and overwhelming. The economic cost of work absenteeism, medical costs and other cost to society tallies up to $21 billion each year. A study conducted by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found that depression and anxiety disorders among individuals with IBS is prevalent[3].

Some may believe that the root cause of IBS is stress, and while stress can act as a trigger for symptoms the root cause of IBS is unknown. There is no evidence to show that diet, demographic factors, stressors, or hormonal changes result in IBS- rather, these are factors that could worsen existing symptoms of IBS. There is no cure for IBS, but treatment is available, and it may help manage symptoms. The type of treatment will depend on the severity of the symptoms. Typically, a provider will recommend that patients begin keeping track of what they eat and logging how it makes them feel. This is a good start to identifying which foods may trigger a flare up. Under the guidance of a provider, individuals with IBS can also try stress and pain management techniques. There are several ongoing studies to help understand IBS, improve treatment options, and to comprehend the role of interpersonal relationships as IBS factors.

It is normal to have diarrhea or constipation occasionally- however if symptoms persist over a long period of time, consult with your provider and avoid self-diagnosing. Only an experienced provider can make an accurate diagnosis. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with IBS, there are resources available to help support, provide tips and guidance at the IFFGD website:

Blanca Gutierrez is a program coordinator at the Community Clinic Consortium, which is a member of Solano Coalition for Better Health.