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Misconceptions about IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is not a popular topic of conversation, but considering how common it is, perhaps it should be discussed more often. Experts estimate that up to 20% of the population suffers from IBS, although the majority of sufferers are rather misinformed when it comes to the nature and treatment of their disease.
Although it’s chronic and extremely uncomfortable, IBS is not as unpredictable and uncontrollable as you might imagine. It’s also not as serious as some other intestinal diseases, which makes it particularly important to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible. Start by breaking through these misconceptions about IBS to find out what’s really at the root of the problem.
1. IBS Is Caused by Certain Foods
Although food choices certainly play a role in your IBS symptoms, they’re not entirely to blame. In fact, what you ingest has nothing to do with the fact that you have IBS — your condition is tied to the processes that are happening inside your body, regardless of what you ate for lunch.
Although IBS is still fairly mysterious, experts suspect that the nerves in the intestines, an imbalance of bacteria in the colon, and/or food allergies are at the source of IBS. None of these are universal; your specific case could be traced to any combination of root causes. In any case, what you eat and drink can certainly lead to worse symptoms, and that means careful eating is crucial.
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2. IBS Is Caused by Stress
Like food, stress is often blamed for the onset of IBS. However, just like your diet, a high stress level can only exacerbate symptoms, not actually cause the disease.
However, stress and IBS are intimately connected. Naturally, telltale gurgling and cramping will cause some anxiety — especially if you happen to be out in public — but stress and anxiety can become a permanent fixture in your life with IBS. Fortunately, many patients have found that once the source of their IBS is treated, their stress level falls drastically, right away.
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3. IBS Can Lead to Colon Cancer
Although the symptoms can be severe and the condition may seem to progress, IBS does not create the conditions for cancer.
Studies reveal that over 20% of IBS patients are concerned that their condition will lead to colon cancer, but there isn’t any scientific evidence to support that fear. The biggest risk factors for colon cancer include genetic disposition, Crohn’s disease, a history of polyps in your colon, and advanced age (most cases are in people over 50 years of age).
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4. A Limited Diet Is Best for IBS
It may sound strange, but you probably don’t need to modify your diet too much (if at all) to manage your IBS. If a food allergy is at play, it’s important to stay away from that ingredient, but the majority of people don’t need a special diet to cope with their symptoms.
Trigger foods like caffeine, alcohol, and cruciferous veggies are problematic, so be sure to track and avoid them. However, distilling your diet to only a few “safe” foods can create all sorts of other problems, particularly if a microbe imbalance is partly to blame for your IBS. Instead, aim for a balanced diet rich in whole foods (that agree with you), and low in additives and preservatives — this sort of menu will be easier for your body to digest.
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5. IBS Is All in Your Head
Those without IBS might suspect that you’re playing up your symptoms when you mention your pain or meal modifications, but the scientific community agrees that IBS is most definitely a physical disorder, not simply a psychological issue.
Some people find the discomforts of IBS merely annoying, while others are forced to reconfigure their lives around the pain and urgency of their IBS. This is not a one-size-fits-all disease, and you can’t expect everyone to offer an adequate amount of sympathy. Just remember that no matter what others may believe, your pain is real and you have every right to the support and treatment available.
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6. IBS Is Type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
It’s easy to lump together different diseases that occur in one area of the body, especially when it comes to the intestines. However, although conditions like colitis and Crohn’s Disease might share certain symptoms with IBS, they are very different in nature.
Colitis and Crohn’s Disease are inflammatory bowel disorders: the walls of the intestines are chronically inflamed, setting the stage for ulcers, fissures, and a long list of uncomfortable symptoms that vary in severity. They can lead to other serious disorders (in some cases, cancer), while IBS — though extremely uncomfortable — does not feature the inflammation and tissue damage that causes other health problems.
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7. IBS Rarely Affects Men
In America and other Western countries, women tend to suffer from IBS more often than men — up to three times as often, as a matter of fact. This leads many people to believe that men are immune to the painful, embarrassing, life-limiting disorder — and that’s simply not true.
In many Eastern countries, men are actually far more likely to report IBS than women, so perhaps the number of doctor consultations skew the ratio. Moreover, IBS diagnostic criteria used to be less effective for men than it was for women, which meant more men with IBS went undiagnosed. In any case, IBS doesn’t discriminate: men, women, children, and seniors suffer from the condition.
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8. There's No Way to Accurately Diagnose IBS
Many people believe that IBS is a sort of default diagnosis, a label for the unidentified source of your gastric distress. However, there is a very specific set of criteria, known as the Rome Criteria, which is incredibly helpful in diagnosing IBS and separating it from other GI problems.
Since it has been revised multiple times, the current Rome Criteria is the most accurate and up-to-date diagnostic tool for IBS. However, in some cases, further tests may be used to rule out other possible conditions. A colonoscopy is not necessary for an IBS diagnosis, but it may be useful if your doctor suspects you’re at risk for another intestinal disease.
The better you understand your IBS, the better you will be able to control it. Take time to talk to your doctor about your symptoms, and the most suitable treatment options. It can take some trial and error to get things under control, but don’t give up — there are plenty of approaches to try, and lots of support to help you along your way.