Irritable bowels? You’re not alone.


In this article:

  • Anywhere from 25 to 45 million people in the U.S. suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

  • This common digestive disorder occurs when your brain and gut aren’t sending the right signals to each other.

  • Symptoms of IBS can include constipation or diarrhea, but to be diagnosed, you need to experience symptoms for several weeks.

  • Treatments range from medication to lifestyle modifications and can help you improve your symptoms.

We all experience tummy trouble from time to time. Maybe you overindulged at your favorite restaurant. Or perhaps you picked up a stomach bug circling your kid’s school. But, if you regularly experience constipation, bloating, or diarrhea, you might be dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

And you’re not the only one.

Researchers estimate that IBS affects 25 to 45 million people in the U.S. In fact, it’s one of the most common digestive health conditions gastroenterologists diagnose and treat.

If you’ve been struggling with stomach issues, take a minute to become more familiar with IBS. Then, talk with your doctor about your symptoms and treatment options.

What is IBS?

IBS is a digestive condition that causes a group of symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. It’s a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which means your brain and gut aren’t working properly together. Simply put, it means that there are no tumors, blockages, infections, or abnormalities in the gut causing your symptoms.

This brain and gut (mis)connection can cause problems with how quickly (or slowly) food travels through your digestive tract or make a normal amount of gas feel painful and unbearable.

There are three types of IBS:

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C) – Your bowel movements are hard and lumpy
  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D) – Your bowel movements are loose and watery
  • IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M) – You have hard and lumpy and loose and watery bowel movements on the same day

While anyone can develop IBS, it is more common in women. Younger people (under age 50) are also more likely to develop the condition.

IBS symptoms

The symptoms of IBS can be a little vague. Sometimes, it is tough to tell the difference between a meal not sitting right and what might signal a larger problem – like IBS. More than anything, the telltale sign of IBS is time. You might have IBS if you’ve had stomach pain or changes to your bowel habits (like how often you go and if you’re constipated or have diarrhea more than normal) for a few weeks instead of a few days.

Symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Changes to frequency of bowel movements
  • Cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeling like you haven’t finished a bowel movement
  • Gassiness
  • Whitish mucus in stool

These symptoms don’t cause damage to your digestive tract, but it’s important to get them checked out by a doctor. Once you know what’s causing your tummy trouble, you can start a plan to treat and manage your symptoms.

Diagnosing IBS

IBS used to be a catch-all for digestive trouble. That is, if a doctor couldn’t find something that was wrong, they would diagnose you with IBS. While blood and stool tests don’t indicate IBS, a clear set of standards must be met to diagnose a patent with the condition. Those are:

Abdominal pain that comes and goes (often with bowel movements) and irregular bathroom patterns – including urgent bowel movements with loose stool or incomplete/infrequent bowel movements with hard stool. Symptoms must occur at least once a week for three months.

Your gastroenterologist will conduct a complete physical exam. They will likely run other tests to ensure you don’t have other underlying conditions causing your symptoms. It is common for other digestive issues to trigger IBS or cause similar symptoms. Your gastroenterologist may also evaluate you for:

  • Celiac disease
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Diverticulitis

A quick note on IBD vs. IBS

IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD causes inflammation in the bowels, which can lead to serious damage to your intestines. Several types of IBD exist, but the two most common are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

The most noticeable (and noteworthy) difference between IBS and IBD is that symptoms of IBD can get worse over time and include bloody or black stools, fever or weight loss.

Learn more about IBD.

Treating IBS

Dealing with IBS can certainly be frustrating. After all, it does more than keep you from eating your favorite foods. It can make it stressful or downright impossible to go certain places – places that don’t always have a bathroom nearby.

Fortunately, many treatments and therapies treat IBS. Once your doctor has diagnosed your condition – including the type of IBS you have – together, you can create a plan to help manage your symptoms.

  • Diet. You can work with your doctor to eliminate certain foods from your diet and then slowly reintroduce them. This process gives you a clear understanding of which foods may trigger your symptoms. For example, your doctor may suggest eliminating gluten or following a diet low in fermentable carbs (a low-FODMAP diet).
  • Proper nutrition. While avoiding trigger foods is key to controlling your IBS symptoms, you also need to make sure you’re eating nutrient-rich foods high in fiber. Fresh fruits and veggies, complex carbohydrates, and whole foods (unprocessed) can help improve your gut health and eliminate IBS symptoms.
  • Exercise. Yep, regular daily activity is good for your gut too. Exercise helps keep things moving in your body – so you can stay regular and reduce bloating in your belly.
  • Get enough sleep. It’s true that sleep has restorative power. It’s the time your body needs to rest and recover from a hard day’s work – including the work of digesting your food. So set yourself up for a good night’s sleep, and you may find your symptoms start to ease.
  • Manage stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety release hormones and chemicals that can affect your gut – causing digestion to slow down or speed up. The result? Constipation or diarrhea. Your gastroenterologist may recommend working with a therapist to help you find the strategies to improve your mental wellness.
  • Medications. Some over-the-counter medications can help relieve the unpleasant symptoms that come with IBS. However, you may also need prescription medicine to treat your condition. Your doctor can help you find the approach that’s right for you.

Find relief with the right treatments

The good news is you can take control of your IBS. And the first step is having an open and honest conversation with your doctor. Together, you can get to the bottom of what’s causing your symptoms and get you started on a plan that helps you feel your best.


Find a doctor

If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services.

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Related resources

Maintain a healthy gut: Three reasons to see a gastroenterologist

Three reasons to go gluten-free and three reasons not to

Coping with diverticulitis

Managing irritable bowel syndrome with diet

Keep your digestive tract happy and healthy with a colon-friendly diet

9 signs your stomach pain isn’t normal

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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