Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Bad Connections continued...
In one sense, Brunner is lucky — she knew what was troubling her and she
(finally) got effective care. "Many doctors still don't recognize IBS as a real
condition," says Lin Chang, M.D., co-director of the UCLA Center for
Neurobiology of Stress. Lots of women are in the dark as well: A survey of
5,009 adults found that as many as 76 percent of IBS sufferers may be
undiagnosed. Which also means they're not getting the help that could change
Though it's not known for sure, experts believe that when you have IBS,
there's a breakdown in the normal communication between your gut and your
brain. Nerves in your GI tract shoot pain signals to the brain when there's
nothing really wrong — just a little gas passing through, for instance. Or
garbled messages may get sent from the brain to the muscles in the intestines,
causing them to overcontract so food is forced through with lightning speed,
triggering diarrhea. In other cases, muscle contraction slows almost to a
standstill, leading to constipation.
Genes seem partly to blame for these faulty links. Hormones probably play a
role, too; women with IBS outnumber men about two to one. What is clear: Though
your intestines don't work right when you have IBS, they look perfectly normal
if they're checked with X-rays, ultrasounds, or colonoscopies. That's why a
battery of tests isn't necessary for a diagnosis — just a good medical history
and physical exam — concludes a recent report from the American College of
Your symptoms are considered IBS if you have pain with bothersome bowel
habits lasting for at least three months. Not every day will be bad. The ups
and downs are determined, in good part, by how stressed you are, what you eat,
and your menstrual cycle — about 70 percent of women say their IBS gets worse
around their periods. Identifying your triggers is a crucial step to reducing
flare-ups. But there are also many other ways to help yourself.
There are a number of Rx medications for IBS, but they work only about 30 to
40 percent of the time, says Gerard E. Mullin, M.D., director of Integrative GI
Nutrition Services at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Plus, "some have
serious side effects," he adds. No wonder alternative therapies have gained
experts' attention — research is finding that they can be highly effective.
They're safe to try on your own, either individually or several at once.