There's still a lot of confusion about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including what it is and how best to treat it. So it's easy for misconceptions about the condition to sound like facts.
If you or your loved one has IBS, you should know the truth about 9 of the most common myths out there.
Myth No. 1: IBS is no big deal.
IBS can affect your career, your relationships, and almost every part of your life.
"Many of my friends and even many doctors I saw acted like my symptoms were nothing," says Barbara N., 61, of New Jersey, who asked that we not use her full last name. "Yet I lived with gas and terrible pain for more than a decade before I finally saw an IBS specialist."
She says the progress she made with help from a gastroenterologist and a dietitian was proof of just how serious her condition had been. "It's like night and day," she says. "My symptoms are a lot better and life is so much more enjoyable. I can actually play with my grandkids without stopping because I'm in pain."
Myth No. 2: Getting diagnosed or treated involves a lot of tests.
The main way a doctor will diagnose IBS is through the symptoms you describe. "Too many people with IBS symptoms put off seeing a physician because they think they'll have to get a bunch of expensive or invasive tests," says Eamonn Quigley, MD, a gastroenterologist and liver specialist at Houston Methodist Hospital.
But most people don't need tests.
"What matters most is how you feel your symptoms are impacting your life," Quigley says.
If you have serious signs, like blood in your stool, your doctor may order tests such as blood tests or a colonoscopy.
Myth No. 3: Stress or anxiety causes IBS.
Experts don't know why people get the disease. But it's clear that the cause is not in your head.
"Even though stress and depression can make symptoms worse, IBS is not a psychiatric illness. It's not caused by emotions or thoughts," says Arun Swaminath, MD, director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Take it from Julianna Corso Eldemire, who was diagnosed in 2012. "I was always told that IBS only affects people who are high strung or who have high anxiety, which makes their bodies react in a painful way," says Eldemire, of Boca Raton, FL. "Since I have a stress-free personality and don't sweat the small stuff, at first I didn't like being put in that category." Now she tells anyone who misunderstands that IBS is a real medical condition, not something that's all in her head.
Myth No. 4: Only a drastic diet can ease IBS symptoms.
Diet changes can sometimes make a difference. But they can't cure IBS, and they don't work for everyone.
"For years, well-meaning people recommended all different kinds of eating plans to me," Barbara N. says. "It was such a relief when my doctor and dietitian explained to me that in my case, food wasn't to blame for my symptoms."
Talk to your doctor about possible diet changes that might work for you. Some people with IBS find that going easy on foods like beans, vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and kale, and sugar substitutes like xylitol can ease gas, bloating, and pain.
Myth No. 5: IBS and lactose intolerance are the same thing.
Lactose intolerance means your body can't digest lactose, a natural sugar found in milk and dairy foods. It causes digestive problems such as gas. But with IBS, there's no single food that's to blame.
"Reducing or eliminating lactose does reduce IBS symptoms for some people -- but not everyone," says Desiree Nielsen, a registered dietitian in Vancouver, Canada, who focuses on digestive health.
Avoiding lactose usually only helps IBS when you make other diet changes, such as eating fewer beans and more fiber.
Myth No. 6: Fiber can cure IBS.
Fiber, the part of carbohydrates that the body can't digest, can help ease IBS-related constipation. It's not a cure, though. Some people with the disease even find that it makes pain and bloating worse at first.
If your condition does give you constipation, add more fiber to your diet slowly so your body has time to get used to it.
Myth No. 7: Yeast causes IBS.
Some people say the condition is tied to yeast, especially a type called candida. Everyone has this germ growing naturally in their gut, but some experts think too much of it can lead to IBS. Cut yeast and sugar out of your diet, they argue, and you can reduce candida and improve your symptoms.
So far, though, science says otherwise.
"There's no research to prove that a sensitivity to yeast [in foods like bread and beer] causes IBS," Swaminath says.
If you think yeast or carbohydrates make your condition worse, talk to your doctor or a dietitian who specializes in gut health to figure out what you can do.
Myth No. 8: IBS can lead to serious health problems like cancer.
"IBS has no relationship to cancer," Swaminath says. And while some of its symptoms are similar to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), they're two different conditions. "IBS and IBD might be related in some way, but they don't cause each other," Swaminath says.
Myth No. 9: You can never escape IBS.
"Symptoms fluctuate," Swaminath says. "It's worth it to work with your doctor to manage your IBS. You may find that when you do, you have fewer symptoms or even none at all." In fact, experts estimate that IBS troubles go away for about 10% of people each year.