How Does IBS Affect Women?

Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is a cluster of symptoms that include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It is common to find irritable bowel syndrome in women, in people under fifty years old, and among people who have a family member with IBS. Although it causes discomfort, irritable bowel syndrome does not permanently harm the intestines or lead to serious illnesses. There is no cure, but there are ways to treat the symptoms.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

As many as one in five adults in the United States have abdominal discomfort. IBS symptoms in women vary, but the diagnosis is made when abdominal discomfort lasts for three months or longer. Symptoms include the following:

• Constipation

• Abdominal pain or cramps

• Diarrhea

• Feeling of an incomplete bowel movement

• Mucus in the stool

• Gas

• Alternating diarrhea and constipation

• Swelling or bloating in the stomach

• Discomfort in the upper abdomen or feeling nauseous after a normal meal

How is IBS Diagnosed?

Although there are no medical tests for the disorder, a doctor can usually make a diagnosis by performing an exam, asking questions about symptoms, and ruling out other illnesses. The following symptoms may signal a need for further testing:

• Weight loss

• Rectal bleeding

• Iron deficiency, or anemia

• Nighttime symptoms, such as diarrhea

• Family history of inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, or colorectal cancer

A medical exam may include blood tests, breath tests for lactose intolerance, and a colonoscopy to give the doctor an inside look at the intestines.

How is IBS Treated?

There is no cure for women with IBS, but there are ways to lessen the discomfort. These include medication, diet changes, and stress reduction. Sometimes a combination of medical and holistic treatments provides relief. Over-the-counter products for diarrhea, cramps, constipation, and muscle spasms may be the first line of treatment. If IBS is accompanied by extreme constipation, pain, or depression, an antidepressant or additional medications may be prescribed.

Diet does not cause irritable bowel syndrome, but specific foods may trigger symptoms. Through a process of trial and error, changes can usually be made to keep this from happening. In addition to eliminating foods that irritate the stomach, it helps to eat a balanced diet with lots of fiber, to drink six or eight glasses of water daily, and to eat four or five small meals throughout the day rather than three large ones. It also helps to avoid or limit the following foods:

• Caffeine

• Milk products

• Alcohol

• Artificial sweeteners

• Carbonated drinks

• Fatty or fried foods

• Large amounts of insoluble fiber

People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome often have coexisting symptoms of anxiety, panic disorder, or depression. Stress worsens all of these, and studies have shown that stress reduction methods can ease IBS symptoms. Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce stress, and what works for one person may not work for another. Most people find relief from one or more of the following options:

• Behavioral therapy, talk therapy, or hypnotherapy

• Exercise

• Meditation

• Yoga

• Massage

• Spending time in nature

• Listening to relaxing music

• Acupuncture

Since IBS can be worsened by stress, it comes as no surprise that IBS in women occurs more frequently during their menstrual periods. IBS may also overlap gynecological symptoms like premenstrual syndrome and painful menstruation. In addition to good sleep habits, a healthy lifestyle, and an awareness of what helps and what does not, women with IBS should not hesitate to seek the help of medical professionals and other clinicians when searching for the best ways to cope with irritable bowel syndrome.