We have all had temporary stomach upset and problems going to the bathroom, but for individuals suffering with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) the discomfort and inconvenience can be disabling. Not to be confused with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease; IBS is a common digestive tract disorder that affects the colon (large intestine) but does not cause damage to it.

IBS is considered a “functional” gastrointestinal disorder and a “syndrome.”

Functional gastrointestinal disorders are characterized by chronic or recurring symptoms as a result of abnormal functioning of the GI (gastrointestinal) tract. This means they are caused by decreased health and function of the digestive tract.

The word syndrome means basically “running together.” When diagnosing a health condition, doctors will look at a group of symptoms existing together. In the case of IBS, there are common symptoms (see below) but the cause of these symptoms or how they are related is not clearly understood.

So to summarize; IBS is a functional disorder (the gut is not working the way it should) and it is a syndrome (nobody knows exactly what causes it). This is not what someone wants to hear when they have IBS! The good news is that functional medicine specializes in functional disorders and just because a single cause for IBS has not be identified, it does not mean it cannot be successfully managed or treated.

The truth of the matter is that there is not a single cause nor is there a single solution for IBS. If you suffer with IBS, you need to be evaluated from a functional medicine perspective so that your particular loss of normal function can be identified and addressed. When this occurs, your syndrome (symptoms) begin to improve and in many cases disappear.

Symptoms of IBS

  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Bowel urgency
  • Mucus in the stool

You do not need to have all of these symptoms to be diagnosed with IBS and those with the condition may suffer different levels of symptom severity. Blood in the stool, weight-loss and fever are NOT symptoms of IBS.

For most, IBS is a chronic condition that will go through phases where symptoms are minimal or absent and other times when they are quite intense. Intensity of symptoms is not a criteria used to diagnose the disease. In order to determine if you truly have IBS your doctor may use the Rome Foundation Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diagnostic criterion (Rome III criteria) which states that there must be recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort at least 3 days/month in the last 3 months and at least 2 of the following over the past 12 weeks:

  1. Symptoms improve after having a bowel movement
  2. There has been a change in bowel movement frequency
  3. The appearance of the stool has changed.

What Causes IBS?

Nobody knows exactly WHAT causes IBS.  I’m guessing there will never be single cause identified, simply because many sufferers have been successfully treated using a variety of approaches. Below are some of the factors that can contribute to this condition.

#1 Your intestines contain layers of muscles that contract and relax. When these muscle are functioning properly, the gut performs as it should. However, when they are not functioning in a coordinated fashion, problems begin to occur. If you have IBS, the muscle contractions may be more powerful or last longer than they should, causing discomfort and loose stool. Or the muscles may be contracting with less strength and with decreased frequency; this can lead to constipation or the sensation that the bowels are not emptying completely. These muscles are controlled by the nervous system. If the nervous system of the intestines (the enteric nervous system) is not functioning properly, the muscles of the intestine won’t either. The enteric nervous system must produce large amounts of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Without adequate neurotransmitter production the intestinal muscles cannot be properly controlled. Dietary supplements can help increase or balance the neurotransmitters produced by the enteric nervous system.

#2 Food allergies, intolerance’s and sensitivities. The foods you are eating may be triggering abnormal bowel function. Certain foods may be causing chronic inflammation or setting off an inappropriate immune system response in the digestive tract. We have posted several blogs on these subjects, so if you want more detailed information on these topics please go to our website.

#3 Gut flora and probiotics. There is a tremendous amount of information on the web about the complex community of microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts. We actually have a greater number of organisms living in our intestines than we have cells in our entire body! An unhealthy balance of this gut microbiota (the organism living in your intestines) can contribute to the symptoms of IBS. If you suspect such an imbalance or worse yet, a parasitic infection, stool testing may be an appropriate part of your treatment plan.

There are other factors that can play a significant role in IBS. Stress, hormone imbalances and even some medications can alter the normal function of the intestinal tract; leading to symptoms of IBS.

If you suffer from IBS and would like to take an integrative approach to what is truly a functional disorder go to our website for more information or contact our Naperville office.

For more information about functional medicine, integrative medicine or Dr. Sexton go to www.napervilleintegratedwellness.com

Do your own research, inform yourself and ask lots of questions. When collecting information you MUST consider the source. There is no shortage of false, misleading, outdated, profit-driven and utterly biased information in healthcare today; even from the most respected sources.