Is There Really Such A Thing As IBS?

Every day I hear clients’ stories about their struggles after being told they have IBS. The diagnosis is often reached when nothing else is found to account for the combination of symptoms that arise and that make life with IBS so miserable. Those symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating in the belly, gassiness, diarrhea, constipation, or both, and these symptoms appear not just as “occasional irregularity” as the Milk of Magnesia commercial announces, but as an all too common experience daily.

While it is a good thing that no other digestive disease, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or colon cancer was found, it is still very disheartening to hear that IBS is the explanation. The problem isn’t so much that a diagnosis of IBS is so troublesome. The real problem arises with what comes next. Many clients get told, “just relax.” Others are told to eat more fiber and still others are told to eat less fiber. Many clients are told to go see a psychologist, such as myself, but are left with the medical professional’s impression that the problem is really “all in your head,” which makes using a health psychologist’s services and expertise a complicated, and often expensive, decision. After all, who wants to admit that they are a “psych case” in order to obtain services for a painful and potentially debilitating condition.


IBS is all too real. IBS is among the most common conditions that people present with in emergency rooms. IBS afflicts 15% of the US population, which is nearly 50 million people annually. Women are affected by IBS at a rate about three times as high as men, but both men and women suffer from its effects. The pain is real. The disturbances to eating habits, work and relationship functioning, and sleep habits are real, too. So are the worries and anxieties that arise when you can no longer trust your own body to do what most people are able to do so effortlessly – eat and poop!


Think of IBS as a “final common denominator.” In other words, there are many factors and conditions that lead to the development of IBS: Many roads with one common destination in the form of IBS. That is one reason it is difficult to find a one-size-fits-all treatment for IBS. Two different people diagnosed with IBS may have little else in common: different gender, age, relationship status, eating habits, sleep habits, form of IBS, frequency, duration, and severity of IBS symptoms, lifestyle, and even the treatment advice they are given. This works in the opposite direction, as well. Take two people who share all of these characteristics and one of them may have IBS, while the other one may show no symptoms at all!


  • IBS is a syndrome, not a disease in the traditional sense. IBS is not a single “thing.” Many different factors, from the smallest molecule-level processes to big scale circumstances like lifestyle and family history interact in complex ways. IBS symptoms are the result of the interaction of all these factors. This means that individual treatments tailored to meet the needs of each unique IBS sufferer work best.
  • IBS involves “learned” patterns of functioning at the bacterial/microbiomic, physical/physiological, emotional (subconscious), cognitive (conscious), and social/interpersonal levels. Unlearning old habits while learning practices that create new and sustainable healthy habits is possible, so long as we remember there is no single cookie-cutter approach to getting there.
  • IBS involves disruptions to a core set of factors that body relies upon to digest foods effectively, easily, smoothly, and comfortably. Here are several of the more common ones.
    • Sensitivities to foods and how they are processed (e.g., gluten, lactose, or spices), which set off reactions in the gut, such as IBS
    • Lack of coordination between how the digestive tract’s nervous system and the central brain’s nervous system “talk” to each other
    • Current or past experiences in life that leave the IBS sufferer prone to worry and anxiety, which agitates the digestive tract’s ability to function normally
    • Disruptions in sleep patterns that place such a burden on the body’s core organ systems, including the digestive tract, that symptoms, including patterns of IBS, begin to develop
    • Changes in the sensitivity of the gut’s lining to sensations of pressure. Rather than feelings of fullness, IBS sufferers can feel pain, which kicks off even more anxiety and sets in motion a pattern that gets worse over time. In short, IBS sufferers can show a “hyper-reactive” nervous system and a “hyper-sensitive” digestive tract
    • Genetic differences in how chemicals are processed as the body goes about the business of breaking foods down into energy to fuel the body’s daily functions
    • Diets that rely too heavily on processed foods or sugar, which create chronic inflammatory reactions that feed the development of IBS symptoms
    • Diets that don’t involve a staple of whole foods that quiet the inflammatory reactions that maintain IBS symptom patterns in the gut and in the brain
    • A culture of unhealthy bacteria that live in the digestive tract, making it hard for the body to obtain the usual mix of healthy hormones that a balanced bacterial culture normally provides us with to run the body’s activities smoothly
    • Lifestyles filled to the brim with stressors and a limited set of effective tools for managing them well; the result is an agitated body and mind that more easily produces IBS symptom patterns
    • Lifestyles that are paced such that the body, brain, and mind don’t get enough down time. When life is too fully packed, the body can strike back with a wide variety of symptoms as though seeking to get our attention to pace ourselves better and practice better self-care. IBS is just one of the ways the body strikes back.


So, what is IBS…really? As you can see, IBS is seldom one thing. Instead, it reflects an unhappy connection between the gut, body, brain, and mind. A personalized program to address the factors that are operating in your life is the key to a positive treatment outcome. In most cases, IBS is learned. Therefore, IBS symptom patterns can also be unlearned, and, with careful attention and persistent practice, IBS can become at most a minor and occasional inconvenience rather than a profound and disruptive condition upending your lifestyle and your life.

Hope and help are available to you now. Are you ready to take control of restoring your health? Let me know. I’ll be here for you.

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