Despite the prevalence of IBS, many people living with the condition find IBS to be an isolating experience. What's more, the social stigma around bowel conditions, misinformation about the condition, and a lack of effective treatments all make it hard to speak openly and honestly about life with IBS.
It's time to get the facts straight on this often misunderstood condition. Let's start by breaking six commonly heard myths about IBS.
1. Myth: Not many people have IBS
Fact: IBS is very common. 1 in 7 people worldwide is estimated to have IBS or around 10-15% of the population.
However, because not everyone experiencing IBS symptoms will see a doctor/receive an official diagnosis, the actual number of people with IBS could be even higher than 1 in 7.
2. Myth: Everyone with IBS experiences the same symptoms
Fact: Even people with the same subtype of IBS may experience IBS differently! The diagnostic criteria for IBS, the Rome IV, indicates that people with IBS experience recurrent abdominal pain on average at least one day per week in the last three months, associated with two or more of the following criteria:
1. Related to defecation
2. Associated with a change in the frequency of stool
3. Associated with a change in the form (appearance) of stool
Some people with IBS may experience more constipation (IBS-C), more diarrhea (IBS-D), or a mix of both constipation and diarrhea (IBS-M) regularly. Some people might experience occasional flare-ups that last for several days, while others may experience prolonged flare-ups that can continue for months at a time!
There are also variations in other symptoms of IBS, not included in the Rome criteria, such as levels of nausea, flatulence, back pain, fatigue, or bowel incontinence (not being able to control when you poop). The bottom line is that everyone is different — so it's completely normal and valid if your IBS experience isn't the same as someone else.
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3. Myth: ISB affects women and men the same
Fact: Two-thirds of people with IBS are women. Women, in general, are more likely to develop gastrointestinal disorders than men. However, there isn't a great deal of research available to explain why this happens.
Some studies suggest that gastrointestinal systems behave differently in women because of differences in the brain — for example, women have higher levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) that influence the activity of neurons that control digestion.
4. Myth: Getting an IBS diagnosis is quick and easy for most people
Fact: IBS can be very difficult to diagnose. Unlike some other gastrointestinal disorders, IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder. This means that under a microscope, the gut of a person with IBS looks similar to the gut of someone without the condition.
As the problem isn't structural, there is no definitive test for IBS. Diagnosis is often a process of ruling out other potential conditions, like Crohn's Disease, and checking that symptoms align with the Rome criteria.
Due to the lack of awareness about IBS and the lack of specific testing options, a recent survey of IBS patients showed that it took people around 6.6 years after symptoms began to receive a diagnosis!
5. Myth: IBS doesn't really get in the way of daily life
Fact: IBS flare-ups can affect your ability to live your daily life. A 2016 report by the FDA on Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders showed that daily life for many people with gut disorders, including IBS, tends to be centered around managing their condition and treatments.
People may find that many daily tasks become difficult—from eating to socializing or working. After all, when a flare-up happens, it's more than a nuisance. It can be debilitating.
In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, IBS patients reported that, on average, people with IBS restricted their daily activities 73 days annually— 20% of the year!
6. Myth: IBS is caused by a bad diet
Fact: It's not known what causes IBS. Studies suggest that many things might be implicated in the development of IBS, such as:
- Altered gastrointestinal motility: changes in the way waste moves through the gut.
- Visceral hypersensitivity: increased sensitivity of nerves within the gut.
- Post-infectious reactivity: IBS that occurs after a gut infection (like gastroenteritis)
- Brain-gut interactions: changes in the way your brain communicates with your gut.
- Alteration in fecal microflora/bacterial overgrowth: changes to microorganisms in your body.
- Food sensitivities/carbohydrate malabsorption: the inability to eat certain foods
- Intestinal inflammation
While some research suggests that poor dietary habits can increase the risk of IBS, there is also proof that eating fruit and vegetables and drinking tea might induce IBS symptoms too.
If you're worried that your diet caused your condition, remember—you can try and eat all the right things, and you still might end up with an IBS diagnosis.
7. Myth: People with IBS can NEVER eat trigger foods
Fact: There are other ways to manage IBS besides making changes to your diet.
After being diagnosed with IBS, most doctors will instruct people to change their diet and eating habits. This may include minor changes like avoiding specific triggers (such as coffee or carbonated drinks) to more significant changes, like starting a highly restrictive low FODMAP diet.
While these methods have been shown to help improve IBS symptoms, other treatments, like hypnotherapy for IBS (also known as gut-directed hypnotherapy), have been proven to be as effective as a low FODMAP diet, without having to make changes to your diet. Moreover, hypnotherapy is proven to provide lasting results, with some research showing that improvements can be maintained five years after treatment.
While licensed gut-directed hypnotherapy providers can have long waitlists for new clients, at-home recordings, and app-based programs like Nerva, can provide the same benefit as in-person sessions.
How to get involved in IBS Awareness Month
Just by reading this article, you're already taking steps to improve awareness and break down myths that hold people back from understanding this all-too-common condition. Some other things you can do to support IBS Awareness Month are:
- Sharing this article: share this article or other science-backed articles about IBS on social media or with your friends. Help get the word out about the realities of IBS.
- Start a conversation: Talk to your friends, family, or coworkers about IBS. Every conversation helps break down the stigma of gut disorders and sheds light on the condition.
- Join an IBS support group: Online support groups, like Nerva's Circle of Trust, give people a safe place to express their feelings and share tips.
April is IBS Awareness Month, and April 19 is World IBS Awareness day—so it's a perfect time to break some common myths about IBS and set the record straight on this often misunderstood condition. By getting involved in IBS Awareness, you can help break the stigma of gut disorders, help educate the community about gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, and share tips to help people improve their symptoms.