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Gut check: Could your bathroom visits be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome?

| Healthy You | Wellness

Woman holding her belly from stomach pain.

Stomach pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea,  it could be IBS.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is more common than many people realize. And IBS involves more than your digestive system — it’s also a condition linked to the brain and nervous system. “IBS is known as a disorder of the gut-brain axis,” says Vimal Bodiwala, MD, a gastroenterologist at PeaceHealth in Longview, Washington. This means that it involves the brain’s signals to the digestive tract.

Worldwide, 1 in 10 people may have IBS, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. IBS is about twice as common in people who identify as women, the foundation says.

IBS is a long-term condition, but it is possible to reduce symptoms. The severity of how you feel can also vary from day to day or even throughout the day.

What causes it?

It isn’t entirely clear why some people experience IBS. It may be how the muscles in the intestines move food around. “Medical science has shown that there are many factors that could lead to the condition,” Dr. Bodiwala says. “Increased gut sensitivity and life stressors might also play a role.”

What are the symptoms?

A key symptom is abdominal pain that goes away after you have a bowel movement (using the restroom).

Some other common symptoms are:

  • Frequent or too few trips to the bathroom to have bowel movements.
  • Bloating.
  • Feeling like you haven’t completely emptied your bowels.
  • You may feel like you have diarrhea at some points and then constipation other times. Or you may feel both, but often have one more than the other.

How is it treated?

Your treatment will depend on how much the symptoms are affecting your daily life. Your doctor may recommend a low-FODMAP diet, reducing stress or physical therapy.

FODMAPs are carbohydrates that are in many types of foods. It stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. Dr. Bodiwala advises against starting a LOW FODMAP diet on your own. He also recommends speaking with your doctor prior to starting it.

If you have digestive problems, these can make your symptoms worse.

Following a low-FODMAP diet means you stop eating high-FODMAP foods for about two months. Then you slowly add them back in to your diet to see what foods cause digestion problems.

Some high-FODMAP foods include:

  • Fruits like apples and watermelon.
  • Grains like farro and couscous.
  • Dairy and dairy-free items like ice cream, yogurt and oat milk.
  • Legumes like chickpeas, lentils or baked beans.
  • Sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, agave and molasses.
  • Vegetables like artichokes, celery and garlic.

Low-FODMAP foods that may settle easier in your stomach include:

  • Fruits like bananas, grapes and olives.
  • Grains like quinoa, oats and brown rice.
  • Dairy and dairy-free items like butter and almond milk.
  • Sweeteners like maple syrup and brown sugar.
  • Vegetables like bell peppers, eggplant and squash.

When to see a doctor

If you’re having symptoms that could be IBS, Dr. Bodiwala suggests having a conversation with your primary care provider. Together you can decide if it makes sense to see a specialist.

This might be the case if you see blood or mucus in your feces (poop), have anemia or notice that you’ve unexpectedly lost weight or have no appetite.

People whose bathroom habits change dramatically, who have a family history of cancer, or who are older adults with new symptoms of IBS may also benefit from seeing a gastroenterologist, he says.

Perhaps keep a list of symptoms and what makes them worse or better. Bring these up with your doctor. 

portrait of Vimal M. Bodiwala MD

Vimal M. Bodiwala MD

Internal Medicine

Vimal Bodiwala, MD, is a gastroenterologist and hepatologist. He graduated medical school from SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn, New York, and went on to complete his internal medicine residency training at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital where he graduated with "Distinction in Research" for his published works in the fields of Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Hepatitis C and other fields. He returned to SUNY Downstate for a fellowship in gastroenterology and hepatology where he also completed an additional year of advanced hepatology training. Dr. Bodiwala served as Chief Fellow for his fellowship program. He is proficient in performing all general gastroenterology procedures including endoscopic mucosal resection of large polyps, stricture dilation, treatment of esophageal varices and others. In addition to his hepatology background, Dr. Bodiwala brings expertise in IBD, having been selected for a "Visiting IBD Scholarship" through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, completing it at the renowned Susan and Leonard Feinstein Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinical Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “I seek to build trust and rapport with my patients, and engage in shared decision-making,” shared Dr. Bodiwala. Away from work, he enjoys spending time with his family, basketball, pickleball, outdoor nature exploration and going for walks.