Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Explained in Under 3 Minutes

IBS affects 10-15% of the U.S. population.

Loading the player...

If things are working well in your belly, tummy troubles like diarrhea, excessive gas, and constipation should be seldom. If these issues are occurring weekly or even daily, you might be dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

IBS is called a “syndrome” for a reason. Syndromes are conditions that are characterized as a set of related symptoms. IBS does not have a clear cause—it’s not related to inflammation and there is no visible damage to the intestines—yet it causes a number of gastrointestinal symptoms, such as:

  • Abdominal pain, which is usually worse after eating and is relieved after a bowel movement

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Bloating

  • Gas

  • Nausea

  • And a sensation of “fullness,” even after just a small amount of food.

Learn more about symptoms of IBS here.

IBS affects each person a little differently, so it’s grouped into different types. Some people experience predominantly constipation (IBS-C), and others experience predominantly diarrhea (IBS-D). Yet another group experiences an equal mix of both constipation and diarrhea (IBS-Mixed, or IBS-M).

Although researchers aren’t 100 percent sure of the cause of IBS, a one credible theory has emerged: A glitch in the “mind-gut connection.”

The mind-gut connection refers to the constant nerve communication between the gut and the mind. For example, when nerves in the central nervous system tell nerves in the bowel muscles that something’s wrong, it may react with butterflies in your stomach (if you’re nervous) or nausea (if you’re really stressed).

In the case of IBS, the nerves of the bowel muscles might be miscommunicating with the brain—it says something’s wrong when everything is actually fine. So the gut starts to panic, contracting too much or too little during digestion. This results in pain and potentially diarrhea (if the intestine is contracting too fast) or constipation (if it’s contracting too little).

IBS can’t be cured, but it can be managed with lifestyle tweaks, including exercise, stress relief, and keeping a food diary to pinpoint trigger foods. The low FODMAP diet has also been shown to help identify trigger foods, but this complex diet should be done with the assistance of a registered dietitian. If these tweaks don't work, your doctor may be able to recommend medications for IBS.

Want more info on IBS?