Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common functional digestive disorder in the world.
It is a group of digestive symptoms, which includes colic, abdominal pain and swelling, constipation and/or diarrhea, and gas. Although it is a relatively common condition, IBS is often misunderstood, mainly its causes, treatments and ways to prevent it. Here we review the most common myths around it.
Myth 1: IBS is a rare condition
TRUE: As we pointed out, IBS is the most common functional digestive disorder in the world. The discomfort it causes can occur for a long time (in some cases, years) with periods of exacerbation or improvement.
Its prevalence varies according to the different regions of the world. For example, in the US it is estimated that it affects between 10 and 15% of the population, in Europe between 5 and 15%, in Mexico around 20%, while in the rest of Latin America it ranges between 10 and 20%.
Myth 2: Older adults are at higher risk for IBS
TRUE: That’s not true. While most illnesses and infections are more likely in older adults, IBS is different. As experts explain, it can occur at any age, although it often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. It is also up to twice as common in women as in men.
Myth 3: There is no need to worry about IBS as it does not affect quality of life
TRUE: IBS is usually a common, debilitating, chronic disorder of gut-brain interaction. For this reason, it is very likely that it significantly affects the quality of life of patients, to the point that, if left untreated, it can make it impossible to perform daily tasks or activities, such as working, traveling or attending social events.
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Myth 4: IBS can cause cancer
TRUE: This is a widespread myth, but not true. According to the researchers, there is no scientific evidence showing that IBS is capable of causing permanent damage to the intestines or serious diseases, such as cancer.
Myth 5: IBS is only caused by bacterial infections
TRUE: Although the number of investigations on IBS has grown significantly in recent years, its cause or causes are still not entirely clear. In some cases it can occur after a bacterial intestinal infection (for example, by Campylobacter jejuni) or by parasites (yardiasis), this is called post-infectious IBS.
However, there are also other types of triggers, such as stress at an early age, changes in the intestinal microbiota, alterations in the nerves of the digestive system, or muscular contractions in the intestine.
Myth 6: IBS can be cured
TRUE: Currently, there is no cure for IBS, however, there are many options to relieve its symptoms. For example, your doctor may recommend the use of certain medications, such as anticholinergics (dicyclomine, propantheline, belladonna, and hyoscyamine), loperamide, alosetron (Lotronex), eluxadoline (Viberzi), lubiprostone (amitiza), bisacodil, rifaximin, or linaclotide (Linzess ), among others.
Lifestyle changes are also advised, including more fiber and probiotics in the diet, while reducing or avoiding foods or beverages that stimulate the intestines, such as caffeine, soda, tea, or alcohol. It is also good to work on controlling stress levels.
Myth 7: Exercise helps relieve IBS symptoms
TRUE: Exercise is another activity that is recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle, to relieve IBS symptoms. However, they are not all the same, as some, such as competitive or high intensity, can have a negative impact and worsen IBS symptoms, as they increase muscle impact or raise stress levels.
Experts recommend aerobic exercises (also known as “cardio”) such as walking, jogging, bicycling, or swimming. These are a type of activity that is characterized by its low intensity developed over long periods of time.
Myth 8: There is a diet to combat IBS
TRUE: Although many times there is talk of “the diet to combat IBS” or similar references, specialists assure that there is no specific type of diet against this condition, since IBS differs from one person to another. However, certain eating habits can help: eat slowly, in small portions, and chew correctly.
Myth 9: You can reduce IBS symptoms with natural treatments
TRUE: Certain natural remedies, such as peppermint oil or cardamom oil, have shown promise in relieving symptoms of IBS and gastric ulcers. However, research on these and other natural options is limited, so they may not be universally helpful.
Until there is meaningful scientific evidence from human trials, people interested in using herbal therapies and supplements should be very careful.
Do not abandon or modify your medications or treatments, but first talk to your doctor about the potential effects of alternative or complementary therapies.
Sources consulted: Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, US National Library of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institute of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.