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Home » What Is IBS? An Overview of Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What Is IBS? An Overview of Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

If you’re reading this post, chances are you or someone you know has been diagnosed with IBS.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common functional digestive disorder that can cause abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. Living with IBS can be overwhelming and frustrating, but understanding what it is and how to manage it can significantly improve your quality of life.

In this post, we’ll dive into the world of IBS and share important information and facts to help you manage your symptoms.

We’ll cover everything from how the digestive system works, to the specific causes and triggers of IBS, to practical tips for managing and avoiding flare-ups. My goal is to help you gain a better understanding of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and provide you with the tools you need to take control of your digestive health!

Woman holds hands in heart shape over stomach

What Is IBS?

The digestive system is a complex network of organs and nerves that work together to break down food and absorb nutrients. From the mouth to the rectum, each organ has a specific role in the process of digestion. The esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine all play important roles.

IBS, also known as spastic colon or functional bowel disorder, is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine. When you have IBS, the muscles in your intestine contract too much or too little, causing abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel movements.

IBS is a common condition that affects around 10-15% of the global population, with women being twice as likely to be affected as men. In the United States, it is estimated that 12% of the population, or up to 45 million people, has IBS.

Woman holds her stomach in pain as she sits up in bed, IBS symptoms in females

Symptoms of IBS in Females

The symptoms of IBS can vary from person to person, but the most common ones include:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Bloating and gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation (or both)
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Feeling like you haven’t fully emptied your bowel

What Causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but there are several factors that may contribute to its development and trigger symptoms. 

Stressed woman in glasses and headphones

These include:

  • Abnormal muscle contractions in the colon
  • Nervous system abnormalities
  • Changes in gut bacteria
  • Food intolerances or sensitivities
  • Foods high in FODMAP
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Hormonal changes
  • Family history of IBS

Certain medical conditions, such as celiac disease, can also mimic IBS symptoms, so it is essential to see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis.

How Is IBS Diagnosed?

There is no specific test for IBS; the diagnosis is usually made based on your medical history, physical exam, and symptoms. 

During a physical exam, your doctor may press on your abdomen to check for any signs of pain or bloating. In addition to a physical examination, your doctor may order several tests to help diagnose this. These may include blood tests, stool tests, and imaging studies like X-rays or a colonoscopy to rule out other medical conditions such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease.

young female doctor

During your doctor’s visit, you’ll be asked to describe your symptoms in detail, including when they started, how often they occur, and whether anything makes them worse or better. Your doctor may also ask about family history, your diet, stress levels, and even your lifestyle habits to help identify potential triggers or underlying causes contributing to your symptoms.

The Types of IBS

There are 4 types of IBS. You can use the Bristol Stool Chart and work with your doctor to identify your type of IBS based on common stool appearance.

Bristol Stool Chart, What is IBS

Type 1: IBS-Constipation

IBS-Constipation (IBS-C) means more than 25% of the time, your stool looks like type 1 or 2 on the bristol stool chart and less than 25% of the time looks like type 6 or 7. 

You may feel like you have a bowel movement every day; however, if your bowel movement looks like type 1 or 2, then it’s likely not a complete evacuation. The residual stool in your colon is likely the reason why you are bloated and gassy. This is IBS-C.

Type 2: IBS-Diarrhea

This is when more than 25% of the time your bowel movement looks like type 6 or type 7. And less than 25% of the time, your bowel movement looks like type 1 or 2. 

If this is you, know there are also different types of diarrhea. 

The two most common types of IBS-Diarrhea are A: Overflow Diarrhea and B: Flare-Up Diarrhea. 

Overflow diarrhea happens when you have significant constipation. Your body tries to produce a bowel movement, but all that comes out are the watery and mushy parts. People with overflow diarrhea usually have multiple bowel movements throughout the day, a lot of urgency, only little bits come out each time, and you never feel empty. 

Flare up diarrhea happens when you are constipated for days, and your body can’t deal with the stool burden any more, and a significant amount of stool comes out all at once. 

Usually people feel the constipation and bloating get worse and worse, then all of a sudden, something triggered a flare up and a lot of stool comes out. You could be in the bathroom for hours and a significant amount of stool would come out. This is flare up diarrhea. 

Surprising fact: Both flare up diarrhea and overflow diarrhea are caused by constipation. For symptom relief, you need to resolve constipation. 

Type 3: IBS-Mixed bowel type 

In IBS-mixed bowel type, more than 25% of your bowel movements are type 1 and 2 on the Bristol Stool Chart, and more than 25% of BM are type 6 and 7. 

This is very similar to flare up diarrhea and overflow diarrhea, and it’s also caused by chronic constipation. 

Type 4: IBS-Unclassified

This is for patients who meet the diagnostic criteria for IBS, for symptoms such as bloating, irregular bowel habits, cramping, etc., but can’t be accurately categorized in the other 3 groups. 

Various medications, supplements, and herbs

IBS Treatment

The treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome varies depending on the type of IBS you have and the severity of your symptoms. The most common treatments for IBS include changes in diet, medication, and lifestyle modifications.

For example, following a low FODMAP diet, increasing your intake of soluble fiber, and avoiding trigger foods like dairy products and fried foods can help alleviate symptoms. Medications such as antispasmodics, laxatives, and antidepressants may also be prescribed to help manage symptoms.

The goal of IBS treatment is to relieve your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Some common treatments for Irritable Bowel Syndrome include:

  • Changes in diet (including avoiding high FODMAP foods)
  • Medications to relieve pain, bloating, or diarrhea
  • Probiotics to improve gut health
  • Psychological therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or hypnotherapy

The Low FODMAP Diet

One of the most common treatment options for IBS is the Low FODMAP Protocol (also called a low FODMAP diet). 

FODMAPs are a group of fermentable carbohydrates, such as fiber and sugar. We don’t digest FODMAPS, but they’re good for us because they feed our gut microbes.

However, some FODMAPs draw water into our small intestine causing distention and gurgling in our belly, and all FODMAPs are rapidly fermented in our large intestine, causing bloating and gas. 

For those struggling with IBS, the action of fluids and gas moving around our gut can cause diarrhea and constipation. 

This is why a low FODMAP diet, also called the low FODMAP protocol, generally works for about 70-80% of IBS patients to identify food triggers (i.e. specific group or groups of FODMAPs that trigger symptoms in you) and find relief.

Low FODMAP foods, like broccoli, chicken, and rice are served in a dish

There are 3 phases to the Low FODMAP diet

1. Elimination Phase to reduce symptoms and begin to investigate underlying causes.

2. Reintroduction of FODMAPs group by group to learn your tolerance to each group.

3. Expand your diet based on your food triggers and personal tolerances.

This is the low FODMAP diet in a nutshell. 

The problem is, many people try to do this on their own (or follow it for too long) and don’t see any relief or see their symptoms getting worse. 

When you try to follow the Llow FODMAP diet by yourself, or work with providers who are not properly trained, you may not be implementing it properly. When you do the diet incorrectly, you may not get symptom relief. 

That’s why I created IBS Freedom to help you properly implement a low FODMAP diet, from elimination to re-introduction and identifying any food triggers you may have.

Remember, the goal of low FODMAP is to find your food triggers and personal tolerance levels, which you can only do by eliminating then reintroducing FODMAPs.

If you don’t know how to reintroduce and pinpoint your trigger, you are giving yourself unnecessary food restrictions. It’s really hard to live a normal life when you have so many food restrictions. 

Plus, newer research suggests that prolonged elimination of FODMAPs can decrease your good gut microbes. This may make your symptoms worse and you may become more sensitive to FODMAPs over time.

Watch our FREE low FODMAP webinar to learn more about how to implement the low FODMAP diet properly.

3 mistakes to avoid on the low fodmap diet for IBS freedom


Medications such as antispasmodics, laxatives, and antidepressants may be prescribed to help manage IBS symptoms. 

If you suffer from constipation, you maybe want to ask your doctor about over-the-counter laxatives. If you suffer from diarrhea, you may want to ask your doctor about anti-diarrhea medication.

Many medications have been studied to help ease IBS symptoms. Talk to your doctor to trial them.

Supplements and Probiotics

Probiotics can sometimes be used to improve gut health, but are not generally required. Probiotics are strain-specific, which means the wrong strain (and the wrong supplements) can actually make your symptoms worse.

Be sure to talk to your doctor before adding supplements or probiotics into your diet for IBS relief.

Lifestyle and Stress Management

Lifestyle modification can help you find relief from IBS symptoms.

Improve sleep, decrease stress, find the right exercise, and incorporate exercises to improve gut-brain connection throughout your day.

IBS is multi-factorial, so understanding your own IBS and finding the right treatment for you is extremely important. Lifestyle and stress management practices and generally part of finding long-term symptom relief from IBS.

Foods To Avoid With IBS

Certain foods, such as high FODMAP foods, can trigger IBS symptoms or make them worse. Fried foods, dairy products, and caffeine can also cause flare-ups in some people with IBS.

High FODMAP foods such as processed, greasy, and fried foods

Some foods to avoid with IBS include:

  • High FODMAP foods (such as onions, garlic, beans, and wheat)
  • Fried or fatty foods (such as fast food)
  • Dairy products (such as milk, cheese, and cream)
  • Spicy foods
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Caffeine 

You don’t necessarily need to be gluten or dairy-free for IBS relief, but some people who present with symptoms of IBS do have a sensitivity to gluten or celiac disease. 

There is a small subset of people that may have NCGS (Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity), which mean you can have a gluten intolerance but not have celiac. This is why it’s so important to identify if you have a food trigger by working with your doctor, a registered dietitian, and following a plan like the low FODMAP protocol.

Once you know which foods are safe for you to eat (and how much of each food you can tolerate), then you’ll know what foods to avoid to feel your best.

Best Foods For IBS

While some foods can trigger IBS symptoms, others can help alleviate them. Soluble fiber-rich foods like oatmeal, bananas, kiwi, and carrots can help regulate bowel movements and reduce constipation. Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kimchi can also help improve gut health and reduce inflammation.

Low FODMAP foods like oatmeal, blueberries, walnuts, and banana

Some of the best foods for IBS include:

  • Soluble fiber (found in oatmeal, bananas, and apples)
  • Low FODMAP fruits and vegetables (such as strawberries, blueberries, and carrots)
  • Lean proteins (such as chicken or fish)
  • Fermented foods (such as kefir or kimchi)

Example IBS Diet Plan

Following an IBS diet plan can help you identify trigger foods and improve your symptoms. 

A low FODMAP diet, which limits foods high in fermentable carbohydrates, can help reduce symptoms like bloating and abdominal pain. An elimination diet, which involves eliminating specific foods from your diet, can help identify trigger foods. 

It is essential to work with a registered dietitian to create a personalized diet plan that meets your nutritional needs and helps manage your symptoms.

Woman's hand writes out her weekly IBS Diet plan

Here’s a sample IBS diet plan:

Breakfast: Oatmeal with banana and lactose free milk (or almond milk)

Snack: Carrots with hummus

Lunch: Grilled chicken salad with low FODMAP veggies

Snack: Rice cake with peanut butter

Dinner: Baked fish with roasted potatoes and green beans

Grocery shopping with IBS can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be, even if you’re on a temporary elimination diet or following the low FODMAP protocol to find your food triggers.

Here are some yummy food ideas to add to your grocery list, because you can eat yummy⁠, enjoyable foods while being happy and bloat-free with IBS!

Bloat free snacks include rice cakes, peanut butter, bananas, cucumbers, pumpkin seeds, and strawberries, What is IBS
Bloat free vegetarian protein includes firm tofu, rinsed canned lentils, rinsed canned chickpeas, tempeh, eggs, and peanuts, What is IBS
Bloat free veggies for color include arugula, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and oyster mushrooms, What is IBS
Bloat free breakfasts that help you go inclue oats, peanut butter, bananas, glutenfree bread, eggs, and kiwi, IBS Dietitian
Bloat free fruits that help you go include unripe bananas, oranges, dragonfruit, grapes, kiwi and strawberries, IBS Dietitian

For more yummy foods that will help you beat your BLOAT, click here to download my FREE IBS grocery list.

The backs of nine people raising their hands

Next Steps

Living with IBS can be challenging, but it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Millions of people around the world are living with this condition, and there are many resources available to help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Click here to learn more about IBS Freedom, a dietitian-led holistic program to help you manage IBS and get relief from symptoms like gas, bloating, pain, reflux, and irregular bowel habits once and for all.

By working closely with a registered dietitian and your doctor, plus making lifestyle changes and developing a management plan that works for you, you can take control of your digestive health and reduce the impact of IBS on your daily life.

Remember to be patient with yourself, practice self-care, and stay informed about the latest research and treatment options. With the right approach, it’s possible to live a full and satisfying life with IBS!

2 thoughts on “What Is IBS? An Overview of Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment”

  1. I love the idea of the blogpost, its very helpful to read and repeat these informations we already get in your great programm 🙏
    Snack tips are very helpful, tx a lot💞

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