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What Causes IBS? Treating the Root Cause of Your Digestive Disorder

Nausea, constipation, bloating, diarrhea — dealing with stomach problems is never fun. While a simple upset stomach won’t last forever, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a long-term, chronic condition that negatively impacts daily life for sufferers. 

IBS is a common functional digestive disorder that can have several causes. Knowing which one is cramping your style is key to getting the right treatment.

Looking for help easing symptoms of IBS? Learn how functional medicine helps with our free gut health webinar.  

What Is IBS?

IBS is comprised of a group of symptoms, including abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. The condition affects the digestive muscle movement in your small and large intestines, leading to gas, irregular stools, and food sensitivity.  

IBS is a chronic condition that requires long-term management. Typically, IBS symptoms appear during a “flare-up,” which can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months at a time. Common symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal bloating and distension
  • Gas and stomach cramps
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or incomplete emptying of the bowels (or a combination of these)
  • Indigestion, heartburn, and acid reflux
  • Sense of early fullness after eating
  • Fatigue

If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, you may have heard it referred to as a “functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder.” This means that while your GI tract isn’t functioning correctly, it doesn’t show signs of any physical damage. Since the digestive organs appear normal and do not show signs of physical damage, diagnosing IBS can be a difficult task.

Who Is at Risk?

IBS affects anywhere between 25 and 45 million people in the United States. Women are twice as likely as men to develop IBS, and people younger than age 50 are more likely to develop IBS than people older than age 50. 

You are more likely to have IBS if you: 

  • Are under the age of 50 
  • Are female
  • Have undergone estrogen therapy 
  • Have a family history of IBS
  • Have anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues
  • Have experienced traumatic life events
  • Have had a severe infection in your digestive tract

Causes of IBS

The exact cause of IBS remains unknown, but there are numerous root causes likely to contribute to the disease:

Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth

Many studies have examined the link between small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and IBS. The results show that up to 78% percent of IBS patients have been found to have SIBO, which suggests that SIBO could be a root cause of IBS for some individuals.

Gut Dysbiosis

Dysbiosis is a fancy word used to describe an imbalance in your gut microbes. There are trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live in your gut, but if you have an imbalance in your GI, you’re extremely likely to have symptoms of IBS.

Intestinal Infections

Suffering from a bout of traveler’s diarrhea, food poisoning, or even the flu can lead to short-term or long-term alterations in your digestive system. Intestinal infections make you four times as likely to develop IBS symptoms.

Food Sensitivities

Sensitivities to foods like gluten, wheat, dairy products, and soy are very common in people with IBS symptoms. 

Leaky Gut (Gastrointestinal Permeability)

Leaky gut is commonly found in those with IBS and can lead to severe IBS symptoms.

Constipation and Diarrhea 

Constipation and diarrhea are not only a symptom of IBS, they are also likely root causes. If your gut motility slows down (constipation) or speeds up (diarrhea), it can heighten the risk of IBS symptoms.  

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can have serious impacts on your gut health. Stress also impacts your body’s immune system and the microbe balance, making your GI more prone to IBS symptoms.

Brain-Gut Connection

If you have felt ‘butterflies in your stomach’ when nervous or a sinking feeling in your gut when receiving bad news, this is your brain/gut connection at play. If your gut is likely to respond to emotional situations, it could mean you are more susceptible to IBS. 

Struggling with IBS symptoms? Watch our free webinar on gut health to learn how to get your system back on track. 

Diagnosing IBS

IBS is a symptom-based condition that falls into one of four categories:

  • IBS-D (diarrhea is predominant)
  • IBS-C (constipation is predominant)
  • IBS-M (mix of diarrhea and constipation)
  • IBS-U (unclassified symptoms can’t be grouped under any of the other categories)

Despite being a widespread disease, IBS is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed, or overlooked in conventional medicine. Part of the problem is that IBS symptoms are also symptoms of other gastrointestinal conditions, such as Celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, food intolerances, and food allergies. 

In addition, there isn’t one single test that will determine if you have the condition or not. Instead, it’s more about ruling out the other causes and looking at your medical history to determine if IBS is the most likely diagnosis. 

And while some patients who are diagnosed do see improvement with conventional therapies, many others still struggle with the disorder. This is partly because many conventional doctors utilize a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. But symptoms differ widely from patient to patient, meaning this blanketed approach will not work for everyone.

Another reason that many individuals continue to suffer from IBS despite being diagnosed is that conventional medicine focuses on IBS symptoms rather than the root causes. Laxatives provide relief from symptoms like constipation, and antispasmodics help curb cramping, but they are not long-term solutions that will work for everyone because they don’t address what’s causing the symptoms to begin with.

Functional Medicine Offers Solutions to IBS

The functional medicine approach to IBS is very different from that used by conventional doctors. Functional medicine doctors use a whole new way of thinking to solve the puzzle of IBS. 

The functional medicine approach looks at all aspects to uncover why your specific symptoms are occurring. This includes examining your intestinal health and nervous system, looking at your eating habits, investigating your digestive habits, getting a detailed medical history, and testing for triggers such as food intolerances. 

Intestinal Health and Nervous System

The nerves in your gut are extremely sensitive. When you are feeling stressed, your stomach and intestines often sympathize by having spasms, bloating, and discomfort. Functional medicine doctors will work with you to identify if stress or other mood disorders are contributing to your IBS symptoms. 

Eating Habits

Eating large meals, eating too quickly, and not chewing thoroughly can lead to IBS symptoms. Functional medicine doctors may ask you about your eating habits – not just what you eat, but when, why, and how to determine if eating habits are causing your IBS.

Digestive Habits

Changes in your digestive habits, such as blood in the stool or stomach pain, are common indicators of IBS or other gut disorders. Paying attention to your digestive habits and reporting them to your doctor will go a long way in getting the right diagnosis. To help with this, functional medicine doctors often use stool tests to assess your digestive function, look for intestinal damage, and identify any gut imbalances.

Detailed Medical History

An IBS diagnosis often relies heavily on your medical and lifestyle history. A functional medicine doctor will sit with you to discuss your detailed history before diagnosing you with IBS.

Testing for Triggers

Certain foods can irritate your bowel and digestive system. It is common for functional medicine doctors to use elimination diets and food sensitivity tests to determine which specific types of food you are the most sensitive to.

At Tri-Cities Functional Medicine, we recognize that the root causes are different for each patient we work with. We use therapeutic diets, dietary supplements, stress management techniques, and treatment for gut imbalances to help eliminate the root causes.

Are looking for a different approach to treat your IBS? Take the first step: 

  1. Watch our Free Gut Health Webinar to learn about our approach to the health concerns you are facing.
  2. Schedule a Free Discovery Call to discuss your health concerns and goals to see if our practice is a good fit for you.
  3. After your discovery call – if we are a good fit, you’ll schedule a consultation with our doctor to dive deeper and formulate an individualized treatment plan for you.

Tri-Cities Functional Medicine is located in Johnson City, Tennessee, and serves patients throughout Tennessee and into Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky. These areas include but are not limited to: Washington County, TN, Sullivan County, TN, Carter County, TN, Greene County, TN, Knox County, TN, Bristol, TN, Holston Valley, TN, Tri-Cities, TN, Walnut Hill, TN, Elizabethton, TN, Greeneville, TN, Morristown, TN, Blountville, TN, Bluff City, TN, Kingsport, TN, Jonesborough, TN, Colonial Heights, TN, Limestone, TN, Knoxville, TN, Bristol, VA, Abingdon, VA, Grundy, VA, Asheville, NC, Boone, NC.