Irritable bowel syndrome, commonly referred to simply as IBS, is a disorder of the large intestine. It is a chronic condition and includes symptoms such as cramping and abdominal pain, gas and bloating, as well as diarrhea and constipation. While the exact cause of IBS is not yet known, the condition can be understood as a long-term or recurrent disorder of gastrointestinal functioning, or abnormal functioning of the GI tract. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of adults are affected by IBS, two-thirds of which are women, and the worldwide prevalence is significant. Even though IBS is not a life-threatening disorder, it does present a significant health care and economic burden.

There are three types of IBS based on different patterns of bowel movements, these are known as IBS with constipation (IBS-C), IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D), and IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M), otherwise called alternating constipation and diarrhea (IBS-A). With IBS-C, more than a quarter of stools are hard or lumpy and less than a quarter are loose or watery. The opposite is true for IBS-D. With IBS-M or IBS-A, more than a quarter of stools are hard or lumpy and more than a quarter are also loose or watery. That said, IBS does not necessarily have to fit one particular type of bowel movement pattern in order to be recognized and no matter the type, it can only be diagnosed by a health professional.

Most IBS sufferers are under the age of 50, are female, have a family history of IBS, and have a mental health problem. This suggests that hormones, genes, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression may play a role. Some of these people experience IBS as a mild inconvenience, while others find it to be an extremely debilitating disorder to live with. When IBS controls an individual’s social, emotional, and professional life, or impairs their economic, physical, and educational well-being, it can pose a serious challenge to the sufferer. Even so, few seek medical care for their symptoms.

IBS becomes problematic when complications occur, or when signs and symptoms lead to other issues. For example, chronic constipation or diarrhea can cause hemorrhoids, depression and anxiety can trigger other mood disorders, and sufferers are more likely to report poor quality of life. In fact, it is estimated that 20 to 40 percent of all visits to gastroenterologists are due to IBS symptoms. Treatments are available for IBS, although they are mostly aimed at symptom management rather than a cure. Furthermore, the disorder is highly unpredictable and not all treatments work for all people.

Since stress is linked to IBS through the connection between the brain and the gut, finding ways to deal with stressful situations may ease symptoms or help prevent IBS all together. These prevention techniques may include counseling, biofeedback, progressive relaxation exercises, and mindfulness training. In addition to IBS, chronic stress is also associated with an increased prevalence of asthma, high blood pressure, and obesity. It is therefore important to be mindful of anything that could stimulate the GI tract, such as diet, hormonal changes, physical activity, and psychological stress.