Nutrition Articles

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Learn Which Risk Factors You Can Control

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Cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea are some of the common and uncomfortable symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Unfortunately, no one has yet discovered a specific cause for IBS, but there are many factors that are correlated with it. There are two main categories of risk factors that can contribute to IBS—those that you can't change, and those that you can.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know what has been associated with the development of IBS symptoms.
  • Your gender. Women are at least twice as likely to experience IBS as men. Due to fluctuating levels of hormones, women are more likely to experience IBS symptoms during or around the time of their menstrual periods.
  • Your family history. You are more likely to experience IBS if people in your family have/had the disorder.
  • Your age. Younger to middle-aged adults are most likely to experience IBS. In fact, half of all people with IBS will first develop symptoms before they are 35 years old, with 90% of IBS sufferers developing symptoms before age 50.
  • Your health history. Some experts believe that IBS may be caused by a bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract. But other health conditions that can cause IBS symptoms include: celiac disease (intolerance of gluten from grains), chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia (widespread bodily pain), and temporomandibular disorder (jaw pain and discomfort).
  • Your psychological health. Psychological conditions, such as panic disorder, depression and anxiety have been associated with IBS and gastrointestinal distress. If you are experiencing either of these conditions, consult with a therapist or doctor.
  • Your sensitivity level. Some people’s bowels are just more sensitive. Although you can’t change the sensitivity level of your large intestine, you can learn what commonly triggers your IBS symptoms, and try to avoid these triggers (see Controllable Risk Factors below).
  • Your immune and nervous systems. These systems regulate the functioning of the colon and the speed at which its contents move. Abnormal movement can lead to either extremely loose stools or constipation.
  • Your serotonin levels. Ninety-five percent of the body’s serotonin (a neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages in the body) is located in the gastrointestinal tract. If levels of this important neurotransmitter are off balance, bowels problems and IBS symptoms can result.
  • Psychosocial factors. IBS is more common in people who have a history of psychological trauma and abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional).
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Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
Nicole was named "America's Top Personal Trainer to Watch" in 2011. A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, she loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Her DVDs "Total Body Sculpting" and "28 Day Boot Camp" (a best seller) are available online and in stores nationwide. Read Nicole's full bio and blog posts.

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Member Comments

  • RBBCHINA
    Thanks for sharing such a nice thoughts on Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome,It was really helpful one.
    - 11/15/2014 2:14:43 AM
  • I was diagnosed with IBS when I was in high school. I tried so many different things over the years that didn't work, and finally just learned to live with it. About 2 years ago I started focusing more on healthy eating, and started eating 1 yogurt every day for either breakfast, or a mid-morning snack. I didn't eat any special kind of yogurt, or any specific brand, just whatever is on sale, and regular ol' yogurt. Now, I eat strictly Greek yogurt, but starting out, I didn't. After doing this consistently for a while (I didn't notice a change overnight, it took several months) I noticed that my IBS symptoms started to subside. Now, about 2 years later, my symptoms are virtually non-existent (and have been for quite some time). If I run out of yogurt and I go a few days without it, I have noticed my symptoms will start to come back. It may not work for everybody, but if you're like I was and have tried everything and nothing's worked, it might be worth a shot. - 5/4/2014 7:52:13 PM
  • Probiotics ,limiting my dairy and dealing better with my stress all got my IBS totally under control. It changed my life from constant pain and being unable to exercise or enjoy life fully to being pain free and enjoying life with little fear of IBS interfering. Yogurt was not enough I needed to get the health food stores refrigerated type of probiotic to work well. - 1/25/2014 7:13:13 AM
  • I had all those symptoms and they removed 6 polyps a few weeks ago, I expected to get better but I am even worse, the Specialist did not come up with a diagnosis yet, and in theory I have no food allergies in my last tests results , however the dr. disagree. Tests results sometimes are positives to food allergies and sometimes they are not....

    It is very confusing... I do not know what to do, just for the record, I am vegetarian since birth, I do not drink sodas, and I do not eat sweets like gum and similar. - 8/5/2013 9:16:06 AM
  • I used to struggle with this now and then when I was younger. The main trigger for me was stress, although hormones could have played a role. i never made the connection between my monthly cycle and when flare ups occurred, but maybe I just missed it. Anyway, now at age 60, I rarely have any trouble - only if I eat more than a very small amount of fried foods. - 12/3/2012 11:53:54 PM
  • I have had IBS for 18 years and it went undiagnosed for 8 years because I had doctors who told me it was a "female problems" and something I "just have to deal with." I am very glad for my doctor (and my persistence) who refused to leave it at that. After many tests and a surgery I finally had an answer. I manage my IBS by modifying my diet (no carbonated drinks, no gum, and no red meat) I also have to limit my dairy, caffeine and chocolate intake. Exercise and lowering my stress has also helped. - 12/3/2012 4:21:48 PM
  • I get terrible pains very often. The worst is when it wakes me up in the middle of the night. - 12/3/2012 1:26:27 PM
  • Hormones can be a factor too, though doctors seem to like to ignore that fact. I was on the progestin-only birth control pill and developed debilitating IBS. After modifying my diet, managing stress, cutting out dairy etc didn't work, I finally decided to quit taking the pill. My IBS went away within days and now only returns once a month IF I overdo it on dairy and fat at that time of month; if I'm very careful about avoiding dairy, fatty foods, and get lots of SOLUBLE fiber (insoluble fiber aggravates my IBS), I am almost symptom-free. - 12/3/2012 1:19:05 PM
  • Wheat causes it. Once I eliminated wheat, I no longer suffered IBS. Or inflammation, or cluster headaches. - 12/3/2012 9:12:13 AM
  • I currently suffer from IBS in an extreme effort to curb the intense lower abdomen pain I was told to take Fiber 3 Times daily. The fiber keeps me from using the restroom 4-5 times a day and keeps the lower abdomen pain at bay. I can definately tell when I have not taken my fiber. I get cramps and I begin to get clammy and sweat. It is a very uncomfortable condition that often complicated.

    Thank You,

    Malus2785 - 8/15/2012 7:29:55 PM
  • 82CLARA
    I suffered from IBS for many years. After I began taking a mild dose of the antidepressant, celexa, which increased my serotonin levels in my GI tract, I no longer suffer from this condition. I do believe stress is the single biggest factor contributing to the flare-ups or, even, the cause of this disease. It just hasn't been "proven," yet. - 8/7/2011 12:40:50 PM
  • I was diagnosed with IBS, but I no longer have this because I exercise. It tones the abdominal muscles, which are needed to promote normal peristalsis. I've also limited my intake of leavened foods, which don't stop their rising, even though they're cooked and they're inside my digestive track... Also, you can exercise too much, and have diarrhea. I took a bellydance course that was supposed to be for all levels, but the instructor focused on me all the time. She was correcting me all the time, and I had to drop the class because I had such terrible diarrhea that lasted at least three weeks! - 2/18/2011 2:51:41 PM
  • My mother and brother have been diagnosed with this and I was wondering if their food intake and what they were eating could contribute. Nice to know, in a way, that this could help. Problem is, they probably won't listen. They aren't exactly thrilled with my weight loss so I'll just come across as a "know it all." Still it was good to know - 6/26/2010 11:11:20 AM
  • I have had great success with a herbal mixture called Iberogast. I highly recommend that others look it up. - 4/3/2010 12:37:37 PM
  • Thank goodness for imodium! - 3/20/2010 6:03:38 PM

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