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Nutrition Articles  ›  Special Concerns

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Learn Which Risk Factors You Can Control

-- By Liza Barnes & Nicole Nichols, Health Educators
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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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About The Author

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

  • 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
  • oops. If I could edit my previous comment, I'd correct this statistic: 95-97% of the celiac population have NOT been diagnosed.
    - 2/24/2010 12:02:51 AM
  • Many, MANY people with IBS may really have celiac disease. Gluten proteins in not just barley and wheat, but also rye and contaminated commercial oats (oats don't have gluten, but because they're farmed and stored near glutenous grains, they become contaminated) affect the villi in the small intestine. Blunted villi affect absorption of nutrients, and also delete the enzyme necessary to digest lactose (lactase enzyme is located on the TIP of the villi which are damaged first by gluten); lactose intolerance is often associated with IBS and celiac. Blunted villi also affects GI transit - constipation and/or diarrhea. Or not. Celiac is tricky that way. Talk to your doctor about a celiac PANEL blood test; but know that even if it's negative that a gluten-free diet might still help. One to 2% of the population has celiac, but 97% of the population is diagnosed. Thirty percent or more of the population have genetics/symptoms many of whom the gf diet is still helpful. Please consider reading more about it!

    On another note, I found this article because I recently found that I have low serotonin. I know I've read about low serotonin's association with the gut because I read about it all the time - just didn't think it'd be ME (and I have a gut issue~!) Thanks for the info. - 1/13/2010 12:48:26 AM