The causes of this ‘overly sensitive’ colon result from a number of factors. Some of the following can exacerbate symptoms of IBS: emotional stress, diet, and medication. While these factors usually do not cause gastrointestinal distress in the average person, for an IBS sufferer they can trigger painful abdominal spasms.
The brain and the intestines are closely connected by nerve fibers that control the automatic functioning of the intestinal muscles, and many people may experience nausea or diarrhea when they are nervous or anxious.
While we may not be able to control the effects of stress on our intestines, reducing the sources of stress in our lives (high-pressure jobs, family tension, etc.) may alleviate the symptoms of IBS. Expanding on this concept, an expert from the Division of Gastrointestinal and Coagulation Drug Products at the Food and Drug Administration explains that the gut has its own independent nervous system that regulates the processes of digesting food and eliminating solid waste.
According to Marcelo A. Barreiro M.D., “There’s a network of nerve cells within the wall of the gut – the gut nervous system – that does not depend on the brain for its minute-to-minute function,” Barreiro says, but rather “responds to its inputs under various conditions. Under stress, for example, the brain sends conflicting messages to the gut that may exaggerate the irritability of the gut nervous system.”
Diet is another major factor that contributes to the occurrence of IBS. Perhaps the largest diet-related contributor is the lack of fiber. High-fiber diets keep the colon mildly distended, which may help prevent spasms from developing.
Some forms of fiber also help keep the stool hydrated, thereby preventing the development of hard stools that are difficult to pass. A good example of this type is flax fiber, which provides a natural balance of soluble and insoluble fiber, which work together to absorb waste and “sweep” it from the intestines. Getting the proper balance of both types of fiber can reduce IBS symptoms by increasing food transit time in the colon for those experiencing constipation and decreasing food transit time for those experiencing diarrhea.
While there is no direct link between IBS and the use of medication, some medications may contribute to IBS. For example, antibiotics are known to cause gastrointestinal problems and diarrhea, and certain steroids may upset the balance of intestinal flora (bacteria in the gut), which can contribute to IBS. Widespread use of both prescribed and over-the-counter medication in the U.S. could be a major cause of many cases of IBS.
Instituting a comprehensive maintenance plan is the first step toward overcoming IBS, and one that includes an effective supplementation regimen can greatly reduce symptoms of IBS.