Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Research Favors Lifestyle Changes Over Meds

Can counseling by a medical professional be more effective than medication to treat chronic IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)? Possibly, concludes a major new study that puts more focus on lifestyle changes, including improved nutritional habits.

The counseling, as reviewed by the British study, was delivered over the telephone or through an interactive website. The findings are considered noteworthy because the study was based on a large-scale “randomized controlled trial,” which is deemed as the highest standard for research.

Both the telephone-delivered and Internet-delivered counseling for IBS “showed large clinical and statistically significant improvements in IBS symptoms and impact on life and mood, which were maintained at 12 months,” researchers concluded.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 15 to 20 percent the U.S. population experiences symptoms of IBS. Yet, IBS can be challenging to diagnose, since the symptoms mimic those of other gastrointestinal disorders: diarrhea; constipation, abdominal bloating and gas; and abdominal discomfort or cramping.

“Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a very common condition,” says Eduardo Ruan, M.D., gastroenterologist with Baptist Health South Florida. “It’s one of the leading causes of absenteeism from work, and so there’s a significant cost and impact to society. But people should know that there is help out there and that there are different types of interventions that we can do — lifestyle changes, dietary changes, and also some medication help.”

If these symptoms are chronic, you should see your primary care physician. Your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist. A thorough diagnosis is important to avoid mistaking Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD, with IBS. IBD is potentially more serious. The two most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which both cause inflammation in the intestines and long-term damage if not treated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Primary care physicians can refer IBS patients to a dietitian to help reduce symptoms through dietary changes. Weight management through nutrition and regular exercise can also help reduce IBS sysmptoms.

“Nutrition plays a key role in the management of IBS and other G.I. conditions,” said Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida. “Right now, there’s also a lot of attention to nutrition and gut health in general. So we’re learning a lot more about the gut microbiome and how that impacts your gut health — and also overall health. So by working with a dietitian to manage a G.I. condition, the patient can hopefully get relief from symptoms.”

What Causes IBS?
Doctors aren’t sure what causes IBS, but most experts believe it is a combination of factors that may have varying effects on different people.

Experts think these problems may play a role in causing IBS, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. These problems include:

  • stressful or difficult early life events, such as physical or sexual abuse;
  • certain mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and somatic symptom disorder;
  • bacterial infections in your digestive tract;
  • small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, an increase in the number or a change in the type of bacteria in your small intestine;
  • food intolerance or sensitivities, in which certain foods cause digestive symptoms

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