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Frequently Asked Questions: Irritable bowel syndrome

Q. Why can't doctors find anything wrong with IBS patients?

Doctors, particularly in the United States, are trained to look for physical manifestations, such as inflammation, obstruction, or bleeding. But, for a while, IBS displays none, particularly in younger patients.

Despite this common knowledge, the diagnosis of IBS allows for a ton of billable services to seek out “the clues:”

CBC [complete blood count], biochemical profile (including liver tests), ESR [erythrocyte sedimentation rate], stool examination for ova and parasites (in those with diarrhea predominance), thyroid-stimulating hormone and Ca for those with constipation, and flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy should be done” — advises Merck, and piles up even more tests to “test the tests:”

Additional studies (such as ultrasound, CT [computer tomography], barium enema x-ray, upper GI esophagogastroduodenoscopy, and small-bowel x-rays) should be undertaken only when there are other objective abnormalities.”

All in all, that's several thousand dollars worth of mostly irrelevant testing, which in the case of “true” IBS will reveal little or nothing, and in all cases will cause even more colorectal damage from x-ray radiation, laxatives used to lavage the intestines before colonoscopy or CT, and anesthesia administered during colonoscopy.

Merck even says this much: “Many patients with IBS are overtested.” But the only real and relevant diagnostic criteria of IBS — dysbacteriosis, stool size, stool density, and internal hemorrhoids and straining (both may be absent in younger patients)— aren't considered.

Q. What is the difference in treatment between diarrhea- and constipation-predominant IBS.

In general terms, diarrhea-predominant IBS is a more significant problem than constipation-predominant because diarrhea suggests inflammatory disease in the large intestine. Whenever the mucosal membrane is affected by inflammation, it fails to remove feces' fluids and form stools. The ensuing accumulation of fluids causes diarrhea.

In terms of actual recovery, patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS require a guarded diet to eliminate food allergens and inflammation triggers, such as soluble fiber, pectin, sorbitol, and similar others.

These patients must also be screened for fecal impaction (a cause of paradoxical diarrhea), Clostridium difficile (a bacterial cause of colitis), parasites, viral infections, biliary and pancreatic disorders, and undergo the required medical treatment. That's where the value of a skilled and attentive physician is paramount.

Some individuals, particularly children and young women, may experience stress-related diarrhea for reasons explained here. It's hard to eliminate stress, but it's possible to learn how to redirect and reduce your response to it. More about it here.

Q. How come I was diagnosed with IBS while I have never been constipated or had diarrhea?

Constipation and diarrhea are late-stage complications of IBS. When IBS develops in younger people, they rarely experience constipation or diarrhea because they still have taught, supple, functional colons and rectums, sensitive anorectal plexes, undamaged anal canals, so they move their bowels like clockwork.

IBS itself begins with the gradual enlargement of stools either from fiber or from a mild inflammation of the intestinal mucosa caused by the by-products of fiber fermentation, or from evolving food allergies, or loss of intestinal flora, or all of the above.

At one point or other enlarged stools require moderate straining. In turn, straining enlarges internal hemorrhoids (unbeknown to most until late or at all) and constricts an already narrow anal canal even more. The constriction leads to incomplete emptying, further hardening of stools, further enlarging of hemorrhoids, and more straining. Then, one day, a person can't strain hard enough to move bowels at all for more than three days. That's — no stools for more than three days — what The Merck Manual calls constipation, and that's the definition that most doctors and patients are saddled with.

It may take you 5, 10, 20, 30, or more years to reach that day, depending on your doctor's directions, age, gender, diet, toilet habits, degree of luck, and the multitude of other factors discussed throughout this site.

If, before that moment, you had uncomfortable stools every other day or so, technically, you were not constipated. Medically speaking, you are “healthy” until day four! Before that — don't bother the doctors, and take more fiber.

All of this would be funny if it weren't so tragic. You can learn more about this charade doctors “play” with constipation here. The role of fiber in the pathogenesis of colorectal disorders, including IBS, is explained here.

Q. How can I distinguish IBS from IBD?

The "syndrome" in IBS stands for a collection of symptoms that make up this condition. Its‘ interpretation varies from textbook to textbook, from reference to reference, and from doctor to doctor. In other words, diagnosing IBS is a "free-for-all" enterprise because there are no actual physical attributes (i.e., inflammation, bleeding, high-temperature, blood tests, etc.) to cling to.

Most of the IBS symptoms are also present in IBD (i.e., inflammatory bowel disease). The primary distinguishing characteristics of early-stage IBD (i.e., before endoscopy shows inflammation) are the following: stools close to diarrhea; excess mucus in stools; sustained, round-the-clock bloating, but with less flatulence, typical for IBS because by this time most of the bacteria are dead, and fermentable matter (i.e., fiber, the source of gases) is rapidly disposed of during diarrhea.

Q. What's the difference between just "bloating" vis-à-vis "bloating and flatulence?"

The bloating without gases (or with very little) points out to the small intestine's inflammation. This condition traps gases and prevents their absorption into the blood. Excessive gases increase intestine diameter, particularly the small intestine. Because this 14 to 22 feet long organ is so tightly packed inside the abdominal cavity, even a small increase in its diameter distends (pushes out) the abdominal wall and causes bloating.

The small intestine gases are always naturally formed when the stomach's acidic content moves in and gets neutralized by pancreatic juices (bicarbonate).

The large intestine gases are formed when undigested carbohydrates (fibers, lactose, polysaccharides, sugar alcohols) get fermented by bacteria. The putrefaction (rotting) of undigested proteins may form gases too.

Bacteria are often present in the lower small intestine (ileum) and may form profuse gases from fermentation. These are usually the most bothersome because they have no place to escape.

The large intestine gases may also escape into the small intestine whenever the ileocecal valve opens up to let the small intestine content pass into the large intestine.

Q. Why do antibiotics reduce cramping and bloating related to IBS and IBD?

Antibiotics kill bacteria in the small and large intestine and terminate the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates. In turn, the loss of bacteria stops fermentation and production of gases, alcohols, and fatty acids and subduces an inflammatory condition. In turn, the intestines shrink and reduce internal pressure on internal organs.

Unfortunately, antibiotics also ruin normal colon ecology and cause problems, ranging from severe diarrhea to equally severe constipation. They also strip the intestinal membrane from its natural protectors (i.e., bacteria), reduce primary immunity (phagocytosis), blood clotting, vitamin synthesis, and so on. So, logically, you are better off excluding fiber and other sources of undigested carbs to stop fermentation rather than use an "atomic bomb" approach to wipe out bacteria.

Besides, there are always some antibiotic-resistant mutant bacteria (such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MSRA) left behind. They are the ones that may eventually kill you, particularly in the hospital setting. At this point, you have nobody to thank but the profit-driven “Big Pharma” and careless doctoring.

Q. What's the difference between the role of soluble and insoluble fiber in the pathogenesis of IBS?

Insoluble fiber (bulking agent) makes stools large. Large stools induce straining, straining causes the enlargement of internal hemorrhoids, enlarged hemorrhoids cause incomplete emptying, incomplete emptying causes impacted stools, impacted stools cause abdominal cramps.

Soluble fiber (hydrophilic mucilloid) blocks the absorption of digestive fluids. Blocked fluids, including astringent bile and omnivorous enzymes, slip down into the large intestine and wreak havoc there. To cleanse itself of irritants and impacted stools, the large intestine responds with profuse diarrhea. When the diarrhea is over, the colon's examination shows no visible damage. Back on fiber, and the cycle starts again.

Soluble and insoluble fibers are fermentable. If the bacteria level is average, soluble fiber ferments 100%, insoluble — about 50% with normal motility, and almost 100% with slow motility (a condition typical for IBS).

In the overall scheme of things, soluble fiber is by far more damaging than insoluble, except in the cases of (a) inflammatory bowel disease (caused primarily by soluble fiber) and (b) obstruction in young children and older adults. In the case of IBD — because inflammation prevents water absorption and narrows the passageway; in young children — because their internal organs as so tiny and so easy to obstruct; and in older adults — because of slow and inefficient peristalsis, often made worse by the indiscriminate use of systemic drugs, which may affect peristalsis even more.

Q. Why are people with IBS advised to avoid fats?

Along with the advice to use fiber, this is one of the most damaging recommendations in all IBS-related dietary dogma. In fact, the absence of fats makes IBS and its‘ side-effects much worse and turns them into IBDs. You can read more about the role of fats in digestion and colorectal disorderss here.

If anything, the absence of fats will cause more damage to your entire digestive tract, health, and cause severe constipation (i.e., a primary symptom of IBS), because dietary fats are essential for regularity. You can read more about the role of fats in constipation here.

Dietary fats precipitate the gastrocolic reflex and peristaltic mass movement — two conditions essential for food propulsion through the GI tract, normal stool formation, and normal defecation. This innate physiological effect of fat may cause pain and cramping in people with IBS — an effect similar to giving a shiatsu massage of the abdomen amid IBS relapse.

In the long-term, the “killing” or reducing of peristalsis by restricting fats makes all IBS-related constipation even worse — more constipation, more fecal impaction, larger stools, more gases, more pain, more sensitivity to pain, stiffer, smooth muscles, and impaired muscle contraction from severe calcium deficiency, because calcium doesn't get assimilated without fat in the diet.

Q. Does stress contribute to IBS? Is there indeed a psychosocial aspect to IBS?

Stress contributes to practically all disorders, not just IBS, because the chemistry behind the stress response isn't merely mental or perceptual, but endocrine — meaning any stress or even the anticipation of stress elicits an unconscious secretion or over-secretion of multiple stress hormones, which govern physical aspects of the stress response. These are adrenalin, noradrenalin, cortisol, and some others.

In the case of IBS, stress hormones inhibit gastric digestion and intestinal propulsion (peristalsis). These two conditions predispose people to a broad range of functional GI disorders. The most typical ones are nausea, vomiting, indigestion, heartburn, GERD, peptic ulcers, bloating, abdominal cramps, and constipation or diarrhea, depending on stress intensity and duration.

There are two core reasons behind all these happenings:

Can you do anything about it? Yes, you can. In cases of significant stress events, it's a matter of training and conditioning. Professional soldiers don't soil their pants or vomit when they get fired at — they duck, evade, and respond. If they can be trained to ignore bullets, so can you evade mother-in-law, ignore an obnoxious co-worker, and duck away from rude drivers. There is plenty of specialized literature dedicated to this subject.

Moderate and/or extended stress must be managed with proper nutritional “hygiene.” When exposed to the stress of any modality or duration, use the following rules:

As you can see, it isn't the stress per se, that causes IBS, but the lack of knowledge and readiness to deal with it and its aftermath. Well, now you know!

Q. So what's the role of psychotherapy in all this? Is it a fluke, or has it some role?

Yes, in a limited way, but absolutely “no” in all substantive ways. Here is the drill:

— No, because psychotherapy can't eliminate the underlying physical causes of irritable bowel syndrome by pep talk and/or hypnosis alone.

— No, because psychotherapy can't completely rewire the innate, evolutionary, fight-or-flight type of stress response even in the most sophisticated, dedicated, and motivated individuals.

— No, because a shrink isn't a substitute for a normal poop.

— No, because wishful thinking is the worst treatment for internal disorders with clear-cut physiological causes. — Yes, because many stress response cases are self-perpetuating — i.e., fear breeds more fear. Assuming you can find and afford a skilled enough psychologist to break that endless loop, yes, it helps a great deal.

— Yes, because you can learn (or be taught) to respond to stress in a less self-destructive and agonizing way. — Yes, because psychotherapy and related approaches (yoga, meditation, prayer, controlled breathing, chants, etc.) do offer a palliative, temporary release from acute pain. This effect results from the general relaxation and temporary reduction of stress hormones.

But, as I have already said, you can't chase away excess gases and large stools or plant back missing bacteria by using palliative psychology any more than you can fill a cavity with hypnosis or reverse breast cancer with motivational therapy.

Q. Is smoking bad for IBS?

Yes, it is, because smoking stimulates saliva secretion. In turn, smoke-laced saliva gets swallowed and stimulates the secretion of gastric juices, the gastrocolic reflex, and peristaltic mass movement — the precursors to abdominal cramps and/or diarrhea. That's, incidentally, why people are told not to smoke on an empty stomach.

Interestingly, my first bout with severe IBS started soon after I quit smoking in 1984, but for the opposite reason — I no longer had sufficient stimulation of intestinal peristalsis to initiate regular bowel movements, skipped a few, became chronically constipated, and started to rely on fiber laxatives, such as Metamucil, to move my bowels.

Q. What about alcohol? Is it bad for IBS?

In general, yes, it is bad for IBS, particularly during acute stages. Let's review the reasons:

When dehydration and sodium loss become extreme, you may experience diarrhea because of a sodium-potassium blood imbalance. To compensate this imbalance, the body dumps excess potassium (along with gobs of plasma, of course) into the colon's lumen. In turn, it causes profuse diarrhea, which dehydrates you even more.

A similar chain of events (sans alcohol) causes runner's diarrhea. Western athletes listen to that stupid advice and load themselves up with Gatorade — potassium- and sugar-rich drink — before and while running. No wonder the diminutive Kenyans win all those darn marathons — they don't have sports medicine doctors or Gatorade in Kenya yet to compromise their health and performance. To be fair, Gatorade contains some sodium chloride, but not enough to compensate its losses with sweat during actual races.

To my amazement, the cause of runner's diarrhea is still (2008) considered unknown. Well, not anymore. To prevent dehydration and diarrhea, load up on salt before the race because sodium chloride is essential for water retention. That's why the hospital I.V. drip contains 0.9% of sodium chloride, not potassium. For the same reason, pickles and brine are so “therapeutic” after a sauna or for a hangover. Who, but the vodka-addicted Russians would know all that...

Will you get harmed by a glass of wine along with dinner? Probably not, as long as you are drinking French or Italian table wines, vin de table and vino da tavola, respectively.

Q. What‘s so special about table wines, and what it has to do with IBS?

Vintage (or quality by the European Union definition) wines are aged in oak casks. New wine casks are treated with sulfites to prevent expensive oak wood from rotting. Aging infuses wines with these sulfites. Unlike vintage, table wines are made and kept in stainless steel vats, and they never get exposed to oak impregnated with sulfites.

The less scrupulous producers of inexpensive table wines (and often vintage wines too) add extra sulfites to prevent spoilage so that these wines can be shipped, sold, and stored without regard to temperature almost indefinitely.

This practice is widespread outside of the European Union, particularly in the United States and Latin America. For this reason, I never touch American wines unless the label says “Organic.” This way, I am assured of having a good night's sleep and clear head the “morning after.”

Sulfites are potent allergens. Just like MSG, they produce a very unpleasant “histamine flush,” which is what causes its‘ nasty after-effects, such as migraine, insomnia, nausea, dizziness, sweating, tachycardia, wheezing, hives, pale skin, and even anaphylaxis in hypersensitive individuals. Unfortunately, histamine intensifies inflammatory conditions, which are prevalent in people with IBS.

It‘s not such a big deal in the United States, where daily wine drinking culture was all but non-existent until very recently, and the drinking age is 21. But it is (a big deal) for French or Italians who drink table wines with practically every meal and literally from birth (though highly diluted).

No wonder they can‘t afford to experience daily hangovers or anaphylactic shock, particularly among children. For these reasons adding sulfites to table wine intentionally may get one into prison in France, while in the United States, it‘s taught in winery courses as “good business.”

You‘ll still see the “Contains Sulfites” statement on practically all wine labels, table or not, because, apparently, they occur in wines naturally. I say “apparently,” because I don‘t believe this is true. But it‘s cheaper for the E.U.-based winemakers and distributors to comply with the U.S. labeling regulations than to certify their wines as “organic” or “sulfites-free.” After all, table wines are bought mainly on price, not the quality or purity of content.

Histamine receptors (H2) play an essential role in the secretion of gastric juices and, correspondingly, gastric [inside the stomach] digestion. For these reasons, sulfites and alcohol may cause dyspepsia — a general term for unspecific stomach distress. This condition is particularly harmful to people already affected by irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel diseases.

In general, if you have already developed an allergic reaction to sulfites in wines, you may react adversely even to “clean” wines — the immune system commonly produces antibodies to other wine components and retains this “body memory” for a considerable length of time. In this case, you are better off skipping alcoholic beverages aged in casks, such as wines, ports, champagnes, vermouths, sakes, cognacs, whiskeys (scotches), and others.

What’s left? Any good triple-distilled vodka, such as Smirnoff. And don’t waste your money on all those “gourmet” vodkas in artisan bottles. Many of those have that discerning taste precisely because they are inadequately distilled and are more likely to cause hangovers. Only this time around, it isn’t from added sulfites but toxic alcohols other than ethanol (i.e., pure alcohol).

So, show me some wine (scotch, cognac, etc.) ‘cognoscenti’ — those snobbish and often arrogant guys, and nowadays, gals too — who swoon over aged bottles of expensive grape juice or malted barley, and discuss “notes” the way mere mortals deconstruct politics, and I’ll show you a fool in the high-risk group for IBS, IBD, peptic ulcers, and digestive cancers.

How come the French get away with it? Well, they don’t. The rate of digestive cancers in France is relatively high, but it has to do more with smoking than wine. Besides, even when the French drink vintage wines on special occasions or after dinner, they do so by the sip, not by the goblet, the way the ‘nouveau riche’ drink nowadays.

What do I drink? Lately, I mostly don’t because alcohol interferes with my writing, energy, mood, and sleep. The only exception — when we are going out for sashimi. In this case, I’ll have a glass of sake or a bottle of beer to sterilize raw fish with alcohol. I also always take with me MSG and gluten-free soy sauce. Just like sulfites, both of these substances are an absolute no-no for people with IBS, IBD, or a history of both.

Q. Why do you know all this and doctors don't?

I don’t know any more about “all this” than most doctors, and especially board-certified gastroenterologists, gastric oncologists, or endoscopists, except that I am better trained to research and analyze broadly available information and research, investigate inconsistencies, connect the dots, and describe my findings in accessible language.

All of the background information I rely upon is described in exceptional depth in primary medical texts and references, including The Merck Manual, which I quote so often. I learned most of these basic facts back in the seventies in medical schools from textbooks authored decades earlier and from professors trained before World War II.

If a medical doctor doesn’t know “all this” basic information about human digestion, he/she wouldn’t be able to pass a licensing board exam. So this question should really ask: “Why doctors don’t use all this information to treat patients?”

Well, some do, particularly outside of the United States. Since most of the healthcare delivery in the United States is orchestrated by pharmaceutical companies, which publish the majority of textbooks and references, administer continuous medical education (CME) courses, design and administer licensing exams, and own or sponsor most of the medical publications and web sites, doctors are trained to rely more on tests and drugs, than on inexpensive and truly effective solutions.

Besides, it’s faster and easier to write prescriptions; drugs offer quick relief to patients and create an aura of competence, and the drugs’ side effects bring a ton more repeat business soon after that. So why kill the bonanza writing web pages (such as this), or waste valuable “face” time teaching patients the fine points of stools?

In the doctors' defense, I have to say this: the majority of their patients don't give a damn about the causes of their diseases; don't care to learn how to eliminate these causes, don't want to change anything in their lives and diets, and prefer an instant fix with this or that pill, ideally for free.

Naturally, doctors, insurers, and pharmaceutical companies respond to “market pressures” just like any other business worth its salt would — they give their customers what they want! It's good business, and, besides, it's great for business.

If you have read this page this far, you are a welcome exception. So don't be a dupe, do the right thing, don't dwell far too long over things outside of your circles of control and influence, and show others the way simply by getting well. It sure beats popping pills, wearing a colectomy bag, or bleeding to death.