You might be surprised at how many people you know—hey, maybe you're one of them—who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This digestive disorder impacts about 1 in every 10 of us, according to research published in the journal Nature. (To put that into perspective, IBS is slightly more common than asthma.) About 2 in 3 of those diagnosed with IBS identify as female, and about 1 in 3 identify as male, the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders reports, and about 20 to 40% of all visits to gastroenterologists are related to IBS symptoms in some way.
IBS is a "functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder," meaning it involves disturbances to how the intestines and bowels work. It may also involve impaired gut-brain interaction. A miscommunication between the two can lead to an extremely sensitive digestive tract, and the colon muscle tends to contract more in those with IBS than those without. All of this can manifest as diarrhea, constipation, excessive gas, abdominal pain and/or cramps.
But since none of these topics are generally polite dinner, office or family holiday conversation, we don't often talk publicly about how common, persistent and painful IBS can be. We think that's BS (sorry), so we're here to change that. Read on for a deep dive into some recent research related to IBS—and how we can all potentially lower our risk for the condition.
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4 Things That Could Increase Your IBS Risk
While some IBS cases are genetic, and caused by a specific gene mutation, many lifestyle habits can make us more likely to develop the disorder, too. Here's what science says might lead to those less-than-lovely IBS symptoms.
You eat too many ultra-processed foods.
The mistake: Building on research that found that a Western diet increases IBS risk, a brand-new study in The BMJ says that eating one type of food in particular heightens your risk even more: ultra-processed foods. These include pre-made meals, like frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains, and are different from "heavily processed foods" (ready-to-eat snacks and ingredients, such as granola, crackers and deli meat), "foods with ingredients added" (like a jarred pasta sauce or vinaigrette dressing with some preservatives) and "foods that are processed at their peak" (say, canned tomatoes or frozen fruits and vegetables).
In the just-released study, which was based on detailed diet information from 116,087 adults across the world, those who ate five or more servings of ultra-processed food per day had 82% higher risk of IBS, and those who consumed one to four servings of ultra-processed food daily were at 67% higher risk. On the flip side, white meat, red meat, fruit, vegetables, dairy, unprocessed starches and legumes did not impact IBS risk.
The fix: Check out 3 ways to limit processed foods (and the ones that are A-OK to keep in your diet). And our 30 days of whole food challenge is here for you when you're ready.
The mistake: Just as it elevates risk for dementia, heart disease, lung cancer and early death, smoking makes one more likely to struggle with IBS, according to a study in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility.
The fix: We know "just stop smoking!" is much easier said than done, so here are a wide variety of smoking cessation resources from the CDC to help kick-start the process.
You are chronically stressed, tense or anxious.
The mistake: Yes, a "nervous stomach" is a real thing and can actually be really serious. Experts at the Cleveland Clinic say that being stressed or anxious can actually increase risk for IBS. A study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found that stress and anxiety can lead the brain to trigger overactivity within the gut. Brain signals can also be underactive during an over-stressed state, which sends a message to the gut to slow down and can lead to constipation, gas and abdominal discomfort.
The fix: These 7 science-backed strategies can help you relieve stress in 10 minutes or less. If you're finding your daily activities are affected by your stress or anxiety, the CDC has an ample list of free and confidential options for connecting with a trained counselor suited to your needs.
You aren't very cautious about food safety.
The mistake: While counting the minutes to ensure your food is refrigerated and out of the "danger zone" in time can be a picnic party buzzkill, it's well worth the vigilance to keep food safety top of mind. This is true both for the short-term (vomiting and diarrhea are not so fun) and for the long-term. Risk of IBS is four times higher in people who had experienced "infectious enteritis," the most common type of bacterial enteritis that's caused by food poisoning, within the past 12 months than in those who had not, according to research published in the journal Gastroenterology.
The fix: Our ultimate guide to prevent food poisoning can help you steer clear of this IBS risk factor … and all of the discomfort that comes with bacterial enteritis itself.