Because irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, caused by changes in the way the GI tract works, it leads to a collection of symptoms that can wax and wane — meaning symptoms tend to simmer along until they flare up during painful and embarrassing episodes. Other conditions, from normal menstruation to common problems as diverse as lactose intolerance and food poisoning, can have an effect on your IBS, usually causing your symptoms to get worse.
“The reason why something like lactose or gluten intolerance affects IBS patients more than others is because they have greater sensitivity of their bowels, they feel what’s going on more,” explained Lin Chang, MD, professor of medicine in the division of digestive diseases and co-director of the Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Simply put, because you have IBS and your bowel is already more sensitive or reactive, your symptoms are likely to intensify when other conditions arise.
IBS specialist Douglas Drossman, MD, president of the Rome Foundation and adjunct professor of medicine and psychiatry in gastroenterology with the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, likened this increased reactivity to turning the volume up on a stereo. “The nerves fire more on people with irritable bowel.” Because these other conditions can cause a lot of misery, it is important to tackle their effects as quickly and appropriately as possible, Dr. Drossman added.
Conditions That Further Irritate IBS
Common conditions with IBS symptom effects include:
Constipation. While constipation is a possible symptom of IBS, it also can be a condition that affects people with IBS who do not normally suffer constipation. A laxative should ease symptoms.
Diarrhea. The same goes for diarrhea — it is a potential IBS symptom, but someone can suffer an episode of diarrhea that is unrelated to their IBS. Taking medicines like antispasmodics and antidiarrheals can help.
Food poisoning. Food poisoning can cause the same type of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine that occurs in some cases of IBS. Because of this, it is a suspected cause of IBS for some people. That said, food poisoning can terribly exacerbate existing IBS symptoms. Medication can sometimes help, but you should seek medical help.
Lactose intolerance. A 2013 study in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that people with diarrheal IBS are affected by lactose intolerance at a much higher rate than people without IBS. Sufferers experience nausea, abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. “If you’re lactose intolerant on top of irritable bowel, you would avoid dairy products or take something that would help you better process lactose,” Drossman advised.
Gluten intolerance. The discomfort caused by gluten intolerance can be mistaken for IBS, but is a completely separate condition. As with lactose intolerance, people with IBS are much more likely to suffer from gluten intolerance, Drossman noted. Avoiding wheat, barley, and rye products — a gluten-free diet — will help alleviate the symptoms caused by gluten intolerance, though it won’t prevent IBS symptoms from occurring.
Menstruation. While not a medical condition, having your period can have an effect on IBS. “Women with IBS suffer increased symptoms during their period, research has found. If you have irritable bowel, cramping, or diarrhea associated with your period can be much more severe,” Drossman explained. Medications to help reduce pain and cramps can help.
If any of these conditions become constant or start affecting your quality of life, talk to your IBS doctor about other ways to manage them.