You can’t see IBS and the exact cause of this digestive system condition is unknown, so it only makes sense that there is a lot of misleading information out there about it! We’re here to bust 11 of the most common myths about IBS and help you make better sense of this mysterious condition.
What is IBS?
Before we start sharing the common misconceptions surrounding IBS, here is the NHS description of the condition:1
‘Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that affects the digestive system.’
What does IBS feel like?
IBS tends to be different for everyone and can be tricky to diagnose as there is no test for it. Other conditions like coeliac disease can have similar symptoms, which makes it even trickier to get a diagnosis.
The main signs of IBS include:
- Stomach pains or cramps
Other IBS flare up symptoms:
- Farting (flatulence)
- Passing mucus from the bottom
- Difficulty peeing – including sudden urges to pee, needing to pee often and feeling like you can’t fully empty your bladder
- Tiredness and a lack of energy
- Not always being able to control when you poo (incontinence)
- Feeling sick (nausea)
And now onto some of the most common myths surrounding IBS:
Myth 1: Someone I know with IBS found success with this treatment, so it will also definitely work for me
The truth: IBS is different for everyone, so there isn’t a ‘fix all’ treatment that will work perfectly for everyone – even though that would be wonderful! This is why it is essential to work together with your GP, dietician and any other medical professionals you have been consulting with to discover which treatment works best for you.
Here are some of the most common things people DO for relief for IBS:
- Cook homemade meals full of fresh ingredients as often as possible
- Keep a daily food diary and note any symptoms you have to see if there are certain foods that trigger your IBS
- Find ways to relax and unwind
- Get moving and do plenty of exercise
And here are some of the most common things people DON’T DO to relieve IBS symptoms:
- Skip or delay eating meals
- Eat too quickly
- Eat more than 3 portions (a portion is 80g) of fresh fruit a day
- Drink more than 3 cups of tea or coffee a day
- Drink lots of frizzy drinks or alcohol
You can explore and create a personalised combination of these lifestyle changes that will best help you. Always consult your GP or other health professional before you make big changes though, as they will be able to give you tailored advice.
Myth 2: IBS is the same as IBD / Crohn’s Disease / Colitis
The truth: Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are both types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Although IBD and IBS sound similar, they are very different conditions. IBD diseases are characterised by the intestines becoming inflamed, whereas IBS is not visible, and the symptoms are the results of a misfunctioning digestive tract. So, don’t let people tell you they’re the same – they’re totally different.
IBS cannot turn into IBD and if you have both conditions, IBS doesn’t increase the risk of IBD complications, like surgery, needing an ostomy bag, etc.
Myth 3. Just cut out dairy and gluten, IBS is just another word for intolerance
The truth: While some people with IBS do have intolerances to lactose, gluten and other foods, it doesn’t mean the two are intrinsically linked or are the same thing. How else would people without IBS have a food intolerance if that was the case?
As Northern Europeans have been consuming dairy for centuries, only 5% of those with Northern European heritage are lactose intolerant. However, for East Asian people it’s the opposite and around 90% of them are lactose intolerant – so to say that IBS is ‘just an intolerance’ would mean that 90% of East Asians have IBS- which is obviously not the case!2
Lactose intolerance is also quite common in those of Arab, Greek, Jewish, West African and Italian descent.3 Gluten intolerance (not to be confused with celiac disease) is even less common. Take the UK for instance, with 10-20% of the population being lactose intolerant and 3-6% gluten intolerant.4
That being said, some people with IBS can reduce or eliminate their symptoms by cutting out these food groups, but that does not mean they are necessarily gluten or lactose intolerant. It can be harmful to lump these conditions together.
Myth 4. IBS is all in your head – it’s a mental problem
The truth: IBS is hard enough without this myth stigmatising sufferers! Just because you can’t see any obvious visual signs of the illness does not render it a mental illness. While some aspects of poor mental health like stress, depression and anxiety can increase symptoms, they do not cause IBS. Otherwise there would be more depressed and anxious people with IBS.
Myth 5. Leaky gut syndrome is the cause of IBS
The truth: ‘Leaky gut syndrome’ is a proposed condition some health practitioners claim cause lots of long-term conditions, like multiple sclerosis (MS), chronic fatigue syndrome and IBS. The theory is that many symptoms of this condition are caused by the immune system reacting to toxins, germs or other substances that have escaped from a porous ‘leaky’ bowel into the bloodstream.
While it is true that some medications and conditions can cause a ‘leaky’ gut – what scientists call increased intestinal permeability, there is no current evidence that a porous bowl directly causes any significant, chronic problems.
To top it all off, there is no real evidence that this disease even exists, so to say it causes the functional disorder of IBS is not very helpful.5
Myth 6. People with IBS can’t eat (insert food here)
The truth: Wouldn’t it be simple and easy if everyone with IBS could cut out a certain food group and be cured? The reality, as we have discussed above, is that IBS is different for everyone and what causes IBS symptoms for some people won’t necessarily affect others. So just because a few people you know cut out gluten and it helped reduce their symptoms, that is not enough evidence to suggest that people with IBS can’t eat gluten.
Some food manufactures have cottoned onto this trend of claiming that certain ingredients are off the menu for people with IBS, which doesn’t really help at all. Your best bet is to take a ‘nothing is off limits’ approach when trying to decipher which foods could be helping or harming you when it comes to IBS. It’s also worth noting that some patients have symptoms no matter what they do or don’t eat, and IBS cannot always be managed through diet alone.
Myth 7: IBS is an uncommon condition
Truth: Not at all! IBS is a common long-term condition. In the UK about 2 out of every 10 people have IBS and experience episodes of it at least six times a year – 20%!6
Myth 8: Blood in the stool is an IBS symptom
Truth: Unlike inflammatory conditions like colitis, IBS shouldn’t cause the colon to bleed.7 However, blood in the stool is not a good sign full stop, so contact your GP and talk to them about it.
Myth 9: IBS is not a big deal
The truth: IBS certainly can be a big deal for some people, especially when symptoms can change their entire life. While it’s true that some people can have very mild IBS systems that won’t affect their life too much, others will feel the impact of IBS big time.
Some potentially ‘life-altering’ symptoms of IBS:
- IBS causes some people to be afraid to leave home unless they know they will have constant access to a toilet
- Chronic constipation can cause bloating and intense pain that can affect all aspects of life from sex and any physical movement to not being able to get out of bed some days
- Social isolation from these symptoms can increase the risk of other mental health problems like depression
We’re sure you can see how dismissing IBS as a mild annoyance or food intolerance can cause the patient to feel misunderstood and impact their chances of figuring out how to lessen the effect IBS had on their lives.
People also ask…
Now we’ve busted some of the most common IBS myths, here are some other common questions people ask about IBS.
What foods commonly trigger IBS attacks?
Although there are no foods proven to cause IBS or worsen symptoms in every patient, there are certain food groups that commonly known as IBS triggers, like:8
- Hard-to-digest foods: foods like broccoli, cauliflower, beans, onions, dried fruit, brussels sprouts and cabbages can cause bloating, farting and cramps
- High-fibre foods: wholegrain foods like brown rice and brown bread, nuts and seeds can worsen symptoms of diarrhoea so avoid them while you are suffering with it and reintroduce back into your diet slowly if it is normally safe for you
- Sorbitol: sorbitol is a common sweetener that can make bloating, cramping, farting and diarrhoea worse
How do you check for irritable bowel syndrome?
First things first, if you think you may have IBS the best thing you can do is book an appointment with your GP. When you meet, they will ask you what symptoms you have, how frequent you have them, if they come and go, if certain foods seem to trigger it and how long you’ve had them.
Do I have IBS?
There is no test for IBS, so doctors usually start by ruling our other possible causes of the symptoms you’ve been having. They may arrange the following tests:9
- A blood test to check for coeliac disease and other similar conditions
- A stool test to examine your poo for signs of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and infections.
Then, if your GP thinks you have IBS, they will discuss treatment options with you.
Can you suddenly develop IBS?
Yes. Just like other medical conditions, IBS has to start somewhere, e.g. five years ago you may have started having cramps, getting bloated and having issues in the toilet overnight, which you hadn’t experienced (on that scale) until then. Et voila, you have IBS.
However, you will usually have your first IBS symptoms between the ages of 20 and 30, with women being twice as likely as men to have symptoms.10
How long does IBS last?
IBS is a chronic condition, and most people who have it have to accept it as something they will have to learn to manage in the long-term and may have to live with for the rest of their lives. However, IBS help is available, and your best bet is visiting your GP so they can help you find the best help for you.
Last updated: 15 October 2020