What Are The Warning Signs Of IBS?

Constipation and diarrhoea can be warning signs of IBS.

But if you’ve had a bout of constipation or diarrhoea, don’t be alarmed. It doesn’t mean you have IBS.

It’s very important to know that IBS is a collection of symptoms, not a disease. 

If you’ve had diarrhoea or constipation for over around six weeks, a doctor will probably diagnose you with IBS. But because there is no one, definitive way to diagnose IBS, you might get a diagnosis of IBS from one doctor but not from another.

Whether you have a diagnosis of IBS, or you don’t, please don’t worry. IBS symptoms aren’t a life sentence. There are many ways you can beat IBS.

Most people have had constipation or diarrhoea at some point in their lives. That’s all IBS is: constipation or diarrhoea. The only difference between ‘just’ constipation or diarrhoea and IBS is that IBS hangs around for longer.

IBS can get better, just like shorter bouts of constipation or diarrhoea do.

So, if you’re worried that you might have IBS, read on to find out more.

Early warning signs and symptoms of IBS

A change in your bowel movements is the most common early warning sign of IBS.

If your bowel movements change, or you develop IBS symptoms like constipation or diarrhoea, you should always tell your doctor. IBS symptoms can be a sign of a huge number of diseases and health conditions, and they may want to run tests to exclude these.

If you’re looking for specific signals that you have IBS—in the way that high blood sugar can be a sign of diabetes, for example—it’s important to know that IBS doesn’t work like that.

There are no official ‘alarm symptoms’ or warning signs for IBS, because it’s generally not considered a serious disease.

At Healthpath, though, we think IBS symptoms are always worth investigating. That’s because every part and system in your body is connected. You can read more about how we view IBS on our conditions page.

If you have IBS symptoms, it’s likely that something isn’t working somewhere else too. For example, people with IBS often have anxiety or depression [Source: PubMed].

Many people who suffer from skin problems like itchy skin [Source: PubMed] and acne [Source: PubMed] also have IBS symptoms.

Our medical system has separated the body into different categories: you see a gastroenterologist if you have symptoms in your gut, and an endocrinologist if something could be going on with your hormones.

But your gastrointestinal system (gut) and your hormones are intricately connected. That’s why hormonal problems and gut problems are often found together. For instance, women with menstrual problems often suffer from bloating, diarrhoea or constipation too [Source: PubMed].

In short, while IBS symptoms like constipation and diarrhoea appear in your gut, your gut is only one part of the whole IBS picture.

At Healthpath, we look at IBS symptoms as a warning sign that you need to look into the health of your whole body and mind.

There are many studies that show people have successfully addressed their IBS symptoms by supporting the health of their nervous system, for instance with exercise, meditation, breathing and optimising sleep. By finding and tackling the root cause of their symptoms—a disordered nervous system—their IBS disappeared [Source: PubMed].

If you’re getting early warning signs of IBS, like constipation or diarrhoea, you need to take a deep dive into your diet, lifestyle and state of mind.

Find the reasons for your IBS symptoms.

View our gut health tests

What does IBS feel like?

IBS is different for everyone. Some people with IBS suffer from extreme pain, while others have no pain at all. Some may be incontinent and have no control over their bowels, while others are unable to go to the toilet without special medicine.

Many people with IBS also suffer from nausea. Experts don’t agree on whether or not nausea is a symptom of IBS, but you can read more about the connection between IBS and nausea on our blog post Is nausea a symptom of IBS?

As we mentioned before, the most common IBS symptoms are diarrhoea and constipation.

Diarrhoea is usually defined as having more than three bowel movements a day. However, it’s not that simple!

You could have one or two bowel movements a day, but if they’re watery and you don’t have enough time to search for the toilet when you’re out, we’d call that diarrhoea too.

According to the NHS, you have constipation if you have less than three bowel movements per week. At Healthpath, we say that if you’re straining to have a bowel movement, that’s constipation: it doesn’t matter how often you’re going. 

And, even if you’re going twice or more a day, if you feel like you’re ‘not finished’, then you’re constipated.

This is why it’s possible to have constipation and diarrhoea at the same time. It can get a bit confusing, but remember that we ‘should’ ideally be having one to three well-formed bowel movements per day, with ease.

Our bowel habits in the modern western world are very different to how they have been throughout most of our evolution when we ate only whole, natural foods and lived close to the earth. We know from the few hunter-gatherer societies that still exist today that they have an easy bowel movement after every meal [Source: PubMed].

If you’re not having easy bowel movements (as many of us aren’t) then you need to look at your gut health and make some changes the way you eat and live.

Does IBS make you feel like you need to poo?

Needing to go to the toilet very urgently is a common sign of diarrhoea. However, constipation can also make you feel like you need to poo.

Sometimes, you can have the sensation of needing to poo, when you don’t actually need to. This can happen for a few different reasons. Your rectum could be swollen from an injury, or you could have haemorrhoids (a swelling of the veins in and around your rectum).

It’s also possible that you do need to poo, but for a variety of reasons, you’re having trouble. Some of these could be:

  • A problem with the ‘communication’ between your brain and the nerves and muscles in your gut [Source: PubMed]
  • Pelvic floor dysfunction (problems with the muscles, organs and tissue in your pelvic area) [Source: PubMed]
  • Dysbiosis (an imbalance in the communities of microbes in your gut) [Source: PubMed]

Can you suddenly develop IBS?

You can suddenly develop IBS symptoms, but they can also creep up on you slowly over a number of years.

Some common reasons for suddenly developing IBS symptoms include:

  • food poisoning
  • parasite infection
  • a traumatic accident
  • pregnancy and childbirth
  • viruses
  • a change in diet
  • a change in lifestyle
  • an operation
  • medications

There are an almost infinite number of reasons why you could suddenly develop IBS symptoms. It’s important to remember that you should always tell your doctor if your bowel movements suddenly change, so they can rule out any serious conditions.

How do I know I have IBS?

Because IBS is a collection of symptoms, you have it if you have the symptoms: constipation or diarrhoea. 

Unfortunately, there is no medically agreed definition of IBS. The NHS currently say that you have IBS if you have “recurrent abdominal pain, on average, at least one day a week in the last three months, associated with two or more of the following criteria:

  • related to defecation
  • associated with a change in frequency of stool
  • associated with a change in form (appearance) of stool.

The criteria must be fulfilled for the last three months, with symptom onset at least six months before diagnosis” [Source: NHS].

Looking for advice? Speak to a gut health expert.

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10 signs you might have IBS

At Healthpath, we think that your bowel movements should be easy, well-formed and relatively regular. If they’re not, then you need to find out why. Then you need to make a plan to support not just the health of your gut, but your whole body and mind to get back on track.

We know from a mountain of recent medically-reviewed studies that your microbiome (the communities of bacteria and other microbes in your gut) has a massive impact on IBS symptoms. People with unbalanced microbiomes are a lot more likely to have IBS symptoms than people with healthy, diverse microbiomes [Source: PubMed].

Here are ten signs all might not be well with your gut:

Skin issues 

Acne is especially linked to gut health [Source: PubMed].

Food intolerances or allergies

Food intolerances and allergies can be evidence of a disordered microbiome [Source: PubMed].

Hard poo that’s difficult to pass

Hard stools could mean you’re lacking key species of microbes in your gut [Source: PubMed].

Acid reflux

People with acid reflux have been found to have different communities of microbes in their guts when compared to healthy people [Source: PubMed].

Bloating after meals

Bloating can reflect an overgrowth of certain species of microbes in your gut that love to eat the same foods you do [Source: PubMed].

Insomnia

You need a balanced gut ecosystem for a sound night’s sleep [Source: PubMed].

Anxiety and/or depression

The link between your gut and your brain goes both ways. For a healthy gut, you need a healthy brain, and vice versa [Source: PubMed].

Fatigue

The guts of people with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) have overgrowths and deficiencies of specific types of bacteria [Source: PubMed].

Autoimmune conditions

The microbes in your gut interact with your immune system. A disordered microbiome sends out the wrong messages, and your immune system can start to attack your own body [Source: PubMed].

Obesity

Nearly half of the children with IBS in the UK are obese [Source: PubMed], while one in five of the general population of UK children is obese.

What’s going on in your gut?

Confusingly, you can have any of the above conditions and not have IBS symptoms, although IBS symptoms are more common in people with those conditions. 

We mentioned already that if you have dysbiosis (an imbalance of the communities of microbes in your gut), you’re more likely to have IBS symptoms, but the reverse is also true: if you’ve got chronic disease and/or IBS symptoms, you’re more likely to have dysbiosis [Source: PubMed]. 

If you’d like to find out what’s going on in your gut, you can get a Gut Health Test. You can read about gut testing in our blog post Gut testing: all your questions answered.

If you have IBS symptoms, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot you can do to tackle them. You certainly don’t have to put up with diarrhoea or constipation forever.

Key takeaways

  • IBS is difficult to define, but the warning signs are constipation and diarrhoea that doesn’t go away
  • Your gut doesn’t exist on its own: it’s connected to every other system in your body, so IBS symptoms are part of a puzzle much bigger than your gut
  • IBS symptoms are a sign you need to address not just your gut health, but the health of your whole body and mind
  • At Healthpath we think that your bowel movements should be quick, easy and comfortable. If you have to strain or run to the toilet, your bowel isn’t happy
  • If you suddenly develop IBS symptoms like constipation or diarrhoea, tell your doctor right away
  • Research tells us that people with IBS symptoms have dysbiosis: an imbalance of the communities of microbes in their guts
  • Research also tells us that dysbiosis is a common factor in many of today’s most common diseases and health conditions 
  • Dysbiosis changes quickly when you change your diet and lifestyle. IBS symptoms can too.

Author

Alexandra Falconer MA (Dist) DipCNM mBANT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist specialising in IBS and related conditions. A graduate of Brighton’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, she is committed to fighting the root causes of chronic illness and bringing functional medicine to everyone who needs it.

Before her natural health career, Alex was a journalist and copywriter. She continues to write for magazines and media agencies, and now combines her two great passions—writing and health—by creating content that empowers people to claim their right to a healthy body and mind.

 

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