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Irritable bowel syndrome: diagnosis and coping with severe symptoms


Abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation—these are symptoms none of us like to talk about, but they are also the leading symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In some cases, symptoms may be mild and ignored, but in other cases they can be severe and interfere with day-to-day life.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Salam Zakko, a gastroenterologist and founder of the Connecticut Gastroenterology Institute at Bristol Hospital, sheds some light on the disorder that no one likes to talk about.

The cause of IBS is often credited to changes in lifestyle, environment, or diet, but Zakko believes there’s more to a diagnosis.

“We, amongst others, believe that IBS is not what we always thought it was. It is not this vague condition that has no offending agents. We are starting to believe that it is due to an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, or possibly a change in the microbiome of the small intestine,” Zakko said.

According to Zakko, there is good and bad bacteria in the intestines. But most good bacteria should reside in the large intestine, where probiotics can help them flourish. The small intestine should have little to no bacteria in it, and when there is more than there should be, it starts to interfere with digestion.

“When a person with this condition eats a certain food, or many times any food, the bacteria will attack the food, produce toxins and gases, and hence the symptoms of IBS,” Zakko said.

Since current diagnosis does not test the causes Zakko mentions, IBS can sometimes be confused with other gastrointestinal infections and even food allergies.

Zakko says anyone is subject to IBS, and rates are growing in the number of young adults diagnosed with it, but it is most common among middle-aged women.

To reduce the symptoms of IBS, one could buy over-the-counter medicine, such as probiotics; take prescription medication; and eliminate their intake of gluten and certain sugars, which are believed to fuel IBS, according to Zakko.

However, Zakko says these methods only produce temporary relief.

“We are trying to develop means to treat the condition and [find] treatment by where we would eliminate the bacteria, and then the symptoms will disappear altogether without having to take a medication,” Zakko said.

If Zakko’s bacteria theory is correct and lasting treatment is found, this could mean an end to suffering for those with IBS.