What is Irritable Bowel Disease?
Irritable bowel disease (IBD) refers to a group of health conditions that cause prolonged inflammation of the intestines. For a long time, IBD was believed to be an autoimmune disease, but numerous studies have ruled out this possibility.
Instead, researchers have found that the disease develops due to the immune system launching an attack on food in the gut, as well as harmless viruses and bacteria. This triggers inflammation that results in bowel injury, and ultimately uncomfortable IBD symptoms.
Types of Irritable Bowel Disease
The two most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. While both of these conditions fall under the umbrella of IBD, and have many overlapping symptoms, they are two distinct conditions.
The first difference is the location of the issue: Crohn’s disease can affect any section of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus. In most cases, it attacks the last section of the small intestine or the large intestine, or both areas. Ulcerative colitis, on the other hand, affects only the large intestine.
Another important distinction between the two conditions is the level of inflammation. Crohn’s disease involves inflammation of all intestinal wall layers, while ulcerative colitis only affects the inner lining of the intestinal wall.
Lastly, another difference between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis is the presence of associated conditions. Fissures, fistulas, and strictures are more commonly associated with Crohn’s disease, while toxic megacolon is more commonly seen in patients with ulcerative colitis.
Irritable Bowel Disease Symptoms
Below we’ll discuss eight common IBD symptoms.
1. Rectal Bleeding
While many individuals associate passing bloody stool with colon cancer, blood coming out of the rectum, or the presence of blood in the stool, may be a symptom of IBD.
If you think you have rectal bleeding, the first step is to ensure that what you are seeing is without a doubt blood. Keep in mind that consumption of red or colored foods can cause stool to appear as if it contains blood. Additionally, the presence of small amounts of blood in the stool, or upon wiping after a bowel movement, may be a sign of hemorrhoids.
Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can cause blood in the stool. However, rectal bleeding is more common in ulcerative colitis. If your stool is frequently maroon, black, or red for no reason, or it is accompanied by discomfort, diarrhea, or vomiting, you should seek medical help immediately as ulcerative colitis can lead to significant blood loss.
2. Abdominal Pain
Abdominal pain is non-specific and is a common symptom for a wide variety of diseases, which makes diagnosis difficult. While abdominal pain may be felt anywhere in the abdomen, individuals with IBD often experience crampy pain in the lower left side of their abdomen, while those with ulcerative colitis tend to experience pain in the middle or right lower side of their abdomen.
Some individuals with IBD may not experience abdominal pain at all, or their pain may be intermittent, appearing immediately after eating, and being relieved after a bowel movement. If you suffer with abdominal pain it is therefore crucial that you keep track of the location and timing of your symptoms.
If you suffer with severe, debilitating pain, or pain that is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or fever, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention to rule out the possibility of a bowel obstruction.
3. Mucus in the Stool
Passing stool that contains mucus may not always be a symptom of an underlying health condition because mucus is a natural part of stool. Typically, mucus in the stool is not detected by the naked eye, but if there’s a significant amount you may notice it and it may be due to a variety of reasons. People with IBD typically pass stool with visible quantities of mucus, either due to ulcers in the large intestine, or from the development of a fissure.
Visible quantities of mucus in stool may also be due to various conditions such as bacterial infections and bowel obstruction. If you pass visible mucus and are also experiencing additional symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, or vomiting, seek medical attention.
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4. Persistent Diarrhea
Diarrhea has a broad range of causes and most people will suffer a bout or two every year. But persistent diarrhea that continues for more than three days may be a symptom of an underlying health condition, including IBD.
People with IBD typically experience episodes of what is known as “explosive” diarrhea a few times a day due to the inability of the bowel to reabsorb water. If you have persistent diarrhea that is accompanied by blood in the stool, fever, abdominal pain, and/or weight loss, you may have IBD and should seek medical attention.
5. Unexplained Weight Loss
Losing weight without reducing calories or increasing your level of physical activity may be an indication of an underlying health issue. IBD can cause unexplained weight loss due to persistent diarrhea or a reduced appetite.
If you suffer unexplained weight loss coupled with other symptoms such as a lack of appetite, vomiting, and persistent diarrhea you may have IBD and shoulder seek medical attention.
6. Gas and Bloating
Abdominal bloating and distention are seen in many individuals with IBD. One of the causes of these symptoms may be gas in the digestive tract, which can be easily remedied by changing your eating habits, or by more ominous conditions such as a bowel obstruction which requires immediate medical attention.
Fatigue is one of the symptoms that affects over half of the people with IBS. In a 2016 review, it was found that fatigue occurred alongside other symptoms of IBS; this included bowel-related symptoms, impacts on quality life, and psychological stress. Also, younger females with IBS tended to have more issues with fatigue than any demographic.
Inflammation in IBS can be associated with fatigue. The best way to resolve the inflammation would be to make some diet and lifestyle changes.
Lastly, it's important to keep yourself active. Even if it is difficult and you don't have the energy, it's ideal that you get up and move. Inactivity leads to more anxiety which then leads to increased fatigue. A regular walk is all it takes, there's no need to participate in a marathon.
8. Reduced Appetite
Being that IBS involves your gut, it's no surprise that it impacts your appetite. You've most likely wanted to eat a bit more but you can't because of the pain, bloating, or diarrhea. A common feeling that most people with IBS experience is nausea. As your body becomes more stressed, it starts to decrease your appetite – even to a point of not eating – causing irritation to the gut.
The best way to help your gut is by following the low FODMAP diet. It will show you the best foods to eat with IBS so you can get back to feeling like yourself.
There are numerous signs and symptoms of irritable bowel disease, and not every affected individual will experience the same IBD symptoms.
If you’re suffering with on-going stomach issues, it’s best to be evaluated by a gastroenterologist to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms. It’s also important to discuss any new or disturbing symptoms, such as blood in the stool, with your physician as soon as you notice them.
In most cases, IBD can be managed. However, it has the potential to turn into a bigger problem if the symptoms are ignored.