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Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that is often complicated to diagnose and treat. Symptoms can vary between person and circumstance, resulting in many people going undiagnosed for years. It’s estimated that between 25 and 45 million people suffer from IBS, of which 65% are female.

If you’re living with irritable bowel syndrome or experience gastrointestinal issues frequently, this article is for you.

Woman Lying on a Bed Curled up in Pain

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

IBS is a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that affects the large intestine and gut. It can impact someone’s quality of life in many ways, as it causes ongoing discomfort and pain associated with the GI tract. Also called functional GI disorder, IBS is when the digestive system is sensitive compared to someone with normal gut health.

IBS causes people to have abnormal bowel functions, like watery stools or hard/dry stools. There are three types of IBS:

  • IBS-C (constipation)

  • IBS-D (diarrhea)

  • IBS-M (mixture of both constipation and diarrhea, sometimes on the same day)

Treatment depends on what type of IBS a person has chronically. Painful or abnormal digestion can be triggered by certain foods, stress levels, medications, or imbalances of bacteria in the gut. There are many studies still needed to fully understand the root cause and treatment for IBS, but diet and lifestyle changes can help minimize symptoms.

“It’s important to not just dismiss bloating as a ‘women’s problem’. But if symptoms don’t go up and down— if bloating stays persistent— there’s a problem.” - Dr. Peter Whorwell, Professor of Medicine and Gastroenterology at University of Manchester, UK

Learn more about IBS from Dr. Peter Whorwell on the Fempower Health podcast.

Why Does IBS Affect Women More than Men?

The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) notes that IBS is something that negatively affects women, especially if symptoms worsen during their menstrual cycle. However, it’s important to note that if symptoms are only during the time of a woman's period, it may not be IBS, as IBS is often ongoing.

Why do women have IBS at a larger rate than men? The answer is not so simple.

IBS and Gynecology

Some gynecology-related disorders like endometriosis come with symptoms similar to IBS, and pelvic pain has been found to increase symptoms of IBS in women. But according to the IFFGD, measurable effects of “estrogen, progesterone, and menstrual cycle patterns on bowel motility and pain sensitivity remain under-studied.”

IBS vs Endometriosis

In healthcare, endometriosis is classified on a scale, typically from one to four. Dr. Peter Whorwell, director of the South Manchester Functional Bowel Service, observed that IBS symptoms were more prevalent in endometriosis patients classified on a scale of 1 and 2. In people with endometriosis symptoms on the higher severity scale (3 and 4), abdominal pain was more prevalent.

Do I have IBS or Endo Belly Symptoms?

If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS but your symptoms get more severe during your period every month, you might see a gynecologist for other pelvic pain symptoms.

Notice your symptoms between periods. If IBS symptoms don’t occur except during the week of your period, it’s likely gynecologically related. But if you experience bloating, stomach cramping, digestive issues, or pain all month, it may be irritable bowel syndrome.

IBS and Pain During Sex

Painful sex and a decrease in sex drive are common in women with IBS. Since the gut becomes sensitive and inflamed, penetrative sex can be really uncomfortable. It can also impact a woman’s self-esteem, mood, continence, and feelings of desirability, which make sex less fulfilling.

Learn more about how to relieve painful intercourse and other