Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the diagnostic term for what most people would call a "sensitive stomach." The symptoms are gas, bloating, nausea and irregular bowel habits, ranging from constipation to diarrhoea. Women are more prone to IBS than men, and it often correlates with menstrual cycles and/or menopause, particularly early-onset menopause. These facts have led researchers to believe that there is a hormonal factor in play, although the exact mechanism of the relationship is unknown.
Who Gets It?
Anyone can get IBS, but women are twice as likely than men to develop this health concern. IBS can come on slowly or very quickly, with all of the symptoms appearing simultaneously.
In most cases, the initial cause of IBS is unknown. There may be a genetic factor involved or a previously unknown food allergy or sensitivity. What doctors know, and what sufferers come to learn, is that certain foods will trigger symptoms. Although trigger foods vary with each individual some foods, such as milk products, caffeine and artificial sweeteners, tend to be universally intolerable.
Stress also plays an important role. Some patients report that they can eat virtually anything if they are calm and happy, but that if they are upset almost any food can trigger an episode. Female hormones, particularly the fluctuating ovarian hormones involved in early menopause, have been shown to increase pain responses and to have an effect on the intestinal tract, causing IBS symptoms and sometimes making those symptoms more painful.
Relationship to Early Menopause
The causes of early menopause---which is defined as occurring before the age of 45---are also not clearly understood. Sometimes the reason is simply genetic. Sometimes, however, other health issues, such as autoimmune disorders, are factors. What is clear is that women who experience early menopausal symptoms often have IBS as well, suggesting that fluctuating hormones affect the intestinal tract.
Because the exact mechanism of IBS is unclear, there is no universal "cure" for the condition, but symptoms can usually be managed. Antacids and anti-gas medications help bloating and nausea; natural laxatives and anti-diarrheal medications can help regulate the bowels.
Avoid "trigger" foods, especially during stressful times. When a flare-up of IBS occurs, limit your food consumption, eat bland foods, and avoid foods that are naturally high in fibre (such as bran, corn and whole grains) or that cause flatulence (such as cabbage or broccoli). Try to rest, remain calm and take medications, either prescribed or over-the-counter drugs, to treat the symptoms.
A Bright Spot
The good news is that there is no evidence for a link between IBS and colorectal cancer. In addition, IBS is temporary in most cases, although it may last for years---both during early menopause and after---before the digestive tract restores balance.
Both early-onset menopause and IBS symptoms may be indicators of other, more serious problems. If you suffer from either or both of these symptoms, see your doctor for a comprehensive physical evaluation.