Your stomach hurts. You feel bloated and have relentless gas. You use the restroom so frequently that you’re afraid to drive anywhere, exercise, meet with friends, or shop for groceries. You’ve felt like this for so long, you can’t remember a day when you’ve felt well. Sure, you’ve been to the doctor several times, and have been told you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). You followed all of the doctor’s instructions, but you still feel horrible. Your “gut” tells you something else must be wrong. And chances are, something more is wrong.
In the past several decades, medical opinion has changed regarding how to diagnose IBS. The older view emphasized that IBS should be regarded primarily as a “diagnosis of exclusion.” A diagnosis was made only after extensive diagnostic testing was done to exclude the many disorders that could possibly cause these symptoms. Testing was also done to rule out the more serious, organic conditions such as cancer, inflammatory diseases, or autoimmune diseases, diseases that can be measured by physical or biological changes.
The newer approach bases diagnosis on defined patterns of signs and symptoms with limited diagnostic testing. Although IBS is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders, its symptoms are nonspecific and are common to the symptoms of other gastrointestinal diseases.
IBS is a functional disease, which means that there are symptoms of illness, but no clear criterion exists to make a diagnosis; however, the link between IBS and food intolerance is well known. If you have IBS, chances are you have also have a food intolerance. However, having a food intolerance does not mean you have IBS. To clarify, a food intolerance is a response to a food your system has trouble digesting.
For example, sucrose intolerance, medically known as congenital sucrase-isomaltase deficiency (CSID) is one such food intolerance. Individuals suffering from sucrose intolerance lack the enzyme that digests sucrose (white table sugar). The symptoms experienced with sucrose intolerance range from mild to severe gas, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort. Since sucrose is in almost everything we eat and these symptoms are so similar to IBS, a misdiagnosis often occurs.
There is no cure for IBS; it is chronic and unpredictable. But what if that diagnosis is incorrect? How do you begin to find additional answers? A good start for anyone facing an issue with their gut health is to try an elimination diet. An elimination diet is an eating plan that removes potentially problematic or allergy-causing foods from your diet and then slowly reintroduces them, one at a time, to see which foods are tolerated.
Common foods or food groups that are eliminated are those that contain gluten, soy, sugar, peanuts, corn, alcohol, processed foods, and dairy. Elimination lasts anywhere from three to six weeks, allowing your body time to heal from any inflammation caused by a food intolerance. After this time period, you begin to reintroduce one food, like sugar, at a time and eat that food daily for one to two weeks. If symptoms return, you can confirm that this food is a trigger for your symptoms. You continue this process with all of the foods originally eliminated.
Although the elimination diet is just one step toward a more definitive understanding of what’s actually causing your gut symptoms, it is an important step to take. Whether this is your first step or one in several steps already taken, more pieces of the gut health puzzle will come together for you. Working with your doctor and/or a nutritionist is part of the solution. It’s also important to follow your “gut” and listen to what your body is telling you. IBS is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all diagnosis; be an advocate for your health, ask questions, and educate yourself.