7 Irritable Bowel Syndrome Myths

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is so common that it is likely you know at least one person with this functional disorder. In 2003, the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research advocated to mayors across Canada and succeeded in having April declared as IBS Awareness Month, yet the myths and misinformation surrounding IBS are pervasive. Read on as we dispel some of these common myths.

Myth: IBS is similar to (or the same thing as) IBD/Crohn’s/colitis.

Reality: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). While IBD sounds similar to IBS, they are very different from each other. IBD is an organic disease characterized by the presence of inflammation in the intestine. In IBS, there is no visible disease and the symptoms are a result of an improperly functioning digestive tract. IBS does not turn into IBD, and people with IBS aren’t at an increased risk for any of the complications associated with IBD, such as surgery, requiring an ostomy, or developing colorectal cancer. However, it is possible to have both conditions. Go to www.badgut.org/information-centre/symptom-chart/ to view a table that demonstrates the differences between IBS and IBD.

Myth: This treatment works for someone I know, so it will also work for me.

Reality: Each individual with IBS has a unique experience. There are many different treatments available, and some of these will work perfectly for one person but might do nothing, or even cause unwanted side effects, for someone else. It is important for you to work together with your physician, gastroenterologist, and/or registered dietitian to find the treatment that works best for you, whatever that might be. Some common treatments include medications, physiotherapy, probiotics, alternative therapies, and dietary changes such as increasing fibre or following a low FODMAP diet. Visit badgut.org for more information on IBS treatments.

Myth: Cutting out dairy and gluten can get rid of IBS symptoms, since IBS is just another term for these intolerances.

Reality: Some individuals with IBS do have intolerances to the milk-sugar, lactose, and some might have gluten intolerance as well. There are also people who do not have IBS but who do have these intolerances. Lactose intolerance is rare in people of Northern European descent, whose ancestors have historically consumed large quantities of dairy. Approximately 5% of these people are lactose intolerant. However, in people of East Asian descent, it is extremely common, with up to 90% being lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is also fairly common in those of West African, Jewish, Italian, Greek, and Arab descent.1 Overall, an estimated 16% of Canadians are lactose intolerant.2 Gluten intolerance, which is not the same thing as celiac disease, is less common, affecting approximately 3-6% of the population.3 In some individuals with IBS, removing these foods can reduce or eliminate symptoms. In most of the Canadian population, these foods cause no problems at all because they are not lactose or gluten intolerant. IBS is a distinct disorder with its own diagnostic criteria and neither lactose intolerance nor gluten intolerance are on the list.

Myth: Leaky gut syndrome causes IBS.

Reality: Many individuals believe that a proposed disorder called ‘leaky gut syndrome’ causes many ailments, often including IBS. The claim is that toxins and bacteria leak through damaged sections throughout the digestive tract, and then enter the blood stream where they proceed to wreak havoc on the body. However, there is no evidence that this disease even exists, let alone causes IBS, which is a functional disorder, not an organic disease.

Myth: People with IBS can’t eat [insert any food here].

Reality: Wherever you look, you will find differing views on what it means to have IBS. Online, in books, and on television, there are so many people selling different ideas on treatments and causes that it is hard to know what is true. You might find one person who says to stay away from gluten, another who suggests you avoid all sugars, and then someone else claims that you must eat a specific diet (that he/she created and is now selling). This confusion can construct a very daunting situation for those with IBS. It can be difficult to sift through the truth from the marketing ploys and the unsubstantiated opinions. Some people might find that a certain food increases symptoms in them or someone they know, so they assume it will be the same in others. However, research shows that there aren’t any foods that are expressly bad for all IBS patients. There are some foods that are more likely to create symptoms, but that still doesn’t mean they will affect every IBS patient, so they are not off-limits. This is why we recommend that people with IBS try different foods and take notes about how these foods affect them, in order to find out what actually works for them. When it comes to treating your own symptoms, it doesn’t matter what works best on average if what works for you is different. In some patients, no matter what they eat, or don’t eat, they have symptoms, so medications or other alternatives are necessary. IBS can’t always be managed through diet alone.

Myth: IBS is a psychological disorder. It’s all in your head.

Reality: This myth is one of the most dangerous, and causes a lot of stigma for those with the condition. IBS is a functional disorder, which means there are no obvious visual signs of illness, such as the inflammation present in inflammatory bowel disease. However, it is still a very real gastrointestinal disorder. While mental health ailments such as stress, anxiety, and depression can increase symptoms, they do not cause IBS.

Myth: IBS isn’t a big deal.

Reality: Some individuals might have mild symptoms, but for others, IBS can change their entire life. The impact of the ABCD symptoms that constitute IBS can lead to a huge decrease in quality of life. Persistent diarrhea can make those affected afraid to leave home unless they are positive that they will have continuous access to a toilet. Chronic constipation can cause such intense pain and bloating that those affected are unable to get out of bed, as any type of physical movement, including sexual activity, causes intense pain. Symptoms like these can lead to social isolation and missed work or school that, in turn, can increase depression and other mental health symptoms.

Want to learn more about IBS?

We have several related articles that may be helpful:

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 196 – 2015
Image Credit: © bigstockphoto.com/staras
1. Lactose Intolerance. Genetic Home Reference. Available at: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/lactose-intolerance. Accessed 2015-12-17.
2. Prevalence of Lactose Intolerance Among Canadian Adults. Available at: https://www.dairynutrition.ca/scientific-evidence/experts-summaries/prevalence-of-lactose-intolerance-among-canadian-adults. Accessed 2015-12-17.
3. Leonard MM et al. US perspective on gluten-related diseases. Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology. 2014;7:25–37.