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What is Your Gut Telling You?

Asian senior woman suffering stomach pain sitting on sofa at home

If you or a loved one has experienced belly pain, gas, diarrhea, and constipation, you know it isn’t pleasant. It can cause people to feel isolated and alone, due to the uncertainty of symptoms and not knowing if there will be a bathroom nearby.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects about 10 percent to 15 percent of the population; however, it’s not talked about often due to embarrassment, and some people are reluctant to talk to their health care provider, too.

It’s important to note that irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS) is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

IBS is a group of symptoms that affect your digestive system. Some common symptoms include recurrent abdominal pain (at least one day a week in the last three months), abdominal cramping, a feeling of stomach or abdominal bloating, and at least two of the following:

  • Bowel/stool frequency and changes in stool form.
  • Diarrhea or constipation

So, what causes IBS?

IBS Poster

April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month and April 19 is National Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Day. Learn more about IBS at and

Some research has shown that people with IBS have changes in their gut bacteria. Other information indicates that when a person has experienced a severe infection it affects their gastrointestinal tract, and they can develop IBS. Some people might have food intolerances or a sensitivity to certain foods they eat. How a person feels and reacts to pain, stress, and nervousness/anxiety are factors, too, as higher levels of cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, can cause the colon to spasm.

Though as previously stated, some people might not want to talk about their symptoms, it is important to seek your healthcare provider’s advice and guidance when you have the following:

  • Unexplained or unplanned weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Unexplained vomiting
  • Blood in your stool
  • Sudden or new changes to your bowel habits

There are things that can be done to control symptoms, including the following:

  • Manage stress.
  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Eat a diet that is high in fiber, unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise.
  • Eat homemade meals with fresh ingredients.
  • Avoid fatty, spicy, and processed foods.
  • Keep to a regular meal schedule. Medical providers recommend small frequent meals, e.g., eating every three to four hours. It is best not to skip or delay meals.
  • Eat slowly and make sure you are chewing your food.
  • Avoid alcohol and fizzy drinks.
  • Limit coffee intake to 1–2 cups per day.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about treatment options. They may recommend medications or suggest a low FODMAP diet. This is a diet that reduces certain sugars that may cause intestinal distress. (Note: Just remember “FODMAP,” which is short for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.)

Though it may be challenging, it’s important to find out what lifestyle changes work best for you. Take steps to address IBS. You are worth it!

Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, MSN, Aging and Disability ServicesContributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, BSN is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle & King County. She thanks Kendra Kamp, PhD, MS, RN, Director, Gastrointestinal Health and Wellness Lab (GI-Well) at University of Washington School of Nursing for advising on this article.