Learn about the symptoms of this chronic digestive disease and its significant impact on both employers and employees.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic digestive disease. While it is uncomfortable and disruptive for millions worldwide, it is also one of the least talked about and most overlooked diseases. For those who experience IBS, it can be even more difficult to manage while at work. Read on to learn more about what IBS is, how to manage it, and the impact it has on employers and employees.
What is IBS?
IBS is a group of symptoms that occur together, including repeated pain in your abdomen and changes in your bowel movements, including diarrhea, constipation, or both. With IBS, you have these symptoms without any visible signs of damage or disease in your digestive tract. IBS is a type of functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. These conditions, also called disorders of the gut-brain interaction, have to do with problems in how your gut and brain work together. Although IBS can cause a great deal of discomfort, it does not harm the intestines. Because IBS is a chronic condition, people have to learn to manage their symptoms for the long-term.
IBS affects 10-15 percent of the adult population in the US. The condition most often occurs in people in their late teens to early 40s. Women can be twice as likely than men to get IBS. IBS may happen to multiple family members.
You may be at higher risk for IBS if you have:
- Family history of IBS.
- Emotional stress, tension or anxiety.
- Food intolerance.
- History of physical or sexual abuse.
- Taking estrogen
- Severe digestive tract infection.
Symptoms and Causes of IBS
IBS can cause debilitating symptoms that interfere with normal life activities and impact quality of life. The exact symptoms and how severe they are can vary from person to person. Often, people with IBS have normal bowel movements some days and abnormal ones on other days. The type of IBS you have depends on the abnormal bowel movements you experience:
- IBS with constipation (IBS-C): Most of your poop is hard and lumpy.
- IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D): Most of your poop is loose and watery.
- IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M): You have both hard and lumpy bowel movements and loose and watery movements on the same day.
Symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain or cramps, usually in the lower half of the abdomen
- Bowel movements that are harder or looser than usual
- Diarrhea, constipation or alternating between the two
- Excess gas
- Mucus in your poop (may look whitish)
Women with IBS may find that symptoms flare up during their periods. These symptoms often happen again and again, which can make you feel stressed or upset.
People with IBS may also experience symptoms unrelated to the intestine, including:
- Migraine headaches
- Sleep disturbances
- Anxiety or depression
- Chronic pelvic pain
Researchers don’t exactly know what causes IBS. They think a combination of factors can lead to IBS, including:
- Dysmotility: Problems with how your GI muscles contract and move food through the GI tract.
- Visceral hypersensitivity: Extra-sensitive nerves in the GI tract.
- Brain-gut dysfunction: Miscommunication between nerves in the brain and gut.
Often, stress is associated with the onset of symptoms; the symptoms then improve when the stress is gone. Other patients may experience random IBS episodes that have no obvious triggers. Still, others may have long periods of symptoms, followed by long symptom-free periods. Some people find that certain foods or drinks can trigger IBS symptoms.
The gut microbiome—bacteria in the GI tract—may also play a role in IBS. Undigested food that stays in the stomach too long can ferment and lead to an overgrowth of gut bacteria. Overgrowth of bacteria in the gut can result in excessive gas and bloating. Some people with IBS can see an improvement of their symptoms after taking antibiotics.
IBS at Work
The difficulties surrounding IBS can affect both employers and employees. For employers, the cost of care for IBS is high. In the U.S., the direct and indirect cost of IBS is estimated to be about $1.5 billion each year. That number doesn’t begin to reflect the impact IBS has on quality of life, mental health, relationships, and work.
In a professional setting, IBS can be very stressful and disruptive. Simple things like scheduled meetings, work-related travel, or sharing a bathroom can add extra stress for people with IBS. For example, someone who might be anxious about leaving the office for an undetermined period of time might keep an extra change of clothes, wipes, or other “emergency” items at their workplace.
You can support your employees with IBS by offering flexible hours or work-from-home options. Confidential counseling and access to HR could help employees living with IBS to learn more about their options and to request accommodations. Easy access to bathrooms, regular breaks, and a quiet area to relax are also helpful. Connecting your employees with a tool like GIThrive can empower them to take control of their digestive health. GIThrive supports employees in managing their IBS with 24/7 help for flare-ups and timely tips.
IBS symptoms can be painful and unpredictable, which makes them especially difficult to deal with while at work. IBS will likely be with you for life. But it doesn’t shorten your lifespan, and you won’t need surgery to treat it. To feel your best, try to identify and avoid your triggers, including certain foods, medications and stressful situations. A dietitian can help you plan a nutritious diet around your specific needs. With support, flexibility, and lifestyle changes to prevent flare-ups, people with IBS can find ways to manage their condition and work-life.
Visit the Vivante Health website to learn more about how GIThrive, the all-in-one digital gut health program, is creating better outcomes for employees living with IBS.
About Vivante Health
Vivante Health is an innovative digital healthcare company reinventing the way chronic conditions are managed, gut first. Our all-in-one gut health program, GIThrive, empowers people—through brilliant technology, advanced science, and on-demand human support—to improve digestive health, while lowering their cost of care. Click here to learn how employers and health plans are saving money with GIThrive or email [email protected].