Why So Many Moms Are Struggling With IBS

How many of you moms out there feel like your digestive tract is TOTALLY different after having babies!? Do things that never bothered you before now send you running to the toilet or for a box of Tums?

If the answer is yes, you certainly aren’t alone.

Dr. Sarina Pasricha, Gastroenterologist

Dr. Sarina Pasricha, Gastroenterologist

Gastroenterologist and mom of two, Dr. Sarina Pasricha, says she is seeing a lot of women, moms in particular, come into her practice with abdominal pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, all of which are symptoms of IBS. What’s fascinating is the relationship between the anxiety and stress we experience as mothers and the impact it has on our gastrointestinal system.

She is on a mission to make sure women know that IBS is not “all in your head” and that there are things you can do to help alleviate the pain and discomfort.

Why do so many moms struggle with IBS?

Although both men and women can be diagnosed with IBS, it does appear that IBS is more prevalent in women. As a mom to two little girls, I can relate to many other moms. We are often pulled in multiple different directions and take on the stress of our family members. This stress plays a role in the development of IBS.

Many people don’t know this, but the gut actually has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. There are over 500 million neurons located in our gastrointestinal system. That means there are 5 times more nerve cells in our gut than our spinal cord!  The gut is considered the second brain because it has its own nervous system and can function independently of the brain and spinal cord. When we experience anxiety and stress, our body goes into a “fight or flight” response in which the sympathetic nervous system responds to a perceived threat. The body responds to this perceived danger by releasing adrenaline and cortisol. The nerves in our gastrointestinal system sense those emotions and start firing. This overstimulation of the nerves in our gastrointestinal system (visceral hypersensitivity) results in symptoms like abdominal pain, discomfort, diarrhea, and constipation. There is a direct connection between stress and our gut. 95% of serotonin (the happy hormone) is produced in the gut. This highlights the importance of the brain-gut relationship. It’s critical that we take care of our stress and anxiety as well as take good care of our gut health since they both influence each other.

What exactly is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic and potentially debilitating gastrointestinal disease. Patients can experience abdominal pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea. There are 3 subtypes of IBS: IBS-Diarrhea (patients predominantly experiencing diarrhea), IBS-Constipation (patients predominantly experiencing constipation), IBS-Mixed (patients experience alternating diarrhea and constipation). More than 35 million Americans suffer from symptoms of IBS.

It is important that people experiencing these symptoms first speak to a primary care doctor or gastroenterologist to make sure these symptoms are not masking a more serious condition before being diagnosed with IBS. These symptoms could potentially be hiding an underlying cancer, celiac disease, thyroid abnormalities and other diseases and therefore do need to be evaluated. Although IBS itself does not result in any long-term damage to the gut, it can cause significant impairments in quality of life.

What is the biggest misconception about IBS?

One of the biggest misconceptions about IBS is that it’s “all in the head” and that people don’t have real pain. Patients sometimes feel this way because IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning lab work and imaging will be normal. But this is farthest from the truth. Patients suffering from IBS do experience real abdominal pain. If you have ever had “butterflies in your stomach” this is a much milder version of what people with IBS experience. The pain from IBS is significantly worse and can be quite debilitating even resulting in emergency room visits.  Even though we sometimes treat IBS with antidepressant medications we are not treating you for a “psychological” condition. We are trying to target and calm down the nerves in your gastrointestinal system.

It’s critical that we take care of our stress and anxiety as well as take good care of our gut health since they both influence each other.
— Dr. Sarina Pasricha

What should someone do if they have IBS?

The exact pathophysiology and mechanism of IBS is not completely understood yet. Lifestyle modifications such as changes in diet and exercise can help alleviate symptoms of IBS. What we eat can play a large role in the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The gut microbiome is emerging as a new area related to IBS. Studies have shown different gut bacteria patterns in patients with irritable bowel syndrome- diarrhea predominant, irritable bowel syndrome- constipation predominant, and irritable bowel syndrome-mixed (both diarrhea and constipation). Following a predominantly plant based diet can be helpful for maintaining good overall gut health. For some people who experience significant bloating, a short term elimination diet called a low FODMAP  (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols) diet can be helpful. A low FODMAP diet is a temporary diet eliminating short chain carbohydrates that are difficult to digest. However this is not meant as a long-term solution.

Psyllium and soluble fiber can also provide relief of symptoms in patients with IBS who suffer from constipation or diarrhea. Fiber is an example of a prebiotic that is converted into short chain fatty acids (such as butyrate) by our gut bacteria. This can beneficially change our gut microbiome make-up and increase the number of good gut bacteria resulting in anti-inflammatory properties in our gut.

Several studies have shown that exercise to be helpful in reducing symptoms of IBS. Exercise can increase intestinal motility and is helpful to reduce symptoms of bloating and constipation.

What is the #1 most important thing for moms to understand about IBS?

IBS is a medical syndrome which is greatly influenced by our surroundings and environment. Stress, anxiety, diet, exercise and lifestyle can either flare or calm symptoms of IBS. Although this is a chronic condition, it does not mean you need to suffer in lifelong pain. It is really important that moms with IBS carve time out of their busy schedules to take time for themselves. Even a few minutes of diaphragmatic deep breathing, meditation and yoga have been shown to be really helpful in managing symptoms of IBS. There are also other treatment options ranging from antispasm medications to nerve pain medications. Moms are always on the run being pulled in many different directions. Finding a way to calm the body down from the high amount of constant life stressors will help reduce the symptoms.

Dr. Pasricha studied and trained at Harvard, Northwestern, and UNC. She shares her incredible wealth of knowledge and passion for gut health and wellness on her @docsarina Instagram page, Facebook, and through podcasts like this one. Definitely check her out!

It’s not often that we get to connect with doctors of her caliber, so a huge thank you to Dr. Pasricha for taking the time to speak with The Mom Report and for educating us on a topic that is so important to moms.

Kellie SmithComment