Women are twice as likely as men to have irritable bowel syndrome. Hormones, bacteria and the connection between the intestine and the brain all have some role in what causes this syndrome.
Advisor: Patricia Álvarez Quintero
Internal Medicine Physician and Gastroenterologist, practitioner at Coomeva Private Healthcare
Fear, stress, anxiety and other emotions usually travel through the digestive system. How is this possible? As Patricia Álvarez Quintero – internal medicine physician, gastroenterologist and author of the book, La mente y las enfermedades digestivas (The Mind and Digestive Diseases) – explains, the brain and intestine are connected through the enteric nervous system, a structure whose main task is to regulate gastrointestinal function. “The digestive system begins in the mouth and reaches through the anal canal at the end of the colon, whose lining is home to the enteric nervous system. This system has receptors and hormones that can act alone, are susceptible to our emotions and do not always need the central nervous system.”
Serotonin is part of this group of hormones and is responsible for regulating mood and behavior and ensuring that the digestive process is successful. Its presence in the intestine is greater than that which is found in the most important organ of the nervous system. This is why, when people express an emotion as a “gut feeling,” or refer to the intestine as the second brain, they are not exaggerating.
Intestinal bacteria are also responsible for these reactions and their role is key to colon function: the human body has over 40 billion bacteria, 90% of which are in the digestive system. As our specialist states, “They help to process medicine and food and boost the body’s immune system. While we have seen that these bacteria can be beneficial, stress, anxiety and fear can cause pathogenic bacteria to grow, increasing gas in the colon, and causing bloating and inflammation in the abdomen. They also produce metabolites that can reach the brain and raise anxiety and depression levels.”
Be aware of the symptoms
There are several different factors that cause irritable bowel syndrome, one of which is genetics, especially in patients with a family history of this condition. “Another cause in our environment is gastroenteritis, especially that which is caused by bacteria such as salmonella or shigella, which can have significant effects on the immune system,” argues Alvarez.
During menstruation, women may experience changes in their bowel habits; however, this should not be confused with irritable bowel syndrome, which Álvarez defines as, “The presence of abdominal pain at least once a week over the past six months, together with other symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation. The pain usually improves a little when the patient goes to the bathroom.”
As our specialist confirms, this syndrome is twice as common in women than in men. Social, family and work circles can help determine whether these symptoms improve or worsen.
90% of the total number of bacteria in the human body are found in the digestive system.
Living with irritable bowel syndrome is a daily challenge for those who suffer from it, which is why it is important to take care of your health and mental well-being in order to prevent symptoms from worsening.
Comprehensive treatment is key
1. As Dr. Patricia Álvarez emphasizes, “In order to make a diagnosis, patients must get medical attention and exams such as blood and stool tests. It is also important to rule out other causes of pain with an ultrasound of the abdomen. With people over age 50, if the healthcare specialist considers it appropriate, a colonoscopy should be done to rule out colon cancer.”
2. “When it comes to abdominal pain or changes in bowel habits, some people self-medicate or follow the suggestions of others. By doing this, without knowing it, they are worsening the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome; and when the time comes to go to the specialist, the condition is already very advanced,” Dr. Patricia Álvarez states. “They key is seeing your doctor before it is too late.”
3. In addition to diagnosing irritable bowel syndrome or other pathologies, the gastroenterologist’s role is to teach patients to live with this disorder in order to avoid anxiety and depression. And as Dr. Álvarez concludes, “If it is too late, we will not know whether the diarrhea and constipation symptoms causing the anxiety and depression come first, or if the anxiety and depression are causing the bad bacteria to increase, making irritable bowel syndrome worse. Therefore, it is best to take a multi-system approach in order to focus on the body and the mind”.
Related: Focus on the colon