IBS & Bowel Function

Understanding the Connection Between IBS and Bowel Function for Effective Symptom Management

The Tummy Clinic | August 8th, 2022

A lot happens in your gut, and much of it remains unacknowledged. Here’s an informative piece on IBS & bowel function… with steps to help your gut health

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that consists of a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain and altered bowel habits.  It is thought to be a dysfunction between the gut, the brain, and the gut microbiome.  It is a chronic, long-term condition that can wax and wane.

The digestive system is one long tube from the mouth to the anus.  It works by pushing food from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach and onto the small and large intestine, which usually takes between 24 to 72 hours. Once the partially digested food hits the large intestine muscular contractions squeeze the food through the different sections of the intestine.  Irregular contractions and hypersensitivity to this normal gut function can lead to some IBS symptoms like cramping, pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation.

Undesirable IBS symptoms can arise from altered pelvic floor muscles, incorrect messaging from the brain, or fermentation build-up in the intestines (a natural part of digestion) which can cause gas and bloating or altered bowel habits.

Let’s take a look at the processes which happen in your body during healthy bowel movements

  • The small bowel (small intestine): Absorbs nutrients and much of the liquid from foods. This is the point where food is passed from the small bowel into the large bowel (colon).
  • The large bowel (the colon, or large intestine): The colon’s most important job is to store, process, and get rid of waste. The colon also absorbs some nutrients and water.
  • The rectum and muscles: Once the bowel has done its work and absorbed nutrients from food, the waste travels to the rectum which stretches, triggering a message to the brain to say that the bowel is full and needs to be emptied.  The waste is then expelled through the rectum and anus. In some circumstances, either in people with neurological and spinal cord dysfunction or more benign conditions like IBS or chronic constipation, the brain cannot tell whether the bowel is full of waste. This can lead to accidental leakage or a sense of incomplete evacuation.
  • Anal sphincters: The internal anal sphincter (IAS) is made of smooth muscle and we do not have voluntary control of it. It works automatically to keep the anus closed until we are ready to have a bowel movement. The external anal sphincter (EAS) is made of striated muscle, and we do have voluntary control over it– allowing us to hold on if we are aware of wind or diarrhoea.
  • The pelvic floor muscle: These muscles coordinate contraction and relaxation of the pelvic floor and coordinate urination and defecation, among other things.

For the bowels to function properly, you need:

  • The nerves of the rectum and anus are sending the correct messages to your brain so that you can feel when stool or gas arrives in the rectum, and send messages to the muscles that you want to hold on to.
  • The internal and external anal sphincters need to be working properly.
  • The stools should not be too soft, else the sphincters will not be able to hold on. But they shouldn’t be too hard either, or else they will be difficult to pass.

Help your bowels slay IBS

  • healthy diet and lifestyle choices can often help regular bowel function, but often people with healthy lifestyles still suffer from these common symptoms.
  • Increased dietary fiber, exercise, and fermented foods can help improve bowel function
  • If you continue to be bothered by your symptoms, consult your family doctor, as there are more targeted recommendations depending on your specific symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is characterized by a variety of symptoms, including cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation, or both. IBS is a chronic condition that you’ll need to manage long term. The cause is not well understood.

There is no definitive test to diagnose IBS. IBS is diagnosed after your doctor has reviewed your symptoms and occasionally ordered tests to rule out other conditions.

Visits at the Tummy Clinic are not covered by OHIP or your provincial health care system, however, most extended healthcare plans cover many aspects of the care you will receive here, such as visits to Naturopathic Doctors, Dietitians, Social Workers or Psychotherapists. Check your benefits package or contact your insurance company for more information.