Women may be great at heeding our gut instincts, but not always our gut symptoms. Here’s why conquering the “inner demons” in your digestive system can significantly impact your health, quality of life, and even your waistline.

If you’ve been keeping mum about your digestive issues—even at the doctor’s office—you’re not alone. Even NBC News correspondent Cynthia McFadden didn’t report her abdominal pain, which began during childhood, until an intense bout drove her to seek treatment during college. The diagnosis: Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Yes, we know that gastrointestinal symptoms are far from sexy: actress Shannen Doherty said so after revealing her own Crohn’s diagnosis many years ago. But more and more women are sharing their gut-wrenching stories, including Amy Brenneman of HBO’s The Leftovers (who has ulcerative colitis) and a long list of celebs who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including Cybill Shepherd, Tyra Banks, and Camille Grammer. Most of these women  say they revealed their diagnoses in the hopes that others will feel more comfortable seeking treatment—and relief.

After all, they know better than anyone that digestive conditions are no joke. In a recent survey by the American Gastroenterological Association, patients with IBS revealed that they’d trade a month’s worth of cell phone usage, caffeine, Internet access, or even sex for a 30-day reprieve from their symptoms. That’s no surprise to women who have IBS or IBD, both of which cause severe abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits that can disrupt both personal and professional lives. What might surprise you is that these conditions are frequently confused, but one of them can lead to life-threatening complications if left unchecked.

To help sort out the differences, Real Woman interviewed Anil Balani, M.D., an inflammatory bowel disease specialist at Capital Health’s Center for Digestive Health. Here, he shares key facts about IBS and IBD and why you should seek a diagnosis if these symptoms sound all-too-familiar.


What Is IBS?

IBS is second only to the common cold in causing missed workdays. And, like the common cold, there is no cure for it. IBS is a “functional” gastrointestinal disorder, meaning it involves a disruption in the way the bowel functions. It affects up to 45 million Americans, two-thirds of whom are women, and it targets all age groups. Though the cause of IBS is unknown, experts believe it involves a breakdown in communication between the nerves and muscles in the digestive system.

“Symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, discomfort, and cramping combined with diarrhea and constipation,” says Dr. Balani. Sometimes IBS also results in gas, bloating, and nausea or discomfort after eating. Additionally, women with IBS may suffer from related complaints such as painful intercourse, depression, joint pain, headaches, and increased pain during menstrual periods.

Because symptoms vary in frequency, severity, and duration, diagnosing IBS can be a challenge. To further complicate matters, IBS doesn’t cause physical damage to the digestive system, so no test can be done to definitively diagnose it. Instead, doctors perform tests to rule out other conditions, such as IBD, colon cancer, and celiac disease.

Symptoms of IBS can be eased through dietary changes, medication, and stress relief. “The key thing is that there’s not a risk of IBS leading to something more serious,” says Dr. Balani. “It’s all about managing symptoms and discomfort.”


What Is IBD?

IBD is another story. Though it shares the symptoms of IBS, inflammatory bowel disease does, in fact, cause physical damage. “In IBD, the immune system attacks the bowel over time,” says Dr. Balani. This leads to chronic inflammation and ulcers in the digestive system, which can be identified through lab tests and endoscopic studies such as colonoscopies. “It’s important to diagnose IBD early,” says Dr. Balani. Left unchecked, IBD can limit the body’s absorption of key nutrients, leading to anemia and early-onset osteoporosis. Sustained tissue damage due to ulcers and inflammation can raise the risk of cancer and the need for surgery.

Because IBS and IBD present similar symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing digestive complaints including abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Additional symptoms that are unique to IBD and are more suggestive of the condition include fever, fatigue, weight loss, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, and diarrhea that disrupts nighttime sleep.

IBD affects up to 1.6 million Americans, half of whom are women, and most of whom experience their first onset of symptoms between the ages of 18 and 30. The two most common forms of IBD are Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC). The key difference here: UC affects only the innermost lining of the large intestine and the rectum, while CD can cause deep-tissue damage throughout the entire digestive system.

While inflammatory bowel disease is not curable, it is treatable through the use of medications and sometimes surgery. “The goal of IBD treatment is to help people stay in control of the disease and heal GI tract inflammation,” says Dr. Balani, “so they can continue to pursue their daily activities.”

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