Sensitive Gut or Irritable Bowel Syndrome: How to Tell the Difference?
Feeling continuously bloated and cramping, in addition to being unpleasant, is a sign that something is not well with your gut’s health. But how do you tell if you have a sensitive gut or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
What is a Sensitive Gut?
A sensitive gut is a non-medical term that describes an easily upset stomach. People with a sensitive gut may experience recurring gas, bloating, vomiting, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or other digestive distress.1
Many things can lead to an upset stomach, including:1
- Food sensitivities, allergies, and intolerances.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Eating smaller portions throughout the day – five small meals feel more comfortable for your stomach than three large meals.
- Eating more slowly and make sure you chew the food well before you swallow.
- Avoiding potentially irritating foods such as dairy, spicy foods, processed foods, oily foods, and alcohol.
- Drinking plenty of water since dehydration can cause digestive problems.
- Drinking less coffee since caffeine may irritate the stomach.
- Reducing stress by practicing relaxation techniques, yoga, or meditation.
Is it Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Just an Upset Stomach?
While unpleasant, the symptoms of an upset stomach typically go away in a few days. This doesn’t happen in IBS.2
IBS is a disorder of gut-brain interaction in which emotional factors, diet, drugs, or hormones may precipitate or worsen the GI symptoms.3 Typically, people with IBS have a highly sensitive gut and altered intestinal motility.3
Here are a few characteristics of the syndrome:
- Highly sensitive gut and increased pain perception in the presence of average amounts of intestinal gas.
- Constipation due to a slower intestinal transit or diarrhea due to faster intestinal transit.
- Abdominal discomfort after having meals.
- Hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle may alter bowel function.
- The presence of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.
Symptoms of IBS
IBS usually starts in adolescence. It may also begin in late adulthood, but it’s uncommon. The symptoms recur at irregular periods and are often triggered by particular food or stress.3 The most common signs and symptoms of IBS are:3
- Abdominal discomfort, especially in the lower belly
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Pain or discomfort related to defecation
- Urgency or feeling of incomplete evacuation
- Mucus in the fezes
Dealing with IBS
If your gut’s health is not right, the best thing you can do is find medical help. A healthcare professional will perform a physical evaluation, check your symptoms, analyze your medical history and ask for a few tests before reaching a diagnosis.3
Usually, IBS is diagnosed when abdominal pain lasts for at least 1 day/week in the last 3 months, along with two or more of the following:3
- Pain is related to defecation
- Pain is associated with a change in the frequency of defecation
- Pain is associated with a change in the consistency of the fezes
- Dietary changes including eating slowly and eating small portions of food throughout the day. It may be necessary to avoid certain foods like beans, cabbage, foods containing fermented carbohydrates, sweeteners, milk, and dairy foods.
- Drinking more water
- Medication to improve the symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.
- Probiotics to improve the intestinal microbiome
- Dietary soluble fiber supplements to soften the fezes and ease evacuation
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
A sensitive stomach is a non-medical term that encompasses some conditions that cause constant intestinal discomfort. Among them is IBS. This disease, without a well-defined cause, involves physical and emotional factors. Therefore, its treatment should be multidisciplinary, with diet, medication, and psychotherapy.
- Sensitive Stomach: What You Should Know. Healthline. Available: https://www.healthline.com/health/sensitive-stomach. Access: 08/03/2022.
- Do I Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome...or Just an Upset Stomach? Chester County Hospital. Available: https://www.chestercountyhospital.org/news/health-eliving-blog/2021/april/irritable-bowel-syndrome-or-an-upset-stomach. Access: 08/03/2022.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). MSD Manuals, 2022. Available: https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs. Acess: 03/08 /2022.