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Main Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Females: Signs and Treatments

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Irritable bowel syndrome in females

Irritable bowel syndrome in females is a common functional digestive disorder that affects many girls and women worldwide.

It is a chronic condition that causes a range of uncomfortable symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.

While the causes of Irritable bowel syndrome in females (IBS) are not entirely understood, several factors can contribute to its development. 

This article provides an in-depth discussion of IBS in females, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) risk factors

IBS in women
Credit: Canva

IBS has been found to be common in females. Research shows that IBS affects 2 to 3 times more women than men.

It is usually prevalent in females under the age of 50 years and in women with a family history of irritable bowel syndrome.

Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome In Females

The exact cause of IBS is not fully understood, but several factors can contribute to its development. Some of these factors are discussed below:

Gut motility: Food digestion occurs through a process of coordinated contraction of the gut. This contraction results in the movement of food through the stomach to the small and large intestines.

In IBS, because the gut wall is more sensitive and excitable, sometimes these contractions occur too quickly causing diarrhea or they occur too slowly causing constipation.

Nervous system: There is a bidirectional communication between the nerves in the gut and the brain.

A poor coordination of signals between these two organs may cause the gut to overreact to changes that typically occur in the digestive process.

This can result in the symptoms of IBS which include pain, diarrhea, or constipation.

Infection: IBS can also develop after a severe bout of gastrointestinal infection caused by a bacteria or virus.

This is because during an acute infection, the contraction of the small intestine and colon may persist following the infection and cause symptoms of IBS.

Other causes of irritable bowel syndrome in females include bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine and food sensitivity.

IBS Signs in Women:

Irritable bowel syndrome in females
Credit: Canva

Although the symptoms of IBS can vary from woman to woman, for most females, it can range from mild to severe, and it is usually recurrent. The most common IBS symptoms in women include:

Abdominal pain and discomfort: This is one of the hallmark symptoms of IBS. This pain is usually like menstrual cramps in nature, frequently worsened by meals and relieved by bowel movements.

Change in stool frequency and/or consistency: Changes in bowel habits are common in females with IBS. Some may experience frequent diarrhea, others may have constipation and some others experience alternating constipation and diarrhea.

Bloating: Many females with IBS experience bloating and increased gas production, which can cause discomfort and embarrassment.

Other associated symptoms include:

  • straining,
  • tenesmus (feeling of incomplete bowel emptying) and
  • passage of mucus in stool.

IBS triggers

IBS triggers
Credit: Canva

It is important to note that IBS symptoms can be triggered or worsened by certain factors;


Many people have worse IBS symptoms when they eat or drink certain foods or beverages. These include dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, milk and carbonated drinks.

Food groups that form the acronym FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.) are also common triggers for IBS. Examples include garlic, onions, wheat, lactose, mangoes and blackberries.

Keeping a food diary or symptom journal can help identify which foods or activities seem to bring on the symptoms of IBS so that they can be avoided.

Stress and anxiety:

Stress and anxiety can trigger IBS symptoms by altering the way the nervous system interacts with the gut. This leads to changes in gut motility, inflammation, secretion, and sensitivity.

Hormonal changes:

Women with IBS may find that symptoms flare up during their periods.

Irritable bowel syndrome diagnosis

When it comes to the IBS diagnosis process, there is no specific test that can confirm the condition. Instead, doctors rely on a combination of medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests to rule out other conditions that may be causing similar symptoms.

A stool culture can be done to rule out a gastrointestinal infection, and lab tests can exclude celiac disease, anemia, or a thyroid disorder. A colonoscopy can also be done to exclude malignancy.

Once other conditions have been ruled out, doctors may use the Rome IV criteria to diagnose IBS. These criteria are based on the frequency and nature of symptoms.

Is there a way to cure IBS permanently?

There is no known cure for IBS; thus, when looking at female IBS treatment, the several treatment options available focus on relieving symptoms. These include:

Lifestyle changes: Making dietary and lifestyle changes can help manage IBS symptoms. These changes include avoiding trigger foods, such as fatty or spicy foods; lactose; excess caffeine; and increasing fiber intake.

A dietitian can help with prescribing a low-FODMAP diet to help regulate bowel movements. This is known as an IBS low FODMAP diet or IBS fiber intake. Exercise and stress management can also help manage symptoms of IBS.

Medications: Depending on the severity of symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medications to help manage IBS.

These can include laxatives for those with constipation, anti-diarrheal medications, and antispasmodics or antidepressants for abdominal pain.

Probiotics: Probiotics are live microorganisms that can help promote gut health. They may be beneficial in managing IBS symptoms in some females.

Psychological therapies: Since stress and anxiety can trigger IBS symptoms, psychological therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and hypnotherapy may help manage symptoms.

Prognosis of IBS

IBS can significantly affect quality of life and increase the risk of anxiety and depression. It can also increase the risk of hemorrhoids as a result of the straining usually associated with constipation.

However, it does not predispose to colon cancer. Symptoms have been found to improve with age, with 80% of people experiencing improvement in symptoms over time, and females with IBS also have a normal life expectancy.

When to see an IBS Specialist 

If you are experiencing symptoms of IBS, it is important to seek medical advice to rule out other conditions and receive an accurate diagnosis.

However, certain symptoms may indicate a more serious underlying condition and require immediate medical attention. These symptoms include:

Blood in the stool:

If you notice blood in your stool, it may be a sign of a more serious condition such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or colorectal cancer. It is important to see a doctor immediately if you experience this symptom.

Unexplained weight loss:

If you are losing weight without trying, it may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition. It is important to see a doctor if you experience unexplained weight loss.

Severe abdominal pain:

Severe abdominal pain that is not relieved by a bowel movement may also be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to see a doctor immediately.

However, if your symptoms are mild and you have been experiencing them for some time, it is still important to talk to a doctor to receive an accurate diagnosis and develop a management plan for your symptoms.

Key Takeaways

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive disorder that affects many people worldwide.

The symptoms of IBS can be uncomfortable and disruptive to daily life, but there are several treatment options available to help manage them. These include lifestyle changes, medications, psychological therapies, and probiotics.

If you are experiencing symptoms of IBS, it is important to seek medical advice to rule out other conditions and receive an accurate diagnosis. It is also important to see a doctor immediately if you experience certain symptoms, such as blood in stool, unexplained weight loss, or severe abdominal pain.

Managing IBS effectively requires a combination of medical advice, lifestyle changes, and appropriate IBS medical treatment. By working closely with your doctor, you can develop a management plan that works for you and improves your quality of life.

How Telemedicine Can Help

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Dr. Temitope Oyetunji is a family physician with years of clinical practice experience. She is passionate about using clear, understandable written and video content to disseminate health information.

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