Do I Have IBS or Something Else? No Self-diagnosis, Please!
You’ve been struggling with bloating and other belly issues, so you think to yourself, do I have IBS?
What you should really be asking yourself is: “Do I have IBS or something else?”. An accurate diagnosis of your digestive issues is critical for being able to have effective treatment.
It's not a surprise that IBS can be difficult to deal with. IBS symptoms can range from feeling bloated and uncomfortable in your stomach, to having diarrhea or constipation.
The good news is that IBS doesn't have to rule your life. In this post, I’ll walk you through steps to ensure that you have an accurate diagnosis so that you can partner with a healthcare professional to resolve your symptoms.
What is IBS?
You just got the new diagnosis, explaining your symptoms that have been forcing you to the bathroom again and again: IBS.
First off, what is IBS, exactly? IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome. IBS is a chronic disorder that affects the large intestine and by proxy, the rest of your body, too (hello fatigue and brain fog) (1).
There are a lot of potential causes of IBS. It surprises a lot of my clients that management of IBS isn’t just about food; it is about getting down to the root causes of why your IBS flared up, to begin with. Food is an integral part of the solution, but so too is stress management, supplements, sleep, and more.
If you’re interested in diving a little deeper into causes, check out my post: Top 5 Root Causes of IBS That You Should Know About.
Symptoms of IBS
IBS can present itself in many ways:
Constipation or diarrhea (or both)
Feeling bloated after eating
Cramps and stomach pains
Feeling full too soon
What makes diagnosing IBS tricky is that those same symptoms are also caused by other conditions. That is why it is important to have an accurate diagnosis so that you receive the care and treatment you need to feel your best.
For example, SIBO and IBS have a lot of overlapping symptoms...and it is possible that you can have both conditions at the same time. Yikes! What about H. Pylori and SIBO: Can you have both?
And to further complicate things, IBS symptoms aren’t always the same. Symptoms can wax and wane and sometimes we can have LOTS of IBS symptoms, known as a flare. If this sounds like you, I have strategies for How to Calm IBS Flare-Ups: Things You Can Try Today.
Don’t self diagnose yourself
IBS or something else? This is a question many people ask themselves when they experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating.
Unfortunately for those who suffer from IBS, there isn't an easy answer to this question. Symptoms of IBS are very similar to other gastrointestinal diseases like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease, which means that it can be difficult to diagnose without the help of a medical professional.
Let's take a look at some symptoms associated with IBS so you know what to expect if you think you might have IBS.
Accurate diagnosis of IBS
When it comes to first being diagnosed with IBS, it is very important to know that IBS is diagnosed by ruling out other things that share similar symptoms. There is not a specific test or lab marker for IBS, your doctor will come to that conclusion by ruling other things out (2).
Expert tip: I recommend asking what your doctor has been ruled out to come to the conclusion that you have IBS.
Celiac disease is always crucial to rule out anytime there are GI issues. People think Celiac only happens as children or only involves diarrhea and so if someone is 30 and has constipation they don’t suspect celiac...but that isn’t always the case. And as such, it doesn't always get ruled out by doctors. Good news: there is precise testing for celiac disease (3).
Note: if you suspect that you might have celiac disease, please (oh please) don’t immediately eliminate gluten. Accurate testing for celiac disease depends on being able to measure your body’s reaction to gluten. If you’re not eating gluten, you cannot measure a reaction to it and therefore cannot have an accurate diagnosis.
If you're wondering how long gluten stays in your system after eating it, check out How Long Does Gluten Stay in Your System After Eating It.
Going gluten-free might actually help your IBS...but once again – for the seats in the back – you’ll want to have an accurate diagnosis before beginning your interventions. Will Going Gluten-Free Help My IBS? A GI Dietitian Explains.
Inflammatory bowel disease
It's also good to know if inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has been ruled in or out. IBD is a group of digestive health disorders that includes Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis (4).
Testing for IBD typically starts with a calprotectin test for inflammation and if elevated then a colonoscopy is typically ordered.
There are a few more conditions to think about, too. Other conditions to rule out are H. pylori and SIBO. Your doctor should also be working to rule out infections and parasites.
Why does an accurate diagnosis matter?
Why is it crucial to have an accurate diagnosis of IBS or any other digestive health condition?
Because nutrition plays a huge role in managing all of them, but the specific treatment has to match the condition.
You need to get the RIGHT therapy for your symptoms. And in order to do that, we have to know what condition (or conditions, as you could have more than one) to begin with.
It is completely normal to want to try different things to see if you can figure out what eating plan helps you to feel your best and to minimize symptoms. The problem is that without expert guidance, it is easier than you’d think to make mistakes that actually set your progress back.
For example, when people consider the Low-FODMAP diet as their first step dietary intervention (new to that term? Here is my post with the full explanation: What is the Low-FODMAP diet?).
The Low-FODMAP diet is evidenced based – there is great research to support its use for managing IBS. I’ve had a lot of clients make great strides with their IBS. But here is where the fine print comes in: you’re not supposed to be in the elimination phase of the low-FODMAP plan for forever...and a lot of my clients have been on elimination diets for far too long before working with me to safely add foods back in.
Wondering if you’ve been on an elimination diet for too long? Check out this post for the full scoop: Have you been on an elimination diet too long?
Key takeaways: IBS or something else?
The most important thing to take away from this post is to have an accurate diagnosis of what is causing your symptoms. You cannot get the best interventions that will actually work without an accurate diagnosis - many different conditions share similar symptoms but need very different treatment plans.