Is the IBS Diagnosis BS?

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Abdominal Pain

This month is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month. And telling it like it is… The IBS diagnosis is a load of BS. As a practitioner specializing in helping people overcome fatigue and regain a vibrant life full of energy, I work with a lot of clients that have been labeled (and accept their label) as having IBS and come to me because of their accompanying fatigue. Unfortunately, IBS is an easy label doctors like to give to patients with digestive complaints—a label that takes away agency and precludes getting to the root cause of the symptoms (not unlike the label of chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, in fact).

There is a reason that we gravitate toward labels. The diagnostic label can make symptoms feel less mysterious or scary (i.e. “Oh, my intestines are not falling out… All this diarrhea and pain is normal for IBS.”). It can also give us the sense that a health situation is manageable, understandable, that there is research on it and it is based on treatments (i.e. “Now that I know I have IBS, I can wait for the pharmaceutical drug companies to come up with a cure, but in the meantime I’ll just continue to pay enough money to put my child through college for drugs that mask my symptoms…”). Perhaps most importantly, it creates community, something we often lack in industrialized countries. It means the person with the diagnosis is not alone, is not unique, but has a knowable situation others have navigated (i.e. IBS support groups where everyone gets together and talks about a lifetime of coping with diarrhea, constipation and stomach cramps).

So what is the requirement of a “label”? It must have set diagnostic criteria or expectations surrounding it. In this way, we cannot be “labeled” as happy because happy is general and vague—we have not attached specific expectations around it (though perhaps we should); whereas depression has been defined by specific criteria, as has IBS (though specific seems like a stretch). As an aside, isn’t it interesting that we have only set specific diagnostic criteria around culturally defined negative things?

The IBS label is usually based on:

The Rome II Diagnostic Criteria for IBS:

At least 12 weeks (which need not be consecutive) in the preceding 12 months of abdominal discomfort or pain with two of the following features:

  • The abdominal discomfort or pain is relieved with defecation and/or
  • the onset is associated with a change in frequency of stools and/or
  • the onset associated with a change in the form (appearance) of stool

Symptoms that cumulatively support the diagnosis of IBS:

  • Abnormal stool frequency (perhaps more than 3 bowel movements per day or less than 3 bowel movements per week)
  • Abnormal stool form (lumpy/hard or loose/watery)
  • Abnormal stool passage (straining, urgency, feeling of incomplete evacuation)
  • Passage of mucus
  • Bloating or feeling of abdominal distension

 

Hmm… Could it get any vaguer or more encompassing of all digestive complaints than the Rome Criteria? After reading this criteria, it should be obvious to you why 20% of the US population is diagnosed/labeled with IBS. The experience of having to contend with frequent or infrequent trips to the bathroom producing too solid or not solid enough results accompanied by or lacking pain, bloating and/or gas is not exactly rare. So at least with this diagnosis, a person gets to feel “normal” and in fact, IBS is becoming the norm. Oh and not surprisingly, there are all sorts of pharmaceutical drugs that are offered to IBS sufferers that help them deal with the symptoms of IBS (though only mask or ignore the underlying causes). IBS drugs equate to big money for pharmaceutical companies (but only if the causes are never addressed).

A diagnostic label can feel very disempowering. A label implies that a disorder itself is responsible for behavior, experiences and feelings and therefore, it is unnecessary to look at the environment or context that a diagnosis occurs in since there is a medical reason for it all. Unfortunately, this limits the opportunity to do things that could help the situation and ignores causative factors. Likewise, a medical label is considered serious and often evokes a feeling of hopelessness, causing the labeled person to give up or be given up on. They evoke a gloomy outlook and preclude looking at uniqueness—avenues that allow for improvements and success.

I’ve watched the label of IBS remove agency from clients and disempower them in achieving health. For instance, I’ve consulted about digestive complaints and mapped out a strategy to get to the root cause of symptoms based on specific metabolic results to overcome digestive disturbances that are at the root of the fatigue. In between that consultation and scheduling blood work to help determine the root causes, I’ve had clients go to a doctor’s appointment and based on the Rome Criteria and little to no blood work, be diagnosed (and labeled) with IBS. And then comes the dreaded call from the client that goes something like this: “Don’t worry. I found out what it is. I have IBS, so we don’t need to test for parasites, bacterial overgrowth, candida and/or food intolerances anymore.” And so it goes, and the client succumbs to the “rational, persuasive expertise” of the MD with the medical label/diagnosis and loses agency to improve her health and life. I watch clients become their diagnoses and introduce themselves in life as their labels—externally imposed but self-enforced.

The rest of this month, I will be celebrating IBS Awareness month by eschewing the diagnostic label of IBS and writing about some of the root causes of digestive disturbances and how they relate to fatigue and in doing so return agency to the hands of those labeled with IBS.  And hopefully, in turn, those readers with the IBS label will begin saying they have been diagnosed with IBS, not that they have IBS and will start taking actions to get to the root cause of their complaints so they can turn their health around. The four most common causes of digestive complaints I see in my own practice are: 1) Parasites 2) Candida/yeast 3) Intestinal bacteria and 4) Food intolerances/allergies.

We should never let ourselves be defined by a label—we are so much more than a label—an accumulation of experiences, behaviors, thoughts and environmental circumstances that makes each of us different and unique. It’s amazing how incredible it feels to release a label and come into our own. There is freedom in living outside of labels and eschewing diagnostic criteria. Freedom to be who you are and why you are, not who you are supposed to be and are expected to be.

So this is what I want you to say to your health practitioner if s/he tries to stick you with the IBS label: “The IBS diagnosis is a bunch of BS and I want to get to the root reason of why I am experiencing digestive disturbances, because I know that there is a reason—I just have to uncover it. Will you help me?” And after you say this to your doctor—feel free to smirk a little and then feel yourself get a little bigger as all that empowerment goes to your head and you take back some of the agency for your own health from the medical establishment. And then I want you to comment below and share about your bad ass self and how good that felt.

If you know someone with an IBS diagnosis or is questioning whether s/he has IBS please share this article. And below, in the comments, I’d love to hear about what labels you eschew—health or otherwise. What labels do you think are a load of BS?

Want to learn more about how to promote happy and healthy digestion? Be sure to sign up for our free Digestive Health Video Training Series.

I like it when you like it!

26 Replies to “Is the IBS Diagnosis BS?”

  1. I love what you’ve written here and I totally agree. A diagnosis is nothing more than a word that has been agreed upon to describe a certain set of symptoms – and says nothing about what is really going on with the person energetically, emotionally, uniquely. Refuse to be labeled and get to the bottom of what’s happening! Thank you Katie

    1. Thanks! I find the IBS diagnosis is even more problematic as a label than many health concerns as many practitioners tell their patients that IBS is a life-long problem that they can never get over but can only lessen the symptoms. And fortunately, that’s just BS! However, I’ve seen too many people give up on finding the answer for their body once they receive that diagnosis. Thanks for sharing in my frustration! : )

  2. Sounds like a how they did the Fibromyalgia diagnosis.  Thanks for the info. I have always had issues with digestion.

    1. So true Dorothy about fibromyalgia being the same situation. Fibromyalgia also has a very vague diagnostic criteria: disabling pain all over the body — as well as stiffness and tenderness in muscles, tendons and joints. Many of the common causes of IBS type symptoms also result in fibromyalgia-type symptoms: Food allergies and intolerances, parasites, candida/yeast overgrowth, bacterial overgrowth, parasites, emotional distress, neurotransmitter imbalance, environmental toxins, thyroid dysfunction, lyme disease, etc. With so many similarities, of course the experiences are similar–chronic muscle pain and stiffness, muscle spasms or leg cramps, sleep problems, severe fatigue, anxiety, depression, headaches, brain fog, skin sensitivities, irritability and of course intestinal problems. Although the label of IBS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and the like can be beneficial for some people because it provides a label to their random symptoms, it can also be disempowering if it causes them to stop seeking out answers to the causes of their symptoms. That’s where medical science had a breakdown with these three conditions–there is no one cause for any of them–it is different for everyone, which makes it much easier for medical science to say that they are life-long conditions in which only the symptoms can be treated. Frustrating!

  3. Thank you for clarifying. My mentor cautioned me that a diagnosis is not a prognosis until you verify what is true for your body. I appreciate your insights.

    1. That is good advice that your mentor gave you Deborah, though I would take it even a step further. There is danger in a diagnosis even when it is verified. For instance, at a recent presentation I attended, Gary Barnes told a story of his doctor telling him that he has Multiple Sclerosis and that in 6 months he would either be dead or in a wheelchair. Technically the diagnosis of MS was true for his body, it was based on a CAT scan and he had lost all feeling in his body from the nervous system damage. But, instead of succumbing to the rational, persuasive expertise of the MD, he reframed the experience to being “diagnosed with” instead of “having” MS. Different? You betcha! It turned a fact into an opinion, a belief, an experience provided by someone else. This reframing gave him the opportunity to create internal changes through meditation, willpower and visualization. Two years later he agreed to another CAT scan and to the amazement of everyone (but him), over 95% of his lesions had completely disappeared. Thirty years later he is a business coach and motivational speaker—not in a  wheelchair, not dead, but as vibrant as ever. He was diagnosed with MS… He rejected it as a label and did not allow himself to be defined by it and by doing so, he empowered himself to control his health prognosis.

  4. Thank you for the information. One of my best friends has this issue and I am going to pass your article on to her.

    1. Thanks Lisa! Unfortunately, experiences of IBS-type symptoms are all too common. I’m also offering a free webinar series your friend can sign up for and will be offering more information the rest of this month on the main causes of IBS-type symptoms. Hopefully she can find some relief and ideas for getting to the root cause of her symptoms.

  5. And then there are those who give all their empowerment over to the diagnosis and unfortunately operate their lives around it. “I can’t do/have’ that because I have _____” or “I have to do/have this because I have _____” or “My doctor says I have to _______”.  They seem to be almost proud of it. At this point anyone who has a desire to help is rendered mute because you can’t argue with a ‘disease’ or a ‘doctor’.  An odd way to live! I love your articles Katie, especially your fire!
    Lynn

  6.  Very thoughtful and eye-opening article, Katie! Why do we put so much power in the “MDeities”, when they lack so much training in holistic, preventive health (you know, the kind that helps us actually heal the route cause and prevent other symptoms from popping up?). I agree that the need to “belong” and “identify” is so strong (and a wonderful human trait when directed in the right way…toward solutions) that we tend to rely on labels for comfort but forget to move beyond that point. Thank you!

    1. Ha! “MDeities”! That’s perfect! Yes, I also wonder why we hand over all of our power to doctors. Hmm. preventative health–novel idea! Thanks so much Tricia for stopping by!

  7. Once a again an excellent and informative article. Would love to share some essential oils with you to incorporate with your treatments Katie as there are several that be can used in conjuntcion with other treatments to work with reducing symptoms.
    Love what you are doing!

    1. Thanks Julie! I so appreciate your words of support. Would love to talk essential oils with you. You are right, they would probably be an extremely beneficial addition to my practice. Let’s chat!

    1. Ahh… Thanks so much Gene!!! You have no idea how much that means! It was fun getting to chat with you tonight on Twitter. I look forward to more conversations around healthy eating! 

  8. It’s so WONDERFUL to hear someone else say this! After two years of cramping, nausea everyday, bloating, and intense stabbing in my gut my MD finally sent me to a gastrointestinologist. That doctor spoke with me for 15 minutes, pushed on my stomach and decided I had IBS. She gave me a prescription for pain medication and told me I’d have to take laxatives the rest of my life. How insane is that? Last year I went off gluten, and it’s like I have a whole new body. 

    P.S. I’m very glad to see a site that is not devoted to how to substitute ingredients in gluten-free baking/cooking to have a “normal” diet. I struggle with family and friends understanding that I’m ok with never eating a muffin again. 

    1. Congratulations on your health success and finding your own path to ridding yourself of your digestive symptoms! It is astounding to me how rare it is for gluten to be tested. I agree–definitely insane. I’m so glad you didn’t give up and just accept the diagnosis of IBS and a lifetime of popping laxatives and pain killers.

      Thanks for appreciating my lack of gluten free replacements. I think everyone, gluten intolerant or not, could do better by decreasing their reliance on grains, pastries, breads and the like. We are a grain addicted country and I’m with you–I’m quite content without that muffin knowing that my body will be that much happier. That said, it took me a while to get to this place of contentedness! At first, I wanted the replacements, but now I’m much happier without all that refined, sugary food.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

  9. I am having these same problems! I am only 18, and have had stomach cramping, bloating, severe nausea etc for 2 years now! I’ve even been hospitalised and the final diagnosis, IBS? Im almost certain this is wrong, especially in light of recent symptoms! Talking to someone with medical knowledge would really help me right now! 
    Many thanks 

    1. Hi Ellie,

      I’m so sorry to hear that about your recent IBS diagnosis. It is frustrating isn’t it! Too often the medical system throws drugs and a label at a health concern instead of taking the time to find out why something developed. This is particularly the case with IBS. Go ahead and sign-up for my complimentary nutrition (vitality) strategy session. The sign-up form is here and also on the side of the website: http://www.nourishedhealth.com/strategy-session/ . That will take you to a website to schedule a free 30 minute phone appointment with me and to fill out a metabolic assessment so I can understand more of your symptoms and offer some suggestions on our phone call. This will give you the opportunity to ask questions and also to dig a little about what may be happening and why. You are doing well to research IBS and to question your diagnosis. Please note that yes I have medical knowledge, but I am not a medical doctor. I am a nutrition therapist, clinical herbalist and healing foods chef, I can only work within my scope of practice which is to provide education and support–not diagnose. Hang in there and I look forward to talking to you soon! Katie Bauer

  10. I cured my own IBS. After much research it became more & more obvious that my IBS was diet related. I ate like a pig & drank lots of alcohol after losing my dog my father, an estranged relationship with a brother. I fell into a fog of depression. I lived off of salty ham sandwiches, rye whiskey, cookies, chips. Terrible & disgusting. Had a scope done: IBS/Colitis. Changed my diet a little at a time. Healthier choices. Way less alcohol. Starting by eating lots of yogurt, then moved on to making my own kefir culture and added acidopholus supplements at first. Went back for another scope. Gastroenterologist could find zero evidence of IBS/ Colitis!
    For high Blood pressure I eat more fish & take 900 mg of EPA/DHA fish oil each day. Amazing! BP went from 175/110 down to ‘normal’ 120/80 & even lower! I slip up and see the difference. Don’t just take your Dr’s diagnoses and give up. Fight for your life! Resolve to reverse these labels of illness & disease.

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