IBS and Alcohol – Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal condition that that does not appear to cause actual physical damage to the intestines. Instead, IBS is characterized by persistent discomfort, pain in the abdomen, regular episodes of diarrhea or constipation, and a number of problems concerning the types of foods that a person can comfortably consume or activities in which they can participate.
This condition tends to come and go in some people, and when it’s at its peak, it can result in notable functional impairment. It is estimated that the prevalence of IBS ranges from 7-21%.
According to a study (2004) in Clinical Epidemiology, IBS occurs more often in women than men and across all age groups. It appears more in industrialized countries and twice as frequently among those with a family history of the condition.
IBS and Alcohol – Etiology of IBS
The exact cause of IBS remains unknown, though there are several factors that appear to play a role in its development, such as the following:
- Presence of an overly sensitive large intestine
- Psychological disorders
- Bacterial infections
- Celiac disease
- Food Allergies
- Excessive levels of serotonin in the gastrointestinal system
- Overuse of antibiotics
Although IBS is often diagnosed using specific criteria, there is no formal consensus on exactly how IBS should be defined and what the hallmark symptoms of the disorder are. The symptom profile, however, includes a few ambiguous and subjective symptoms that cannot be identified objectively, such as the following:
- Pain and bloating in the abdomen
- Cramps, especially during bowel movements
- Urgency when having to use restroom
- Undue strain when passing stools
- Repeated belching
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Psychological symptoms such as depression, a lack of motivation, and apathy
Imaging studies of most IBS patients often do not appear to present any significant pathology. Also, symptoms experienced by many patients also tend to wax and wane over time, making it even more difficult to determine the cause(s) of the disorder.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Although the term “alcoholism” is still regularly used, it currently has little or no diagnostic purpose. The contemporary diagnostic term for people who have a substance use disorder related to alcohol use is “alcohol use disorder.” This term is characterized by the dysfunctional use of alcohol that could more specifically be defined as either alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, or alcohol addiction.
An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a mental health condition that occurs when a person’s consumption of alcohol results in a marked impairment or distress in life, provided that they also meet the diagnostic criteria for several specific behavioral symptoms.
Moreover, the former concepts of alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and alcoholism occur as a spectrum of disorders as opposed to being mutually exclusive categories. The diagnostic category of an AUD aims to take into account this modern understanding of the existence of varying degrees of alcohol use, abuse, and dependence.
IBS and Alcohol Use Disorders
A few studies have examined the association between IBS and alcohol use disorders. A study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse (1998) compared 31 patients soliciting treatment for alcohol abuse with 40 others seeking treatment for other medical conditions. A total of 13 people seeking treatment for alcohol abuse also met the criteria for IBS, whereas only one of the 40 patients seeking treatment for other ailments met the criteria for irritable bowel syndrome.
Investigators concluded that people who abuse alcohol might have higher rates of IBS. However, the study could not determine a specific cause, and the question remained: Does the discomfort of IBS compel people to drink more or is a person who drinks alcohol at an excessive level more likely to experience IBS?
Additional research has suggested that there is indeed a relationship between the symptoms of IBS and alcohol use. For example, a 2013 study examined the drinking patterns and their effects on IBS-affected women and a control group. The researchers found that the most substantial relationship between IBS symptoms in patients and alcohol use occurred after binge drinking episodes.
This research does not appear to support the idea that people who have IBS are more likely to develop alcohol use disorders, but rather, that a current alcohol use disorder is a risk factor for developing IBS. These findings are in line with what is known about moderate to heavy alcohol use, in that it can be an irritant to the gut and lead to gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
In fact, depending on a person’s level of sensitivity, even one alcoholic drink can be enough to trigger an episode of IBS, and some alcoholic beverages may be more likely to cause symptoms than others.
Moreover, it logically follows that people who already suffer from these symptoms would be more likely to abstain from drinking alcohol to cope with other issues related to stress and depression due to the gastrointestinal condition.
Thus, the general conclusion reached by researchers has been that individuals who already experience symptoms of IBS typically do not begin using alcohol to excessive levels.
Treatment for IBS and Alcohol Use Disorders
There is no known cure for IBS, and treatment often entails the management of symptoms using methods such as the following:
- Limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption
- Limiting or avoiding caffeine intake
- Avoiding junk food, including carbonated drinks
- Antidepressant medications, such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)
- Increasing intake of fiber
- Eating small to moderate meals at frequent intervals
- Using laxatives for constipation
- Eating certain foods and taking probiotics and certain medicines to manage symptoms
- Using behavioral methods to identify which foods worsen IBS
- Engaging in stress management techniques, such as psychotherapy
Help for Alcohol Abuse
Treatment for alcohol use disorder should begin with a medical detox to supervise people undergoing withdrawals and manage the associated symptoms.
Following a medical detox, patients are strongly encouraged to participate in a formal treatment program for alcohol use disorder that includes behavioral therapy, support group attendance, and other forms of treatment as needed (e.g., family therapy and counseling.)
Individuals often find that their success in addiction treatment is related to the length of time they remain involved a program – in other words, the longer individuals stay active in formal treatment, the better their chances of being successful in recovery.
The program should also include the treatment of co-occurring conditions, such as IBS, depression, anxiety, etc.
People who begin to experience symptoms of IBS and already have a problem with alcohol use should engage in treatment that addresses both of these issues simultaneously.
Attempting to treat IBS without addressing a co-occurring alcohol abuse issue would likely not be a practical approach and wouldn’t significantly alleviate one’s gastrointestinal problems.
Our center offers comprehensive, integrated treatment designed to help patients acquire the tools they need to achieve abstinence and sustain long-term sobriety. We employ professional, certified medical staff and personnel who specialize in addiction and deliver services to patients with care and compassion.
If you or someone you love suffers from an alcohol use disorder, please contact us immediately. You CAN regain the life and wellness that you deserve – find out how we can help!