Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can affect anyone, but is reported more frequently by women than men. Common symptoms in both sexes include:
- an increase or decrease in the number of bowel movements you have
- stools that are more watery, harder, lumpier, or contain mucus
- diarrhea, constipation, or alternating between the two
- a feeling that bowel movements are incomplete
- abdominal bloating, cramping, gas, or pain
- feeling uncomfortable or nauseous after eating a normal meal
- frequent bathroom emergencies
- lower backache
- symptoms that worsen after meals
Symptoms can be constant, but for most people, they come and go in cycles, occurring at least three days per month.
As far as our intestines go, gender plays little difference. Studies show that men in Western culture are much less likely than women to report signs of IBS to their physician, so data regarding gender-specific symptoms is lacking.
Symptoms in Women
Women are generally diagnosed with IBS during their childbearing years. Women with IBS also tend to report more gynecologic disorders than those who don’t.
Many women with IBS say their symptoms vary according to their menstrual cycles. Prior to and during their period, women with IBS report having more abdominal pain and diarrhea. After ovulation (day 14 of a cycle), women with IBS say they feel more bloating and constipation.
Women who have IBS are more likely to experience:
- food sensitivity
- painful menstruation
- premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
As many as one third of all pregnant women say they have heartburn, nausea, and increased bowel movements or constipation. However, when it comes to linking pregnancy with an increase in symptoms of IBS, not much research has been done. More studies are needed to find out if these symptoms are due to the physical pressure of the fetus on the internal organs or to IBS.
Some studies indicate that women who have endometriosis have a higher incidence of IBS-related symptoms.
If you have IBS, especially if you also have gynecological problems, you may feel embarrassed or experience a decrease in sexual desire. You may also have—or fear having—discomfort and pain during intercourse. This can have a powerful affect on sexual relationships.
Quality of Life
The need for frequent or urgent bathroom breaks, pain, and general discomfort can make it harder for you to function at work, at home, and in social situations. Many women with IBS report feelings of depression or isolation.
Symptoms in Men
Studies show that men in Western countries are less likely than women to report symptoms of IBS to their doctor, resulting in a lack of useful data.
Some researchers suggest that, due to hormonal differences, perhaps the male gut is less sensitive to the symptoms of IBS. Others think it may be that men are simply too embarrassed to seek help for IBS.
Quality of Life
Like women, men with IBS may experience a problem with sexual intimacy. Men with IBS may also face difficulty fulfilling their work, home, and social obligations, and are more likely to suffer from depression.