A man and woman with IBS

Highlights

  1. IBS affects both men and women, but is reported more frequently in women.
  2. Common symptoms in both men and women include diarrhea, constipation, and an increase or decrease in bowel movements.
  3. Research on how this disease affects men and women differently is still ongoing.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can affect both men and women, but occurs more frequently in women. Common symptoms in both sexes include:

  • an increase or decrease in the number of bowel movements
  • stools that are more watery, hard, lumpy, or contain mucus
  • diarrhea, constipation, or alternation between the two
  • a feeling that bowel movements are incomplete
  • abdominal bloating, cramping, gas, or pain
  • heartburn
  • feeling uncomfortable or nauseous after eating a normal meal
  • frequent bathroom emergencies
  • lower backache
  • symptoms that get worse after meals

A study published by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) shows that men in Western cultures are much less likely than women to report signs of IBS to their physician. Therefore, data about gender-specific symptoms is lacking. Symptoms can be constant, but for most people they come and go in cycles, occurring at least three days per month.

Symptoms in Women

Women are generally diagnosed with IBS during their childbearing years. Women with IBS also tend to report more gynecologic disorders.

Menstruation

Many women with IBS say their symptoms vary according to their menstrual cycles. Prior to and during their period, women with IBS may report having more abdominal pain and diarrhea. After ovulation (day 14 of a cycle), women with IBS may feel more bloating and constipation.

Women who have IBS are more likely to experience:

  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • food sensitivity
  • backache
  • painful menstruation
  • cramping
  • premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

Pregnancy

As many as one third of all pregnant women say they have increased heartburn, nausea, and bowel movements or constipation compared to when they weren’t pregnant. 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 your internal organs or to IBS.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus grows outside your uterus. Some studies indicate that women who have endometriosis have a higher incidence of IBS-related symptoms, according to IFFGD.

Sexual Relationships

If you have IBS, you may experience a decrease in sexual desire. You may also have discomfort and pain during intercourse. This can have a powerful effect on sexual relationships.

Quality of Life

Frequent 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. This has resulted in a lack of useful data.

Some researchers suggest that due to hormonal differences, the male gut may be less sensitive to the symptoms of IBS. Others think men simply avoid seeking 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. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression.

Outlook

IBS affects both men and women in similar ways. It’s still unclear whether women experience more flare-ups during menstruation and pregnancy. It’s also unclear whether men avoid notifying their doctors of their condition. More research needs to be done on this disorder and how it affects men and women.