Gulf War syndrome has been connected to many types of health issues such as chronic pain, headaches, and fatigue. It’s also connected with various gastrointestinal complaints, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

As many as one-third to a half of Gulf War veterans are still experiencing unexplained health problems related to Gulf War syndrome.

It’s estimated that about 12% of Gulf War veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in any given year, and research has shown that PTSD is a significant risk factor for the development of IBS.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes IBS as a symptom of Gulf War syndrome. They presume that having IBS or other chronic, unexplained symptoms for at least 6 months is related to Gulf War service, regardless of cause.

Read on to learn more about the connection between IBS and Gulf War syndrome.

IBS is a group of digestive symptoms that commonly occur together without visible damage to your digestive tract. Studies suggest that it affects about 12% of people in the United States.

Symptoms may include:

Symptoms tend to come and go for days to months at a time and last for a lifetime. There’s no cure, but medications, lifestyle changes, and dietary changes can help control symptoms.

IBS is often subclassified into three categories based on your symptoms:

Gastrointestinal illness is common among veterans of many wars but seems to be most common in those who served in the Gulf War. Within 6 to 12 months after returning from the war, up to a quarter of veterans had persistent and chronic gastrointestinal symptoms.

Estimates of how common gastrointestinal problems are in Gulf War veterans vary from 14 to 25 percent between studies.

One 2020 study found that intestinal hypermobility, which is commonly seen in people with IBS, was very common and affected 39.7% of a group of 73 Gulf war veterans with chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea.

The most common gastrointestinal symptoms seen in Gulf War veterans include:

The exact cause of these gastrointestinal issues in veterans is hard to isolate but is likely caused by some combination of:

  • unsanitary conditions
  • diet
  • stress
  • psychological issues
  • chemical exposures

It’s estimated that over 50% of veterans deployed in the Gulf developed acute gastroenteritis, more commonly known as the stomach flu. Studies suggest that about 10% who have bacterial gastroenteritis develop IBS.

IBS often occurs alongside other conditions including

  • PTSD
  • depression
  • anxiety

In a 2019 review of studies, researchers found that PTSD was a significant risk factor for IBS in a group of 648,375 people, with the majority being U.S. army veterans.

The researchers found that the odds of developing IBS were 2.8 times higher in people with PTSD compared to those without PTSD (95% confidence intervals 2.06 to 3.54).

It’s not clear why people who experience traumatic events or have PTSD seem to develop IBS at higher rates, but it’s likely related to chronic stress.

IBS symptoms may affect your ability to work and may lead to discharge if your symptoms become unmanageable.

Veterans Affairs assigns a disability rating based on the severity of your condition to determine how much disability compensation and other benefits you’re eligible for.

They assign you a disability rating as a percentage from 10% to 100% based on the severity of your disability and inability to function.

They base your rating on evidence such as:

  • evidence you provide such as medical test results or doctor’s notes
  • results of your Veterans Affairs claim exam
  • other information they may obtain from sources like federal agencies

Veterans Affairs assumes that certain chronic, unexplained conditions that last for at least six months are related to Gulf War service regardless of the cause. These presumptive illnesses include:

  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • fibromyalgia
  • functional gastrointestinal disorders (including IBS)
  • other undiagnosed illnesses such as abnormal weight loss, cardiovascular disease, and headaches

The exact cause of IBS can be difficult to isolate. It’s thought that stress, bacterial infections in your gut, food intolerances, and certain genes can all play a role. Your doctor will likely recommend a combination of treatments.

Dietary and lifestyle changes

Your doctor may recommend dietary changes such as:

Lifestyle changes such as:

  • increasing physical activity
  • reducing stress where possible
  • improving your sleep quality

Mental health therapies

Your doctor may recommend mental health therapies to target psychological factors that may be contributing to your IBS. They may include:


After acute gastroenteritis, as many as 10% of people may develop postinfection IBS. Some studies have found that 2-week therapy with the antibiotic rifaximin may help treat symptoms of IBS-D, but more research is needed to understand the strength of its effect.

Other medications

Many different medications are used to relieve IBS symptoms.

For diarrhea, your doctor may recommend:

  • loperamide
  • eluxadoline
  • alosetron

For constipation, they may recommend:

  • fiber supplements
  • laxatives
  • lubiprostone
  • linaclotide

Other medications may include:

  • antispasmodics
  • antidepressants
  • coated peppermint oil capsules

IBS and other gastrointestinal problems are common among veterans and particularly among veterans who served in the Gulf War.

Many factors can potentially contribute to the development of IBS including unsanitary conditions, bacterial infections, and psychological factors.

IBS may qualify you for disability benefits if you served in the Gulf War. The amount of disability you receive depends on your level of disability.