Diarrhea is a common gastrointestinal problem and depending on the accompanying symptoms, it may be attributed to your food choices or viral infection. When diarrhea becomes more than an occasional episode, it is time to consider the underlying culprit, which may be serious.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional problem with the intestines that is more common in women. People with IBS often experience primarily diarrhea or constipation. In many cases, certain foods or stress may trigger an episode. Some food culprits include oil, grease, or dairy. Common stress triggers can include significant work or school related events, such as business meetings or exams. Women may notice IBS symptoms, especially diarrhea, is more common around the time of their menstrual cycle. In addition to constipation and/or diarrhea, abdominal cramping, bloating, gas, and incomplete bowel movements are also common.
Changes in your diet may help minimize IBS episodes. Additionally, you might consider using antidiarrheals or stool softeners, as needed. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of medications available by prescription to help manage both forms of IBS. Since these medications are taken regularly, they are more likely to prevent an episode rather than treat the symptoms once they occur.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is often confused with IBS, but they are completely different gastrointestinal problems. In general, IBD is divided into Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (UC). Both conditions are autoimmune, meaning they occur when the immune system attacks the digestive system for unknown reasons. Although there are similarities between Crohn's and UC, they generally affect different parts of the digestive system and have different symptoms. Crohn's primarily affects the small intestines, but can cause damage at any point along the digestive system.
As its name implies, UC is confined to the colon/large intestine. Rectal bleeding occurs in UC, whereas it is rare in Crohn's. Abdominal pain or cramping is common with IBD, but there can be an atypical presentation with limited pain. IBD is typically treated with medications to suppress the immune system. Unfortunately, when the disease is poorly controlled or not identified in time, it can cause irreparable damage to the gastrointestinal system. In some cases, people with IBD may require a temporary or permanent colostomy or have a J-pouch constructed.
Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth
Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is a condition that can be caused by any number of problems, such as imbalances in normal gut flora, damage to the sphincter separating the small and large intestines, or previous intestinal surgeries, such as those for weight loss or intestinal repairs. Unlike the large intestine, which is filled with bacteria, the small intestine has few bacteria. If abnormal amounts of bacteria occur in the small intestine, these bacteria cause problems with malabsorption and profuse diarrhea.
The small intestine's main function is to absorb nutrients from food. An overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine prevents nutrients from being absorbed by the intestines because the bacteria are utilizing nutrients for their own sustenance. In addition to chronic diarrhea, electrolyte imbalances and nutrient deficiencies can occur. The specific nutrient deficiencies will depend on the type of bacteria present. Some of these bacteria cause carbohydrate, protein, or fat malabsorption, in addition to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals. Depending on the extent of the problem, weight loss and muscle weakness can also be a problem. Once the problem is identified, it is treated with antibiotics. After treatment with antibiotics, probiotics may be helpful to restore the good bacteria in your intestines. In some cases, SIBO may be a recurrent problem, even with treatment.
When bloating and diarrhea becomes a chronic problem, it is important to find an accurate diagnosis so you can begin treatment. Prompt treatment can prevent long-term ramifications, such as damage to the digestive system.