I've always had what I called a "nervous stomach." Is there really such a thing as a "nervous stomach?"

The term "nervous stomach" is often used as another name for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Others call it "irritable bowel," "irritable colon," or "spastic colon." IBS gets the name "nervous stomach" because symptoms can occur at times of emotional stress, tension, and anxiety.

What causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

IBS is a common disorder of the colon or lower bowel that affects both sexes but is more common in women. IBS most often occurs in people in their late teens to early forties.

The cause of IBS is not well understood. Possible causes include a change in motility of the colon, low-grade inflammation, or change in intestinal bacterial flora, along with genetic and environmental factors.

What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Symptoms of IBS include recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort accompanied by a change in bowel habits for at least 3 months. The change in bowel habits can include diarrhea alternating with constipation or in some cases, predominance of either diarrhea or constipation. Other symptoms of include abdominal cramps and excess gas.

What are the risk factors for developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Risk factors for IBS include:

  • Family history of IBS
  • Emotional stress, tension, anxiety
  • Food intolerance
  • History of physical or sexual abuse

How is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) treated?

Nearly all people with IBS can be helped, but treatment should be individualized for the patient since there is no specific treatment that works for everyone. Usually, with a few basic changes in diet and activities, IBS will improve over time. Here are some steps you can take to help reduce symptoms of IBS:

  • Increase fiber in your diet (found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts).
  • Add supplemental fiber to your diet (there are several types such as Metamucil, Citrucel, Benefiber).
  • Drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Avoid caffeine (found in coffee, chocolate, teas, and sodas).
  • Learn to relax, either by getting more exercise or by reducing stress in your life.
  • Try limiting how much milk and cheese you consume, since lactose intolerance can be more common in patients with IBS. Eat smaller meals more often or smaller portions. However, if you have IBS and are concerned about your calcium intake, you can try other sources of calcium, including broccoli, spinach, turnip greens, tofu, yogurt, sardines and salmon with bones, calcium-fortified milk and breads, calcium supplements, and some antacid tablets.
  • Keep a record of the foods you eat so you can figure out which foods bring on bouts of IBS. Common food "triggers" of IBS are red peppers, green onions, red wine, wheat, and cow's milk.
  • Anti-depressant medications may be an option if you have significant abdominal pain or discomfort, as well as psychological distress such as depression or anxiety.
  • Talk to your health care provider if your symptoms persist. He or she can perform an examination and order tests to make sure that there is no other cause for your symptoms.

Does having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) mean I'm more likely to have serious gastrointestinal (GI) problems later in life?

Although this condition can be uncomfortable, it is not life-threatening. IBS does not make a person more likely to develop other colon conditions, such as colitis, Crohn's disease, or colon cancer.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/14/2016.

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