I've always had a "nervous stomach." Does this mean I'm more likely to have serious gastrointestinal (GI) problems later in life?

The term "nervous stomach" is often used as another name for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS most often occurs in people in their late teens to early forties. Symptoms of IBS include abdominal cramps, diarrhea alternating with constipation, and excess gas. It gets the name "nervous stomach" because symptoms can occur at times of emotional stress, tension, and anxiety.

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.

Is there really such a thing as a "nervous stomach?" What is it, what causes it, and what can be done to prevent or treat it?

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 is a common disorder of the colon or lower bowel that affects both sexes but is more common in women. Risk factors for IBS include a family history of IBS, psychological stress, food intolerance, or a history of physical or sexual abuse. The cause of IBS is not well understood; possible etiologies include a change in motility of the colon, low-grade inflammation, or change in intestinal bacterial flora, along with genetic and environmental factors.

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. IBS gets the name "nervous stomach" because symptoms can occur at times of emotional stress, tension and anxiety. Other factors that can "trigger" IBS include certain foods and medicines.

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.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/1/2012...#9664