IBS Diagnosis Is About to Get a Lot Easier

Irritable bowel syndrome is notoriously difficult to diagnose since there is no definitive test available. But that may soon change thanks to new research.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

If you’re the type of person who’s constantly running to the bathroom or dealing with stomach pains after meals, you’ve likely wondered from time to time whether there’s something more serious going on. One culprit might be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects one in five adults and is the most common digestive disorder. And yet, despite how common it is, getting an accurate diagnosis isn’t easy.

But that could soon change, thanks to a new simple urine test in development by researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who have identified new IBS biomarkers. Peeing in a cup is way easier (and cheaper) than current methods used to diagnose IBS, including the not-so-fun colonoscopy.

"Diagnostic testing for IBS involves a long process of excluding other related gut disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease [IBD]," says lead study author Philip Britz-McKibbin, Ph.D., a professor in McMaster's department of chemistry and chemical biology.

That’s because IBS is a syndrome—basically, a collection of symptoms—so it’s only diagnosed after other similar disorders are ruled out. But the McMaster researchers felt there had to be a better—and less invasive—way to diagnose this common and often debilitating condition.

Now that the researchers have discovered distinct differences in the metabolic makeup of urine in people with IBS, they’ll get to work on creating a test your doc can use in the office to diagnose you—so keep your eyes peeled. Researchers are also hopeful that their findings, published in the journal Metabolomics, will inform diagnosis for inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and improve IBS treatment practices overall.

Symptoms and Treatment for IBS

While there’s no test to definitively say you have IBS yet, there are still things you can (and should) do to get relief if you suspect you have this common condition. First, track your symptoms—check out this handy guide for creating a food and symptom diary to help pinpoint your triggers). The main signs of IBS include:

  • Gas

  • Diarrhea

  • Bloating

  • Constipation

  • Urgent bowel movements

Usually, with IBS, discomfort goes away after you poop. And while this type of stomach upset happens to everyone now and then, if these symptoms hit you more than once a week for a couple months or the pain is unusually severe, it’s wise to head to the doctor (you may be referred to a gastroenterologist). They’ll help you rule out other potentially more serious causes, like IBD or celiac disease. This process may involve different procedures, like colonoscopy or a CT scan, or you may have stool tests, lactose-intolerance tests, and more, per the Mayo Clinic.

If your doctor determines IBS is the most likely diagnosis, they will probably recommend diet and other lifestyle changes first and foremost to manage your symptoms. For example, you may want to consider a low-FODMAP diet, which has been shown to help reduce IBS symptoms. FODMAP is an acronym for a group of carbs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) that are difficult for your stomach to absorb and can cause digestive issues in people with IBS. Examples of foods containing FODMAPs are:

  • Milk-containing products, like cow’s milk, cheese, and yogurt

  • Many fruits, like apples, watermelon, and mango

  • Wheat, beans, and lentils

  • High-fructose corn syrup

  • Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and more

Talk to your doc about whether a low-FODMAP diet is right for you—they can help you learn how to ease into it and determine which foods you may be sensitive to.

Your mental health and IBS are also linked, so it’s important to manage your stress as much as possible. Try practicing deep breathing and meditation in times of high stress, exercise regularly, and identify activities that help you relax, like listening to your favorite music or spending time in nature, according to Harvard Health. You can also seek the help of a cognitive-behavioral therapist, who will work with you to help you retrain your mind to focus on the positives and develop coping mechanisms for anxiety and other issues.

Beyond these lifestyle changes, your doctor may suggest you take fiber supplements or suggest anti-diarrhea medications like Imodium (loperamide) for when you have an IBS flare. In some cases, they may also prescribe antidepressants or other pain medications, which have been shown to help some people with IBS, says the Mayo Clinic.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.