9 Common IBS Symptoms in Women

Suffering from a gastrointestinal disorder is no walk in the park. While it’s normal to have a little gas or bloating after an especially indulgent meal, feeling discomfort, pain, or noticing a change in your bathroom habits regularly is not. So how can you determine if what you’re experiencing is typical or if you’re suffering from some of the telltale symptoms of IBS?

IBS or irritable bowel syndrome is a digestive disorder that impacts the large intestine (colon) and causes uncomfortable symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel movements. There’s no good blood test or marker to diagnose IBS, Linda A. Lee, M.D., clinical director of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology and director of the integrative medicine and digestive center at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells SELF. Instead, doctors look for symptoms that meet diagnosis criteria.

“IBS is one of about 30 different GI diseases we consider functional, meaning there are no tests or markers, and diagnosis is all based on symptoms,” Dr. Lee says. It’s not a default diagnosis when everything else is ruled out, but rather a very distinct diagnosis based on criteria. (Diagnostic criteria basically tell doctors how frequently a specific mix of symptoms should be happening to be able to give a diagnosis.)

 IBS is not the same as IBD (inflammatory bowel disease).

“IBD is characterized by an immune-mediated inflammatory process that results in ulceration and actual inflammation in the intestine,” Dr. Lee explains. IBD can be either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, Christine Frissora, M.D., gastroenterologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, tells SELF.

The Difference Between a Heart Attack, Stroke, and Cardiac Arrest
“People with IBS do not have the kind of inflammation that we typically associate with IBD, though some people can have both,” Dr. Lee adds. Another big difference: IBS does not cause changes in the bowel tissue or increase the risk of colorectal cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition to GI distress, IBD may also cause “alarm signs,” like “fever, bleeding, weight loss, joint pain, and eye problems,” Dr. Frissora says.

In the United States, IBS is reported more often in women.

Dr. Lee says the reason is probably biological, though experts don’t have a clear answer for why women would be more susceptible than men. Some research suggests a connection between estrogen and progesterone and IBS symptoms in women—though many women (with and without IBS) report GI issues during menstruation, those with IBS are more likely to have worsened symptoms during that time of the month.

Social factors may also play into the difference in diagnosis rates. “If you go to India, for example, you’ll find that prevalence of IBS is equal. The thought is that it’s because men who have GI symptoms in India are more likely to go to a doctor to seek help than men in the United States,” says Dr. Lee.

IBS symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and range from mild to extreme.

Generally, IBS involves abdominal pain plus altered bowel movements, Dr. Lee says. The pain and bowel movements can take many forms. Here are some of the most common symptoms of IBS:

  1. Abdominal pain
  2. Cramping
  3. Bloating
  4. Excessive gas
  5. Diarrhea
  6. Constipation
  7. Indigestion
  8. Anxiety or depression
  9. Loss of appetite

The symptoms typically show up in childhood, and usually always before age 40. “It’s very unusual for someone who is 80 to present with IBS [for the first time],” Dr. Lee says.

People with IBS often have triggers that bring on these symptoms. “Some of the biggest triggers are artificial sweeteners, carbonated beverages, onions, garlic, smoking, and alcohol,” Dr. Frissora says. But many foods can be triggers. Dr. Lee adds that greasy foods can increase colonic contractions, so those whose guts are super sensitive may respond more dramatically to that. Any food that causes gas can cause IBS symptoms, too.

IBS symptoms in women can also be triggered or worsened by menstruation, though the reason why isn’t completely clear.

Stress can also spark symptoms of IBS. “Some people say the GI tract is a stress barometer,” says Dr. Frissora. The symptoms of IBS, and worrying about if you’ll be able to get to a bathroom or not, can give sufferers even more to stress about, creating a vicious cycle.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown, though a few factors seem to play a role.

Contractions in the intestine that are either too strong (causing diarrhea) or too weak (causing constipation) may be to blame, though the cause of these muscle problems may never be known. Other abnormalities in the GI tract, like poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines, can throw the digestive process out of whack, the Mayo Clinic explains.

Experts also believe that gut bacteria play a role. “Perhaps your gut bacteria are not optimized in some way and that somehow has affected your gut function,” Dr. Lee says. Some studies are currently looking at how probiotics can be used to treat IBS, specifically the kind that causes diarrhea, but it’s tough to say one treatment can work across the board because our guts are so individualized. “Our science is not so advanced yet that we can predict who is going to actually respond in a favorable way. It’s a lot of trial and error, which is a source of frustration for many patients.”

Finally, there seems to be a predisposition for those with a family history of IBS. “Many patients report that a family member has it,” Dr. Lee says. “Whether [the connection] is environmental or genetic, we don’t really know.”

IBS is chronic, but there are ways to manage (and oftentimes, eliminate) symptoms.

Many times, IBS can be managed through dietary changes. If your IBS causes diarrhea, doctors will usually put you on a low-FODMAP diet to determine what foods might be triggering to you.

“FODMAPs are carbs that all of us eat every day, but humans do not have the enzymes to break them down very well. They’re not absorbed in the small intestine, so they’re passed into the colon where bacteria begin to ferment them and produce gas,” Dr. Lee explains. “For those with [gut] hypersensitivity, any kind of gas distention triggers discomfort, a sense of bloating, and it sometimes can trigger hypermotility and diarrhea with that.”

A low-FODMAP diet (you can read more on what it entails here) is a temporary elimination diet, meant to help you determine which foods are IBS triggers so you can avoid them in the future and reduce symptoms dramatically.

If constipation is a problem, adding more fiber to your diet or taking medication like stool softeners can help. Dr. Lee also says that some patients may benefit from certain supplements, probiotics, or other medications that target specific symptoms. Antidepressants are also used to modulate nerve activity in the gut and make it less sensitive to certain stressors—but these meds come with their own side effects, so Dr. Frissora says she tries to avoid treating IBS this way if she can.

At the end of the day, treating IBS is highly individualized, and might differ depending on what you’re comfortable with as a patient. If your IBS symptoms are significant and interfering with your life, it’s worthwhile to seek help, Dr. Lee says. “Even if symptoms are mild, there are things we can do.”


Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) symptoms and cause


  • Digestive system
    Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term used to describe disorders that involve chronic inflammation of your digestive tract. Types of IBD include:
  • Ulcerative colitis. This condition causes long-lasting inflammation and sores (ulcers) in the innermost lining of your large intestine (colon) and rectum.
  • Crohn’s disease. This type of IBD is characterized by inflammation of the lining of your digestive tract, which often spreads deep into affected tissues.

Both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease usually involve severe diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue and weight loss.

IBD can be debilitating and sometimes leads to life-threatening complications.



Inflammatory bowel disease symptoms vary, depending on the severity of inflammation and where it occurs. Symptoms may range from mild to severe. You are likely to have periods of active illness followed by periods of remission.

Signs and symptoms that are common to both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Blood in your stool
  • Reduced appetite
  • Unintended weight loss

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you experience a persistent change in your bowel habits or if you have any of the signs and symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. Although inflammatory bowel disease usually isn’t fatal, it’s a serious disease that, in some cases, may cause life-threatening complications.


The exact cause of inflammatory bowel disease remains unknown. Previously, diet and stress were suspected, but now doctors know that these factors may aggravate but don’t cause IBD.

One possible cause is an immune system malfunction. When your immune system tries to fight off an invading virus or bacterium, an abnormal immune response causes the immune system to attack the cells in the digestive tract, too. Heredity also seems to play a role in that IBD is more common in people who have family members with the disease. However, most people with IBD don’t have this family history.

Risk factors

  • Age. Most people who develop IBD are diagnosed before they’re 30 years old. But some people don’t develop the disease until their 50s or 60s.
  • Race or ethnicity. Although whites have the highest risk of the disease, it can occur in any race. If you’re of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, your risk is even higher.
  • Family history. You’re at higher risk if you have a close relative — such as a parent, sibling or child — with the disease.
  • Cigarette smoking. Cigarette smoking is the most important controllable risk factor for developing Crohn’s disease. Although smoking may provide some protection against ulcerative colitis, the overall health benefits of not smoking make it important to try to quit.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. These include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve), diclofenac sodium (Voltaren) and others. These medications may increase the risk of developing IBD or worsen disease in people who have IBD.
  • Where you live. If you live in an industrialized country, you’re more likely to develop IBD. Therefore, it may be that environmental factors, including a diet high in fat or refined foods, play a role. People living in northern climates also seem to be at greater risk.


Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease have some complications in common and others that are specific to each condition. Complications found in both conditions may include:

  • Colon cancer. Having IBD increases your risk of colon cancer. General colon cancer screening guidelines for people without IBD call for a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50. Ask your doctor whether you need to have this test done sooner and more frequently.
  • Skin, eye and joint inflammation. Certain disorders, including arthritis, skin lesions and eye inflammation (uveitis), may occur during IBD flare-ups.
  • Medication side effects. Certain medications for IBD are associated with a small risk of developing certain cancers. Corticosteroids can be associated with a risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure and other conditions.
  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis. In this condition, inflammation causes scars within the bile ducts, eventually making them narrow and gradually causing liver damage.
  • Blood clots. IBD increases the risk of blood clots in veins and arteries.

Complications of Crohn’s disease may include:

  • Bowel obstruction. Crohn’s disease affects the full thickness of the intestinal wall. Over time, parts of the bowel can thicken and narrow, which may block the flow of digestive contents. You may require surgery to remove the diseased portion of your bowel.
  • Malnutrition. Diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping may make it difficult for you to eat or for your intestine to absorb enough nutrients to keep you nourished. It’s also common to develop anemia due to low iron or vitamin B12 caused by the disease.
  • Ulcers. Chronic inflammation can lead to open sores (ulcers) anywhere in your digestive tract, including your mouth and anus, and in the genital area (perineum).
  • Fistulas. Sometimes ulcers can extend completely through the intestinal wall, creating a fistula — an abnormal connection between different body parts. Fistulas near or around the anal area (perianal) are the most common kind. In some cases, a fistula may become infected and form an abscess.
  • Anal fissure. This is a small tear in the tissue that lines the anus or in the skin around the anus where infections can occur. It’s often associated with painful bowel movements and may lead to a perianal fistula.

Complications of ulcerative colitis may include:

  • Toxic megacolon. Ulcerative colitis may cause the colon to rapidly widen and swell, a serious condition known as toxic megacolon.
  • A hole in the colon (perforated colon). A perforated colon most commonly is caused by toxic megacolon, but it may also occur on its own.
  • Severe dehydration. Excessive diarrhea can result in dehydration.