Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Interstitial Cystitis

ibsbowelpicture2Interstitial cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are chronic pelvic pain disorders and, not surprisingly, often coexist. Research studies have demonstrated that 40 to 60% of IBS patients exhibit symptoms of IC while up to 52% of IC patients also have symptoms consistent with IBS.1 For patients who struggle with both conditions, the connection is often baffling until you consider the role of the nerves.

The organs of the pelvis communicate in a process known as “neural cross-talk” to maintain normal bladder, bowel and reproduction function. Yet, in a surprising twist, these normal communication pathways can also convey irritation. Researcher Michael Pezzone MD was one of the first to demonstrate bowel-bladder cross-sensitization. In animal studies, he showed that when the bowel was acutely irritated in a single event, the bladder showed signs of irritation and when the bladder was irritated, the bowel shows signs of irritation.

Yet, it was his research into longterm, chronic irritation that offered more revealing information. Long-term irritation of the bowel triggered some of the familiar symptoms of IC including increased frequency and decreased urinary volume, as well as evidence of inflammation and increased numbers and activation of mast cells in the bladder wall. Dr. Pezzone wrote “In other words, after colonic (bowel) irritation, the very nerves that carry signals for uncomfortable bladder sensation had become hypersensitive…” 1

How does this happen? It turns out that the bladder and bowels outgoing, afferent nerves meet and combine near the spine thus providing both access and opportunity for “cross-talk.” This was proven when Dr. Pezzone injected tracers into the bowel and bladder. He found BOTH sets of tracers in the same nerve cells in the dorsal root ganglia. Dr. Pezzone and his peers now suggest that chronic pelvic pain develops after an acute injury or chronic irritation to perhaps just one of the pelvic organs (i.e the bladder, the bowel or the reproductive tract), pelvic floor muscles, nerves and/or perhaps even the skin of the perineum. Other proximal organs or muscles can then become involved through this “crosstalk” sensitization pathway if the irritation/ inflammation persists.
Pelvic pain specialists agree that treatment should be focused on calming and soothing every condition in the pelvis (IC, IBS, endometriosis, vulvodynia) that is producing pain and/or discomfort.

IBS is not a disease

Four Subtypes of IBS

Four Subtypes of IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome is estimated to affect 3 to 20 percent of the population, with most studies ranging from 10 to 15 percent.2  However, less than one-third of people with the condition see a health care provider for diagnosis. 3 IBS affects about twice as many women as men and is most often found in people younger than 45 years.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, meaning it is a problem caused by changes in how the GI tract works. People with a functional GI disorder have frequent symptoms, but the GI tract does not become damaged. IBS is not a disease; it is a group of symptoms that occur together.”4

Heather Van Vorous, author of First Year: IBS, offered “IBS is considered a brain gut disorder and there are two aspects of that. The enteric nervous system is dysfunctional in people who have IBS. But, so is the way that the brain interprets messages from the enteric nervous system…We call it a hypersensitivity of the gut. That’s why stress and food are the two greatest triggers. They both affect the gut and the gut overacts to both of those things, creating the symptoms of IBS. It’s important that you realize that stress and diet doesn’t cause IBS but theydefinitely trigger the symptoms just like IC.”5

Some patients with irritable bowel syndrome struggle with painful cramping and diarrhea after eating certain foods or heavy meals while others struggle with chronic constipation and hard, lumpy stools. Patients may feel urgency to have a bowel movement or feel that their bowel movement is incomplete. Small, hard stools and/or straining to have a bowel movement can occur. Discomfort usually improves after having a bowel movement.

For IBS to be diagnosed, the symptoms must have started at least six months prior and must have occurred at least three days per month for the previous three months. Further testing is not usually needed though the health care provider may do a blood test to screen for other problems. Additional diagnostic tests may be needed based on the results of the screening blood test and for people who also have signs such as fever, rectal bleeding, weight loss, anemia or a family history of colon cancer, IBS or celiac disease. Based upon those findings, patients will be given a classification (see box 1).

What causes IBS?

The causes of IBS are still unclear though Dr. Pezzone has made a good case for pelvic organ cross-talk and neurosensitization. Some IBS patients can point to an initial bowel trauma, such as a severe case food poisoning, bacterial gastroenteritis, surgery or perhaps even childbirth. A brain-gut signaling problem or perhaps some GI motility issues may contribute in some cases. Slow motility can lead to constipation and fast motility can lead to diarrhea. Genetics could also play a role. Quite a few patients report food sensitivity issues, such as with foods high in caffeine, MSG, coffees, fats, etc.

Heather believes that the gastrocolic reflex, the normal message that the stomach sends to the colon after you’ve eaten that triggers a bowel movement, has become hypersensitive. She said “In people with IBS this reflex goes haywire. Their colon is contracting too much, too hard, too fast, or it’s in spasms or not contracting enough. They may have too few contractions, not strong enough, or be irregularly timed. This can then cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and trapped gas. And that’s all stemming from the hypersensitive gastrocolic reflex.”

IBS Diet Modification Tips

IBS patients learn, fairly quickly that certain foods can trigger symptoms. Heather offered “There are two categories of foods that stimulate the gastrocolic reflex more than anything else. (1) Fats and (2) Insoluble fibers… It’s actually very easy to work around this.” Alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, artificial sweeteners, foods which produce gas and/or high acid foods can also be troublesome. Sounds a lot like the IC diet, doesn’t it?

But when you’re struggling with constipation, well meaning family members and physicians suggest loading up on high, insoluble fiber foods (i.e. bran, granola, greens, roughage, psyllium products etc.). The challenge, of course, is that these “insoluble fibers” are notoriously challenging to the more tender IBS gut. Heather said “Insoluble fiber is a huge GI stimulant. It sends the gastrocolic reflex out of control and can trigger spasms, cramps, and diarrhea.. and can also exacerbate constipation. If you don’t have IBS, insoluble fiber is great for constipation. If you do have IBS, it can make your gut spasm and make those contractions so irregular that it interferes with motility and worsens constipation.”

It’s the starchy, soluble fiber found oatmeal, pasta, rice, potatoes, tapioca, bananas that is more soothing for the bowel and gut of a typical IBS patient. According to Heather, soluble fiber regulates the gastrocolic reflex, thus calming painful muscle contractions of the gut. Soluble fiber also regulates water content in the bowel and can help with both diarrhea and constipation. She said “People get so confused. I spend my life telling people with constipation that soluble fibers won’t make them worse and that they aren’t “binding.”’ She cautioned “Never have insoluble fiber alone, on an empty stomach, or in large quantities all at once. Always have insoluble fibers with soluble fibers. Make yourself fried rice and add some veggies to that or a put vegetable sauce on pasta. Try cooking some fresh fruit in your oatmeal. Cooking breaks down insoluble fiber and so does cutting it up and pureeing it in the blender, which makes it a lot more tolerable. Cooked veggies are safer than raw. A fresh fruit smoothie is safer than a big, raw fruit salad.”

Many patients have also experienced IBS attacks after eating salad greens. Greens (i.e. lettuce, spinach, kale, chard) also contain insolubl