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The Stigma Around IBS Is Making It Difficult for Women to Be Treated

HelloFlo is a womens health company committed to normalizing the conversations we have about womens bodies so that we can all live healthier lives.

IBS makes everything harder, from medical care to dating

People would rather discuss sexually transmitted infections than irritable bowel syndrome with their doctors, even though IBS is more common in the United States. After all, the bowel disorder affects approximately 35 million Americans.

To help destigmatize talking about bowel health, television star Wendy Williams teamed up with the American Urological Association’s Toilet Talk campaign to advocate for more open discussions about our bowel health.

More: Suffering From PMS & IBS? You Need a New Morning Routine

For more insight on how IBS affects reproductive health, we spoke with Dr. Jonathan Rosenberg, a gastroenterologist with the Illinois Gastroenterology Group. While there isn’t a cure yet for this bowel disorder, his work focuses on improving his patients’ overall quality of life with IBS treatments, such as Linzess for constipation and Viberzi for diarrhea.

“IBS means the music playing, but the volume is cranked up,” he explains. Patients “are embarrassed to talk about bowel issues. When you touch upon sexual and reproductive questions, it’s potentially even more embarrassing to talk to their partner, family or even their health care provider.”

While Rosenberg says IBS does affect reproductive health, there is a lack of knowledge as to why that is. However, one third of women with IBS report having chronic pelvic pain, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Some of that pelvic pain, Rosenberg says, could come from sexual intercourse.

More: Why the Type of Psychotherapy Matters When Treating IBS

Many patients also report sexual disfunction. However, this is less of a physiological issue and more of a psychological issue. People with IBS aren’t any less sanitary than those without it, but those with IBS can be more concerned and preoccupied with their bodies in the bedroom.

When we talk about anal sex, for instance, it’s less about the intercourse and more about the mental state someone with IBS has during it.

“Decreased sexual drive is more related to the symptoms of IBS, whether it be constipation or diarrhea, the music is playing,” he adds. “If you can’t enjoy your evening, whatever that planned activity might be, you’re not going to be able to enjoy it.”

Again, because there’s such a lack of scientific research on IBS, there is also little evidence as to whether birth control improves or worsens IBS-related symptoms. The same goes for whether menstruation affects IBS symptoms, although many (myself included) have personal stories that speak to how periods exacerbate pelvic pain.

That’s why, to my surprise, IBS actually doesn’t have as big of an impact on reproductive health as I once expected. Again, the side effects are often mostly psychological. As Rosenberg mentioned, he strives to improve the lives of those with IBS. Patients go from worrying about snagging the aisle seat at a movie theater to having to be far less proactive in their everyday lives, once they begin effective drug treatments.

However, the constant anxiety of having to race to the bathroom is still very real and completely valid. The anxiety also won’t go away immediately, even after pursuing doctor-mediated treatments, but it will definitely get better over time.

More: Why the Type of Psychotherapy Matters When Treating IBS

As IBS becomes less socially stigmatized, more research can be done to better address how bowel health intersects with sexual health.

By Danielle Corcione

Originally published on HelloFlo

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