IBS in Men and Women
In the west twice as many women seek help for IBS than men. This poses an interesting question about the nature of IBS, and how IBS is related to the nature of our gender.
It is believed that much of the difference in experience between men and women comes through the reaction to pain.
Research suggests women are more sensitive to certain types of pain (such as pain from internal organs) than men. Therefore, IBS pain that might be considered debilitating to a woman may be only an annoyance to a man, although we are sure many would dispute that.
IBS symptoms are reportedly worse during certain phases of women’s menstrual cycle (such as pre-menstrual or ovulation periods). This association led researchers to speculate that if female hormones exacerbate IBS, male hormones may be responsible for “protecting” men from IBS.
In one study, men with IBS were found to have lower hormone levels than men without IBS. This could mean that higher levels of male hormones in the body somehow prevent IBS symptoms, but researchers are unsure why. Additionally, another study showed that men who had a lower testosterone level in particular experienced more pronounced IBS symptoms.
Another reason for the low amount of men reporting IBS symptoms is that they may not seek medical treatment as readily as women. Men tend to have a higher pain threshold and might not consider seeing a medical professional for the pain experienced from IBS.
Women also may seek treatment for IBS more often because they are already accustomed to seeing a doctor (usually a gynecologist) for a Pap screen on a yearly basis. Reporting abdominal pain or changes in bowel habits on these visits might lead to a referral for a follow-up with a general practitioner or a gastroenterologist. Younger men and men who are otherwise healthy may not see a physician on a regular basis, and would therefore not be in a position to report pain or changes in bowel habits.
There appears to be a connection between psychological conditions and IBS, though researchers are still unsure about what causes the link. Depression and anxiety are generally more common in women than men which may partly explain the prevalence of IBS in women. Women with IBS are also more likely to have a history of sexual abuse.
It appears that all these factors may play a role in explaining the low rate of reported IBS in men when compared to women. Studies about IBS have increased in recent years, and researchers conclude that more are needed to understand the gender differences in IBS.
Blanchard EB, Keefer L, Galovski TE, Taylor AE, Turner SM. "Gender differences in psychological distress among patients with irritable bowel syndrome." J Psychosom Res 2001;50:271-275. 22 Dec 2009.
Chang L, Heitkemper MM. "Gender differences in irritable bowel syndrome." Gastroenterology 2002;123:1686-1701. 22 Dec 2009.
Fass R, Fullerton S, Naliboff B, Hirsh T, Mayer EA. "Sexual dysfunction in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and non-ulcer dyspepsia." Digestion 1998;59:79-85. 22 Dec 2009.
Houghton LA, Lea R, Jackson N, Whorwell PJ. "The menstrual cycle affects rectal sensitivity in patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome but not healthy volunteers." Gut 2002;50:471-474. 22 Dec 2009.
Houghton LA, Jackson NA, Whorwell PJ, Morris J. "Do male sex hormones protect from irritable bowel syndrome?" Am J Gastroenterol 2000;95:2296-2300. 22 Dec 2009.
Long Term Sufferers
New IBS Sufferers
Life Long Sufferers
The reality is that we can never know who suffers the most, and frankly that is a competition that no no one would wish to win.
What is interesting though are the chemical and psychological aspects which seem to often be ignored when treating IBS.
Most IBS treatments will centre around the need for a change in diet and perhaps supplements and medication.
Far too few treat the psychological side despite many studies making that link. It also seems important that the men who are refusing to go to the Doctors should forget about their male pride and go. IBS is an embarrassing condition which left unchecked can go from bad to much worse.