IBS Might Be in Your Genes–and Your Head

The exact cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) has yet to be identified, but the latest research has made great strides in narrowing down possible factors and triggers. The mystery of how IBS develops is a source of much frustration for the upwards of 45 million Americans currently diagnosed with the condition. There’s no cure, and one is difficult to develop without accurate understanding of what really causes IBS. Medical research has been able to spot some patterns over time, however, making it more likely that better treatment and prevention may become available in the future.

The common factors that have emerged as possible links to the cause of IBS are:

  • Genetics
  • Hormonal Changes
  • Stress
  • Digestive Illnesses


The discomfort of IBS occurs as a result of disruption along the body’s brain-gut axis. The normal, bi-directional interactions of the brain with the gut are what regulate digestion, and disruptions can lead to the digestive process moving either too quickly or slowly, depending on the individual, leading to IBS symptoms.

This brain-gut axis issue appears to run in families as individuals with family histories of IBS seem more likely to develop it.

Hormonal Changes

Women are twice as likely to develop IBS as men, indicating the hormonal responses around menstruation could contribute to the disruption of the brain-gut axis. Many women find that their IBS symptoms are worst around their menstrual cycles.


Stressful conditions are associated with exacerbating existing IBS symptoms rather than causing the condition, but some indications of a casual link exist. In cases of severe, chronic stress or major life trauma, a person’s brain may become more predisposed to the type of neurological disruption that could interrupt brain-gut axis interaction.

Digestive Illness

In some patients, another infection or illness preceded the onset of their IBS symptoms. In most, this is termed post-infection IBS and resolves itself over time, but some retain the condition permanently. Risk factors for post-infection IBS are related to the length of the illness and the type of infection, with bacterial infections much more likely to result in the condition. Gender, family history and psychological factors have all also been indicated as possible factors in whether or not someone retains IBS following an infection. This implies that such patients may have already had the risk factors predisposing them to IBS and the initial infection only have triggered an issue already developing.

There is still more research to be done to understand why IBS develops and how much a role these conditional factors play, but progress and improved treatments continue developing.