The word diarrhea is derived from the Greek word diarrhein, meaning ‘to flow through.’ Basically, diarrhea is characterized by frequent, watery bowel movements. As you might suspect, diarrhea indicates that too much water is being retained (and therefore is not being absorbed) in the digestive tract. Diarrhea is one of the most common symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Treatment for IBS is usualy focused on stopping this symptom, rather than finding and treating the condition that is causing diarrhea to occur.
There are several possible scenarios in which diarrhea occurs. For example, food may be moving through the intestine too quickly for water to be absorbed, creating stools that are watery instead of formed. This can happen if your muscular intestinal tube starts contracting faster than normal as a defense against something bad that you’ve eaten. The immune system signals to the musculature around the intestine that it should get the bad stuff out quickly. It can go up or down, whichever is faster. If it goes up, you vomit. If it goes down, you have diarrhea.
Another cause of diarrhea is an immune response that leads to irritation or inflammation of the intestines. This can slow the absorption of water through the tissue walls, causing an imbalance in the intestinal water level. Toxins in the intestine can also cause water to flow into the intestine rather than being absorbed. Any of these problems will result in diarrhea.
When you have diarrhea, you are losing water that would normally be absorbed. Therefore you are at risk for becoming dehydrated. Dehydration is a serious condition that affects every aspect of health and it is important to continue taking in fluids and seek medical help if you have chronic diarrhea.
Diarrhea also results in the poor absorption of nutrients including minerals, vitamins, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Each of these is essential to good health. Without them your body cannot function properly. Even if your weight is normal, if you have chronic diarrhea then you have a problem absorbing nutrients, and your health is being compromised. You should have not only the cause of your diarrhea, but also any potential nutrient deficiencies, evaluated. Treatment is most effective when it addresses the underlying cause of the IBS – most often something that is triggering an immune system response.
Dr. Stephen Wangen is the award winning author of two books on solving digestive disorders, and a nationally recognized speaker on IBS. He has been on ABC, NBC, and Fox as well as public radio. He was recently named one of Seattle’s Top Doctors by Seattle Magazine.