Doctors look for a constellation of symptoms before diagnosing a patient with irritable bowel syndrome. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Feel bloated? Fighting frequent gut pain? Notice a change in bowel habits?

It may be time to dig deeper into your diet—and your diagnosis.

You may be one of the 10 to 15 percent of people who live with the uncertainties and run-to-the-bathroom mentality that can be associated with irritable bowel syndrome.

Courtney Ferch, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group gastrointestinal specialist, recently shared some of the essential facts about the condition.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome vary quite a bit from patient to patient, though in general patients should have an element of abdominal pain from a heightened sensitivity in the gastrointestinal tract, named visceral hypersensitivity.

Accompanying these symptoms, patients typically have a change in bowel habits, which can range from constipation to diarrhea.

To reach a true diagnosis, symptoms should be present for six months.

How do you diagnose it?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a clinical diagnosis, meaning that the constellation of symptoms together is what leads to the diagnosis. There is no lab or imaging test that can lead to the formal diagnosis.

What can happen if it goes unchecked?

Patients will be uncomfortable or unhappy with their bowel habits or abdominal pain, though there are no deleterious effects of unmanaged IBS.

How can it affect my daily life?

Irritable bowel syndrome can affect daily life quite a bit. Studies have shown a significant impact on quality of life in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, leading to more time off of work or with doctor visits.

When untreated, patients can be progressively more uncomfortable throughout the day.

What foods or activities should I avoid? What foods should I seek?

There are no activities to avoid. In fact, more activity or exercise can lead to improved gut health, because the hormones that regulate the central nervous system also regulate the gut.

Many patients identify trigger foods, which can range from dairy to gluten.

The FODMAP diet is the only diet that has been shown beneficial in patients—it leads to less gas production, ultimately decreasing bloating and pain. It can also improve diarrhea.

As patients identify their trigger foods, they should keep a list of them so they remember what triggers symptoms. Dietary exclusions, however, should be determined with the help of a health care professional to avoid over-restriction of the diet.

Are there any medications that can help?

Medications can help. Some medications will alleviate cramping pain, others will address heightened sensitivity of the gut, while still others may aid in management of bowel movements (diarrhea versus constipation).

Can it ever be cured?

There is no cure, although studies have shown that the majority of the patients will see changes in their symptoms over time. A significant number of patients will see resolution of their symptoms, which can be reassuring.

It is important to treat the irritable bowel syndrome diagnosis with a multi-disciplinary approach including a gastroenterologist, a dietitian and a range of other health care professionals helping patients on a case-by-case basis.