The sensation you feel in your stomach, behind your breastbone, or in the back of your throat is unpleasant. You know it has something to do with the digestive system, but it's difficult pinpointing the exact location and the exact sensation. Which makes determining the exact cause of your digestive problems difficult.

The truth is that many digestive problems behave similarly. For instance, the main symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is heartburn, which can also be referred to as acid indigestion. [1]

Now, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has 3 main symptoms: abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort. And even though IBS sufferers report a wide-range of symptoms, including cramping, diarrhea, and constipation, why people develop it remains unclear.

Interestingly, the same goes for GERD. We know that certain foods and lifestyles that contribute to it (e.g. obesity, smoking, and pregnancy), and we know what happens during it (the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes), but we cannot say with certainty why some people get it. This is the way in which GERD is most like IBS.

It is unsurprising, then, that recent studies have linked the two together. A May 2007 study specifically asked whether GERD and IBS overlap more often than not by factors other than chance. Nearly 2,300 questionnaires were used to compile data, and the results led the authors to conclude that in the general population, there is overlap between GERD and IBS and the overlap is not by chance.[2]

Given that 19 million Americans suffer from GERD[3] and nearly 1 in 5 Americans have IBS symptoms, this conclusion is hardly surprising. But does the study adequately explain the connection between IBS and GERD?

Not exactly. The results merely say that there is a connection between these two digestive problems. One reason for the connection may have to do with the similarities with which the two are treated: Diet, stress management, and prescribed medication-basic lifestyle changes-work for those with heartburn and those with the wide-ranging IBS symptoms alike. Still, none of this explains the scientific reasoning behind the overlap of the two digestive problems.

As such, the subject calls for much more research. IBS may be painful, irritating, and serious, and it may be common in those with GERD, but it does not lead to other health problems. And basic heartburn is experienced by 60 million Americans.[4] Hopefully this information serves as a comforting reminder that digestive problems, regardless of their connection to any other digestive problems, are not always conspiring to be your ruin.


[2] Talley, N. J., et al. "Overlap of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and irritable bowel syndrome: prevalence and risk factors in the general population." Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, May 2007.