The new memoir by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is unexpectedly drawing attention to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after media reports highlighted a “special interest” request Gates received from Senator Harry Reid urging him to have the Defense Department invest in research into irritable bowel syndrome.

“With two ongoing wars and all our budget and other issues, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Gates said in his book.

And in a January 16 NPR article, the writer admited that this request “drew snickers – and media attention, including here at NPR.”

As a physician who has worked with hundreds of people who are struggling to manage the often painful, debilitating and life altering symptoms of this common digestive condition-I can tell you IBS is no joking matter.

IBS is a chronic functional gastrointestinal disorder which for many sufferers is marked by abdominal discomfort, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea and can be categorized based on these symptoms: IBS-D is accompanied by diarrhea, IBS-C is accompanied by constipation and IBS-M includes both diarrhea and constipation. Research suggests that IBS is caused by changes in the nerves and muscles that control sensation and motility of the bowel. IBS affects 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population and is 1.5 times more common in women than in men, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

In 2010, I had the honor of serving on an Institute of Medicine committee that found that, in addition to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, “a large number of veterans” of the 1991 Persian Gulf War were reporting long-term, multi-symptom health issues. These health isues included IBS, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression.

The report, “Health Effects of Serving in the Gulf War,” showed a relationship between military deployment and gastrointestinal infections, and, also, post-infectious IBS. Although this study focused on the Gulf War veterans, subsequent studies of more recent returning veterans suggest that IBS and other health issues continue to impact our veterans.

I was pleased when NPR contacted me for comment in yesterday’s article because it gave me an opportunity to shed some light on the seriousness of IBS–especially among the veteran population–where post traumatic stress disorder is a common after-effect faced by our military upon return from active duty.

You can access the full NPR article here and read my full comments


Abuse, Trauma, and GI Illness: Is There a Link?

Gulf War and Health: Volume 8. Health Effects of Serving in the Gulf War

An Evidence-Based Systematic Review on the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
American College of Gastroenterology Task Force on IBS