The Giardia – IBS Connection

Some people wear their emotions on their sleeve. I keep it all in my belly. When I’m in a severe flare-up, I look like I’m nine months pregnant, and no amount of MiraLax will provide relief.

In high school, I joined an outdoor recreation group on a seven day hiking expedition. In many ways, it was a trip of self-discovery and enlightenment: I learned that I could go for days without more than a handful of granola and a strip of beef jerky. I discovered that I could spend 24 hours without any human interaction.

I also learned never to trust someone who says the stream water I’m drinking is clean.

My IBS and giardia

I remember a time when I didn’t have to worry about how often, or how rarely, I was going to the bathroom every week. And I had no idea that I’d look back on that time and regret that I’d taken my elimination habits for granted.

It was on this hiking trip that I developed giardia, an intestinal infection that is caused by a microscopic parasite that is found worldwide.1

Our school counselor, an experienced outdoor enthusiast, had treated our stream water with iodine to be safe. But two weeks after my trip, I began experiencing unbearable digestive symptoms, including abdominal cramps, belly bloat, nausea, exhaustion, and weight loss. I have never felt so sick in my entire life. My doctor confirmed it was giardiasis and prescribed antibiotics.

The symptoms disappeared, but apparently, the bug didn’t. And to this day, more than three decades later, whenever stress gets the best of me, the symptoms return.

Giardiasis, or giardia, got the nickname “Beaver Fever” after an outbreak among hikers at Banff National Park. These hikers became sick from drinking stream water contaminated with giardia from beavers.

The onset of IBS post-infection

According to a recent study,2 a giardia infection can triple a person’s risk for IBS and chronic fatigue (CF). How giardia leads to IBS isn’t really understood, but it is thought to change the way the nerves of the bowels work. One theory is that an intense systemic infection that causes diarrhea can damage the bowel, or the nerves of the bowel. And this may cause what doctors call a “change in gastric motility,” which means your bowels don’t move the way they used to.

In my case, the giardia infection is what triggered my IBS diagnosis, which came 2 years after the hiking trip, when I landed in the hospital with the same abdominal symptoms at age 19.

Symptoms of giardia infection usually begin 7-10 days after exposure, but it can also be as little as 3 days or as many as 25 days. And these symptoms can last 2-6 weeks, or even longer. Many animals can transmit a giardia infection, including dogs. According to the study, prolonged infection with giardia can lead to other complications besides IBS and chronic fatigue, including arthritis, pruritis and urticaria.

What about you? Did you have a GI infection before your IBS diagnosis? Do you think it led to your IBS symptoms?

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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