Last Updated on July 6, 2023
If you’re one of the 11% of people worldwide who struggle with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’re not alone. IBS can be a real pain, but the good news is that as research continues to explore the connection between nutrition and health, we’re learning more and more about how to manage it.
In this article, we’ll give you the scoop on what to eat for IBS attacks, diet tips to help you feel better, what foods to avoid, other potential triggers, and how to understand if you have IBS.
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a complex disorder with many symptoms. Here’s an overview of what IBS is all about:
- IBS affects the gastrointestinal tract: the stomach, and the intestines.
- The main cause of IBS is unclear but chronic stress, a poor diet, and a family history of IBS are known to be powerful triggers.
- Although IBS is mostly a lifelong chronic condition, proper nutrition along with relaxation techniques can help control the symptoms.
Symptoms of IBS
The most common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include:
- Abdominal pain
- Increased gas
- Mucus in the stool
- Feelings of not emptying your bowels completely
Some people with IBS may have these symptoms too:
- Feeling nauseated
- Bowel incontinence (not being able to control when you poo)
- Problems with peeing (feelings of not emptying your bladder or sudden need to pee)
If you have been dealing with one or more of these symptoms for quite a long time, you might have irritable bowel syndrome.
What to eat for IBS attacks
When experiencing an IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) attack, it is important to choose foods that are gentle on the digestive system and less likely to trigger symptoms. Here are some food suggestions that may help during an IBS attack:
- Low-FODMAP Foods: Following a low-FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) diet can be helpful for many people with IBS. This involves avoiding certain carbohydrates that can be difficult to digest. Low-FODMAP foods include rice, oats, quinoa, tofu, eggs, lean meats, fish, poultry (without skin), lactose-free dairy products, non-dairy milk alternatives (such as almond or rice milk), and most fruits and vegetables (except for high-FODMAP ones like onions, garlic, and certain fruits like apples and pears).
- Soluble fiber: Foods rich in soluble fiber can help soothe the digestive system during an IBS attack. Good options include bananas, cooked carrots, cooked potatoes, oatmeal, and psyllium husk.
- Probiotic-rich foods: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can support gut health. Foods like yogurt (if well-tolerated), kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods can be helpful. However, some individuals with IBS may be sensitive to probiotic-rich foods, so it’s important to pay attention to your body’s response.
- Ginger: Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce symptoms of nausea and abdominal pain. You can consume ginger as tea or add it to meals as a spice.
These foods will generally make you feel better at times of IBS attacks but some foods are pretty much guaranteed to make it worse. So besides knowing what to eat on an IBS diet, it is also crucial to know what foods to avoid.
Foods to avoid on an IBS diet
- Wheat products (or in other terms, gluten)
- Dairy products
- Citrus fruits
- Spicy and fatty foods
- Foods containing sorbitol, xylitol, or high fructose corn syrup
Drinks to avoid on an IBS diet
- Carbonated drinks
Dealing with IBS can feel overwhelming, but the good news is that you have the power to take control! By following a smart diet and steering clear of foods that trigger your symptoms, you can help keep IBS in check.
It’s important to note that triggers and tolerances vary among individuals with IBS, so it’s best to keep a food diary to identify specific foods that may exacerbate your symptoms. Additionally, consulting with a registered dietitian who specializes in digestive health can provide personalized guidance and support for managing your IBS symptoms.
Triggers of IBS
Besides nutrition, there is another important factor that contributes to having worse IBS symptoms: stress!
While the exact relationship between stress and IBS is not fully understood, it is believed that stress can directly affect the functioning of the gastrointestinal system. Here are some ways in which stress can impact IBS:
- Increased gut sensitivity: Stress can lead to heightened sensitivity in the gut, making the intestines more reactive to normal digestive processes. This increased sensitivity can result in abdominal pain, cramping, and discomfort, which are common symptoms of IBS.
- Altered gut motility: Stress can disrupt the normal contractions and movements of the intestines, leading to changes in bowel habits. It can cause the intestines to become more active or hyperactive, resulting in diarrhea or urgency to have a bowel movement. On the other hand, stress can also slow down contractions, leading to constipation.
- Enhanced perception of pain: Stress can lower the pain threshold and make individuals with IBS more susceptible to experiencing pain. This means that normal sensations in the gut, which might be negligible to others, can be perceived as more intense and uncomfortable for people with IBS who are under stress.
- Increased inflammation: Chronic stress can contribute to inflammation throughout the body, including the gastrointestinal system. Inflammation can further irritate the gut and worsen the symptoms of IBS.
- Altered gut-brain communication: The gut and the brain are closely connected through the gut-brain axis. Stress can disrupt this communication, leading to changes in the gut’s response to stressors and amplifying the symptoms of IBS.
Managing stress levels through various techniques such as relaxation exercises, stress-reducing activities, therapy, and adopting a healthy lifestyle can be beneficial in minimizing the impact of stress on IBS symptoms.
Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to help ease IBS symptoms:
- Cook your own meals with fresh ingredients.
- Keep a food and symptom journal. Try to avoid foods that make your IBS worse.
- Practice relaxation techniques like meditation, mindfulness, or yoga.
- Exercise regularly, preferably outdoors.
- Try using probiotics that are suitable for your condition (consult a pharmacist for advice).
- Instead of consuming large meals, try eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. This can help reduce the burden on your digestive system and minimize symptoms. Also, chew your bites more.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help maintain proper hydration and support digestive health. Aim for at least 8 cups of water daily.
- Don’t skip meals.
- Don’t eat too quickly.
- Avoid eating foods that are too fatty, spicy, or processed.
- Eat no more than three portions of fresh fruit every day (one portion is 80 g).
- Drink no more than three cups of tea or coffee every day.
- Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol or carbonated drinks.
To sum up
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all cure for IBS, but don’t worry – the good news is that many people with IBS are able to find relief through simple changes to their diet and incorporating stress-management techniques into their daily routines.
For those with more severe symptoms, prescription medications are available that can help control the condition so it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.
The takeaway? Your diet and stress levels can have a huge impact on IBS, so it’s worth being mindful of both.