common triggers of ibs

Decoding Digestive Distress

Navigating the complexities of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) often begins with identifying the common triggers that can exacerbate symptoms and disrupt daily life.

Various triggers contribute to the development or aggravation of the symptoms.

1. Certain Food and Drinks

Some foods are more likely than others to cause symptoms. For example, food and drinks that dehydrate your body will be more likely to be associated with constipation-predominant IBS.

Beverages with caffeine like coffee, black tea and energy drinks, chocolate, dairy foods with high amounts of lactose like milk, some cheese products and sour cream, red meats, and alcohol are all dehydrating your body. To avoid problems, you should consume these foods and drinks in moderation and drink plenty of water. Alcohol should be eliminated from your diet if possible because it also irritates the digestive tract, aggravates bloating and abdominal pain, and triggers new symptoms (i.e., heartburn and more food sensitivities).

Fatty foods are another group of foods that may cause digestive symptoms in IBS sufferers, especially diarrhea. Therefore fatty dairy products such as milk, cheese, sour cream, buttermilk and ice cream should be replaced with low-fat products, or non-dairy alternatives such as almond, rice or coconut milk, nut butters, tofu or tempeh. Fried foods are also fattier, so try to bake or boil food rather than frying it.

Other foods cause diarrhea only when ingested in large quantities, but are safe to be consumed in smaller amounts – like bananas.

Foods that contain high amounts of certain sugars (i.e. fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans and polyols) are more likely to cause diarrhea and other IBS symptoms. The low FODMAP diet is based on the principle of reducing intake of foods that contain high amounts of these sugars. Foods high in fructose include apples, pears, watermelon, honey, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), artichoke, asparagus, peas and beans, wheat, rye and barley. HFCS is found in most processed foods, not just cakes and pastries.

Luckily, you can enjoy many other fruits (i.e. blueberries, cantaloupe, rhubarb, orange, tangerine, raspberries, strawberries, pineapples), vegetables (alfalfa, bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach, kale, radishes, pumpkin, eggplant, zucchini), whole grains like quinoa, rice, oats, tapioca. Supplementation with probiotics can also help reduce diarrhea and bloating.

You should be aware that not all the foods listed above will trigger symptoms in all individuals with IBS. Keeping a food journal could help you find which ones are bad, and which are safe to eat.

2. Stress and Anxiety

There is a well-documented link between stress and anxiety and IBS development and symptom aggravation. Studies have found that chronic stress experienced early in life (before the age of 18) makes one more likely to develop IBS later on in life.

Additionally, many IBS sufferers find that high levels of stress or anxiety do trigger IBS symptoms, particularly diarrhea, constipation, bloating, mucus in the stools and a feeling of incomplete bowel movements. Biofeedback, deep breathing, meditation, psychological counselling, yoga, tai chi and regular exercise can help you better manage stress and anxiety.

3. Drugs & Supplements

Drugs can influence the function of the digestive tract and some will trigger IBS symptoms, especially spasms of the colon, constipation or diarrhea. Some are prescription drugs (i.e. antibiotics, especially when used long term), antidepressant drugs or over-the-counter medication that contain sorbitol (i.e. cough syrup).

Carefully read the labels of any drugs you take, as well as vitamins and supplements, which may include artificial sweeteners and preservatives. If your doctor prescribed a new drug and you experience more or new symptoms you should talk to him or her and find alternative solutions.

4. Menstruation

Most cases of IBS are diagnosed in young adult women, and some research papers support the fact that menstrual pain can make IBS symptoms worse. Although the exact mechanism is not known, scientists suggest that some cells from the digestive tract have receptors for the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, and therefore changes in the hormone levels may cause IBS symptoms.

If you suffer from menstrual pain, talk to your doctor and get it treated. Painful menstruation can be also managed with heating pads and drinking chamomile tea. Keeping healthy levels of vitamin D and acupuncture treatments have also been found to be beneficial in improving menstrual cramps. Enjoying a healthy sex life and having regular orgasms can also help because the endorphins released during sex are natural painkillers.

5. Lack of Regular Exercise

An increasing number of studies support the fact that regular exercise helps improve not only digestive symptoms associated with IBS but also the levels of anxiety, depression, energy levels and overall quality of life. Benefits are reported within 12 weeks of starting a fitness plan.

Regular exercise speeds up the elimination of intestinal gas and therefore reduces bloating. Being active and drinking enough water during exercise can also prevent constipation. Feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and cannabis-like substances are released during exercise, helping improve pain and emotional wellbeing. Being strong and active also gives people a sense of being in control of their lives, including their IBS. Exercise helps achieve optimal weight as well.

If you don’t exercise regularly, you should consider starting a fitness plan. The goal is to work out at least 30 minutes daily, 3-4 times a week and include aerobic exercises, strength training (with weights), and yoga. If you have days when you are unable to exercise, do at least some stretching or go for a quick walk.

Read more about avoiding IBS triggers over at NewLifeOutlook.