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What Is IBS — And How Does Your Diet Worsen Its Symptoms?

It's IBS Awareness Month, which is the perfect time to learn about this chronic digestive disorder.


Your diet and digestive system supply your body with the nutrients it needs to function properly. One of the reasons it’s important to prioritize a balanced diet, especially as you age: an unhealthy diet could raise your risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This chronic digestive disorder negatively impacts your gastrointestinal tract, and causes symptoms like abdominal discomfort, bloating, and diarrhea. Among the estimated 15 percent of the US population affected by IBS, women are more likely to be diagnosed than men. Although certain eating habits can exacerbate IBS symptoms, an intentional diet can also serve as a tool for lessening those symptoms. With April being IBS Awareness Month, we spoke to two health and nutrition experts about the role that diet plays in managing this digestive disorder.

What causes IBS?

According to Ali Rezaie MD, MSc, FRCPC, there are several factors that trigger this disorder. “For a long time, IBS was considered a psychosomatic disease [a disease involving mental and physical factors that may not have a medical explanation]. But, now we know that imbalanced gut microbiome (e.g. small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), abnormal motility of the bowels, and other organic causes interplay a complex network in development of IBS symptoms,” Dr. Rezaie, a gastroenterologist with a specialty in IBS, and a member of the Medical Advisory Board for Good LFE (a product and lifestyle brand focusing on microbiome health and wellness for those dealing with SIBO, IBS, or general gut health issues), explains to Woman’s World. The good news? Dr. Rezaie notes that lifestyle modifications, dietary changes, supplements, and/or medications can help effectively manage IBS — which isn’t a one-size-fits-all digestive disorder. 

Are there different types of IBS?

In the process of diagnosing IBS, your doctor will determine the type you have based on certain symptoms. Here are the four subcategories of IBS, as listed on Johns Hopkins Medicine’s website:

  • IBS-D: Diarrhea and abdominal discomfort 
  • IBS-C: Constipation and abdominal discomfort 
  • IBS-mixed: Fluctuating loose stools and constipation with abdominal discomfort 
  • IBS-U (U stands for unsubtyped): Symptoms don’t fit the above criteria but may include gas and bloating

Regardless of the type, IBS symptoms can be heightened or minimized due to the foods you eat on a daily basis. Keep reading to learn about the dietary component of dealing with IBS.

What foods will aggravate IBS symptoms?

To pinpoint the foods that are potentially worsening your IBS symptoms, Leah Johnston, RDN, culinary nutrition certified registered dietitian at SRW, encourages you to keep track of your eating habits. “My number one suggestion to people struggling with IBS symptoms is to spend a week or two keeping a food journal that details what you eat and drink, when you eat, any symptoms you experience, and any emotions you may have felt during the day. Yes, sometimes stress can also play a role in what happens in your gut,” she tells Woman’s World.

While the foods that trigger IBS differ for everyone, Johnston shares 10 that are commonly linked with aggravating symptoms:

  • Fried foods
  • Dairy (for those who are lactose intolerant)
  • Fatty foods 
  • Processed foods 
  • Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
  • Wheat (if there is a gluten sensitivity)
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Chocolate

What is the best diet for irritable bowel syndrome?

Your IBS journey will involve finding the best diet or eating patterns that support personal symptom relief. One helpful diet that’s been studied in IBS patients is called a low FODMAP diet. (FODMAP stands for fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.) Johnston explains that FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates found in a variety of foods including — but not limited to — apples, legumes, cashews, and some marinated meats. These foods are classified as “high FODMAP foods” and are believed to cause IBS symptoms in many cases. Therefore, cutting out these foods and/or evaluating how they affect your digestive system is the goal of adopting a low FODMAP diet.

A low FODMAP diet, more specifically, is a three-step process of eliminating these foods from your diet, reintroducing them to see which ones are troublesome, and identifying the ones that are triggering IBS symptoms. With the guidance of a health professional, this diet could yield positive results. However, Dr. Rezaie warns of a potential negative side effect if you prolong this diet. “Given its restrictive nature, long-term adherence to this diet beyond several months has been associated with malnutrition,” he says. Always consult with your doctor before making any dietary changes to ensure you tackle IBS in the best way possible.

The Bottom Line

Managing IBS symptoms through diet is a gradual process that requires monitoring your daily food intake. You may find that small adjustments to your mealtime habits are effective for getting relief, or that a medical food product such as enterade IBS-D is a beneficial addition to your everyday routine. (This drink is formulated with plant-based amino acids, electrolytes, and minerals. These nutrients help improve fluid and mineral absorption to lessen IBS-D symptoms like diarrhea, bowel urgency, and dehydration.)

Ultimately, a doctor-approved dietary game plan for IBS restores your digestive health — and reduces painful trips to the bathroom!

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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