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Dietary Triggers and IBS Flare Ups: How to Manage

Beth Nanson, RD

Written by: Beth Nanson, RD

Updated: April 2nd, 2024

Tired of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) flare-ups? And even more tired of not knowing what to cut back on to help alleviate symptoms? Look no further! Below are some common dietary triggers for IBS flare ups, and tips for minimizing exposure to these triggers while still enjoying a nutritious and varied diet.

Let’s dive in!

More of a visual learner? Skip to the Dietary Triggers and IBS Infographic

FODMAPs

FODMAP is an acronym that stands for Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols. It’s a mouthful!

To clarify, these are the names of specific short-chain carbohydrates that aren’t well digested and absorbed in our gastrointestinal tract. Because of this, they sit in our small intestine and become osmotic, pulling water into the gut, often leading to loose stools. They then travel to the large intestine where they are fermented by our gut bacteria, which creates by-products that contribute to bloating, distension, and gas production.

Approximately 50-80% of individuals with IBS are sensitive to FODMAPs. If you fall within this group, it may be advisable to trial a low FODMAP diet. The low FODMAP diet was first developed by researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Monash currently certifies products that have been independently tested by the Monash University FODMAP laboratory and is found to suitable for low FODMAP diets. Ensure you keep an eye out for the logo on products to make it easier for you!

As this diet is not suitable for all and is difficult to follow without professional guidance, CDHF recommends this is something that should be done under the supervision of a registered dietitian.

Dehydration

Being dehydrated can worsen IBS symptoms. Adequate hydration, on the other hand, can support proper gut function and limit symptoms such as constipation, bloating and abdominal discomfort.

Not sure if you’re dehydrated? Consider if you experience any of the following symptoms as they help indicate dehydration:

To prevent dehydration, it’s recommended to aim for at least 8 cups of fluid per day, ideally water. Specifically, monitor your urine colour. Aim for urine that resembles lemonade colour, if it’s darker you are likely dehydrated.

Here are some tips to help increase your water intake:

Caffeine

We love our coffee! But unfortunately, caffeine can cause IBS flare ups. Its impact varies but it may be something you consider as a potential flare-trigger.

Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks, and chocolate. Try reducing your intake of caffeinated products to assess if your IBS symptoms improve.  Here are some tips to reduce caffeine intake include:

dietary trigger - coffee

Alcohol

To many peoples’ disappointment, alcohol is a common cause of IBS flare ups. Specifically, it can increase gut motility, leading to loose stools, and also result in bloating and abdominal discomfort.

Alcohol can irritate our gut lining and alter the population of bugs in our gut microbiome. Further, some alcoholic drinks contain FODMAPs, short chain carbohydrates that aren’t well digested or absorbed, increasing the chance of IBS flare ups.

To help lessen the effects of IBS flare ups, try some of the following tips:

Carbonated Beverages

Although carbonated beverages provide a desirable texture for your drink of choice, they can potentially lead to IBS flare ups such as bloating, distension, and gas.

Carbonated drinks contain high amounts of carbon dioxide, a gas that gets swallowed and trapped in your gastrointestinal tract. As this gas expands, we may feel bloated and distended and as the gas looks for ways to escape our body, we may notice more belching and flatulence.

If this is a common beverage of choice for you, here are some tips to reduce IBS symptoms:

dietary trigger - carbonated beverages

Spicy Food

Have you noticed a connection between your symptoms and spicy foods? Spicy foods can be a common gut irritant and may be something you want to limit in your diet to relieve symptoms.

Specifically, the active component of chilli is capsaicin, which can increase gut motility, leading to loose stools and abdominal pain in those suffering from IBS.

Thus, here are some strategies to limit the spice in your diet while still maintaining flavour!

*Please note, some of the above flavours may be high FODMAP so take caution if you have known FODMAP triggers.

Fatty Food

Many IBS sufferers’ report a worsening of symptoms with the ingestion of fatty foods, such as pizza, ice cream, beef, and deep-fried foods. This is because foods with a high fat content can increase transit time in the gut, leading to diarrhea as well as extra bloating and gas production.

In reality, everyone’s gut response is different, so you’ll have to test which fatty foods cause IBS flare ups for your specific symptoms, and in what amount.

Of course, many of these foods are delicious and we don’t want to restrict any foods from the diet unnecessarily! Below are some ways you can minimize your exposure to fatty foods, in the hopes of lessening your IBS symptoms:

Added Sugars

Yes, we all love sugar, however, foods with a high content of added sugar can be a common IBS flare up trigger. Particularly, added sugars over naturally occurring sugars (i.e. lactose in milk) may cause symptoms.

By and large, common irritants may include, but are not limited to:

 Those with IBS usually report a worsening of symptoms upon consumption of these types of foods. It’s not widely known why exactly this happens, but it’s thought that added sugars can increase inflammation and permeability in the gut, both of which have been connected to increased gastrointestinal symptoms.

Further, many of these high-sugar foods also contain FODMAPs, fermentable carbohydrates that can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea.

However, you don’t need to avoid all sugar! Instead, you can strategically limit your intake of added sugars to observe if this reduces your IBS symptoms. Some tips to minimize your intake of added sugars are below:

dietary triggers - cookies and cake

Insoluble Fibre

Remember, insoluble fibre, although very beneficial, can be rougher on the gastrointestinal tract. These fibres may worsen loose stools or abdominal discomfort in those with IBS. If you think they may cause you IBS flare ups, use some of the tips below to reduce insoluble fibre from your diet and see if your symptoms improve!

In short, if you see improvement, you can reintroduce one food at a time to identify which ones trigger you and which don’t. This is also a good way to test your tolerance to the amount that triggers you.

Alternatively, if you see no improvement, it’s important to bring these fibres back into the diet, as they still play an integral role in the health of our digestive tract.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, there are a variety of dietary triggers that may cause IBS flare ups. That’s why it’s important to work with a registered dietitian to help you manage your symptoms.

If you are looking for additional help monitoring and tracking your IBS symptoms, consider looking into the myIBS app. This app allows you to track your:

Tracking this information can help you better understand how to properly manage your IBS. Don’t forget to discuss your results with your primary care team!

Finally, if you are looking for more resources check out our IBS resources page!

References

  1. Monash ‘The NICE Guidelines diet and IBS’ https://www.monashfodmap.com/blog/nice-guidelines-diet-and-ibs/
  2. CDHF ‘When your gastrointestinal condition leaves you dehydrated’
  3. Leigh Merotto ‘Ways to Enhance the Flavour of Meals at Home’ https://www.leighmerotto.com/blog/healthy-ways-to-flavour-meals-at-home – Casa de Sante ‘IBS and Spicy Food’ https://casadesante.com/blogs/ibs/ibs-and spicyfood#:~:text=Many%20IBS%20sufferers%20report%20that,%2C%20diarrhea%2C%20and%20abdominal%20pain.
  4. Healthlink BC ‘Healthy Eating Guidelines for Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/sites/default/files/healthyeating/pdf/eating-guidelines-for-irritable-bowel-syndrome.pdf
  5. THE IBS DIETITIAN ‘Sugar and IBS’ https://thefoodtreatmentclinic.com/sugar-and-ibs/
  6. NIH ‘A Dietary Intervention with Reduction of Starch and Sucrose Leads to Reduced Gastrointestinal and Extra-Intestinal Symptoms in IBS Patients’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6682926/#:~:text=Patients%20with%20irritable%20bowel%20syndrome,with%20gastrointestinal%20(GI)%20symptoms.
  7. American Heart Association ‘Tips for Cutting Down on Sugar’ https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/tips-for-cutting-down-on-sugar
  8. Heart & Stroke ‘Reduce Sugar’ https://www.heartandstroke.ca/healthy-living/healthy-eating/reduce-sugar
  9. UMass Chan Medical School ‘Tips for Reducing Added Sugar’ https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/Cardiovascular/handouts/tips-for-reducing-added-sugar/
  10. CDHF ‘How to Use CDHF’s myIBS App’ https://cdhf.ca/en/how-to-use-cdhfs-myibs-app/
  11. Monash: ‘IBS Diet’ https://www.monashfodmap.com/ibs-central/diets/
  12. HealthLink BC ‘Healthy Eating Guidelines for Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthy-eating-physical-activity/conditions/digestive/healthy-eating-guidelines-irritable-bowel

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