Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an uncomfortable, sometimes painful medical condition characterized by gastrointestinal disturbances. Symptoms vary from person to person, but in most cases, certain foods lead to bloating and cramping. Doctors generally instruct people with IBS to increase soluble fiber and decrease insoluble fiber, especially when dealing with IBS-D or IBS-predominant diarrhea. Often, the foods that trigger IBS symptoms vary slightly between individuals with the condition, though several common problematic foods exist. Besides the foods described below, the low FODMAP diet has been shown to help manage IBS.
Many people -- not just those with IBS -- experience discomfort after eating dairy. Lactose intolerance and IBS symptoms are almost identical, so some individuals with IBS may not even realize that they are lactose intolerant, and vice versa. Milk is high in fat, which can trigger diarrhea and other IBS symptoms. Dairy fat can also cause loose bowels and irritation. Almond, coconut, and hemp milk can replace dairy milk in many recipes.
Consuming fat triggers the colon and the rest of the digestive system to begin working. Unfortunately, after too many fatty foods, people with IBS often experience cramping, bloating, and periods of constipation and diarrhea. As the food works its way through the gut, the colon contracts, trapping gas and fecal matter with embarrassing or painful results. People with IBS should avoid fatty meat and fried, greasy foods as much as possible.
Gluten intolerance affects more than just people with Celiac disease, which is a serious allergy to the protein. Many people find gluten, a protein found in various ingredients, most commonly wheat, difficult to process. Though IBS and Celiac disease can be mistaken for one another, the symptoms caused by the former are unrelated to the autoimmune system. Though avoiding gluten requires reading a lot of food labels, there are many gluten-free options available today.
Despite the many health benefits attributed to the dark variety, chocolate is a common trigger for painful IBS symptoms, as well as other conditions such as migraines. While small amounts of chocolate are unlikely to cause serious side effects, too much can disrupt the digestive system. Milk chocolate, which is mixed with cocoa butter and sugar, is usually more problematic than very dark chocolate.
Fried foods are not good for anyone's digestive system, especially a person with a spastic colon. The high-fat content in fried foods is the most likely culprit, and foods like french fries and chicken fingers should be avoided or consumed in small amounts. Preparing baked versions of popular fast foods can ease cravings for these popular choices.
Red meat, including ground beef, hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, roast beef, ham, bacon, and salami, are triggers for IBS symptoms like gas, bloating, nausea, and constipation. These animal products lack fiber and have low water content, which can trigger contractions and spasms in the colon. Processed meats also contain additives and nitrates that can aggravate an already sensitive gut. Poultry and fish are learner alternatives that people with irritable bowel syndrome generally tolerate better.
Caffeine is a well-known gastrointestinal stimulant and is best avoided by people with IBS and those prone to symptoms like diarrhea. Beverages such as coffee, soft drinks, and black or green tea have enough caffeine to irritate the digestive system quite quickly. Though caffeine has numerous health benefits, as well, people with IBS should seek alternatives. Carbonated drinks are also good to avoid, as they often cause gas and bloating.
Alcohol is another gut stimulant that, once consumed, will quickly take command of the digestive system by moving things along quicker than desired, causing bloating, gas, distention, and discomfort. Soda-based cocktails can exacerbate these symptoms because of the added carbonation. Beer mixes alcohol with carbonation and gluten and could be the worst option. People with and without IBS should consume alcohol only in moderation, and the former may be able to occasionally enjoy distilled alcohol such as gin, vodka, scotch, whiskey and rye, and wine are least likely to cause gastrointestinal issues.
Beans are a heart-healthy food and an excellent source of plant-based protein; they are an especially significant part of many vegan and vegetarian diets. People who face digestive complaints, however, may need to reduce their consumption of pulses like beans, as they are prone to causing bloating, gas, and cramping. Given their nutritional profile, many people seek ways to work around these drawbacks. Soaking beans overnight or cooking the beans in pressure cookers can help remove the compounds that cause gas, and cooking at higher heat can also ease resulting IBS symptoms. However, Soy, black, fava, kidney, and navy beans should be avoided as they contain high amounts of fructans, which cause excessive bloating.
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and Brussel sprouts are healthy and popular vegetables, but they all tend to cause gas and bloating, especially when consumed raw. Cruciferous vegetables are high in sulfur and produce hydrogen sulfide when broken down in the colon. They also contain a compound called raffinose, which humans cannot break down, so it passes through the stomach and small intestine undigested. When raffinose enters the colon, the organ works harder to break it down, leading to bloating and gas.
On the next pages, find out some other lifestyle and environmental triggers that can cause IBS to worsen or even develop.
A significant amount of evidence points to stress triggering symptoms of IBS in many people. Additionally, stress and anxiety disorders often appear alongside IBS, hinting at a deeper link.
Experts recommend that people with IBS find ways to reduce stress levels, such as taking short rests, adopting meditation or other mindfulness techniques, or taking a hot bath.
Some drugs and medications may increase the risk of developing IBS, as well as worsening existing symptoms. This includes some antibiotics and, unsurprisingly, drugs that trigger diarrhea or similar gut issues.
Medications like cough syrup or gel capsules sometimes contain sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that can worsen diarrhea and other stomach problems.
Studies show that IBS symptom severity often fluctuates with the menstrual cycle, hinting that hormones can influence IBS. This could also be due to the variety of physical changes that occur during menstruation, such as changes in stool consistency and bowel movement frequency.
The menstrual cycle can also cause notable discomfort and stress, which may further worsen IBS symptoms.
For centuries, there have been beliefs about how food temperature affects the body. Modern research shows that consuming extremely hot food or beverages can increase a person's risk of cancer and cause gastric upset. The full extent of these effects is still unknown.
However, studies show that some people with IBS appear to be more sensitive to temperatures. Foods of either extreme could trigger or worsen IBS symptoms and abdominal pain.
Not getting enough exercise could also trigger an IBS flare-up. Many people with IBS consume more fiber to improve their condition. However, a sedentary lifestyle slows the movement of food and waste through the gut, and high fiber combined with a lack of exercise could lead to distal colon distension and worse IBS symptoms.
Then, there's stress, again. Many people also find exercise to be a great option for relieving stress, which could help with their condition.
People with IBS often experience sleep disturbances due to stomach pain or frequent bowel movements. However, research shows that there may be a more complex connection between sleep and IBS.
Most experts currently agree that while IBS symptoms can cause poor sleep quality, the reverse is also true. Speaking with a doctor and managing sleep concerns could help with IBS symptoms.
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