Causes Of IBS Flare-Ups And How To Avoid Them

Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is a medical condition that affects millions of Americans. This condition includes symptoms like abdominal pain or cramping, bloating, and changing bowel habits such as chronic diarrhea (known as IBS-D) or chronic constipation (known as IBS-C), or sometimes both at different times. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and they can get in the way of living a happy and productive life.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with IBS and would like to learn more about how to avoid some of the most uncomfortable symptoms, read on to learn more.

Have you considered clinical trials for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is an IBS flare-up/attack?

Sometimes, IBS symptoms come and go. One day, you may feel fine, and then you may have debilitating discomfort the next. When you actively have IBS symptoms, or they are particularly bothersome, it’s called an IBS flare-up or attack. You can go for weeks or even months without a flare-up, and then one can occur, seemingly out of nowhere.

Because this condition is unpredictable, it isn’t easy to prepare yourself for symptom flares. They can happen at any time and in any place. IBS flare-ups can have a serious effect on both your mental and physical health. Because you don’t know when a flare-up is imminent, you may end up canceling plans or avoiding going out.

IBS attacks may cause you to miss time at work or school when you aren’t feeling well, and in the long term, IBS can have big repercussions on your life. It’s hard to set and reach goals when you aren’t sure how you’ll be feeling from day to day.

This is why it’s important to track your symptoms and understand what may be triggering your attacks. Their impact can vary from person to person, but understanding how IBS affects you can help you manage your symptoms.

It’s always recommended that you talk with your doctor or gastroenterologist so that you can get professional advice regarding symptom management and treatment options.

How long will an IBS flare-up last?

It can be difficult to guess how long a flare-up will last once it starts. For some people, symptoms come and go within a few hours. For others, the pain and discomfort can be ongoing, affecting them for weeks or even months at a time.

For most people, though, a flare-up will last between two and four days. The severity of symptoms can fluctuate throughout the attack. Some medications are available that can help you manage your symptoms during an attack, and there are a few steps you can take to potentially shorten its length. Read below for more information.

What are the main triggers of an IBS attack?

The exact causes of IBS are still unknown, which makes it a challenging condition to diagnose. Most people live with the symptoms for years before getting a proper diagnosis. Your doctor will look at your symptom and attack patterns to help make a diagnosis and may be able to help you identify your triggers as well.

Triggers can vary from person to person, so tracking your habits and symptoms can help you figure out your personal triggers. Here are some of the most common IBS flare-up triggers:

  • Stress: While stress doesn’t cause IBS, it can trigger symptom flares. Try your best to learn strategies for handling stressful situations, and regularly practice relaxation techniques like meditation and mindfulness. 

  • The menstrual cycle: Women are more commonly diagnosed with IBS than men. Some women find that flare-ups happen right before their period starts.

  • A lack of quality sleep: Your body doesn’t perform well when you are sleep deprived. Sometimes, your body can have elevated levels of stress hormones and inflammatory compounds when you don’t get enough sleep, and that can lead to worsening symptoms.

  • Certain foods: For many people, food is one of the biggest triggers of IBS symptoms.

Which foods trigger IBS attacks?

Many foods that trigger IBS attacks contain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). These carbohydrates are not absorbed well by the small intestine and can sometimes sit in the colon and ferment, causing gas, bloating, and cramping.

Many common foods contain FODMAPs. Here are some of the biggest offenders:

  • Alliums: Foods like garlic, onions, chives, scallions, shallots, and leeks.

  • Some fruits: Fructose, the main sugar in fruit, is a FODMAP. Fruits that are lower in fructose can be enjoyed in smaller portions. Avoid stone fruits like peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, and nectarines, along with apples, pears, figs, and mangoes. For most people, berries and citrus fruits are safer choices.

  • Some vegetables: High FODMAP vegetables include broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. For most people, better choices would be spinach, carrots, bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini.

  • Beans: Beans are already known to cause gas in people without IBS. Stick to small portions of beans (1/4 cup or less). Some people find that canned beans affect them less than when they cook dried beans.

  • Diet drinks: Drinks that contain artificial sweeteners like sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, or isomalt can trigger IBS symptoms.

  • Dairy: Lactose (the sugar found in dairy products) is a FODMAP. Many people find that certain dairy products cause symptoms. If you still want to enjoy them, look for lactose-free or low-lactose options.

  • Some grains: Some whole grains and wheat, in particular, can cause IBS attacks. Try going gluten-free.

Not all of these foods affect everyone with IBS, though. It can be valuable to track what you eat or try an elimination diet to help identify your trigger foods.

How can you prevent IBS flare-ups?

When it comes to IBS attacks, prevention is key. When you experience IBS symptoms, keeping track of what’s been happening in your life before an attack can be very helpful. It can also be worthwhile to keep a symptom journal, where you write about your symptoms and triggers and keep track of life events or stressors.

Try to correlate the foods you eat with your symptoms and see if you can eliminate problem foods from your diet. Try different approaches to manage stress and get plenty of rest each night.

The lowdown

IBS is an uncomfortable and unpredictable condition. If you have been diagnosed with IBS, it’s important to learn what triggers your symptoms and how to properly manage them. Understanding your triggers can help you avoid IBS flare-ups so you can live a more comfortable and productive life.

Have you considered clinical trials for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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