Eating Away at IBS Pain

Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms eased by diet and eating habits

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

Irritable bowel syndrome — even the name of this condition conveys the unpleasant nature of its symptoms. Fortunately for most people with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, small changes to their diet, nutrition and eating habits can go a long way in easing symptoms.

Though each patient is different and each case unique, there are many strategies to try. Making dietary changes to ease IBS with a "trial and error" approach can be helpful until the right mix of strategies is discovered.

The Mayo Clinic notes that, though dietary changes may not produce immediate results, the goal is to find long-term relief from symptoms. Patience is required to find lasting solutions in each individual case of IBS.

Passing on Trigger Foods

IBS is a disorder which affects the colon, or large intestine. Symptoms vary but include bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea.

Thankfully, IBS is not related to long-term colon damage or to the development of more serious conditions. Because of this, treatment often relies heavily on managing choices related to diet, stress and lifestyle.

Though every patient's triggers and symptoms are different, there are some common culprits that aggravate symptoms of IBS.

According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), these common triggers include high-fat foods, milk products, alcohol, caffeine, foods high in artificial sweeteners and foods known to cause gas, like broccoli, cabbage and beans.

"Keeping a food diary is a good way to track which foods cause symptoms so they can be excluded from or reduced in the diet," the NDDIC suggests.

In an interview with dailyRx, Deborah Gordon, MD, homeopathic and nutrition expert, suggested a process of elimination to discover which foods aggravate symptoms for individual patients.

"I urge IBS patients to take a 30-day holiday from grains, legumes and dairy," said Dr. Gordon.

Dr. Gordon noted that this temporary change in diet will often create lasting changes in the patient's lifestyle, but if patients do want to re-introduce foods, she suggested doing so one food at a time and focusing on only sprouted grains and legumes.

According to Dr. Gordon, if this elimination of grains, legumes and dairy doesn't help ease symptoms, patients should try to remove other foods from their diet, one at a time, for a week or two and watch to see if symptoms improve.

"Sugars and refined carbohydrates, or any processed foods, are frequent offenders," explained Dr. Gordon. "FODMAPS is an acronym that covers many of the commonly offending foods in IBS. The list of foods is long and includes fructans (wheat, onions, leeks, asparagus, chocolate and artichokes), galactans (legumes), polyols (apples, pears, nectarines, avocados, cauliflower, mushrooms and artificial sweeteners), lactose (dairy) and high fructose sources."

Adding Helpful Foods

Beyond what foods to avoid, Dr. Gordon had some suggestions on foods to add that may help people with IBS.

"The most helpful single food is homemade bone broth soup — bones simmered long enough so the gelatin leaches out of the bones and the broth is a jello consistency in the fridge," said Dr. Gordon.

Dr. Gordon also recommended fermented foods like fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir or yogurt for those who can tolerate dairy.

The NDDIC takes a slightly different approach, suggesting that patients eat "...meals that are low in fat and high in carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, and vegetables." Again, every patient is different so some trial periods will likely be needed.

In addition, Dr. Gordon recommended a variety of supplements, including melatonin, fermented cod liver oil, vitamins A, D and K, fish oil, probiotics and betaine HCl. Individual patients can work with their physicians to determine which supplements and dosages will be most helpful for their unique bodies.

The Mayo Clinic notes that dietary fiber, which can be found in foods like whole grains, veggies, fruits and beans, may help some patients, but may worsen symptoms in others.

"Although it helps reduce constipation, it can also make gas and cramping worse," explains the organization, which recommends that patients experiment by increasing the amount of fiber in their diets slowly over a few weeks.

"Some people do better limiting dietary fiber and instead take a fiber supplement that causes less gas and bloating," says the Mayo Clinic. "If you take a fiber supplement, such as Metamucil or Citrucel, be sure to introduce it gradually and drink plenty of water every day to minimize gas, bloating and constipation."

Considering Eating Habits

Dr. Gordon also suggests considering the notion that "eating itself is an art." For patients with IBS, it may help to not only change the way they eat in terms of food items, but in terms of habits and practices as well.

"Slow down and chew thoroughly, just as your mother may have gently suggested to you," said Dr. Gordon. "Eat with friends or alone, but avoid TV and reading; it's too easy to be distracted from properly chewing and perhaps even making proper digestive enzymes."

The NDDIC explains that large meals may be an issue for people who suffer from IBS, sometimes causing symptoms like cramping and diarrhea. In these cases, focusing on smaller portions, or eating smaller meals more times throughout the day may help prevent uncomfortable symptoms.

IBS patients can benefit by drinking lots of fluids, with a focus on water.

"Alcohol and beverages that contain caffeine stimulate your intestines and can make diarrhea worse, and carbonated drinks can produce gas," the Mayo Clinic warns.

Easing the Discomfort

Though IBS can cause very uncomfortable symptoms, it is a fortunate fact that patients can play a big role by modifying diet and eating habits.

The process may be trial and error, but with patience and mindfulness, people with IBS can make great strides in reducing symptoms and living a life with more freedom from digestive troubles.

The NDDIC estimates that between 3 and 20 percent of the population is affected by IBS, but less than one-third of those people see their doctor and obtain a diagnosis.

Professionals like doctors and dietitians can help guide patients through this process and ensure that proper nutrition is maintained as the patient adjusts to a different diet.

By eliminating certain foods, adding others and approaching eating in a new way, patients have a better chance of easing symptoms and eating away at IBS.

Review Date: 
June 19, 2013