Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive disorder with symptoms such as bloating, cramps, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Individuals who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome can often face severe IBS symptoms that hinder their day-to-day activities.
These individuals can experience persistent IBS symptoms to varying degrees for days, weeks, or months at a time. Although symptoms may clear up for extended periods, IBS is typically a long-term issue that can manifest itself in different ways.
The good news is that there are treatments available for IBS, depending on your dominant symptoms. Medication, dietary changes, and cognitive behavioral therapy are some of the most popular ways to manage IBS.
It’s important to keep in mind that IBS is not caused by diet. In fact, the precise cause of IBS is not known. However, many people with IBS notice that certain foods seem to worsen their symptoms, whereas following a diet that eliminates those foods provides relief. Finding a dietary approach that offers long-term relief for your gut has far-reaching effects that positively impact physical and mental health and improve the overall quality of life.
The best diet for IBS can help offset symptoms and neutralize the pain and discomfort caused by this gastrointestinal problem, which is thought to affect between 24 and 45 million people in the U.S. alone.
12 Diet and Lifestyle Tips to Relieve IBS Symptoms
Understanding the food triggers that bring on IBS symptoms can be a straightforward and noninvasive way to avoid gastrointestinal issues that limit your enjoyment of daily life.
Because there is no generalized IBS diet that will work for everyone, people with IBS are generally recommended to follow a balanced, well-rounded diet. In addition to avoiding dietary triggers, it’s a good idea to eat regular meals at a relatively slow pace, avoid overeating, get enough fluid, and limit the intake of alcohol, caffeine, and sugary drinks.
To help you navigate the complicated world of nutrition advice for IBS sufferers, we’ve put together a list of some of the most popular tips and suggestions for using diet to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Another great idea is to work with a gut health nutritionist who can give you nutrition advice tailored to your unique symptoms and health history.
Hopefully, these suggestions will bring you one step closer to balanced, healthy eating habits that help offset your IBS symptoms in the long run.
1. Low-FODMAP Diet
Many people with IBS may follow a low-FODMAP diet at certain times to help discover their dietary triggers. Weaning off a low-FODMAP diet can help identify the foods that trigger IBS symptoms.
It involves temporarily eliminating short-chain carbohydrates, as these are gas-producing foods that typically cause abdominal pain and bloating.
Low-FODMAP diet foods include eggs, meat, brie cheese, almond milk, rice, oats, quinoa, eggplant, potatoes, and more. This approach is commonly used to treat digestive diseases and may help offset IBS symptoms and inflammation, but remember that as this is a very restrictive diet, it is intended as a short-term solution. It’s not recommended for pregnant women or children.
2. High-Fiber Diet
Recent studies suggest that adding soluble and prebiotic fiber may help alleviate IBS symptoms. A high-fiber diet is usually sustainable and may also bolster digestion and heart health. It may also help individuals lose weight and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. However, it’s important not to go beyond the suggested daily intake, as this can cause digestive discomfort, such as intestinal gas and bloating.
Examples of soluble fiber include legumes, beans, many fruits, oats, barley, and root vegetables. Prebiotic fibers include onions, asparagus, bananas, certain grains, some root vegetables, garlic, bananas, and leeks. This type of dietary fiber is a viable source of good gut bacteria.
3. Lactose-Free Diet
Physicians and nutritionists often recommend that individuals who have recently been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome try following a lactose-free diet. You might learn that dairy foods trigger IBS symptoms after going on this diet. Thus, removing dairy products could help with managing IBS over the long term.
You can continue to eat foods such as meat, vegetables, and grains as long as there’s no lactose or dairy. You can incorporate dairy alternatives such as almond milk or other lactose-free milk. Lactose-free yogurt and lactose-free cheese are also available.
4. Gluten-Free Diet
Some people with IBS prefer to follow a gluten-free diet free from rye, wheat, barley, and triticale (wheat/rye crossover). These foods all contain the protein known as gluten. Although it’s mainly suggested for people with gluten intolerance or allergy, not necessarily irritable bowel syndrome, it may help with the consistency of bowel movements and could potentially relieve abdominal pain and fatigue.
This diet focuses on whole foods and can be safe with proper nutritional planning. However, foods labeled gluten-free are not always healthy, and going gluten-free could reduce your fiber intake or lead to nutritional deficiencies.
5. Eat Fermented Foods
People with chronic digestive diseases such as IBS may benefit from adding fermented foods such as cultured buttermilk and kefir to their diet. These foods may help bolster activity in the digestive tract because of their positive impact on the gut flora.
This dietary method offers natural probiotics that could also be helpful in strengthening your immune system. Just ensure that you choose products that are low in sodium.
6. Eliminate Spicy Foods
Various spices can be food triggers for irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. For instance, there is evidence that capsaicin (the active component in chili peppers) can worsen abdominal pain in some people.
However, spice is likely to be just one trigger for IBS, so removing it will only be part of the solution. You can also experiment with your spice threshold (with milder spices) to ensure diversity in your diet.
7. Cut Down on Fried Foods
Limiting your intake of fried foods with a high-fat content may soothe your adverse digestive symptoms if you have IBS. The chemical makeup of food is altered by the frying process, which may cause difficulties with digestion and lead to discomfort.
Cutting down on fried foods is also a good way to help lower your risk of other illnesses, including heart disease and type II diabetes. It may also promote healthy weight loss.
8. Swap Cruciferous Vegetables for Other Nutritious Veggies
High-sulfur vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli, are cruciferous and may trigger symptoms of IBS such as gas and bloating. A cruciferous vegetable reduction diet (or elimination diet) may help pinpoint a specific IBS trigger.
Consider replacing these veggies with easier-to-digest options such as spinach, zucchini, sweet potatoes, green beans, squash, and celery. Cruciferous vegetables are very rich in nutrients, so removing them from your diet could leave a nutrition gap. Make sure that your low-sulfur veggie swaps are rich in nutrients.
9. Low-Fructose Diet
Generally speaking, fructose can be harsh on IBS sufferers. High-fructose corn syrup is present in many processed foods (e.g., chips and cookies). Levels of fructose are also high in dried fruit, watermelons, cherries, fruit juice, and concentrated fruits.
People with IBS may benefit from limiting their fruit intake to only three a day and avoiding high fructose corn syrup and fruits that are particularly high in fructose. Bananas, grapes, berries, and citrus fruits have comparatively lower fructose levels. Cutting down on foods containing high-fructose corn syrup may also lead to weight loss and an overall healthier lifestyle.
10. Limit Your Alcohol Intake
Eliminating alcohol or drinking more moderately can positively impact many facets of your life, including your mental and physical health. Some people with irritable bowel syndrome who eliminate alcohol from their lives have cited significant improvements in their digestive problems. Though it isn’t guaranteed to help ease IBS, it may lead to fewer flare-ups.
11. Ease Off the Caffeine
Many individuals with IBS choose to avoid coffee, chocolate, tea, colas, and certain over-the-counter pain relievers. Caffeine can cause diarrhea and may be linked to IBS flare-ups.
Additionally, cutting down on coffee and other caffeinated beverages may have other health benefits, such as reducing anxiety and headaches.
12. Be Wary of Sugar-Free Alternatives
Products like sugar-free gum contain sorbitol, xylitol, stevia, and other artificial sweeteners that may cause diarrhea. Chewing gum can be especially triggering for IBS symptoms because it results in excess swallowed air and gassiness.
Why Is It Important to Find the Best IBS Diet?
Every individual with IBS will experience the syndrome differently. Symptoms may come and go or change over time. They are also likely to become more severe or milder at different points in your life.
Not everyone with IBS has dietary triggers; for some people, the symptoms appear to be brought on by stress or poor sleep. Sometimes, people experience flare-ups without any apparent trigger. Dietary triggers can also change, which is why it’s recommended to keep a diary to take note of what seems to precipitate a worsening of symptoms.
While irritable bowel syndrome can impact both sexes, the proportion of people suffering from the condition is around one-third male and two-thirds female. IBS is a significant women’s health issue and has been linked to a heightened risk of abdominal surgical procedures such as ovarian surgery and hysterectomy.
How Top Nutrition Coaching Can Help
Managing a complex, ever-changing condition like IBS and following an appropriately balanced diet can sometimes feel like a guessing game. Finding the right support can also be a challenge. Your doctor will likely play a key role in your treatment plan, but many people with IBS choose to work with a gut health specialist who understands the importance of nutrition in managing IBS symptoms.
Fortunately, the fully qualified registered dietitians at Top Nutrition Coaching are ready to help you manage your IBS symptoms. Rather than relying on generalized guidance that may not be relevant to your unique situation, our team of gut health specialists can provide specific guidance based on your lifestyle and health indicators. They’ll work with you to create a personalized nutrition plan that will help alleviate symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Even better, you don't need to leave the comfort of your home to find a registered gut health dietitian to help you manage your irritable bowel syndrome. Just take our online quiz, and we’ll match you with your ideal nutrition expert.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are a few of the questions we’re commonly asked about IBS. If you don’t find the answer to your question here, feel free to contact us – we’re happy to help.
Can you heal IBS?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for IBS. Many people cope with IBS symptoms throughout their lives.
However, there are treatments that can help successfully manage symptoms. Dietary changes, mind-body techniques, nutritional supplements, prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, and exercise can help.
What are the IBS warning signs?
IBS warning signs include flatulence, tiredness/lack of energy, nausea, and backache. You might need to urinate often or have sudden urges to urinate. You might also struggle to control your bowel movements (incontinence).
What helps eliminate IBS?
Although you can’t eliminate IBS, you may be able to relieve symptoms by increasing the good bacteria in your digestive tract. Many medical experts also suggest taking probiotic supplements or eating yogurt rich in probiotics. Working out which foods trigger IBS symptoms and avoiding other triggers, such as stress or irregular sleep, can also help.