Irritable bowel syndrome is a digestive disease that many people suffer from. In fact, it is estimated that between 25 and 45 million people in the United States are affected by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Managing IBS involves making dietary and lifestyle changes that support gut health and digestion. It also involves avoiding common trigger foods or foods that trigger symptoms.
Eating the right foods and figuring out what foods trigger you can significantly impact your quality of life managing IBS. In this article, we will discuss some of the best foods for IBS, talk about trigger foods for IBS, and how you can learn to best manage your IBS symptoms.
What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic digestive disorder that affects the large intestine. This common digestive condition is considered to have no definitive cure, and experts are also uncertain about the causes of IBS. However, many people with IBS find that specific dietary and lifestyle changes help them better manage their symptoms.
While irritable bowel syndrome may cause digestive upset and affect the quality of life, it is not considered by mainstream medical professionals a severe condition. However, this is debated among many health practitioners, particularly practitioners of alternative or holistic medicine systems, as the digestive system is considered by many to be the root of health, so if there is an imbalance in the gut, it may lead to a more significant imbalance in one's health overall.
While the exact causes of IBS are unknown, research on this digestive condition suggests that it has something to do with the gut-brain interaction. Our gut has many nerves connected to it, collectively referred to as the "enteric nervous system." These nerves send and receive signals from the brain along what is called the "gut-brain axis."
Health experts believe that IBS is related to an issue in the gut-brain axis, and emerging research is beginning to point to stress as a primary culprit. Stress is a psychological issue that many people struggle with today. While stress is considered psychological, it has very physical effects—including changes in heart rate, breathing, muscular tension, microbial balance, hormonal balance, and much more.
Someone under chronic stress is likely to create frequent changes in their physiology that can lead to other chronic conditions—including chronic digestive conditions like IBS. So, while diet plays a significant role in gut health and digestion, stress and mental health are equally important. So, while eating foods good for IBS may be helpful, addressing your stress levels and psychological balance is also recommended to heal this condition at the root.
What Are the Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
IBS results from the gut and brain not working correctly together, which can cause heightened sensitivity in the digestive tract, leading to uncomfortable digestive symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain
- Burning indigestion
- Changes in bowel habits
These symptoms can also indirectly affect energy levels and mental health, causing feelings of fatigue, tiredness, brain fog, and even mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Understanding IBS Triggers
One of the characteristics of IBS is that digestive issues tend to have identifiable triggers. However, the triggers that people experience with IBS also differ from person to person. Common trigger foods tend to be general triggers for most people. Still, most people also have unique triggers, while common trigger foods may not affect some.
When you have IBS, observing your eating habits and how different foods affect you is essential. This will help you understand how to best manage your unique IBS symptoms.
Eating the right foods for your IBS is essential for helping to manage symptoms and prevent flare-ups. Following an elimination diet can help you to identify triggers. Many people with IBS also adopt lactose-free or gluten-free diets to pay greater attention to how these foods affect them.
Many people consider high FODMAP foods to also be common trigger foods for IBS, so they choose to go on a low FODMAP diet to better manage their symptoms. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, polyols, and short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that do not absorb well in the small intestine. People commonly experience digestive distress after eating foods high in FODMAPs.
Essentially, FODMAPs are difficult-to-digest carbohydrates and are fermented by gut bacteria in the colon. When carbs can't break down, they sit in your gut and can cause symptoms such as diarrhea and bloating. To learn more about FODMAPs and the low FODMAP diet, read our article "Low FODMAP Diet for Beginners."
The Best Foods for IBS
The best foods for IBS will typically be low in FODMAPs. While the average person may think that a standard diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains is healthy, it may not be the case for someone with IBS. For people with IBS, some of these foods may be trigger foods that make their digestive symptoms worse.
Someone with IBS needs to be more particular about the foods they eat. Many people today tend to pay little attention to eating and digesting food. We typically just devour our food rapidly or while distracted with television or conversation and then pay no mind to how that food is moving through our digestive system.
Everyone should pay attention to how the food they eat affects them, but for someone with IBS, it is absolutely critical. Only through observing your own daily foods and eating habits will you understand what has a positive or negative effect on your digestion. This is why elimination diets are so beneficial. They can help you determine safe foods for IBS in your unique case.
That being said, certain foods are generally considered suitable for IBS patients, and certain foods are considered harmful for people with IBS. So, what foods are good for IBS?
Eggs are usually beneficial for people with IBS because they are straightforward to digest and don't tend to upset the colon. They are also highly nutritious and a great source of many essential nutrients. Still, not everyone digests eggs the same. For some, eggs may upset their digestion. This is why paying attention to how foods affect you is essential.
2. Low FODMAP Vegetables
Vegetables are a staple in all healthy diets. However, for IBS patients, certain vegetables are better than others. For people with IBS, focusing on eating low FODMAP vegetables is recommended. These include:
- Bell peppers
- Green beans
- Sweet potato
- Kale (cooked)
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Baby spinach
3. Low FODMAP Fruits
Fruits are also a staple to any healthy diet, but like vegetables, some are higher in FODMAPs than others. For someone with IBS, eating low FODMAP fruits is best, such as:
- Honeydew melon
4. Low FODMAP Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds provide many great health benefits. However, some are better for people with IBS than others. The best nuts and seeds for IBS include:
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
5. Low FODMAP Grains
The majority of grains are avoided on a low FODMAP diet. However, there are still some that are considered acceptable. Of course, you will want to observe how these grains affect you. Some low FODMAP grains include:
The foods mentioned above tend to be the most soothing foods for IBS, but everyone's diet is unique. An elimination diet will help you determine which foods are best for you and what foods trigger IBS symptoms.
Eating Fiber with IBS
Fiber is important for gut health, but people with IBS may be affected by fiber differently. In addition, many high-fiber foods are also high in FODMAPs. So, finding high-fiber foods for IBS that don't trigger symptoms is crucial.
Different types of fiber may also affect your digestion differently. Soluble fiber soaks up excess water in stool and helps to provide bulk to stools, making bowel movements more regular. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stool and increases bowel transit time. Suppose you have IBS with diarrhea as a significant symptom. In that case, you may want to focus on eating more soluble and less insoluble fiber.
Here is a list of soluble fiber foods for IBS:
- Bell peppers
- Green beans
- Sweet potato
The Worst Foods for IBS
Now that we've discussed the best foods for IBS let's talk about the worst foods for IBS. These foods are the most likely to trigger flare-ups in IBS symptoms. But, again, some foods may work better or worse for others.
1. High FODMAP Foods
The most important foods to avoid with IBS are high FODMAP foods. These include:
· High-fructose corn syrup
· Agave nectar
· Soda and soft drinks
· Butternut squash
· Beans (green beans are okay)
· Dried fruits
· Flavored yogurt
· Ice cream
· Sweetened cereals
While some people with IBS may be able to have dairy, it tends to be a trigger food for most people. In addition, the lactose in dairy can be difficult for people with IBS to digest, so it is recommended to avoid it until you are sure how it affects you.
3. Beans and Legumes
Essentially, all beans and legumes are recommended to be avoided for IBS patients as they tend to cause gas and bloating and may worsen symptoms of IBS. However, of all legumes, some people can tolerate mung beans and split mung beans better than other legumes. So, if you want legumes in your diet, these would be good ones to experiment with to see how your body digests them.
4. Certain Fruits and Vegetables
Some fruits have high levels of fructose, such as apples, pears, and watermelon, and can trigger IBS symptoms. Instead, eating fruits with lower levels of fructose, such as bananas, grapes, berries, and citrus fruits, is recommended. Certain vegetables are also more challenging to digest for people with IBS; these are cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, as well as high FODMAP vegetables like asparagus, onions, and shallots.
5. Sugar Alcohols and Artificial Sweeteners
Sugar alcohol and artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol, and xylitol can hurt digestion and trigger IBS symptoms. These are commonly found in chewing gum and other candies.
Other Tips for Managing IBS
In addition to focusing on diet, some other tips for managing IBS include:
- Drink plenty of water
- Avoid caffeine
- Increase soluble fiber intake
- Focus on eating in a way that supports digestion (chewing food well, not overeating, eating while relaxed, not being distracted or upset while eating, giving a few hours between each meal, avoiding dessert, etc.)
- Exercise regularly
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Keep stress levels low with yoga, meditation, nature walks, music, etc.
- Drink herbal digestive teas like ginger, peppermint, fennel, or chamomile
Living with IBS can be challenging and uncomfortable. However, many people find that changing their diet and lifestyle makes their symptoms much more manageable. When you know what triggers your IBS symptoms, you can know how to best avoid these foods and prevent flare-ups. You can also determine what foods and practices are the most soothing to your IBS symptoms.
Instead of seeing IBS as a burden, you can see it as an invitation to take better care of your body and to understand what foods and habits truly bring you more health and comfort. The more you know how to care for your IBS and yourself, the happier and healthier you will be.