• Medical

IBS Flare Up: What Are the Symptoms, Causes and Treatments?

9.30.21

BY: DR. KYON HOOD, MD

Learn about the main symptoms of an IBS flare-up and what to do when your irritable bowel syndrome starts interfering with your life.

A flare-up of your IBS symptoms can be an uncomfortable experience, and it's often tough to figure out the best way to respond. In this post, we'll be walking you through the symptoms, causes, and treatments for IBS flare-ups. When you're finished reading, we hope you'll have a better sense of what to do when your IBS starts acting up.

What Is IBS?

IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome, a common condition that primarily affects your large intestine.

There isn't one clear cause for the development of IBS, but there are a few factors that seem to increase a person's risk of suffering from the condition:

  • Digestive issues caused by your nervous system. In some cases, another chronic condition can decrease the coordination of your nervous system and your intestines. The breakdown of communication between these systems can lead to many of the more uncomfortable symptoms of IBS, including cramps, diarrhea, and constipation.
  • Poor gut health. Your gut microbiome plays a key role in digestive health and your body's functioning as a whole. IBS seems to develop more often in individuals whose gut microbiomes are imbalanced, meaning the population of beneficial bacteria is lower than the amount of bad bacteria in the gut.
  • Stress. Chronically feeling stressed can cause problems with a wide array of functions and systems within your body, including your immune system, gut, and brain. One of the main ways that stress can disrupt your body's normal functioning is by causing IBS symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea, and gas. In addition, stress might motivate you to eat less carefully, potentially causing you to eat foods that trigger your IBS.
  • Bacterial infection. In some cases, you may start to notice IBS symptoms after recovering from a bacterial infection or food-borne illness. These illnesses can lead to the development of IBS by having a negative impact on your gut microbiome and interfering with normal digestion.

What Causes IBS Flare Ups?

IBS flare-ups are times when your symptoms are worse than normal. Everyone's IBS triggers are a bit different, but the most common causes of a flare-up are the following:

Certain Foods and Beverages

For many sufferers of IBS, certain foods and drinks can trigger worse-than-usual symptoms. Some of the most common causes of IBS flare-ups are caffeine, dairy products, wheat and other gluten-based grains, soda and other carbonated drinks, and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.

For some people, an entire class of foods known as FODMAPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) can trigger IBS symptoms.

Foods that fit into the FODMAP category include:

  • Dairy products, which contain a common bowel irritant called lactose. Lactose is a carbohydrate that is present in milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products. Many people who are lactose intolerant experience IBS-like symptoms when they eat these foods.
  • Glutinous grains like barley, rye, wheat, and spelt, which contain fructans. Fructans are oligo- or polysaccharides that are associated with better gut health for people who can digest them, and gastrointestinal distress for people who cannot. For anyone whose body doesn't respond well to fructans, gluten intolerance or Celiac disease is a possibility.
  • Many sweeteners, including xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol, and mannitol are all in a class of sugar alcohols called polyols. Polyols are also found in certain fruits and veggies, and they can cause a flare-up of IBS symptoms in some people.
  • Some fruits and vegetables contain high amounts of fructose and other simple carbohydrates, which can be IBS triggers for many people. Some of the most common offenders are onion, apples, mangoes, peaches, watermelon, and more.
  • Legumes like beans, peas, and lentils contain high amounts of galactans, which are another common trigger of IBS symptoms.

For many IBS sufferers, switching to a low-FODMAP diet can be one of the best sources of relief. This diet encourages anyone with IBS to steer clear of triggering foods, especially the foods listed above.

In addition, if your doctor recommends a low-FODMAP diet to you for your IBS, they may also advise that you pay attention to all other foods that you are eating to see if you have additional IBS triggers.

Increased Stress

While the link between stress and IBS isn't fully understood, there are a few theories about the evident connection between chronic stress and worse IBS symptoms:

  • Some doctors suspect that highly sensitive individuals are more susceptible to both stress and IBS. IBS tends to primarily affect people who are very physically and emotionally sensitive. These individuals may find relief from their IBS symptoms through relaxation techniques, yoga, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and even herbal stress-relievers like peppermint oil.
  • IBS and the immune system are linked. A weaker immune system seems to increase a person's risk of suffering from IBS, and chronic stress can compromise your immune system's ability to function.
  • The link between your mind and gut may have a great deal to do with your IBS symptoms. Gut health is closely linked to mental health, and vice versa. In many cases, sufferers of stress and anxiety also deal with gut problems, and one can be caused by the other.

What Are the Symptoms of an IBS Flare Up?

During an IBS flare-up, you're likely to experience any of the following symptoms:

Abdominal Pain

When suffering from an IBS flare-up, you're likely to experience pain and cramping in your abdomen and belly. These symptoms can also be a sign that you are dealing with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), especially if they do not seem to be triggered by specific foods.

If you are experiencing chronic abdominal pain and cramping, make sure to talk to your doctor.

Bloating

Bloating is another common symptom of an IBS flare-up. In many cases, IBS causes bloating due to your body's inability to properly digest certain foods.

For some people, the triggers of bloating are easier to trace – they might be food groups like dairy or whole grains. However, for others, the source of bloating and discomfort can be tougher to determine.

If you are suffering from bloating after the majority of your meals, your doctor may recommend that you try an elimination diet to figure out what specific foods are causing your GI symptoms. An elimination diet involves systematically cutting out certain foods and food groups from your diet one at a time and carefully observing how your body responds.

Gassiness

Getting gassy is one of the more embarrassing symptoms of IBS flare-ups. To make matters worse, the gas caused by a bout of IBS symptoms is often much harder to control than what you’d normally experience.

After eating triggering foods – or during a period of high stress – a sufferer of IBS may find themselves burping and passing gas more often. In addition, it may feel like there is a buildup of gas in their stomach, feeling almost like an “air bubble.”

Diarrhea and Constipation

Finally, some of the most difficult IBS flare-up symptoms to deal with are diarrhea and constipation. In some cases, a flare-up of IBS will make it nearly impossible to have a normal bowel movement. In the event that your flare-up causes constipation, you may experience severe abdominal discomfort and cramping.

In other cases, an IBS flare-up can send you racing to the bathroom with an uncontrollable need to move your bowels. If a flare-up gives you diarrhea, it’s essential to keep your body hydrated with plenty of non-triggering drinks, especially water.

If your flare-up symptoms include diarrhea or constipation, and these symptoms persist for more than a few hours, it may be time to talk to your doctor. In some cases, what you think is an IBS flare-up might really be a food-borne illness or stomach bug, which often requires treatment.

How Can I Treat an IBS Flare Up?

In the event that you suffer from an IBS flare-up, you don’t have to sit and wait helplessly until the symptoms pass – there are plenty of steps you can take to get relief.

Here are some of the best ways to treat IBS flare-ups – and prevent more of them from happening.

Avoid Triggers

One of the most effective preventative measures against IBS flare-ups is avoiding the foods that trigger symptoms as much as possible. Before you can successfully avoid your triggers, though, you’ll need to know what they are.

As you’ve learned, some of the most common triggers for IBS flare-ups are FODMAPS. The foods that fall into the FODMAP category are often staples in a standard American diet – especially wheat and dairy – so it can be tough at first to cut these foods out of your diet.

However, at least temporarily eliminating all FODMAPS from your daily meals can help you get a sense of whether these foods are triggering your symptoms.

If you don’t find relief from eliminating FODMAPS from your diet, it may be time to talk to a doctor or dietician about next steps. A healthcare professional can help you determine what foods are causing your symptoms through blood testing and other methods.

While it may sound like a lot of work to get confirmation of what your IBS triggers are, it’s definitely worth it.

Apply Heat

When an IBS flare-up is causing abdominal cramping, one potential source of relief is a hot water bottle or other heat source. Applying heat to the aching on your abdomen can help you get some temporary relief.

In addition to locally applying heat, you can also take a hot bath or shower to get relief. If stress is one of your IBS triggers, a bath is a great self-care practice that also submerges your body in soothing heat.

Exercise

Many sufferers of IBS find that one of the best ways to get relief is low-impact exercise. Highly strenuous physical activity may be out of the question when you are suffering from cramps, bloating, and other symptoms, but you can still engage in milder forms of exercise during a flare-up.

Some of the most popular types of exercise among IBS sufferers are yoga, tai chi, swimming, cycling, and walking. All of these workouts put a relatively low strain on your body, get your blood flowing, and help you combat stress.

And, as an added bonus, choosing one of these types of exercise can help loosen things up a bit in your bowels when a flare-up has made you constipated.

De-Stress

Although the link between IBS flare-ups and stress isn’t fully understood, it’s evident that there is a connection between increased stress and more severe symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

One of the most helpful strategies for getting long-term relief from IBS is decreasing the sources of stress, or stressors, in your everyday life. These stressors could be related to work, relationships, current events, your health, or anything else that has a tendency to make you anxious.

You can reduce the amount of stress in your life by practicing healthy habits like:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Daily Exercise
  • Eating Well
  • Sleeping Enough
  • Journaling
  • Making margin – i.e., not filling up your week with too many tasks

By reducing your daily stress levels, you can do more than just manage IBS symptoms. Lower stress means better overall health, increased immunity, and higher quality of life.

Conclusion

If you’re struggling to manage your IBS, don’t give up. There are plenty of ways to keep your symptoms to a minimum and avoid flare-ups, including adjusting your diet and reducing the amount of overall stress in your life.

In times when IBS feels too difficult to manage, it’s never a bad idea to visit your doctor or nutritionist. With the help of a medical professional, you can tackle IBS and make your symptoms much easier to manage.

For more helpful information about health and wellness, make sure to check out our blog.

Sources:

Irritable bowel syndrome - Diagnosis and treatment | Mayo Clinic

Family Physician Shares Signs of Poor Gut Health | Piedmont

Belching, gas and bloating: Tips for reducing them | Mayo Clinic

Related Articles

Check out our information hub to get all the facts modern and in-home medicine – as well as helpful tips and tricks to keep you healthy on a daily basis.

Keep Reading

BACKED BY

Accomplice
Cherubic
Ludlow
305 Ventures