One of the most effective ways of dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is to learn which foods to eat and avoid. Choosing the right diet with irritable bowel syndrome can be a little different for everyone but there are some common food choices that can really help prevent the onset of symptoms. Although determining what helps with irritable bowel syndrome can be a complex process, diet should always be the primary approach to treatment since IBS is an ailment of the GI (gastrointestinal) tract.
If you already have a basic understanding of IBS then you can skip directly to the section on “The Best Diet For IBS”.
Understanding IBS – Just The Basic Facts
Irritable bowel syndrome affects about 10 – 20% of all people in the United States each year. It is a medical condition of the large intestine (colon) that can cause a variety of symptoms but most commonly belly (abdominal) pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea. The exact medical cause is not known but it can be brought on by a variety of factors, which are discussed below.
Some people with IBS are predominantly constipated (IBS-C) while others have mostly loose or diarrheal bowel movements (IBS-D). A mixed pattern (IBS-M) of constipation alternating with diarrhea can also be seen. The best way to treat IBS is to discover and treat the underlying cause. In some instances, medications may be required to control symptoms that are not responsive to other treatment methods.
Although there are no cures for irritable bowel syndrome it is a fairly benign condition under most circumstances. If you have chronic symptoms of diarrhea or constipation it is important to see your health care provider to rule out other potentially serious medical conditions before assuming you have IBS.
Here is a video from HealthSketch that will give you a great overview of IBS.
Who Gets IBS?
According to the Mayo Clinic, you are more likely to have IBS if you are less than 50 years old. In the United States, it is more common among women, especially those who are on estrogen therapy (before or after menopause).
It’s also possible that your genes can play a role in determining your risk for developing IBS. If you have anxiety, depression, or another mental illness then you may also be at higher risk.
The Best Diet For IBS
Many people ask me “what can I eat with irritable bowel syndrome?” There are many diets that can improve the symptoms of IBS but the best approach is to avoid foods that contain particular short-chain carbohydrates from four categories. These categories (better known as FODMAP) consist of Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols. They are “fermented” by bacteria in your gut, which produces excess gas.
The easiest approach to managing your carbohydrates is to become familiar with which foods are low in FODMAP and which foods contain high FODMAP concentrations. A good way to help define exactly what foods and meal plans work for you is to keep a food diary. Eat slowly with small portions and avoid gulping down food to minimize gas retention.
Foods That Help IBS (Low FODMAP)
Foods that are low in carbohydrates are generally best but here is a list of things that are “IBS-Friendly”. Items in this list are commonly found in all irritable bowel syndrome diets.
Vegetables – Carrots, celery, eggplant, green beans, bok choy, bell pepper, potatoes, carrots, cucumber, green beans, olives, kale, potato, pumpkin, spinach, and tomatoes (really a fruit),
Nuts and seeds – Cornmeal, peanuts, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, rice, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds,
Fruit – Bananas, blueberries, grapes, kiwi, oranges, pineapples, and strawberries,
Whole grains – Oats, oatmeal, and popcorn
Dairy – Almond milk, butter, cow’s milk ( lactose-free only), brie, eggs, feta cheese, hard cheeses, and tofu (firm consistency only)
Meats – Chicken, red meat, and seafood
If you want an outstanding reference book that explains the principle of a FODMAP diet then the number one book I recommend is The Complete Low-FODMAP Diet. This book contains an extensive collection of over 80 Low-FODMAP recipes and diet plans. It was written by Sue Shepherd, Ph.D., and Peter Gibson, M.D. They are two of the top experts in the field of gut-friendly diets for IBS.
Foods That Can Worsen IBS (High FODMAP)
Vegetables – Artichoke, asparagus, cauliflower, garlic, and onion
Beans and legumes – Beans, and lentils
Nuts and seeds – Cashews and pistachios
Fruit – Apples, blackberries, cherries, mango, nectarines, pears, and watermelon
Whole grains – Wheat, barley, and rye,
Dairy – Cow’s milk, soy milk, and yogurt
Be careful with avocado, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. They contain a moderate amount of FODMAP and too much could bring on your IBS symptoms, so keep your portion size small. You can experiment with them and see what happens.
Other Ways To Treat IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome may stem from a variety of causes (be multifactorial). After you have tweaked up your diet, if you are still having residual symptoms then consider addressing other contributing factors. Here are some of the things you can try to further improve your symptoms.
Dietary supplements – Although there are not a lot of published medical studies on the effect of many of the dietary supplements that are commonly used to treat IBS many people swear by them for symptom relief. One research study did show that antioxidants may have a role in the treatment of IBS. For more info see Foods High In Antioxidant – Eating Smart For Better Health.
Two of the “tried and true” supplements are fiber and probiotics. These are the ones that are recommended by most health care providers because they work, especially the fiber.
Some of the other things that are commonly used are peppermint oil, ginger, turmeric, digestive enzymes, pre-biotics (enhance the action of probiotics), symbiotics or also known as microbiome therapy (pre-biotics and probiotics together), calcium, magnesium, and CBD oil (derived from cannabis and hemp).
Exercise – Exercise generally helps everything so it’s not surprising that people who exercise daily report a significant improvement in their IBS symptoms and the regularity of their bowel movements. Exercise can also help by treating obesity since weight gain may make IBS worse. See Fast Weight Loss Exercises – 5 Easy Ways To Lose Fat Quickly!
Sleep – Sleep deprivation can worsen your IBS symptoms. You should aim to get 8 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. If you wake up multiple times a night you may have anxiety or depression issues that need to be addressed. Melatonin helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle and can improve your sleep quality and duration. See Natural Ways To Help With Sleep – Feeling Refreshed Every Morning!
Mindfulness and relaxation – One of the best ways to control anxiety and re-equilibrate your bodily functions is to get yourself in the proper frame of mind. People have successfully used techniques such as deep breathing, mental visualization, muscle relaxation, body scanning, repetitive focusing, and mindfulness meditation to help regulate their IBS symptoms. Yoga and Tai Chi are also excellent choices. For additional information see Mind Relaxation Techniques – A Healthy Escape From Reality.
Counseling – Counseling can help you effectively live with IBS by teaching you to create a lifestyle that works best with your condition and by learning to control your symptoms. Make an appointment to meet with a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. You can book a private session or meet in a group to share your experiences as well as treatment failures and victories.
Here are some useful links to IBS support groups and societies. They can provide you with a great deal of information on irritable bowel syndrome.
Biofeedback – Biofeedback uses a device that can monitor your heart rate (pulse), respiratory (breathing) rate, and galvanic skin response (GSR), which is a measure of sweat gland activity. Learning to control these bodily functions can be useful as a way to control your anxiety level, which can reduce or prevent your IBS symptoms. Biofeedback can be done in-office by a health care professional or by you using an at-home unit.
Physical therapy – Physical therapy can improve IBS symptoms by targeting dysfunctional muscles in the pelvis. You can work with a physical therapist to create a program that will relax these muscles and learn how to do these exercises at home. You might be surprised at how much the right therapy can do to control your IBS, especially if nothing else seems to be helping.
Medications – Over the counter and prescribed medications are available for the treatment of all types of IBS. Diarrhea can be controlled with pectin as well as antispasmodics. Antispasmodics decrease colon spasm. In severe cases, diarrhea can be controlled with narcotic medications. Constipation can be controlled with over the counter stool softeners, laxatives, and prescription medications. Check with your health care provider before beginning any medication on your own.
Here is a video from the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research that discusses tips for living with irritable bowel syndrome and summarizes treatment modalities.
The cornerstone for the treatment of IBS is a proper diet since it is a GI ailment. There are many diet plans available but ultimately the food choices you make need to be individualized to your particular body’s needs. A great starting point is the FODMAP diet. If you are having trouble zeroing in on a diet plan that works for you then consider seeing a dietician.
There are many other things you can do, in addition to optimizing your diet plan, like adding exercise, meditation, and biofeedback. Experiment to find just the right combination that works best for you. What helps irritable bowel syndrome in one person may not work well for someone else.
Your IBS symptoms and treatment needs can change, depending on what’s going on in your life. To achieve the best overall results be sure to build flexibility into your treatment program.
If you develop new GI symptoms that do not resolve on their own then always see your healthcare provider for a proper medical evaluation. The possibility of a serious underlying problem needs to be ruled out before treating yourself for IBS.
Tell Us What You Think
Please let us know what’s on your mind in the comment section, or if I can help you with anything.
- Do you have any additional tips or suggestions?
- What are you currently eating or doing to help your IBS symptoms?
- Do you have any experiences to share that might be helpful to others?