What Causes IBS Flare-ups?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a lifelong medical condition that causes digestive system symptoms. Experts are not sure the exact cause but some factors can increase the risk of developing it.

Stressed man experiencing eyes burning

Key takeaways

  • Irritable bowel syndrome is a collection of related symptoms.
  • There is no specific cause of IBS but different things can trigger its flare-up, including stress and certain foods.
  • Consuming foods like white rice and vegetables may help in managing IBS.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder affecting millions of people globally,. Though symptoms vary from one person to another, the unpredictable nature of flare-ups is a cause for concern. 

An IBS flare-up or attack can occur suddenly, bringing discomfort and other symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.

In this article, we will explore the causes of IBS flare-ups and provide tips on managing and preventing them so you can enjoy a better quality of life. 

What is Irritable bowel syndrome?

A syndrome is a group of related symptoms associated with a particular disease, and irritable bowel syndrome is a collection of related symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, and constipation that affect the gastrointestinal tract.

Studies have shown that 5-10% of people globally experience irritable bowel syndrome, and there are three different types of irritable bowel syndrome.

  • Irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea; IBS-D
  • Irritable bowel syndrome with constipation; IBS-C
  • Irritable bowel syndrome mixed; IBS-M (alternating diarrhea and constipation)

What happens during an IBS-flare up?

Irritable bowel syndrome can cause you discomfort and mild pain. On certain occasions, the pain and accompanying symptoms increase significantly. This is known as falre-ups.

The specific cause of this sudden flare-up or increased discomfort has not been discovered, but they can be triggered by different conditions such as stress, anxiety, and even medications.

Causes of IBS flare-ups

Irritable bowel syndrome can occur alongside constipation, or diarrhea, or both diarrhea and constipation one after the other.

Certain factors can trigger IBS flare-ups, and a couple of them are listed below.

  • Stress and anxiety

Between the increasing pressure to beat traffic on workdays and the race to meet official deadlines, amongst several other scenarios, stress has become a staple in our lives.

Though slightly different, stress and anxiety are both emotional responses that can cause the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which triggers the body's fight or flight response. These responses can disrupt the gastrointestinal tract, causing IBS symptoms.

When stressed or anxious, a person's digestive muscles may contract rapidly, causing diarrhea, or become relaxed, leading to constipation alongside other symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating.

  • Certain foods

Diet plays an essential role in irritable bowel syndrome, but surprisingly, there is no specific diet that works for everyone with IBS. However, researchers at Monash University discovered that there were some carbohydrates present naturally in many foods which are not completely digested during the digestion process and they play a role in irritable bowel syndrome.

These sugars, known as FODMAPs (fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), move slowly through the digestive tract,, absorbing water and producing gas while fermentating.

The water and extra gas exert internal pressure on the intestinal wall and result in symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.

Some examples of food that contain these natural sugars include custard, ice cream, mushrooms, onions, honey, watermelon, and mango.

There is nothing wrong with taking the foods mentioned above. In fact the body‘s reaction to FODMAPs is normal, but because people with IBS have a more sensitive gastrointestinal tract, they may experience IBS-related symptoms after eating them.

How long can an IBS flare-up last?

The duration of an IBS flare-up varies from person to person, ranging from a few days to weeks and even months.

Irritable bowel syndrome often doesn't go away, and a person has to live with it for life. However, by making lifestyle and dietary choices best suited for the condition, some people can manage theirs such that they experience only a few flare-ups that may not last for long.

Symptoms of IBS

Here are some common symptoms of IBS:

  1. Abdominal pain: This is a major sign of irritable bowel syndrome. The abdominal pain could feel dull, slightly burning, or seriously discomforting. The cause of the abdominal pain is yet to be fully understood, but using the toilet or farting could relieve you at least temporarily.
  2. Diarrhea: This is an important symptom that occurs more in IBS-D. Up to 40% of people with IBS have diarrhea as the main symptom. One explanation for this is the increased intestinal sensitivity and muscular contractions, causing food to move through the gastrointestinal tract faster than the body can absorb.
  3. Bloating: When gas builds up in the stomach, it causes bloating. Consuming FODMAP carbs can increase the chances of bloating in people with IBS, and sometimes you could feel bloated by merely eating a heavy meal or consuming carbonated drinks.
  4. Constipation: Sometimes, IBS comes with constipation which is the inability to pass stool more than three times a week because of how hard and dry it is.

On very rare occasions, IBS may cause blood in stools.

How to prevent IBS flare-ups

As irritable bowel syndrome is a lifelong condition, you may not be able to avoid a flare-up completely, but you can manage IBS effects and reduce its occurrence between intervals.

Some helpful tips that can help prevent IBS flare-ups include:

  • Stay Hydrated

IBS with diarrhea has dehydration as a key symptom, so it is essential to drink water and ensure that you stay hydrated.

Water also improves your digestive system and encourages digestion.

  • Eat a healthy diet

Your diet is important in helping you manage irritable bowel syndrome, and here are a few changes you can make to it.

  • Avoid gluten or limit gluten intake. Gluten is a protein in cereals like rice, wheat, and barley. If you eat such foods, you may have IBS flare-ups.
  • Eat a low FODMAPs diet: High consumption of FODMAPs increases the risk of IBS, and foods and fruits that contain a high amount of these nutrients should be avoided. Foods like white rice, carrot, soy milk, eggs, and dark chocolate can be consumed instead.
  • Consume more fiber: A dietary fiber intake of 20 - 35% is recommended for patients with IBS, as fiber helps to reduce abdominal pain and to soften stool for easier passage.

Though not all fiber is beneficial, you can consume foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, and oats to get your daily dietary fiber intake to manage IBS.

  • Reduce caffeine consumption

Caffeine is a natural stimulant known for its ability to keep you awake and alert.

Studies have shown that caffeine stimulates gastric acid secretion in the gastrointestinal tract while binding to receptors in the body to ensure increased gut hypersensitivity.

As a result, the digestive muscles contract faster, leading to diarrhea.

Seeking medical attention

It's important to seek medical help to diagnose and treat irritable bowel syndrome.

Your doctor or gastroenterologist would ask relevant questions while carefully noting your symptoms to give you a proper diagnosis.

In some cases, a physical test could be conducted to eliminate the possibility of other medical conditions.

Due to the different types of irritable bowel syndrome, treatment could involve both medication and dietary changes, as your doctor, with the aid of a dietitian, might consider drawing up a personalized meal plan for you.

On the other hand, medications such as antidiarrheal agents and laxatives may help manage irritable bowel syndrome.

Wrap up

IBS flare-ups can be uncomfortable, and while the exact cause of IBS is not fully understood, it is clear that several factors, such as diet, stress, and anxiety, can contribute to developing symptoms. 

This makes it important to cooperate with your doctor to identify and manage your symptoms while picking the best treatment methods.

By adopting a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, managing stress, and seeking appropriate medical care, you can reduce the impact of IBS on your daily life and improve your overall well-being.


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  2. Lekha Saha. (2014). Irritable bowel syndrome: Pathogenesis, diagnosis, treatment, and evidence-based medicine 
  3. Salam R. & Reetu.K. (2011). Stress and hormones 
  4. Harvard medical school. (2019). Stress and the sensitive gut 
  5. Monash university. (n.d.) FODMAPs and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  6. Brian E. (2016). Diagnosis and treatment of diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome 
  7. American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.(n.d.) Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Constipation (IBS-C)
  8. Magdy E. et al. (2017). Dietary fiber in irritable bowel syndrome (Review)
  9. Glareh K. (2021). Association of Coffee and Caffeine Intake With Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults
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