What we’re going to cover in today's article, is exactly how you can navigate foods and diets with IBS, and what to look out for when trying to manage this condition. Hopefully, this can help you make good decisions around your diet and lifestyle, so that you can ease your symptoms and live more freely.
What Is IBS?
According to the NHS IBS is classed as a Functional Gastrointestinal disorder. What this basically means, is that elements of how the digestive system work fall out of alignment, which creates a systemic imbalance. This can have ripple effects throughout the body, which is why some of the symptoms of IBS are so far reaching, extending beyond just digestion.
The ultimate TL;DR of IBS is that it comes about as a result of the combination of a bad diet and stress, that eventually renders the digestive system sensitive to all sorts of foods, as it has become damaged and functionally impaired. It can be completely reversed with dietary adjustments, dealing with stressors and changing the individual's response to stress.
Conventional (allopathic) medicine does not understand it well, and it’s often written off as a psychosomatic disorder (it’s all in your head).
This is because the tests they use don’t pick up on any abnormalities in gastrointestinal function, as opposed to when a more serious version of the condition shows up such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).
Because IBS is a functional disorder, you need to use Functional Tests to identify it. Functional Medicine does well as Identifying IBS, as it uses tests that can pinpoint disturbances in gastrointestinal function that the NHS does not use.
You could regard IBS as a more severe form of IBD, and view them on a continuum. There is a great deal of inflammation that underpinns the progression and symptoms of IBD, whereas there’s only a degree of inflammation in IBS (but still enough to cause disruption and discomfort).
What Causes IBS?
There are several root causes of IBS, and they all manifest in various ways around digestive function.
One of the major ones is actually psychosomatic. Someone's mental state can have a profound effect on their digestive function.
In cases where someone has experienced some sort of trauma, or are experiencing a period of quite severe stress in their lives, this can emanate from the psyche (hypothalamus in the brain), via the nervous system and hormonal networks to cause issues with digestion - bloating, indigestion, diarrhea and/or constipation.
Someone who is stressed will also not be secreting enough digestive fluids to properly break down foods - leading to indigestion, and poor nutrient absorption.
The other major one is just due to the impact that abysmal quality food (consumed over time) has on the structural and functional components of the digestive system.
Junk foods, alcohol, medications, antibiotics can cause imbalances to the gut bacterial ecosystem, and create significant levels of inflammation - this can cause diarrhea and/or constipation, bloating, issues with nutrient absorption and knock on effects of nutrient deficiency, and also further damage the digestive system by causing structural damage to the lining of the intestinal wall - further issues with inflammation, bloating, and even metabolic issues.
Also the fact that the digestive lining is compromised can lead to the worsening of psychological symptoms like Depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and brain fog.
Fatigue is also an issue as lots of food reactions are occurring as a result of compromised gut lining, as well as inflammation - zaps a lot of energy from people.
Root Causes of IBS
- A leaky Gut (damaged intestinal lining)
- Dysbiosis (Bacterial imbalance in gut)
- Altered Gut – Brain interaction (Trauma, severe psychosocial stress)
- Impaired motility (Muscle contractions of Digestive system) - result of stress, and also ‘bad’ diet.
- Blunted secretion of digestive fluids (stress related, also diet)
IBS Symptoms (According to the NHS)
The signs and symptoms of IBS can be far reaching, and include multiple systems of the body. It’s best to consult with your doctor for an official diagnosis, as there can be quite a bit of overlap between these symptoms and other conditions.
- Abdominal Pain
- Bloating, Discomfort
- Constipation, Diarrhea or both
- Weight loss
- Lessened Appetite
You can identify an IBS attack when symptoms like these crop up acutely. Sometimes they will be more obvious than others.
Popular IBS Diets
There’s a lot of diets which are targeted towards IBS. Because there can be quite a diverse range of imbalances that underpin IBS, there’s different methods of tackling it, which will vary from person to person.
These diets make up the backbone of ways to heal your gut. But they are only one part of the equation, and make up a part of the whole toolkit of gut solutions for better health overall.
Some people may have Candida, an intestinal parasite, Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or a Clostridium infection for example.
Removing triggering foods and foods that create underlying imbalances like SIBO are the key to how you improve gut health and reduce IBS symptoms.
This will mean that the dietary approach will be different for everyone. Let’s go through a few of the diets, and see how they lead to gut healing.
SIBO Diet for IBS
A SIBO diet is one that restricts types of foods that contain "FODMAPs" (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols). These are fermentable carbohydrates, such as sugars, starches, and fibers, that are most readily fermented by gut bacteria, and produce the symptoms of bloating, gas and digestive upset.
This can also be described as the FODMAP diet or low FODMAP diet, and it essentially seeks to achieve the same result as the SIBO diet, as they both target the same or similar underlying imbalances, by starving bad bacteria and helping to rebalance the gut ecosystem.
The Low FODMAP diet is one the NHS also recommends for IBS, due to great clinical results when it comes to reducing IBS symptoms and improving quality of life (1). Whilst the NHS doesn’t recognise SIBO as an underlying cause of IBS, it does recognise FODMAPS.
Candida Diet for IBS
Candida is a type of yeast that can colonize the gut, and can easily become overgrown for a lot of people. It feeds on sugars, which maintain it and help it grow. Candida can be underneath a lot of IBS symptoms, and be responsible for the changes in bowel habits, fatigue, depression and many other aspects associated with IBS.
The candida diet is one that limits almost all types of carbohydrates, reducing them down to a select few which are low in sugars, but high in other nutrients. You’ll often find that white rice and most fruits are excluded, with the exception of a few. Some people decide to cut carbohydrates out all together, whereas others are selective over them. The main goal is to reduce the consumption of processed foods high in sugar, and simply adopt more whole foods.
GAPS Diet for IBS
The GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet is a nutrition plan aimed at improving gut health and addressing related symptoms, such as autism, ADHD, depression, and anxiety. It's a version of the paleo diet, but with an emphasis on fermented foods like yogurt and kefir to boost good gut bacteria, and bone broth and other probiotic-rich foods to heal the gut lining. You start with a limited, nutrient-rich diet and slowly add in more foods as your gut improves. It's usually followed under the guidance of a healthcare professional, but it's important to approach with caution. The goal is to have a healthy gut, reduce inflammation, and balance gut bacteria.
SCD Diet for IBS
SCD stands for specific carbohydrates. This diet is focused on removing certain types of carbohydrates, to limit the feeding of certain gut bacteria that underlie IBS symptoms. It’s concept is the same as the other diets, but with a slightly different approach. Clinically, the SCD diet does not get the same kind of results as the Low FODMAP diet (2), but there is no one size fits all, so everyone will get different results based on their situation.
IBS Food Triggers
Some foods can really cause a flare up in IBS symptoms, so it’s good to be aware of them, and avoid them where you can.
Because IBS is triggered by nervous system activity, it is important to limit and be aware of nervous system stimulants like Caffeine found in coffee and tea. These can cause or exacerbate diarrhoea symptoms. On the other hand, herbs like CBD can help calm the nervous system and help IBS symptoms.
Any food that causes inflammation can be a trigger for IBS, since the gut is very sensitive already to inflammation, as it is usually high in IBS. Foods that feed gut bacteria, like simple carbs and sugars can cause inflammation and aggravate IBS symptoms.
Also, Fried foods are very inflammatory. They can also aggravate IBS symptoms due to the inflammatory oils they contain, and the gluten in the flour coating.
- Gluten-containing foods such as wheat, barley, and rye
- Dairy products, especially those high in lactose
- Fatty and fried foods
- Beans, lentils, and legumes
- Fructose-rich foods, such as fruits, honey, and high fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol and mannitol
- Certain vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and onions (FODMAPs)
- Spicy foods
- Alcohol and caffeine
- Processed & Junk Foods
Other IBS Triggers
- Psychosocial stress
- Toxicity – pesticides, preservatives, additives
- Food contamination/infection
- Some medications
Easy to Digest Foods for IBS
This can be a tricky one, as some easy to digest foods are actually some of the worst culprits for prolonging IBS in the long term, despite them being easy to digest.
For example, people often ask me, are bananas good for IBS? Or is Porridge good for IBS?
There is no clear yes or no answer, since it depends on someone's underlying gut imbalance. But if I were to say generally, bananas, despite being easy to digest, are not good for FODMAP’s or candida, due to the type and amount of carbohydrates they contain.
Porridge is low in FODMAPs and tends to be a neutral food for candida, so it’s ok and can be easy to digest if cooked thoroughly.
What food is easy to digest really depends on the individual and their digestive capacity. But generally most whole foods that are gluten and dairy free, are low in sugar and low in FODMAPS are the best gut healthy foods, and ones which people will have the most success with digesting easily.
Here's a general guide for easy to digest foods for IBS:
- Rice, oatmeal, and other gluten-free grains
- Cooked or pureed vegetables, such as carrots, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes
- Skinless chicken and fish
- Boiled or baked eggs
- Low-fat dairy products or lactose-free alternatives
- Cooked or canned fruits (Low FODMAP)
- Herbal teas, such as chamomile and peppermint
- Fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir
- Small amounts of lean protein, such as turkey or tofu
In summary, IBS is a condition which involves mental, emotional and physical aspects. It can be triggered by foods, as well as stress. Limiting the consumption of certain foods can help reduce flare ups, as well as help to address the underlying causes of IBS overtime. There are many different diets, a few of them we outlined. There’s no one best diet, although in the scientific literature the low FODMAP diet is the most well studied. At Marvins Den, we offer a range of healthy low FODMAP meals from our specialist provider Field Doctor.