Medically Reviewed by: Nicole Anne Vergara, RD
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition which means that patients would experience symptoms every once in a while all throughout their healing journey.
IBS flare-ups are periods of time when the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are worse than usual. Symptoms can include abdominal discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
In this article, we will help you find out the common symptoms, duration, and treatment to relieve symptoms of IBS flare-ups.
What happens during IBS flare-ups
IBS can affect some people daily while leaving others symptom-free for extended periods of time. You are said to be going through an IBS flare-up if your symptoms suddenly worsen over time.
What then does a flare-up of IBS feel like? Common signs of an IBS attack include the following:
Swelling or bloating
A feeling that the bowels are not empty after passing stools
Diarrhea or constipation
Some people also experience some less common symptoms, such as:
Joint or muscle pain
Feelings of anxiety or depression
Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms vary from one person to another. On the other hand, it is crucial to know the most common symptoms that may happen to you and how to manage them effectively.
Common Symptoms of IBS:
Sharp abdominal pain
Changes in bowel movements
Lethargy (lack of energy)
Always feeling sick
You should pay a visit to your doctor if you are noticing continuous changes in your bowel habits, or if you feel like your symptoms are getting worse.
These may indicate other diseases or more serious conditions like an inflammatory bowel disease or kidney diseases that need to be medically treated as soon as possible. Here are some of the symptoms that you need to take note of:
Frequent diarrhea especially at night
Severe weight loss
Frequent vomiting and nausea
How long does IBS last?
There is no one answer to this question as Irritable Bowel Syndrome can last for different lengths of time for different people.
For some, IBS may be a short-term condition that lasts for a few weeks or months, while for others it may be a chronic condition that persists for years.
According to a research, over 30% of patients experience lengthy symptom-free intervals one year following diagnosis, and over 50% do so after ten years. Long stretches without symptoms are common with IBS, although they frequently recur.
[Related: How To Test for IBS: Symptoms & Causes]
Factors That Make IBS Attacks Worse
There are several factors that can make your IBS flare ups worse, such as the following:
Your gastrointestinal tract becomes more sensitive if you have IBS. Consuming larger meals can place additional strain on your already-susceptible GI tract.
Your digestive tract can only handle a substantial amount of food. Thus, taking large amounts of food in a certain period of time can aggravate your symptoms which might lead to abdominal discomfort, constipation, and bloating.
However, the meal can sometimes travel through very rapidly without being fully digested, resulting in episodes of diarrhea, gas, and abdominal pain.
To prevent this from happening, IBS patients are advised to take small but frequent meals throughout the day.
When you consume meals that include these ingredients, your body's inability to break down and absorb specific types of sugar, such as sucrose, fructose, lactose, and sorbitol (whether naturally occurring or intentionally added as a sweetener), may make your symptoms worse.
Unabsorbed sugar can enter the large intestine where it is fermented by gut bacteria. This fermentation can result in the formation of gas that causes stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, and other symptoms that may aggravate your IBS.
Infection and inflammation
In people who already have IBS, infection can start or exacerbate bouts, which are typically accompanied by inflammation.
Women are thought to have IBS symptoms more frequently than males, most likely as a result of another unique aspect of their psychological makeup.
Because of the presence of female reproductive hormones, IBS flare-ups frequently develop or get worse around the time that women get their period.
The attachment of estrogen and progesterone impacts certain digestive processes to cell receptors in women's GI tracts.
Women endure a slower rate of food absorption and a longer period of time before they can empty their bowels when the levels of these hormones drop.
Reduced levels of these hormones also affect how much discomfort women can take, making them more prone to stomach cramps.
Stress and anxiety
While stress and anxiety primarily impact the mind, they can also have an impact on other bodily functions, especially the bowels because of a relationship known as the gut-brain axis.
Don't be shocked if your IBS flares up if you're anxious or under a lot of stress. Depending on how well you can manage your psychological anguish, your IBS episode may get worse or last longer than normal.
How to calm IBS flare-ups
Now that we know why your IBS flares up, managing symptoms is next in line. Aside from taking over-the-counter medications prescribed by your physician, start changing your daily lifestyle and follow these healthy habits:
Get plenty of water
Adequate water intake is essential for your digestive system to do its work properly and efficiently.
Making sure that you are on top of your water intake can help reduce IBS flare-ups and even other gastrointestinal issues.
Mental health therapies and relaxation
Because of the relationship between the gut and the brain, stress can make flare-up symptoms worse (literally a chemical connection between your gut and brain).
For this reason, relaxing techniques that are effective for the mind can also soothe the stomach. There are two typical methods to reduce stress and IBS episodes:
Meditation: Meditation can help to relax the mind and the stomach. It has been found in numerous trials to lessen bloating and pain in the gut.
Yoga: Breathing and movement are combined in this mind-body exercise. This technique can lessen anxiety and IBS symptoms in teenagers and adults.
If you are not yet aware of the food items that cause IBS triggers, it is time for you to make dietary changes by learning what to eat and what not to eat to reduce symptoms of IBS.
An elimination diet for high FODMAP items is followed by a gradual reintroduction of each one while monitoring any changes in symptoms. Learn what types of food are allowed and prohibited in the next section.
Avoid high-fodmap foods and caffeine
The symptoms of IBS are frequently brought on by foods high in "FODMAPS," which are tiny carbohydrate molecules that induce bacteria in the gut to generate gas.
It might be challenging to determine what foods to eat when experiencing an IBS flare-up. In most people, IBS symptoms are lessened by a low-FODMAP diet.
To calm an IBS flare-up, avoid high-FODMAP foods such as:
Fructans (a fructose molecule that stores carbohydrates): wheat, onion, garlic, rye, and broccoli
Oligosaccharides (a type of carbohydrate): tofu, beans, chickpeas, and lentils
Lactose and dairy: cow’s milk, yogurt, and ice cream
Fructose (fruit sugar): watermelon, honey, apples, and mangoes
Polyols (naturally occurring sugar alcohols): nectarines, peaches, plums, cauliflower, and mushrooms
What are the types of food that you can eat during an IBS attack?
Some grains: gluten-free oats and white, brown, and basmati rice
White meats: poultry and fish
Cooked vegetables: carrots, peas, potato, Swiss chard, eggplant, and kale
Nuts and seeds: flaxseed, pecans, pine nuts, almonds
[Try this: Low FODMAP Southwestern Turkey Cutlets Recipe]
During an IBS flare-up, coffee and other beverages high in caffeine may make symptoms worse. Caffeine is known to have a laxative impact on the body, with diarrhea being a common side effect of excessive ingestion, even in people without IBS.
According to one study, people who consume coffee have a 50% higher risk of developing IBS than people who don't.
Caffeine should be avoided when an attack is in progress. Examine your symptoms and try eliminating all sources of caffeine, including teas, sodas, coffee, and chocolate.
Your body benefits from exercise in a variety of ways. It can assist in triggering regular digestive contractions and calming things down if you are having an IBS flare-up.
Another non-invasive method of healing is heat therapy. To help ease abdominal pain, an easy technique of applying low levels of heat can be beneficial. Use a warm heating or a warm damp cloth on your abdomen for 15 minutes.
The warmth will ease any spasms and assist in decreasing blood flow to the muscles and lessen the pain felt.
Probiotics can help with IBS flare-ups by restoring balance to the gut microbiota. They can also help reduce inflammation and improve gut motility.
Try Low FODMAP Probiotics supplements here.
There are a few ways that sleep can help with IBS flare-ups. First, when you're well-rested, your body is better able to manage stress, which can trigger IBS symptoms.
Second, sleep gives your digestive system a break from working and can help reduce inflammation.
Finally, getting enough sleep helps boost your immune system, which can also help reduce the severity of IBS flare-ups.
How Can I Manage My Irritable Bowel Syndrome Flare-Ups?
It is always recommended to speak with a professional to manage your Irritable Bowel Syndrome safely. Casa De Sante can help you create nutrition care plans that include medical and lifestyle therapy tailored to your needs. Learn more about the program here.
Medically Reviewed by:
Onikepe Adegbola MD PhD is a board-certified physician who founded casadesante.com, a digital gut health platform for gastrointestinal conditions such as IBS, IBD, SIBO and celiac disease.