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What Causes IBS Flare Ups and How to Avoid Them

Whether you’re going too much or not enough, suffering through irregular bowel movement can have a negative impact on your quality of life, placing demands on your time and making you feel uncomfortable.

Irritable bowel syndrome, IBS to those familiar with it, impacts a person’s digestive symptoms and causes problems with movement in the digestive tract. This syndrome can occur independent of any prior issues or damage to digestive tissues. IBS comes in three different forms: IBS with variable bowel habits (IBS-M), with diarrhea only (IBS-D), or with constipation only (IBS-C).

It's important to note that IBS differs from the digestive diseases colitis and Crohn’s. These conditions are members of the group known as inflammatory bowel disease, IBD.

So, what is the cause of IBS and how can you tell the difference between IBS and IBD?

Causes of IBS Flare Ups


Trigger foods can cause an IBS flare up and, like migraines, those triggers can vary from person to person. Common trigger foods include greasy items, processed foods, alcohol or coffee, dairy, protein, and fiber.


Stress takes a toll on our brains. All that pressure causes the brain to neglect some processes it runs unconsciously, including what goes on in the digestive system. More stress means less energy for the process of digestion, so foods aren’t broken down as well as they usually are. Emotional tension and anxiety can also contribute to a flare up.

Tied to Menstrual Cycle

In the time frame surrounding their period, women may find that IBS flare ups produce more debilitating symptoms. The hormones that tell the uterus to contact and release its lining can also influence the nearby intestines, causing an uptick in painful cramps.

History and Experience

Irritable bowel syndrome can be a hereditary condition, so if you’re suffering from symptoms of IBS, you may want to reach out to family members and ask them about their own experiences with upset stomach or abdominal pain. They may not be able to supply medical advice, but they can relate to your condition and provide some tips for living with it.

People who’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse may also develop IBS.

Not Getting Enough Sleep

You may be more aware of IBS symptoms when you’re tired because a lack of sleep causes you to feel pain more intensely than you would on a regular sleep schedule. Tired people are also more likely to intake food high in carbohydrates or sugar, which can both play a part in IBS flare ups.

IBS Flare Up Symptoms

Those suffering from IBS can expect gas, bloating, abdominal pain that’s sometimes tied to bowel movements, shifts in the usual bowel movement schedule and the feeling that the bowel movement is incomplete.

If you’re suffering from any of these symptoms, inspect your stool after a bowel movement. You may find an off-white color—a mucus that acts as an indicator for IBS.

Tips for Avoiding IBS Flare Ups

Follow a low FODMAP diet

FODMAP—which means fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols—lumps those short-chain carbohydrates together into one acronym because they’re all carbs that cause difficulties for the small intestine.

Foods containing high quantities of these carbs include lentils, foods made from wheat and foods made from dairy. Some fruits and vegetables are also high FODMAP foods. Vegetables to avoid include onion, garlic, asparagus and artichoke. Fruits with high FODMAP quantities include cherries, peaches, pears and apples.

It’s recommended that those suffering from IBS follow the FODMAP diet for 2-to-6 weeks. Then, they can reintroduce high FODMAP foods back into their diets one at a time, monitoring each food’s propensity for inducing an IBS flare up.

Change Your Habits

Shifts in activity like regular exercise, quitting tobacco, cutting coffee or giving up alcohol can induce positive changes when it comes to IBS. Also try eating less but increasing the amount of times you eat throughout the day.

Practice Progressive Relaxation

Progressive relaxation, a technique pioneered by early 20th century physician Edmund Jacobson, is used as an alternative treatment for a number of ailments, including insomnia and pain.

Practitioners of progressive relaxation say it relaxes the muscles. Start by tensing then relaxing muscles in the feet, then move up progressively through the body until you reach the top of your head. Try to concentrate on each specific body part.

Manage Stress

See a counselor, remove stressors or try relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga to help yourself cope with stress.

Drink More Water

Water hydrates the muscles and organs, helping them perform their jobs better. Water also assists with digestion.

If one of your IBS symptoms is diarrhea, it’ll be important to replace the water lost during your bowel movements.

How Long Does an IBS Flare Up Last

They’re called flare ups for a reason: symptoms come and go, usually lasting 2-to-4 days before improving or going away. This is one way to tell the difference between IBS and an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s, but if you’re unsure which you’re suffering from, it’s best to consult a physician and rule out IBDs.

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Since irritable bowel syndrome’s frequent bowel movements and diarrhea may cause dehydration, it’s important to keep the body supplied with enough water and electrolytes to help you feel your best again. Enhancing your water with a DripDrop packet adds three times as many electrolytes as a sports drink while only adding a third of the sugar those drinks contain.

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