April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness month, so it is important to shed light on this common gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that goes undiagnosed for millions. Let’s learn what it is, and the dietary lifestyle changes that can make a difference.


IBS is a functional disorder of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. In a nutshell, IBS is caused by changes in the way the GI tract works. Unlike other GI disorders such as Crohn’s or celiac disease, IBS does not damage the GI tract. However, the reality is that the symptoms can be severe and debilitating for many people, affecting their day-to-day life, and why it is so important to raise IBS awareness.

Symptoms can vary amongst individuals, but common IBS symptoms may include bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and/or constipation. Because these symptoms can occur in many other types of disorders, as well as in healthy individuals, it is important to work with a physician and health care team specializing in IBS to get the correct diagnosis, and successfully manage symptoms of IBS.

So who does IBS affect?

Chances are, if you do not have IBS yourself, you know several people who do. IBS affects a large number of people, with estimates of up to 20% of the general population. While both men and women can develop IBS, it more commonly occurs in women, which accounts for 2 out of 3 IBS sufferers. Although there is still a lot to learn about what predisposes someone to developing IBS, some of the theories proposed by researchers include the following:

  • People with IBS may have greater colon sensitivity than others.
  • IBS symptoms may be triggered by hormonal symptoms, which may partly explain the greater number of women who suffer from IBS, versus men.
  • Varying levels of neurotransmitters produced in the gut, such as serotonin, may act on digestive tract nerves triggering IBS symptoms.
  • Contractions in the gut may be perceived in the brain differently by people with IBS, but, no, IBS in NOT all in your head! Research does suggest, however, that anxiety, stress, and depression may all contribute to symptoms of IBS.

How is IBS diagnosed?

IBS is sometimes diagnosed after ruling out other GI disorders, such as celiac disease, Crohn’s, colitis, GI cancers, and others. However, the current recommendation from The American College of Gastroenterology are that diagnoses should not be through exclusion of other GI disorders, but rather the Rome criteria which looks at different symptoms to classify types of IBS. Promising results from a recent study also indicate that a diagnostic test may soon be available.

How can IBS be treated?

Although there is no single, specific treatment for IBS, symptoms of IBS can be treated successfully through an integrated approach of diet, medication, and lifestyle changes. While there is no single best nutrition strategy for treating IBS symptoms, here are 5 tips to start with that may help manage them:

  1. Eliminate or minimize potentially high-gas forming foods, such as cauliflower, cabbage, beans, and carbonated beverages.
  2. Minimize foods high in lactose such as milk, ice cream, and soft cheeses, especially if lactose intolerance is suspected. Hard cheeses, lactose-free milk/ice cream/yogurt or kefir, which tend to be lower in lactose than other dairy products, may be better tolerated.
  3. Drink adequate fluids to help alleviate constipation.
  4. Stay away from artificial sweeteners that contain sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol, and which may also cause diarrhea.
  5. Minimize fermentable carbohydrates such as lentils, apples, pears, and beans in the diet that are not well tolerated and can aggravate IBS symptoms.  This is also called the low FODMAP diet (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides. And Polyols). Click here for low FODMAP recipes.
For more nutrition and diet tips for IBS, read the full article.

EA Stewart, MBA, RD is a San Diego-based private practice dietitian and culinary nutritionist with a passion for creating amazing gluten-free recipes to nourish your healthiest life. Focusing on a realistic healthy lifestyle, EA knows that eating is meant to be a shared experience to savor with family and friends. Visit her for more beautifully creative recipes at Spicy RD Nutrition.