IBS: Other things that can cause gut symptoms except food

Posted by Charlotte Miller on

IBS can really suck. The bathroom emergencies, bloating, pain or just feeling squirmy and yuck. Many people find that modifying their diet can help with IBS symptoms. Whether it’s FODMAPs or other types of food intolerance, sorting out your diet can be a great step in managing symptoms and getting back to normal life. Yay!

But hold on a tick. IBS is a functional gut disorder – which means the problem starts with your gut nervous system. So it also means we need to factor in potential non-food triggers, that can often cause confusion and see us unnecessarily restricting our diets.  

Non-food IBS triggers can include:

Hormones – these substances produced within our bodies have direct effects on the smooth muscle that lines our gut. For women of menstruating age, hormonal fluctuations are a common contributor to a more sensitive gut (crampy pain, bloating and alterations in bowel habit). Menarche (when girls start to menstruate) and menopause are known to be times of life when IBS symptoms appear or worsen.

Stress – this is a HUGE potential trigger. The human stress response – often called the ‘fight or flight’ response is a panic mode for our body, where all ‘non-essential’ functions are sidelined temporarily, and adrenaline sends blood flooding to our big muscles to help us run away from the danger. But in modern daily life, the same stress response isn’t particularly helpful. It affects all our body systems, including our nervous system and our gut. Even low grade, chronic stress can have flow on effects to nervous signalling in our gut and can impact on the helpful microbes that live inside us.

Illness and medications – this might seem an obvious point, but let’s think about it.  When we’re sick and run down, our bodies become more sensitive, and our thresholds or tolerance to certain foods can do the same. When your threshold is lower, you can react to foods you normally tolerate. And if you throw medications into the mix, you’ve got a sure fire recipe for an irritable, oversensitive gut that doesn’t play nicely.

Gut infections or altered gut microflora. After a big assault like food poisoning or gastroenteritis, the whole gut environment can become inflamed, oversensitive and irritable. Antibiotics particularly are known to affect gut flora, and irritate the gut. Some people heal and recover quickly, but others can be left with post-infective IBS (or a flare of their existing IBS) that takes months to settle down again.  

Moral of the story? At the end of the day, there are lots of potential triggers for your IBS symptoms. And only some of them are related to food intolerance. Don’t fall into the trap of over-restricting foods, in your search for the holy symptom free grail. 

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