Are your IBS symptoms like a mischievous box of chocolates — always keeping you guessing about what you’re going to get? If you’ve been on the bumpy road of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, you know that how you feel can change dramatically from day to day.
One day you’re feeling like you could take on the world, and the next you’re asking yourself, “What did I eat, and why is there a roller coaster in my stomach?” The truth is, IBS symptoms aren’t constant. And sometimes they’re hard to predict.
And now we’re heading into the holidays — a time when you’ll likely find yourself out of your routine, eating out-of-the-ordinary foods, and faced with seasonal stressors. And for many people who suffer with IBS, this is a recipe for IBS flare-ups.
So throughout this month, we’re digging into the ever-shifting terrain of IBS and talking about IBS flares. We’ll dive into the details of what an IBS flare is, what can trigger it, how to manage (or even prevent them), and more.
Also known as an IBS attack, an IBS flare (or flare-up) is when your IBS symptoms get worse for a period of time. Generally an IBS flare is characterized by abdominal pain and changes in bowel movements.
The severity of IBS symptoms varies from person-to-person. For some people IBS flares are occasional and short-lived. For others, IBS symptoms feel like a way of life for weeks or months on end. In part, the symptoms that show up for you depend on the specific type of IBS that you’re dealing with.
💩 IBS-D: Diarrhea is your main bowel issue
💩 IBS-C: Constipation is your mail bowel issue
💩 IBS-M: Mixed symptoms. It isn’t just one or the other, but alternating diarrhea and constipation
😕 Abdominal pain
😕 Diarrhea, constipation, or other changes in bowel movements
😕 Mucus in your stool
😕 Feeling of incomplete bowel emptying
😕 Feelings of depression or anxiety
😕 Frequent urination
😕 Muscle or joint pain
An IBS flare takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Along with the physical distress and pain, those with IBS may worry about frantic trips to the bathroom, or symptoms like gas that are hard to hide.
IBS affects about 12% of adults in the United States. And IBS is the second leading cause of work sick leave.
There are several factors that can cause IBS to suddenly flare up. IBS is a complex condition that has complex triggers. Nevertheless, some common reasons for a sudden IBS flare include trigger foods, stress, illness, psychological issues, changes in routine, hormonal issues, medications, and intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
While these vary from person-to-person, you may find that your IBS flares up after eating foods like red or processed meat, fried foods, dairy products, or foods high in FODMAPs (a type of carbohydrate that may exacerbate IBS symptoms). Certain beverages can trigger IBS flares as well, particularly those containing alcohol and caffeine.
Because the digestive system is closely tied to the brain, stress levels can affect digestion. So you may find that your IBS flares are triggered by stress. In fact, Up to 60% of people with IBS have noticed a connection between stress and IBS symptoms.
Certain illnesses, including gut infections, may also trigger IBS attacks.
Because of the gut-brain connection, issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause IBS flares.
This can include dietary changes, especially those that affect how much fiber you consume. But this can also be a change in meal-timing. Many people also find themselves dealing with an IBS flare when they travel.
If you menstruate, you may notice a change in your IBS before or during their period. Shifts in hormone levels cause changes in many body systems, and can even affect how your body perceives pain in your digestive system.
Other possible causes include inflammation, a bacterial overgrowth in your microbiome, a new medication, or even a miscommunication between your brain and intestinal nerves. If you notice something else that triggers your IBS attacks, take note. Just because you haven’t heard of other people with the same trigger doesn’t mean it’s not real for you.
When clients ask me how long can an IBS flare up last, the answer is different for everyone because each person is unique. An IBS flare up duration can range from a few hours to days or weeks. The length and severity of your flare will depend in part on what caused it.
You do have some control on the duration of your IBS flare. If you can identify the trigger, you can take steps to remove it. If it’s stress, you can use some stress-reduction techniques. If it’s a particular food, you can avoid it.
You don’t have to let your IBS flare just take its course. There are things you can do to find relief. I’ve included my favorites in my free IBS Resource Guide. You can also put together an IBS survival kit so you have what you need to address your flare-ups quickly.
You can prevent IBS flares by getting to the root cause of your IBS symptoms. There is no cure for IBS, but you can vastly improve the frequency and severity of IBS flares by working with an experienced practitioner.
In my practice, I take an evidence-based approach to finding the factors that are exacerbating your IBS symptoms. Then we work together to help you make diet and lifestyle changes that can reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms. You can book a consultation with me to see if we’re a good fit.
Many IBS patients find that going on the low FODMAP diet can help reduce IBS flares. This is a three-stage therapeutic diet designed to help you feel better quickly and figure out which foods trigger your symptoms.
If you need help navigating the low FODMAP diet, I’ve created a program just for you! IBS Relief Blueprint walks you through every step of the low FODMAP diet and gives you loads of ideas on ways to improve your IBS symptoms.