As a registered dietitian who specializes in IBS, Kirsten Jackson, RD, talks a lot with her patients about this issue. It's her job to help people figure out not only what may be "triggers" for their body, but also how to deal when flare-ups—meaning the sudden worsening of symptoms—actually happen. Without this intel, it can be easy to become fearful of food and get into a trap of eating the same handful of "safe" meals on repeat—which is no way to live.
While every person with IBS is different and what's a "trigger" for one person may be totally fine for someone else, Jackson says there are definite culprits that tend to be problematic for most people with IBS. The key, she says, in navigating flare-ups works two-fold: thinking ahead and knowing what to do in the moment.
5 tips for navigating IBS flare-ups, according to an expert:
1. Be mindful of fatty foods during flare-ups
"Some people with IBS find that fatty foods lead to loose stools and pain," Jackson says. In this case, she's talking about both saturated fats (in foods like pizza and French fries) and also "healthy" fats, like in avocados and nuts. "They react the same way in this case," she says. If you're worried about a flare-up or are currently in the throes of one, this is one food category Jackson says to avoid for the next several hours. Some foods that will be gentler on the digestive system include oatmeal, grilled chicken, and stir-fry.
Looking for more IBS-friendly foods? Here's what to know about the low-FODMAP diet:
2. Put caffeine and carbonated drinks on the back burner
Jackson says it's important to consider what you drink, too. Both caffeine and carbonated drinks can make IBS symptoms worse, she says. "If you're about to be in a situation where you're worried about a flare-up, it's best to avoid these drinks," she says. "In these situations, the body can go into a fight-or-flight mode, meaning that the gut is more sensitive. So it makes sense to avoid all common IBS triggers during this time. Even if they are not usually that person's triggers, they could be when their gut is more sensitive." Hot rooibos or peppermint tea is more soothing sips if you're looking for something that isn't water.
3. Stay hydrated
If you are experiencing an IBS flare-up, Jackson says your body is losing a lot of water, so it's important to make sure you're drinking enough H20. Hydration is important for everyone always, but if your IBS symptoms are on the constipation side of the spectrum, it's especially important to be mindful of your intake since water helps aid the digestion process. "Dehydration can lead to constipation and if you have loose stools you may need to replace with more fluid," Jackson says.
4. Take a few deep breaths
Remember how Jackson said that flare-ups make the gut more sensitive? It's for this reason that she recommends meditation or taking several mindful deep breaths if you're in the midst of an IBS episode. This calms both the mind and the stomach. (Plus, stress is a common IBS trigger, and meditation is a proven stress-management technique.)
5. Prioritize a full eight hours of sleep
"Poor sleep is directly linked to poor gut health and changes in the microbiome," Jackson says. "It also impacts our mood which is linked via the gut-brain axis." Because of this, getting adequate sleep can help stave off flare-ups. If you're recovering from one, that's another time to go to bed early. Flare-ups are draining, mentally and physically; good sleep will help you recover.
Even if you're extra diligent, sometimes IBS flare-ups happen. But keeping these expert-vetted tips in mind will help you bounce back quicker. In the end, they help you do what's most important: take care of yourself.
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