A shocking number of people suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
About 45 million of Americans—or roughly 15% of the population—walk around with this gastrointestinal nuisance each day.
And, perhaps most frustrating, there’s no good way to deal with IBS. Or, rather, there wasn’t until now.
Thanks to some researchers in Australia, there’s a new diet that solves—or at least alleviates—IBS for a majority of people.
It takes a little bit of specialized knowledge to pull off, though—so let's dive in together and learn exactly how you can kick your IBS to the curb.
What Is IBS, Anyway?
Before we talk about how to deal with IBS, it’s important to understand just what it is.
And that’s a giant question mark, to say the least.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion. That’s to say, it’s a suite of symptoms—usually including painful gas, bloating, inflamed guts, and uncomfortable bowels—without an obvious cause.
We know what Crohn’s disease is.
Same for celiac disease.
Both of those cause similar symptoms—but they have a cause and we can test for them.
IBS is when we see all the symptoms, but have no idea what’s causing it. Think of it as a catch-all term for the edge of medicine’s understanding.
Since we don’t know what causes IBS, treating it is a nightmare.
The truth is, what today is called IBS will probably be separated out into a variety of conditions a few years down the line. For now however, most cases of IBS are simply mysteries.
Well, most—but not all.
Not All Allergies Stuff Up Your Nose
A reader once shared a story with us about her 16-year old grandson's visit to his doctor complaining about severe acne.
After a full blood workup, tests for his vitamin D, blood glucose levels, and inflammation indicators, his doctor looked for food allergies.
It turned out he’s allergic to over 100 types of food!
His gut was a mess—inflamed and fast becoming damaged. At only 16, his symptoms were limited to acne. But if unrecognized and untreated, allergies like his often turn into IBS.
That’s because a constantly-inflamed, irritated digestive tract will suffer lasting damage over time. And that damage, sometimes irreversible, can create the symptoms we call IBS.
If you suffer from IBS, or similar symptoms, get tested for food allergies. Around 15 million Americans have food allergies, and the number of diagnosed cases is rising rapidly.
A large percentage of digestive problems come from food allergies. But, of course, food allergies aren’t always the problem.
So, if food allergy testing comes up negative, here’s your next best course of action.
The IBS Diet
A team of researchers in Australia have identified five classes of food that cause—or exacerbate—IBS.
In fact, their study found that a diet that selectively avoids these foods has a 70% success rate at eliminating—or at least lessening—IBS symptoms.
It’s called the FODMAP diet—FODMAP being an acronym to identify the five types of food that need to be avoided.
- Fermented—like sauerkraut or kimchi.
- Oligosaccharides—the carbs found in wheat, rye, beans, and certain vegetables.
- Disaccharides—like the lactose found in milk.
- Monosaccharides—like the fructose found in many fruits, honey, and some sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. And...
- Polyols—sugar alcohols found in some fruits, vegetables, and some sweeteners.
As you can see, that’s a wide variety of different food types. So wide, in fact, that’s it’s nearly impossible to live your whole life avoiding them.
That’s not what the FODMAP diet is about.
Instead, the FODMAP diet wants to eliminate all of these for a time—usually six to eight weeks. After that, each class will be slowly reintroduced individually, so you can see what causes your personal symptoms.
Understand, these foods are not unhealthy, in and of themselves. In fact, most of them are ones we recommend adding to our readers' diets. But some people might have sensitivities they can’t identify any other way.
For some people, polyols might be the only problem.
For others, it might be disaccharides.
Still others might be fine with all of them in small amounts, but get upset above certain levels.
And another group might be fine with each individually, but have troubles when two or more groups are combined.
The point of this diet isn’t to eliminate all these foods permanently. It’s to find out which ones are causing your system stress, and just avoid those.
Don't Tackle Your Digestive Tract Alone
It’s also important to note—adhering to a diet like this is difficult. It’s a challenge to get proper nutrition while avoiding so many classes of good foods, like lots of fruits and vegetables.
But it’s also a challenge to identify where each of these classes of nutrients are in everyday food.
That’s why the researchers who conducted this study recommend you work with a licensed nutritionist to try out a FODMAP diet. Only then can you be sure that you’re avoiding what you need to.
And a trained nutritionist can help make sure you reintroduce foods the right way, so you can figure out exactly what’s causing your problems.
It all sounds very hard—and, because this research is still relatively new, chances are it is more difficult now than it will be later.
In another few years, we might know exactly how these nutrients are interacting with your body, and we might have blood tests that can tell us everything we need to exclude completely from our diet.
In addition, there’s likely to be a much larger array of foods available that are FODMAP diet-friendly. After all, gluten-free food has taken off in recent years—yet there are fifteen times as many sufferers of IBS as celiac disease.
However, for now, the FODMAP diet is the best path forward for IBS sufferers who don’t have obvious food allergies.
It’s an inconvenient way to find out what ails you.
But, compared with the discomfort and pain of IBS, it’s well worth a few weeks of restricted eating, to realize a lifetime of digestive freedom.
- Rosebloom, Cara. A diet that helps relieve irritable bowel sufferers’ pain (finally). The Washington Post. Published Dec 22, 2016. Accessed Feb 16, 2017.
- Facts and Statistics. Food Allergy Research & Education. Accessed Feb 18, 2017.
Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Last Updated: November 13, 2020
Originally Published: March 17, 2017