How Is IBS Related to GERD, Acid Reflux, and Heartburn?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract includes all the organs that are responsible for moving and digesting food. The most common symptoms of IBS are stomach pain and changes in bowel movement. Many people with IBS also experience heartburn.1

Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest. It is usually caused by acid reflux. Acid reflux is when acid from the stomach travels up the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that connects the throat to the stomach.1,2

At the end of the esophagus is the lower esophageal sphincter. A sphincter is any ring of muscles. This one is used to close the end of the esophagus. Closing the end of the esophagus stops the stomach acid from coming up the esophagus.1,2

When the lower esophageal sphincter is not working as well, stomach acid can start to come up. You might notice this more when you lie down or bend after eating a meal. People who regularly experience heartburn because of acid reflux might have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).2

What is GERD?

GERD is an ongoing (chronic) condition that involves the GI tract. Someone with GERD experiences acid reflux regularly. This can cause damage to the esophagus and other parts of the GI tract. Some of the common symptoms of GERD are:2-4­

  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Feeling food or water coming up toward the mouth after a meal
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Experiencing pain when swallowing
  • Burping more than usual
  • Feeling discomfort or pain in the chest

The connection between IBS and GERD

Both IBS and GERD involve problems in the GI tract. Some research studies have shown that there is a link between the 2 diseases. One study estimates that people with IBS are 4 times more likely to also have GERD compared to people who do not have IBS. Similarly, people who have GERD are more likely to also have symptoms related to IBS.3-6

Most of the studies looking at the overlap between GERD and IBS include a small number of people. This makes it harder to estimate the chances that a person with IBS will also have GERD. But most studies agree that IBS and GERD are more likely to occur at the same time.3-5

Having both GERD and IBS can make symptoms worse, leading to a lower quality of life. Researchers are interested in finding out how and why the 2 diseases are linked. This information may help with managing symptoms and coming up with a treatment plan.3,5

How to cope with GERD and IBS

There are lifestyle changes you can make that can help reduce the symptoms of GERD and IBS. Your diet plays an important role when it comes to IBS and GERD. The following changes to your diet may help:6-8

  • Eat foods that contain soluble fiber. Soluble fibers dissolve in water. They can be found in oat bran and some fruits and vegetables. You can also buy soluble fiber as a supplement.
  • Avoid foods that make your symptoms worse. Some examples are coffee, alcohol, peppermint, and acidic foods.
  • Eat a low FODMAP diet. FODMAP is a group of foods that get fermented (broken down) by the bacteria in our gut. A low FODMAP diet does not include these foods. Foods containing wheat are part of a high FODMAP diet and should be avoided. Rice is an example of low FODMAP food.

Other treatments for GERD

Prescription drugs are also available that can reduce the symptoms of GERD. Proton pump inhibitors and antacids are the most commonly used. Proton pump inhibitors work to reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. Antacids try to neutralize stomach acid to reduce heartburn during acid reflux.3,8,9

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also help. CBT focuses on changing your thinking and behaviors to help deal with the symptoms. CBT can also help manage stress caused by the symptoms of GERD and IBS.3

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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