Finding and Avoiding Triggers of IBS
Pain is an incredible motivator because it makes you want to do whatever you can to avoid experiencing it. I would venture to say that all the symptoms of IBS, including pain, but also the bloating, diarrhea or constipation, excessive gas, nausea, and fatigue, provide anyone who experiences IBS with a strong desire to want to feel better and to do all we can to improve our health.
Whether we start with diet, medications, or complementary approaches like acupuncture or reducing stress, we all have to figure out what our unique triggers are so we can avoid them. Common triggers for IBS symptoms include certain foods or beverages, emotional stress, and hormonal fluctuations. IBS may also be triggered by medications used to treat other conditions.
When I was first diagnosed with IBS 20 years ago, my doctor at the time mentioned I should avoid dairy for a couple weeks and see if my symptoms improved. They did improve, so I knew dairy was a trigger for me. However, at that time, I wasn’t committed to giving up dairy completely. I was able to manage pretty well with lactose-free dairy products, or taking a lactase supplement when I ate dairy, which gives your body the enzyme (lactase) that breaks down dairy in the digestion process.
Over the years, though, my sensitivity got more pronounced, and using the lactose-free dairy products (or adding the lactase supplements) wasn’t enough. In addition to IBS, I had an injury in my hip joint that caused me significant pain. After doing an elimination diet, in which I removed corn, wheat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and soy, I slowly added those back in to find out which my body reacted to. Gluten and dairy turned out to be major triggers for me, increasing my IBS symptoms and also significantly increasing the pain in my hip, which affected my ability to walk. The pain (and my desire to walk) were sufficient motivators for me to completely remove dairy and gluten from my diet.
I’ve also found that my IBS is better when I avoid sugar, but I don’t do that all the time. Many people with IBS find their bodies feel better when they follow a low FODMAP diet. It’s important for each individual to learn what works best for him or her, as there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Many of us know stress can trigger our IBS, but stress can’t always be avoided. I like to think of stress in two parts: external sources of stress and internal sources of stress. External sources of stress include work, relationships, and our responsibilities. The internal sources of stress have to do with the way we talk to ourselves. While we can control some of the external sources, like finding a job that is less stressful or taking steps to remove people from your life that are abusive or constantly disrespectful, there are some external sources of stress that are out of our control. We have more control over our internal voice, once we become aware of it, and can learn ways to treat ourselves more kindly and reduce the stress we cause ourselves.
I’m a recovering perfectionist, and my inner voice can be incredibly cruel and punishing. Before I became aware of it, I believed everything my mind said. Now I know it’s not all true, and although the critical inner voice is still in there, I can consciously choose more loving and supportive thoughts that greatly reduce my stress.
Hormonal fluctuations in women, during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause, can be another trigger for IBS. There’s not much about hormonal fluctuations that are in our control. I’ve found by supporting my health in other ways, like through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and keeping stress levels manageable, the hormonal fluctuations cause less disruption.
Finding your triggers
Figuring out what triggers your IBS symptoms takes time and some detective work. It can be helpful to keep a journal, noting when you have IBS flares, what symptoms you experience and their severity, what you’ve eaten for the last 24 hours, any medications you’re taking, and what your stress level is. Taking responsibility to avoid the triggers you can gives a sense of control and can help you feel more empowered in managing your health.
Is gluten a trigger for you?