7 Common Triggers That Can Cause IBS

Want to know the common causes and triggers that can cause Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms? If so, you’re in the right place. With its prevalence in the United States affecting, 10-20% of adults in the United States, up to 45 million people, understanding IBS causes and triggers is essential for better management and improved quality of life.

IBS is a chronic disorder that affects the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a variety of symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the most common triggers of IBS. From the role of diet and stress to infections, medications, and genetic factors, we’ll dive into each trigger’s impact on IBS symptoms, combination of factors is unique to each IBS sufferer. We’ll also discuss the differences in triggers between adults and children.

Understanding these triggers can empower you to make informed lifestyle choices and work closely with healthcare providers to manage IBS effectively. Keep reading to take control of your gut health and uncover the insights that can help you lead a more comfortable life despite IBS.

IBS Triggers and Causes – Key Takeaways

  1. IBS is a Common and Diverse Condition: IBS affects 10-15% of adults in the US and can cause a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It’s essential to work with a healthcare provider to identify your unique symptom profile and tailor your treatment plan for maximum effectiveness.
  2. Identifying and Managing Food Triggers: The relationship between diet and IBS is complex, and the triggers can vary widely from person to person. Keeping a food diary and working with a dietitian or healthcare professional can help you identify and manage your personal food triggers.
  3. The Role of Stress and Mental Health Triggers: Stress and anxiety can exacerbate IBS symptoms. Incorporating stress reduction techniques into your daily routine and addressing any underlying mental health issues can help take back control of your gut health.
  4. Infections and IBS: Infections in the gastrointestinal tract can be a major trigger for IBS symptoms. Preventive measures, such as good hygiene and probiotic consumption, can help reduce the risk of infections triggering IBS symptoms.
  5. Medications and Supplements: Medications and supplements can be IBS triggers for some individuals. Always consult a healthcare professional before starting or stopping any medication or supplement to find the right combination of treatments for you.
  6. Family History and Genetic Causes: Family history and genetic predisposition can play a significant role in the development of IBS. Understanding your family history can help tailor your management plan.
  7. When to Seek Professional Help: If you’re experiencing persistent or severe symptoms of IBS, it’s time to consider consulting a healthcare provider. A gastroenterologist can help confirm the diagnosis and rule out other conditions, while a registered dietitian and mental health professional can also provide valuable support.

The Gastrointestinal Impact of IBS

IBS is like a rock band that’s always on tour in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and trust me, it’s not a pleasant show for your gut. This chronic digestive disease doesn’t have a clear cause, but it’s notorious for causing abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits.

So, what’s happening behind the scenes? Well, it’s like a symphony gone awry. The gut microbiota, a community of trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms living in your GI tract, gets out of tune, leading to inflammation and heightened gut sensitivity. This can result in erratic muscle contractions and a miscommunication between the brain and gut, causing the classic IBS symptoms.

Imagine your gut as a bustling city, with the gut microbiota as its diverse and ever-changing population. In IBS, this population can become imbalanced, leading to a chaotic environment that wreaks havoc on your digestive system.

Understanding the role of the gut microbiota in IBS is a game-changer. It’s like knowing which sound engineer is causing the feedback at a concert – once you identify the issue, you can start making changes to bring the show back on track. And in the case of IBS, those changes often involve dietary adjustments, stress management, and sometimes medication to calm the gut down.

So, if your gut is feeling more like a mosh pit than a well-orchestrated performance, it might be time to consult a gastroenterologist to help you get your GI tract back in harmony.

The Complex Web of IBS Symptoms

IBS symptoms are like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. But in this case, the chocolates are symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain. Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect:

  • Diarrhea: Some people with IBS are frequent fliers to the bathroom, often experiencing loose, watery stools.
  • Constipation: On the flip side, others struggle with infrequent bowel movements and hard stools.
  • Abdominal Pain: This is the common thread, like the cherry on top of the IBS sundae. It can range from mild discomfort to sharp, debilitating pain.

What’s fascinating about IBS is that these symptoms can vary widely from person to person. One individual might have predominantly diarrhea, while another might deal more with constipation. For some, abdominal pain is the primary gripe, while others might have a mix of these symptoms.

IBS is a diverse condition, and it’s essential to work with a healthcare provider to identify your unique symptom profile. This can help tailor your treatment plan for maximum effectiveness. And remember, just like with a box of chocolates, you’re not alone in this unpredictable journey.

1. Identifying and Managing Food Triggers

The old saying “you are what you eat” takes on a whole new meaning for those with IBS. The relationship between diet and IBS flare-ups is complex, and the triggers can vary widely from person to person.

For many, certain foods can act as culprits, leading to symptoms like bloating, gas, and abdominal pain. The two most common dietary triggers to watch out for are food intolerances and gluten.

  • Food Intolerance: Foods high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) are notorious for triggering IBS symptoms. These include foods like onions, garlic, wheat, and certain fruits. A low-FODMAP diet, which involves avoiding these types of foods, is often recommended to help identify and manage these triggers.
  • Gluten: Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, is another common offender. While not all IBS sufferers are gluten intolerant, some find relief by following a gluten-free diet.

Common high FODMAP foods include: 

  • Fruits – Apples, cherries, mango, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, watermelons
  • Vegetables – Artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, green peas,, onions
  • Dairy and Alternatives – Cow’s milk, custard, ice cream, soy milk (made from whole soybeans), yogurt, soft cheeses
  • Protein Sources – Some marinated meats/poultry/seafood, some processed meats, most legumes like beans, chickpeas and lentils
  • Breads and Cereals – Wheat/rye/barley based breads, breakfast cereals, biscuits and snack products
  • Sugars/Sweeteners – Honey, high fructose corn syrup, sugar free candy, carbonated drinks, products containing sweeteners like sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol and xylitol
  • Nuts and Seeds – Cashews, Pistachios

Nutrition plays a key role in managing IBS. A healthy diet that’s low in fat and includes adequate dietary fiber can help regulate bowel movements and reduce symptoms. Incorporating prebiotic-rich foods, like bananas and oats, can promote a healthy gut microbiome, potentially easing IBS symptoms.

How do you identify your personal food triggers? It’s all about trial and error. Keep a food diary to track what you eat and how it affects your symptoms. Then, work with a dietitian or healthcare professional to slowly eliminate and reintroduce suspect foods to pinpoint your unique triggers.

Remember, what works for one person may not work for another. The key is to find a diet that’s not only IBS-friendly but also nutritionally balanced and enjoyable. So, don’t be afraid to experiment and personalize your eating plan until you find what works best for you.

Learn more about IBS Diet Plans.

2. The Role of Stress and Mental Health Triggers

Stress and anxiety are like those uninvited guests that just won’t leave – they can really stir the pot in your gut, quite literally. The gut-brain axis, the intricate communication network between your gut and brain, plays a significant role in this dynamic.

When you’re stressed or anxious, your brain sends signals that can lead to gut symptoms like bloating, cramping, and altered bowel habits, often exacerbating IBS.

Studies have shown that individuals with IBS are more likely to experience mood disorders like major depressive disorder and anxiety. This isn’t just a coincidence; it’s a result of the complex interplay between the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Immune dysregulation, a fancy term for when your immune system goes haywire, can also be triggered by stress, further impacting gut health.

So, how can you manage this tag team of stress and IBS symptoms? Here are some strategies to help you strike a balance:

  • Mindfulness and meditation: These practices can help calm your nervous system and reduce the impact of stress on your gut.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy can be particularly effective in managing both IBS symptoms and underlying mental health issues.
  • Regular physical activity: Exercise not only helps release feel-good endorphins but can also improve gut motility.
  • Nutrient-dense diet: Eating a diet rich in whole foods and low in processed items can help stabilize mood and reduce gut inflammation.

Gastrointestinal symptoms commonly associated with stress include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

By incorporating stress reduction techniques into your daily routine and addressing any underlying mental health issues, you can help take back control of your gut health and improve daily life. Remember, managing stress isn’t just about feeling better mentally; it’s about feeling better all over, from your head to your gut.

Common ways to avoid stress-induced IBS symptoms include: 

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy
  • Relaxation techniques

3. Infections Triggering IBS Symptoms

Infections in the gastrointestinal tract can be a major trigger for IBS symptoms. Common culprits include bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections. When the gut’s delicate balance is disrupted, a condition known as dysbiosis occurs, leading to symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain.

Prevention and Addressing Infections:

  • Hygiene: Regular handwashing, especially after using the bathroom and before meals, can significantly reduce the risk of ingesting pathogens.
  • Food Safety: Properly cooking meats, washing fruits and vegetables, and avoiding unpasteurized dairy products can prevent foodborne infections.
  • Stress Management: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections. Techniques like meditation, yoga, or regular exercise can help manage stress.
  • Probiotics: Consuming probiotic-rich foods or supplements can help restore the balance of good bacteria in the gut, reducing the risk of dysbiosis.
  • Medical Attention: If you suspect an infection, seek medical attention promptly to receive appropriate treatment and prevent its progression.

It’s important to note that some individuals with IBS may also have a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), where there’s an excessive growth of bacteria in the small intestine. This can exacerbate IBS symptoms and often requires specific treatment.

When it comes to infections and their role in IBS, prevention is key. By taking simple steps to maintain good hygiene and a healthy gut, you can significantly reduce the risk of infections triggering IBS symptoms. And if you do find yourself dealing with an infection, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice for proper management.

4. Medications and Supplements Trigger IBS Symptoms

While medications and supplements can be a lifeline for many health conditions, they can also be IBS triggers for some individuals.

Probiotics, often used to promote gut health, can cause bloating or gas in some people with IBS. It’s all about finding the right strain and dose that works for you. 

Antidepressants, particularly tricyclic antidepressants, are sometimes prescribed for IBS to help manage pain and discomfort. These medications can affect the way your gut and brain communicate, providing relief for some IBS symptoms.

There are also medications that directly impact the gut, such as bile acid binders, which are used to treat diarrhea-predominant IBS. On the flip side, bile acid sequestrants can lead to constipation in some individuals.

Other common drugs and supplements include antibiotics, antihistamines, antacids, laxatives, blood thinners, birth control pills, cough syrups, steroids, diuretics, and narcotics. 

Common GI side effects include nausea, bad taste in the mouth, dry mouth, constipation or diarrhea.

When considering medications or supplements, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional. IBS sufferers will have tried a laundry list of supplements and over-the-counter remedies without success. It’s important to have a conversation with your doctor to determine the best course of action for you.

Here are some key points to consider when it comes to medications and IBS:

  • Always consult a healthcare professional before starting or stopping any medication or supplement.
  • Be patient and give each medication or supplement enough time to work.
  • Keep a symptom diary to track how your body responds to different treatments.
  • Consider lifestyle and dietary changes as complementary strategies to medication.

Understanding how medications and supplements can affect your gut and overall health is an important part of managing IBS. By working closely with your healthcare team and being mindful of your body’s responses, you can find the right combination of treatments to help alleviate your IBS symptoms.

5. Physical Trauma or Surgery Causes IBS-Related Pain

Physical trauma, such as a car accident or a fall, can trigger IBS symptoms. The body’s response to trauma involves a complex interplay of stress hormones and inflammation, which can affect the gut and lead to IBS-related pain.

The same with surgery because it can cause stress on the body, potentially exacerbating IBS symptoms in some individuals.

Intense exercise, while generally beneficial for overall health, can sometimes trigger diarrhea or abdominal pain and cramping in people with IBS. This is particularly true for high-impact or strenuous activities. If you notice a pattern of symptoms following exercise, it’s important to discuss this with your healthcare provider.

Managing chronic pain associated with IBS often requires a multifaceted approach. Here are some non-pharmacological strategies that can help:

  • Gentle exercise like yoga or walking can help reduce stress and promote healthy digestion.
  • Prioritize good sleep hygiene. Poor sleep can exacerbate pain and inflammation.
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration can worsen IBS symptoms.
  • Consider complementary therapies like acupuncture or mindfulness meditation to manage pain and stress.

It’s important to work with a healthcare provider to develop a personalized pain management plan that addresses your specific needs and triggers. This may include a combination of lifestyle changes, dietary modifications, and in some cases, medication.

Remember, while physical trauma and surgery can be triggers for IBS-related pain, there are many effective strategies to help manage and reduce these symptoms, allowing you to lead a healthy and fulfilling life. 

6. Family History and Genetic Causes of IBS

If you’ve ever wondered why you and your cousin both seem to have a sensitive gut, genetics might be the answer. Family history and genetic predisposition can play a significant role in the development of IBS.

  • Genetic Link: Research from the Mayo Clinic has found that up to 20% of IBS cases can be linked to family history. In fact, if someone in your immediate family has IBS, you’re 2-3 times more likely to develop it yourself.
  • The Genetic Variant: The study looked at over 100 genetic variants in more than 60 genes, shedding light on the complex genetic underpinnings of IBS.
  • What You Can Do: While you can’t change your genetic makeup, understanding your family history can help you and your healthcare provider tailor your management plan.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: It’s also important to note that while genetics play a role, environmental factors and lifestyle choices can also influence the severity of IBS symptoms.

So, if you’re living with IBS and have a family member who can commiserate, know that you’re not alone in your genetic predisposition. While you can’t change your genes, you can take steps to manage your symptoms and improve your overall health.

A holistic approach that includes a gut-friendly diet, stress management, regular exercise, and good sleep can all contribute to a healthier gut, even in the face of genetic predisposition.

7. IBS Causes in Adults vs Children

While the symptoms of IBS in adults and children can be similar, the underlying causes may differ. Here’s a quick comparison:

In Adults:

  • Stress and mental health: The pressures of adult life can significantly impact gut health.
  • Diet: Intake of certain foods, alcohol, and caffeine can trigger IBS symptoms.
  • Hormonal changes: Especially in women, hormonal fluctuations can play a role.

In Children:

  • Diet: Similar to adults, certain foods can be IBS triggers in children.
  • Infections: Gastrointestinal infections can lead to IBS in children.
  • Emotional factors: Stress, anxiety, and emotional disturbances can also contribute.

It’s important to note that while diet and stress are common triggers across all age groups, the specific foods and stressors can vary. For example, school-related stress might be a significant factor in children, while work-related stress is more common in adults.

IBS triggers can manifest differently in adults and children due to their unique lifestyles and physiological differences.

  • If you’re a parent, observing your child’s diet and stress levels can be key in managing their IBS.
  • For adults, understanding your own stressors and dietary triggers is crucial.

In both cases, seeking professional help and guidance is essential. A gastroenterologist or a pediatrician can help create a tailored management plan that takes into account age-specific triggers and lifestyle factors.

Learn more in our guide to IBS in children.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you’re experiencing persistent or severe symptoms of IBS, it’s time to consider consulting a healthcare provider. A gastroenterologist, who specializes in the digestive system, is often the first port of call. They can help confirm the diagnosis and rule out other conditions that may mimic IBS symptoms.

When seeking medical care for IBS, it’s essential to advocate for yourself and seek a healthcare provider who practices patient-centered care. This approach ensures that your unique needs, preferences, and values are taken into account in the decision-making process.

Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals to other medical specialties if needed. For example, a registered dietitian can help tailor a diet that suits your individual needs and can be an integral part of your care team. Mental health professionals can also provide support, especially if anxiety or depression are contributing to your IBS symptoms.

In addition to seeking professional guidance, it’s crucial to monitor your symptoms and how they respond to different treatments. Keeping a symptom diary can provide valuable insights for both you and your healthcare provider. This can help identify triggers and patterns that can guide your personalized care plan.

Remember, IBS is a complex condition, and what works for one person may not work for another. Be patient and open-minded as you and your healthcare team work together to find the best approach for managing your symptoms and improving your quality of life.

Final Thoughts on IBS Causes and Triggers

In managing IBS, it’s essential to recognize that this common and diverse condition affects individuals in unique ways. From dietary triggers like high-FODMAP foods to the influence of stress and mental health, the factors contributing to IBS are multifaceted.

By working with healthcare providers to tailor management plans and explore personalized approaches, individuals can effectively navigate the complexities of IBS.

Finding the right treatment for your IBS may take time and trial and error. Understanding how infections, medications, and even genetic predisposition can play a role in IBS empowers individuals to take a proactive approach to their health. Whether you’re an adult or a parent of a child with IBS, observing age-specific triggers and seeking professional help when needed is crucial.

By keeping an open mind, maintaining a symptom diary, and being patient in finding the right combination of treatments, individuals can enhance their quality of life despite living with IBS.

The journey to managing IBS is as unique as the condition itself, but with the right support and personalized strategies, it’s a journey that can lead to a better, more harmonious relationship with your gut.

Written and Medically Reviewed By

  • Kelly Chow

    Kelly first experienced IBS symptoms at the age of 24 with major-to-severe symptoms. She underwent all types of tests and experimented with many treatments before finally finding ways to manage her symptoms. Kelly has written and shared ebooks and Gluten-Free diet plans that she has used to live life like she did before IBS.

  • Julie Guider, M.D.

    Dr. Julie Guider earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine. She completed residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia. She completed her general gastroenterology and advanced endoscopy fellowships at University of Texas-Houston. She is a member of several national GI societies including the AGA, ACG, and ASGE as well as state and local medical societies.