How to deal with IBS flare-ups when they occur

One of our IBSLife readers said that her IBS flare-ups can be as predictable as the weather. She’ll start bloating shortly after she eats a meal flavored with garlic. She’ll often wear a lose top when going out to dinner with friends because the bloating makes her look pregnant, she said. The harder part is dealing with cramping during her outings.

Medical News Today defines flare-ups as “a period when a person’s symptoms worsen.”

The symptoms that come with IBS — cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea — are heightened during flare-ups. Sometimes, the pain dissipates after a trip to the bathroom. Other times, the symptoms can last up to 48 hours.

Some flare-ups can be linked to eating items that are high in FODMAPS, which are foods that are poorly digested, such as high carbohydrates, sugars, and fibers. Certain beverages like dessert wine, rum, or port, can also lead to IBS episodes because of the high sugar alcohol content. Stress or anxiety may aggravate symptoms, so an upcoming exam, a job interview, or heavy workload could lead to the typical bodily reaction.

According to Harvard Health, the best way to combat IBS flare-ups is by identifying what triggers these episodes and then avoid them. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s just not possible. Our IBSLife reader mentioned here, for example, say waiters at restaurants may not know if a food is cooked with garlic. Asking for a meal to without garlic, is also not foolproof. The spice could be included in a marinade, and no one would know.

Most people who have had IBS for a few years are familiar with flare-ups. The following are some top suggestions to ease the symptoms when they occur:

  • If going to a restaurant, plan ahead. Review the menu online and research the ingredients. If there are limited or no food choices that are available, suggest a different restaurant.

  • Choose water instead. Drinking water may make the food move through the GI track a little easier. Feeling uncomfortable for being the only one not drinking? Order sparkling water with lemon or lime for a little pizzaz. There are also multiple types of non-alcoholic cocktails that are IBS friendly, like the ones mentioned here in IBSLife).

  • Invite friends over for potluck instead. This ensures you can make a meal that you can safely eat. Remember that getting together does not necessarily mean going to a restaurant or bar.

  • Bring some OTCs along. Over-the-counter (OTCs) antacids may be helpful for gas relief and loperamide (Imodium) may slow the diarrhea onslaught. Homeopathic options are also readily available, such as peppermint capsules or chamomile tea, but remember to follow the instruction packets carefully because of the sensitivity of the digestive system.

  • Try a heating pad for the pain. The warmth reduces blood flow to the muscles, calm spasms, and help with pain.

Decreasing the number of flare-up episodes

Although there is no cure to IBS, there are things people can do to help reduce the frequency of flare-ups. For example:

  • Starting a regular exercise program can help stimulate normal intestinal contractions and calm things down.

  • Performing restorative yoga, which can reduce the production of stress hormones, and reduce stress-triggered IBS-D. Read more about it here.

  • Getting more sleep. While there are not a great deal of research yet on the link between sleep and IBS, there are a few studies that show those who do not get enough sleep are more likely to experience IBS symptoms, like constipation according to an IBSLife article here.

  • Practicing self-hypnosis or hypnotherapy have been shown in multiple studies to reduce how people with IBS experience and feel pain. To learn more about gut-directed hypnotherapy, read about it here.