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Common Triggers for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

April 16, 2024

Woman laying on a couch clutching her stomach

The American College of Gastroenterology estimates that 10 to 15% of adults in the United States are impacted by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you are one of the many people who struggle with bothersome IBS symptoms, understanding what triggers your flare-ups is an important part of managing your condition.

“A wide range of triggers exists and they can have a significant impact on your IBS symptoms and how often you experience a flare,” says Dovid Moradi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Atlantic Health System. “With a little time and attention, most people can manage their symptoms effectively by understanding how their diet and mental health are linked to their gut.”

What is IBS?

Symptoms of IBS can range from mild to severe, depending on the person. Dr. Moradi explains that common signs of IBS include the following gastrointestinal issues:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Nausea and vomiting

There is no test for IBS. People are generally diagnosed after their doctor rules out other more serious diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis and Chron’s disease. The two conditions are often confused. While IBD requires careful management by a gastroenterologist and can include worrisome symptoms such as bleeding and weight loss, IBS rarely causes any long-term health concerns.

Managing IBS triggers

The symptoms of IBS often come and go. You might go for weeks or even months without any symptoms, only to have them reappear again. The times when you experience symptoms are known as flares. The cause of your flare can be the result of your diet, a lack of sleep, your stress levels, anxiety or depression. For women, your menstrual cycle can also play a role in triggering an IBS flare-up.


If you have IBS, what you eat can have a serious impact on your gut health. Foods that can trigger your IBS symptoms include:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • High FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) foods such as:
    • Dairy products
    • Wheat, barley or rye
    • High fructose corn syrup
    • Vegetables including cauliflower, asparagus and green peas
    • Legumes
    • Nuts such as pistachios and cashews

Certain foods can also help ease your IBS symptoms. Dr. Moradi recommends the following items to help reduce flare-ups:

  • Soy or almond milk products
  • Hard cheeses, in addition to feta
  • Proteins such as eggs, tofu, poultry and seafood
  • Vegetables including carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes and zucchini

Stress, depression and anxiety

Because IBS is considered a disorder of gut-brain interaction, there is a strong link between your gut health and your mental health. As a result of this connection, you might find your IBS symptoms are triggered during times of significant stress, anxiety or depression. Dr. Moradi says there appears to be a strong link between mental health issues linked to negative childhood experiences such as divorce or trauma and patients who develop IBS.

“It’s not always easy for someone to make a connection between their IBS symptoms and mental health concerns, and the link between the two is often overlooked,” says Dr. Moradi. “The key to getting your symptoms under control can often depend on finding the right mental health professional to help you develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage your stress, anxiety or depression.”

When to see your doctor

IBS is a lifelong condition that you can generally manage on your own without the use of medications or surgery. However, Dr. Moradi says it’s time to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist if your symptoms start to interfere with your quality of life. That’s also true if you have bloody bowel movements, unintentional weight loss, anemia or a family history of colorectal or gastrointestinal cancer.

“There’s no reason to suffer in silence with IBS or other gastrointestinal symptoms,” says Dr. Moradi. “If you are having trouble identifying your triggers or need extra support to manage your condition, your medical provider can help you with the resources you need.”

  • Healthy Living