Guess What: Your Irritable Bowel Syndrome May Actually Be Caused By Food Sensitivities

Updated: Jul. 24, 2020

Irritable Bowel Syndrome causes misery to millions, but now scientists believe they've found a fast, effective way to get to the bottom of the problem.

toiletaradaphotography/shutterstockIf you often have stomach cramps, bloating, and constipation, you could be one of the 20 percent of people suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The symptoms of IBS are similar to those of a stomach upset, including diarrhea and gas, but they can continue for months or even years. Some people find that natural remedies for IBS bring a measure of relief, but scientists have determined that underlying cause may be food sensitivity, which can be hard to identify and treat.

While you might automatically associate food allergies with gluten, for many people with IBS, the culprit is a type of long chain carbohydrate found in FODMAP foods (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). The small intestine finds it difficult to process these foods, and when they reach the large intestine, they can trigger the production of bacteria, which causes the cramps, bloating, and other digestive problems associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

FODMAP foods include:

  • Oligo-saccharides e.g. fructans, found in wheat, rye and some vegetables

  • Galacto-oligosaccharides, found in pulses and legumes

  • Di-saccharides: e.g. lactose, found in milk and dairy products such as yogurt

  • Mono-saccharides: e.g. fructose, found in honey, some fruit and fruit juices

  • Polyols: e.g. sorbitol and mannitol, found in some fruits and vegetables

While it seems simple to remedy the problems of food sensitivity—just follow a low FODMAP diet, it’s actually a very long, involved process to identify exactly which foods may be affecting you, and the exploration normally begins with a diet that is very restrictive at first. These are some FODMAP foods people with IBS will want to avoid. But now a team of scientists from Yale University has found a way to speed this process up.

In their study, published in the BMJ Open Gastroenterology journal, the team used leucocyte activation testing, a form of testing that identifies each person’s problem foods very precisely. Volunteers followed an individualized diet that eliminated those specific foods. Researchers then compared their results with those of volunteers following more traditional diet techniques to manage IBS, and were surprised at the results.

Lead researcher Ather Ali, assistant professor of Pediatrics and of Medicine at Yale School of Medicine, explained why.

“We didn’t expect results like this,” he told Yale News. “The people who consumed the diet consistent with the test did significantly better than people on the sham diet.” The group following the individualized diets reported a significant improvement in symptoms such as bloating and stomach cramps, both four and six weeks after they started.

Dr. Ali is careful to point out that further study is needed.

“If these intriguing results can be replicated in larger and more diverse samples, they can provide insight into another way to treat a condition that can often be very frustrating.” he said. “It can be debilitating and patients are often looking for dietary approaches to it.”

If it’s successful, this approach could herald a new way to manage IBS, bringing relief to thousands of sufferers.