Living with irritable bowel syndrome can have good days and some bad days. An IBS flare up, sometimes called an IBS attack, is painful and can take you by surprise. When these attacks happen, your first thought is probably how long does an IBS flare up last? Keep reading to find out!
Depending on your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms and general gut sensitivity, the intensity of a flare-up may feel different compared to others. Still, most people will experience a sudden onset of cramping, bloating, bathroom urgency, loose bowel movements, and abdominal pain.1
An IBS flare up can last hours, a few days, or even months. The duration depends on how well you manage your symptoms and how quickly your gut can heal.2 To help speed up the process, focus on areas you can control, such as your dietary choices and managing your stress levels.
In this article, you’ll learn strategies to help you manage an IBS flare up, understand which foods to avoid during a flare up, and get tips on decreasing the chances of a second attack.
What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a group of symptoms related to your gut and bowel health. It can feel similar to inflammatory bowel disease because the symptoms overlap, but the treatment is very different.1
People with IBS experience symptoms of abdominal pain after eating, increased gas production, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. Some people become constipated, while others are more prone to diarrhea.1
Researchers have identified several factors that might cause IBS:1
- Unbalanced gut microbiome: billions of bacteria in your digestive system work together to keep you healthy. If the bacteria levels shift, you can develop IBS.
- Unmanaged high-stress levels: stress can deplete the healthy bacteria in your gut. This contributes to an unbalanced microbiome.3
- Intestine permeability: germs and bacteria can pass through permeable tissues in your digestive tract, resulting in IBS symptoms.4
- Brain-gut interactions: stress and depression compound each other, and both deplete the presence of health-promoting gut bacteria.3
- State of motility: motility issues in the digestive tract can contribute to symptoms of IBS.1
Managing IBS requires highly individualized care. Treatment options should target physical symptoms and mental health as well.1,5
Examples of interventions include making diet changes, developing regular exercise routines, improving sleep habits, using probiotics and supplements, and learning stress-management techniques.6 If you're unsure if you have IBS, consider taking an IBS quiz to evaluate your symptoms.
What Is An IBS Flare Up
An IBS flare up is an acute scenario that worsens your existing IBS symptoms (or adds new symptoms). Depending on your IBS, you may feel greater bathroom urgency, diarrhea, more gas and bloat, and even nausea.2
The root cause of a flare up is still unknown. Researchers and healthcare providers recommend managing the symptoms and seeking help as needed.
What Causes An IBS Flare Up
Stress and changes in the diet appear to be the most likely culprits for triggering an IBS flare up.1,2 Remember that stress depletes the healthy bacteria in your digestive system. This exposes you to bouts of poor digestive health and painful inflammation.
Potential triggers for an IBS flare up include:1,2
- High-caffeine beverages, such as coffee and energy drinks.
- Carbonated drinks.
- Artificial sugars and sweetening agents. (reference)
- Infectious diarrhea.
It is unlikely that a single food will lead to an IBS flare up. If you’ve recently suffered from an attack, consider how you managed your health over the last ten days.
Were you sleeping? Have you been exercising regularly? Were there any stressful events? Depending on your digestive system's sensitivity, these events can increase your risk of an IBS flare up.
How Long Does An IBS Flare Up Last?
A flare up can last anywhere from a few days to a month.2 After an attack, you are at a greater risk of a repeat event.2 This is because your digestive system is extra sensitive and will need time to recover fully.
Unfortunately, the pain and discomfort associated with a flare up tend to last all day, and eating can lose its appeal. If your symptoms reach a degree of severity that makes you stop eating, visit the hospital or family doctor for help.
How To Stop An IBS Flare Up
Start by identifying any trigger foods that could make you feel worse during a flare up. Many people find it helpful to journal their food intake and write down symptoms after eating. This data can help you find patterns that link your diet to your gut symptoms. Use this information to make changes tailored to your needs.
After your diet, consider lifestyle factors that have recently changed, such as stress levels. Stress has been mentioned a few times because we know there is a direct link between stress levels and gut health.
The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation offers these proven stress-management strategies to help people manage IBS:7
- Regular exercise. It can include a mixture of aerobic exercises and resistance training.
- Practice mind-body connections through yoga, pilates, and other intentional movement exercises.
- Cognitive behavior therapy to manage anxiety surrounding an IBS diagnosis and living with IBS.8
- Hypnotherapy has helped people report less awful IBS symptoms.7
- Dedicating time for yourself to nurture hobbies, have a bubble bath or perform self-care rituals that are the most relaxing for you.
These techniques and strategies can help you during an IBS flare up. The gut is referred to as your second brain, and managing your mental health will positively impact your digestive health.
What To Eat During An IBS Flare Up
During a flare up, you can choose gentle foods that will not overstimulate your digestive system. This scientific review demonstrated that people with IBS may feel better by eating small portions often throughout the day instead of three large meals with long gaps in between.9
You can also try these dietary recommendations:9
- Opt for cooked vegetables over raw because the soluble fiber is easier to digest.
- Choose a variety of plant-based protein sources and lean animal products with little to no visible fat.
- Pick whole grain options for all your meals.
- Continue to include dairy as tolerated. Avoid this food group if you are lactose intolerant or know it will negatively impact your IBS symptoms.
- Add omega-3-rich foods, including salmon, trout, walnuts, and ground flax seeds. Healthy fats can reduce intestinal inflammation caused by an IBS flare up.
- The low Fodmap diet recommends foods with lower levels of fermentable carbohydrates, which results in fewer IBS symptoms.10 Monash University is the leader in this area of research, and they have a compiled list of low fodmap foods here.11
One more thing to keep in mind is your hydration status. Days of frequent bathroom trips and loose stools, such as diarrhea, can increase your risk of dehydration.12 Drink plain water throughout the day to ensure you get enough fluid to satisfy your daily needs.
Can Probiotics Help?
Yes, probiotic supplements can help improve IBS symptoms in some people, but you need to take the right product.13
There are a handful of proven bacterial strains that can help treat IBS. Your doctor or pharmacist can recommend a brand that will be the most effective for you.
Here is a list of proven probiotics to treat IBS symptoms:14
- Bio K
- Genestra Brands
Immunocompromised people should not take live probiotics and should speak to their doctor about alternative options.
Fermented foods naturally contain probiotics, but it is unlikely they can restore your gut microbiome completely. You can include them after a flare up to help you maintain a healthy gut in the future.
Work With An IBS Dietitian
IBS flare ups are uncomfortable and can last days or even a few months. Possible triggers include a change in diet, specific foods, lifestyle changes, increased stress levels, or a decline in general health status.
Making dietary changes can be a great way to manage an IBS flare-up and speed up recovery time. Remove obvious trigger foods that aggravate the gut, and include gentler options with soluble fiber instead.
You should also limit caffeine intake and avoid carbonated beverages until you feel better. Talk to your care team about adding a probiotic supplement.
Research has shown that people with IBS improve their gastrointestinal symptoms when they work with a compassionate healthcare provider.15 Partner with IBS dietitians at Nourish for help achieving health and wellness through personalized nutrition counseling. Tap into our national telehealth network of online dietitians who accept insurance. Get started today!
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