How winter can make IBS flare up

Abigail Malbon
·5-min read
Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images
Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

If you've spent more time than ever feeling bloated and uncomfortable recently, you may have wondered whether the colder weather is triggering IBS symptoms - and you wouldn't be alone. Many have reported experiencing IBS flare-ups in the winter, and it can be triggered by more than just eating certain foods. Here's everything you need to know...

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a really common condition, affecting around a third of adults in the UK. However, it's notoriously hard to medically diagnose IBS, which is why doctors will often advise you to write a diary of triggers to help you identify what's affecting your body.

"Unfortunately, there is no test that will diagnose you with IBS, but its symptoms can range from cramping and abdominal pains, through to bloating and gas," Dr Sumera Shahaney, Head of Clinical Operations at Thriva and a medical doctor working in the NHS tells Cosmopolitan. "It can be incredibly uncomfortable and painful for people who suffer from it, but the good news is that by understanding the triggers it is possible to manage the symptoms effectively."

What can cause IBS?

The condition isn't always triggered by external factors. "Some people are predisposed to IBS," explains Dr Shahaney. "It can be genetic and run in your family history, but in general women are twice as likely to suffer from it than men and it’s most common between teen years and your 40s."

Having said that, lifestyle factors could be encouraging your bodily reaction. "In terms of triggers, 90% of people with IBS say that food triggers a flare-up," says Dr Shahaney. "Not only the type of food you eat, but how and when you eat it. For example, eating quickly, on the move or whilst you’re doing something stressful or distracting can cause digestive issues and so kick-start a bout of IBS.

"With that in mind, it’s important to try have regular meals, not too far apart and eat in a relaxed setting. No more grabbing a sandwich on the move!

Photo credit: Westend61 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Westend61 - Getty Images

"In terms of what food types are problematic, this is a huge topic for IBS sufferers. Generally, dairy, wheat, sugars (such as fructose), carbonated drinks, caffeine, alcohol, tomatoes or eggs can all cause a flare up. More specifically you might want to look out for symptoms related to apples, onions, garlic, watermelon and legumes. Even chewing gum has been known to cause symptoms.

"A carefully managed diet can help improve symptoms. Avoid processed food, artificial sweeteners or the food types listed above. You might want to introduce oats into your diet, which can help with bloating and a daily tablespoon of linseed oil. Drink lots of fluids (but no caffeine or alcohol!).

"If your symptoms do persist, a short trial (six weeks or so) of the low-FODMAP diet could help. This relates to certain carbs that move through your intestines undigested. There are quite a few surprising healthy foods that you’ll be asked to avoid e.g. avocado or broccoli and we would always recommend that you consult a dietician before cutting out any major food groups."

Photo credit: Supakon Pandecha / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Supakon Pandecha / EyeEm - Getty Images

However, if you've already been through all of your food triggers are convinced there's something else in the way, you might be right. "Stress can be a trigger for IBS, which is why talking therapy or antidepressants can be recommended for long-term issues," says Dr Shahaney. "For mild symptoms, you might want to look at stress reduction strategies like meditation or yoga.

"Finally, antibiotics and antidepressants can also be a trigger, and you might want to consider if you have suffered from a tummy bug as this can kick-start IBS which can then last for years.

"There is some, controversial evidence, on the use of probiotics to help with IBS, but we need more research here to make any conclusive recommendations. Paradoxically, some people find yoghurts to be a trigger."

Why does IBS flare up in winter?

If a change in temperature and daylight hours seem to affect you more than most, Dr Shahaney thinks you may be making subtle changes that affect your IBS, too.

"My instinct here is that this would relate to changes in diet and a more sedentary lifestyle," she explains. "It’s likely in winter (and especially around Christmas) we’re eating more starchy carbs, which can be a trigger, and moving less.

"There is also some (albeit patchy) evidence that Vitamin D might have a role to play - the evidence is limited but it is never harmful to check whether your Vitamin D levels are optimal or not."

While it's advisable for many of us here in the UK to take vitamin D supplements from October through to March, there's another thing you might want to consider; your stress levels.

"Of course, following the year we've just had, it is likely that increased levels of stress are contributing to symptoms as well," Dr Shahaney explains.

And although we can't do much to change the events of 2020 as a whole, we can remember to exercise self-care to ease any tension. Here's to a less bloated New Year...

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