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Gluten and IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the digestive system, specifically the small intestine, impacting the lives of a significant percentage of the population. Symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. The exact cause of IBS is still unknown, making it a complex condition to diagnose and treat. 

People with IBS often face difficulties in their daily lives, as symptoms can range from mild to severe and be unpredictable. The chronic nature of IBS can impact one’s quality of life, affecting aspects such as work productivity, social activities, and overall well-being.

Because IBS is a challenging condition to diagnose and treat effectively, many individuals rely on identifying triggers to manage their symptoms. Among the various factors associated with IBS is gluten, a protein commonly found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye.

While gluten sensitivity or intolerance and its connection to IBS can vary from person to person, scientific research has shown a link between gluten and gastrointestinal symptoms in a subset of IBS patients. In the following sections, we will dive deeper into the connection between IBS and gluten, examining whether gluten truly makes IBS worse and if a gluten-free diet can be beneficial for managing IBS symptoms.

A field of wheat grass in bright sunshine, gluten and IBS

Gluten and IBS

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It provides elasticity to dough and is commonly found in bread, pasta, and other grain-based products.

Some studies have suggested a significant connection between IBS and gluten, highlighting the concept of non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS) or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) or gluten intolerance. Non-celiac wheat sensitivity and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are terms used to describe individuals who experience IBS-like symptoms in response to gluten consumption, in the absence of celiac disease.

WHAT IS FOOD INTOLERANCE? 

Food intolerance happens when a person has difficulty digesting a particular food or food group. While it is not life threatening, it can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. A food intolerance is sometimes referred to as food sensitivity, these two terms are used inter-changeably. 

It is estimated around 20% of the world population has a food intolerance. It is very common and seems to be on the rise. 

Difference Between Food Intolerance and Food Allergies: 

A food intolerance sometimes may get mistaken for food allergies, however, these two conditions are completely different. With food intolerance, symptoms occur in the digestive track and usually only stays in the digestive track. Whereas, food allergies are activated by the immune system and can cause life threatening reactions, such as anaphylaxis. 

A woman's hands fold up freshly made and cut pasta strands

Gluten and IBS Connection

The relationship between gluten and IBS is complex. While individuals with a normally functioning digestive system can tolerate gluten, it appears to affect individuals with certain group of IBS patients differently. Research indicates that gluten may trigger or worsen symptoms in some people with IBS. The specific group with gluten intolerance.

However, it is important to note that not all individuals with IBS experience a negative response to gluten. Responses to gluten can vary among individuals with IBS, highlighting the condition’s heterogeneity.

Does Gluten Make IBS Worse?

The impact of gluten on IBS symptoms varies from person to person. While some individuals report symptom improvement after adopting a gluten-free diet, this does not apply universally to all people with IBS.

It is essential to recognize that gluten may or may not exacerbate symptoms in each case. Understanding personal triggers and conducting self-monitoring can help individuals determine if gluten plays a role in their symptomatology.

Click here to learn more about IBS Freedom, a dietitian-led holistic program to help you identify IBS triggers, manage flares, and get relief from symptoms like gas, bloating, pain, reflux, and irregular bowel habits once and for all.

Multiple rolls of toilet paper scattered on a bathroom floor

Symptoms of Food Intolerance

Symptoms of food intolerance can vary greatly depending on what the person is intolerant to. We’ll discuss the different food intolerance later. 

Food intolerance can lead to symptoms such as: 

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea 
  • Distention
  • Reflux 
  • Flatulence (gas)
Gluten-Free Diet

Can a Gluten-Free Diet Help IBS?

Adopting a gluten-free diet may offer benefits for some individuals with IBS, particularly those who also have gluten intolerance (Non-Celiac Wheat Sensitivity). 

By eliminating gluten-containing foods, individuals can also reduce their intake of high FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) foods, all of which are known to exacerbate IBS symptoms. 

A gluten-free diet may reduce cramping and bloating and improve overall gut health. However, it is crucial to ensure a balanced and nutritionally adequate diet when eliminating gluten, as certain nutrients may be limited.

It is also important to note that gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and it may not be the sole culprit for IBS symptoms. Other components of these grains, such as FODMAPs, can also contribute to symptoms in some individuals. Therefore, a gluten-free diet may alleviate symptoms by reducing the intake of not only gluten but also high-FODMAP foods.

Foods to Avoid with IBS and Gluten Intolerance

If you have IBS and gluten intolerance, it is important to be aware of foods that contain gluten and may worsen symptoms. Here are some common gluten-containing foods to avoid.

Two loaves of French bread displayed with wheat grass next to it, gluten and IBS

Wheat-based products

This includes bread, pasta, cereals, and baked goods made with wheat flour. These products contain both gluten and fructans, which can trigger IBS symptoms in susceptible individuals.

A close up of rye in a field

Barley and rye

Be cautious of foods containing these grains, such as beer and certain whiskeys. Like wheat, barley and rye contain gluten.

Processed snacks in a vending machine, such as chips, energy bars, and candy bars

Processed foods that contain gluten or process foods that may have come into contact with gluten (cross-contact)

Check labels for hidden sources of gluten, including sauces, dressings, and processed snacks. Many processed foods contain or come into contact with wheat or other gluten-containing ingredients.

Alternative options that are gluten-free and well-tolerated include gluten-free grains (e.g., rice, quinoa, buckwheat), gluten-free bread and pasta made by GF grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

It is worth noting that not all individuals with IBS will experience symptom improvement with a gluten-free diet. It is a highly individualized approach, and it may be beneficial to work with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to identify specific trigger foods and suitable alternatives.

A fresh gluten free meal of salmon, fresh veggies, and a dollop of cream sauce, gluten and IBS

IBS and Gluten-Free Diet and Meal Plan

Implementing an IBS and gluten-free diet plan or meal plan can provide structure and guidance for individuals seeking symptom relief.

This plan typically includes:

  • Lean proteins: Incorporate sources such as chicken, fish, tofu, and eggs, which are naturally gluten-free.
  • Gluten-free grains: Opt for rice, quinoa, corn, oats, and buckwheat as staple carbohydrate sources.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Enjoy a variety of fresh produce, focusing on low FODMAP options to minimize potential triggers.
  • Healthy fats: Include avocados, nuts, and olive oil in your meals for added nutrients and satiety.
  • Probiotic-rich foods, if tolerated: Consider adding yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables to support gut health.

As a reminder, individual responses to a gluten-free diet may vary. Some individuals may experience significant symptom improvement, while others may not notice a difference. Consulting with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian can help you develop a personalized diet plan that aligns with your specific needs, taking into account any other health conditions or dietary restrictions you may have.

A low-fodmap meal consisting of a bowl of oats with banana, pecans, blueberries, and peanut butter

Low FODMAP Diet

Another common IBS diet is the Low FODMAP Diet, which is specifically designed to reduce the intake of fermentable carbohydrates that can trigger IBS symptoms

FODMAPs, including fructans and other types of carbohydrates, are fermentable substances that may be poorly absorbed in the small intestine, leading to increased water and gas in the intestines and subsequent symptoms like bloating, gas, and abdominal pain. 

The Low FODMAP Diet involves a temporary elimination phase, where high FODMAP foods are restricted, followed by a reintroduction phase to identify specific triggers for each individual.

Watch this free IBS webinar to learn more about the low FODMAP diet, and download my free low FODMAP grocery list here.

3 mistakes to avoid on the low fodmap diet for IBS freedom
Conclusion:

The connection between gluten and IBS is an area of ongoing research and discussion. While gluten may not be the sole trigger for IBS symptoms in all individuals, some people with IBS with non-celiac wheat sensitivity report improvements when following a gluten-free diet.

Understanding personal responses to gluten and identifying individual triggers can help effectively manage IBS symptoms. Remember to work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a personalized approach that suits your unique needs!

Click here to learn more about IBS Freedom, a dietitian-led holistic program to help you identify IBS triggers, manage flares, and get relief from symptoms like gas, bloating, pain, reflux, and irregular bowel habits once and for all.

A woman stands on a beach with her arms out stretched in relaxation and joy

Summary:
  1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the digestive system. A subset of IBS patients may find relief and improvement following a gluten free diet.
  1. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, has been associated with IBS, particularly in cases of non-celiac wheat sensitivity.
  1. While gluten may trigger or worsen symptoms in some people with IBS, it does not apply universally to all individuals.
  1. Some individuals report symptom improvement after adopting a gluten-free diet, but the impact varies from person to person.
  1. A gluten-free diet may also help reduce the intake of high-FODMAP foods, which are foods that can also exacerbate IBS symptoms.
  1. It is important to ensure a balanced and nutritionally adequate diet when eliminating gluten, and consulting with a healthcare professional is recommended.
  1. Foods to avoid with IBS and gluten intolerance include wheat-based products, barley, rye, and processed foods containing hidden sources of gluten. Or foods that have come into contact with gluten, cross-contact.
  1. Alternative diet options include gluten-free grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and probiotic-rich foods.
  1. Personalized approaches, self-monitoring, and professional guidance are key to effectively managing IBS symptoms.

Learn more about identifying Non-Celiac Wheat Sensitivity by reading our client stories

Suspect gluten intolerance? Check out this blog post on Poopedia.org on how food intolerance can affect your bowel movement.

For more on a low FODMAP diet, watch this free IBS webinar or join IBS Freedom.

References:

American College of Gastroenterology. (2021). ACG Clinical Guideline: Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 116(1), 17-44.

Barmeyer, C., Schumann, M., & Meyer, T. (2018). Targeting the Microbiome in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Expert Review of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 12(5), 491-504.

Pitfalls in the Diagnosis of Celiac Disease and Gluten-Related Disorders. (2020). Frontiers in Nutrition, 7, 461.

Staudacher, H. M., Lomer, M. C., Farquharson, F. M., & Whelan, K. (2017). The Appropriate Use of Diet in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Nestle Nutrition Institute Workshop Series, 88, 65-74.

The Celiac MD. (n.d.). Test for Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance/Sensitivity. Retrieved from https://theceliacmd.com/celiac-disease-and-gluten-sensitivity-update-for-providers/

Zevallos, V. F., Raker, V., Tenzer, S., Jimenez-Calvente, C., Ashfaq-Khan, M., Rüssel, N., … Schuppan, D. (2017). Nutritional Wheat Amylase-Trypsin Inhibitors Promote Intestinal Inflammation via Activation of Myeloid Cells. Gastroenterology, 152(5), 1100-1113.e12.

Note: The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition or dietary changes.

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