Common causes and risk factors of IBS

This article explores some of the causes of IBS and common IBS triggers, with useful tips to ease symptoms.

Common causes and risk factors of IBS photo

You may be wondering whether there are any common causes of IBS or whether there are any IBS risk factors.

It can be difficult to know exactly what causes IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) as it can be due to one or many different factors and these vary greatly depending on individual circumstances and environmental factors.

IBS is what’s called a ‘functional’ gastrointestinal disorder – in other words, it is a disorder that is related to problems with the way the gut-brain interaction is functioning rather than an identified pathophysiological cause or disease.

Common IBS Triggers

The most common causes or risk factors of IBS include:

  • Stress or trauma experienced in early childhood, through to stress associated with school, work or life events such as bereavement, relationship difficulties or breakdown, injury, moving house or changing jobs etc.
  • Anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders
  • Having an associated disorder such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic pelvic pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease or dyspepsia
  • Poor digestion and infections in the digestive tract, gastroenteritis or food poisoning
  • An overgrowth or imbalance of bacteria in the small and/or large intestine
  • Food intolerance or sensitivity
  • Poor diet and lifestyle
  • Having a family member with IBS

Are some people more at risk of developing IBS than others?

Research has shown that women are twice as likely to develop IBS than men and it is more common in people younger than 50.

Very often women notice that IBS symptoms are worse around the time of their period, although research into the exact mechanism behind this is ongoing.

Here are some top tips for reducing the risk of developing IBS:

Although risk factors like gender and genetics may be beyond your control, certain factors which put you at greater risk of developing IBS can be addressed such as stress, poor diet and lifestyle. There are also some common IBS triggers to watch out for, so here are some tips to reduce your risk of developing IBS:

  • Avoid stress or find coping strategies to manage stress. Stress management techniques such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) or EFT (emotional freedom technique), relaxation exercises, deep breathing, yoga, Pilates, gentle exercise such as walking outdoors in nature and meditation are just some of the ways to help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and improve mental health.
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet using whole foods, mostly plants, and avoid sugars, refined and processed carbohydrates, saturated fats and too much spicy food.
  • Identify and avoid any foods which seem to cause symptoms - gluten and/or dairy are often common triggers of IBS. Seek support from a qualified practitioner such as a registered nutritional therapist to find out which foods may be affecting you so that you can come up with a plan which suits your individual needs.
  • Feed your healthy gut bacteria with a wide diversity of brightly coloured plant foods to provide a good source of fibre and nutrients.
  • Include fermented foods in your diet such as kefir, kombucha and kimchi and/or take a good quality probiotic supplement.
  • Avoid alcohol, do not smoke, reduce or avoid caffeine, take regular exercise and sleep well to maintain good overall health.