What is the gastrocolic reflex and how does it impact IBS symptoms
This post is for general information purposes only, is not meant to diagnose or treat, and is in no way a replacement for consulting a medical professional.
What is the gastrocolic reflex?
Have you ever experienced digestive discomfort during or shortly after a meal?
We’re talking about symptoms that start in your gut, like bloating or distention, cramps, flatulence, or diarrhea.
If these symptoms pop up while you’re still eating or 15 to 30 minutes afterwards, there’s a good chance that it doesn’t have much to do with what you were eating. It’s likely due to the gastrocolic reflex that has been triggered just by the act of eating itself.
Everyone experiences the gastrocolic reflex, and it has an important part to play in digestion. In very simple terms, it’s the communication between the stomach and the large intestine. The stomach registers food coming in and senses its walls stretching to accommodate the additional volume. It then tells the gut to move things along from previous meals to make space for the new arrivals. The muscles of the gut walls contract to push the contents along their journey.
How the gastrocolic reflex can affect people with irritable bowel syndrome
While this reaction happens for everyone, people with irritable bowel syndrome can have their symptoms triggered by this communication. The reflex may be exaggerated, creating a more intense response than necessary. In essence, the muscles contractions are more intense than your gut actually requires.
There are also a few things that can trigger a stronger than normal gastrocolic reflex. This includes eating a large meal, meals that are particularly high in fat, as well as drinking a large quantity of cold liquids.
Aside from mealtimes, the gastrocolic reflex is generally more active in the morning just after waking up. This is why many people experience their main bowel movement of the day first thing in the morning!
How the gastrocolic reflex affects the different IBS subtypes
With this in mind, if you experience a diarrhea predominant version of IBS (IBS-D), eating smaller, more frequent meals, staying away from high fat, greasy meals, and drinking large amounts of cold liquids could help reduce your chances of triggering symptoms.
Some medications may be helpful in dealing with an overreactive gastrocolic reflex; discuss with your doctor if this may be something for you.
If you’re more susceptible to constipation predominant IBS (IBS-C), you could use the gastrocolic reflex to your advantage to improve the frequency and predictability of bowel movements. Start your day off with a big glass of cool water along with a good-sized, healthy breakfast containing fiber and healthy fats. Some physical activity or exercise can also be helpful.
Giving yourself enough time to have a bowel movement in the morning is also important. Try not to be too rushed and allow the time to relax and use the toilet. Even just making the time to sit there, even if you don’t have a bowel movement could help your system learn and adapt over time eventually making bowel movements more frequent and regular.
Curious about what might be behind symptoms that pop up at other times of the day? Check out this blog post for more info!
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