Blue background, two hands up in the air holding a red alarm clock; what the timing of your IBS symptoms says about your triggers

What the timing of your IBS symptoms says about your triggers

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.


Have you ever experienced a sudden onset of IBS symptoms, but had no idea what triggered them?

The majority of people with IBS tend to point the finger at food for causing their symptoms, but actually figuring out the trigger is easier said than done.

Usually this means you’re looking at the last meal you ate to find the culprit… but this might not be giving accurate information. 

Remember, our digestive system is long.

Like, really long.

The small intestine is around 6 meters in length, plus an extra 1.5 meters for the large intestine.

Our food just doesn’t flow through the gut like water through a pipe, the passage is slower so that our body has time to breakdown and absorb the nutrients out of our food.

Transit time from plate to toilet can range from 10 to even 48 hours!

So what can you gather from the timing of your IBS symptoms?

White wooden table with a charcuterie board filled with sliced meats, cheeses, and fruits; what the timing of your IBS symptoms says about your triggers

IBS symptoms just after eating

If you’re having to run to the washroom within minutes of eating a meal, it’s not the content of that meal that is ready for exit.

It’s more likely due to your gastrocolic reflex being stimulated.

When you consume food, your stomach starts to stretch. This stretching is one of the triggers for the gastrocolic reflex (gastro = stomach, colic = colon/large intestine).

What it triggers are muscle contractions in the colon. These muscle contractions are meant to push along the food from previous meals to make room for what you just ate.

It’s a totally normal process, but many people with IBS have a dysregulated gastrocolic reflex.

If you need to hit the washroom soon after eating, then the gastrocolic reflex that was triggered is exaggerated and strong muscle contractions have created an everybody out situation.

What can trigger an extra-strong gastrocolic reflex? Large meals, meals high in fat, and drinking a large portion of cold fluids quickly.

If you feel like this could be an issue for you, then eating smaller, more frequent meals, making sure the fat content isn’t exaggerated, and drinking smaller but more frequent amounts of room temperature drinks, could all be possible actions to try.

Woman sitting cross-legged on a bed in front of a window stretching with her arms above her head; what the timing of your IBS symptoms says about your triggers

IBS symptoms in the morning

The gastrocolic reflex is also active in the morning just after rising. If you frequently experience symptoms first thing, it could be a combination of this plus stress.

Our stress-system gets a break while we are sleeping, but if you wake up and are immediately on edge, this could be what is triggering your IBS.

Try and incorporate some stress-reduction activities first thing, perhaps some journaling, meditation, or yoga.

On the other side, if you’re struggling with IBS-C, using the gastrocolic reflex to your benefit may help.

Drink some cool water first thing, have a good-sized breakfast with healthy fats, and move your body a bit to really get things moving.

Plus make sure to give yourself some time to use the washroom before you start with your workday. Even if you don’t go every time, creating the routine will help your body start getting use to the rhythm.


IBS symptoms a few hours after a meal

If your symptoms are popping up several hours after eating, then it could be that certain foods are the triggers.

Roughly 4 hours or so after a meal, the food would reach your large intestine. Certain foods have a tendency to attract water, and/or be fermented by our gut bacteria and produce gas.

For people with IBS, this normal increase in volume can cause symptoms to be triggered due to the increased sensitivity of the gut lining that many IBS-sufferers experience.

This is where it may be especially helpful to keep a food journal to see if there are any specific foods that tend to correspond to symptoms.

However, keep in mind that it’s not just the food itself; it can also be the quantity consumed that is important.


The bottom line

These are just a few specific times when you might experience symptoms and some reasons why they have been triggered.

But, of course, it’s not possible to outline all possibilities and also accurately identify in a blog post for general information what specifically might be happening for you.

IBS is a complex syndrome and there are many different triggers like food, stress, sleep, exercise, etc. And since every body is different, what’s a trigger for one person may not be for another.

In all these scenarios it’s recommended to work closely with someone to help you identify and manage IBS symptoms. This will allow you to understand why they may be happening, help reduce the frequency, and better be able to manage them when they do occur.

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