If you’re struggling with IBS, you’ll know exactly how debilitating the symptoms can be. There can be a lot of crossover with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which can both have similar symptoms to IBS. This can make it super hard to know which condition you may have and whether going gluten free could make a difference to your situation. Sometimes, what appears to be IBS can actually be something else entirely and avoiding gluten can be a game-changer.
What happens with IBS?
When food passes through your large intestine, it encourages an “irritable” response and triggers the familiar symptoms associated with IBS - namely constipation, diarrhea or a mixture of both. It’s hugely unpleasant but there is some good news. Whereas some digestive conditions can damage the intestines, this doesn’t happen with IBS.
Can diet help IBS symptoms?
Diet can play a super important role in both encouraging IBS symptoms and relieving them. Certain foods can be big triggers. Gluten is a big one but other culprits can include beans, legumes, processed foods and dairy. You’ll probably notice that you get a flare up in IBS symptoms after eating certain foods, although your personal triggers can be pretty unique to you.
Food triggers are one of the big reasons why many people with IBS choose to try out a gluten free diet to see if it helps to reduce symptoms. Following a gluten free diet can be hugely successful for some people and there is some evidence that many people with IBS can’t tolerate gluten.
IBS and celiac disease
With celiac disease, consuming even a super tiny amount of gluten causes damage to the small intestine. This can affect the absorption of nutrients and can have a far wider impact on health and wellbeing.
It can also produce IBS type symptoms (especially along the lines of IBS-predominant diarrhea. Going gluten free can make a massive difference to IBS symptoms.
It is possible to have both IBS and celiac disease at the same time and this can mean that symptoms carry on even if gluten is excluded from your diet.
Testing is the best way to know whether you have IBS or celiac disease but you need to be eating gluten every day to get an accurate result. Going gluten free in the run up to being tested can mean that you test negative, even if you actually have celiac disease. It’s super common for celiac disease to be misdiagnosed as IBS, especially if you’re avoiding gluten to get relief from symptoms.
IBS and gluten sensitivity
Even if you’re not celiac, you can still have problems with gluten. Some people have a sensitivity to gluten, even though they test negatively for celiac disease. This means that eating gluten doesn’t damage the small intestine but it may produce some degree of immune reaction to foods that contain gluten. Every time you eat gluten, you can get symptoms similar to IBS but the problem is actually gluten.
Some symptoms that appear to be IBS related can sometimes be linked to gluten sensitivity.
There’s another theory too. Wheat also contains a carb called fructans, which is also a FODMAP and can be a trigger for digestive problems. Some people with IBS who also seem sensitive to gluten may be having a reaction to fructans, rather than gluten.
Is it worth avoiding gluten if you have IBS?
Avoiding gluten doesn’t always help IBS symptoms but it can be a game changer for some people.
Diarrhea predominant IBS (IBS-D) can improve if gluten is avoided, even if you don’t have celiac disease. A study published in the Gastroenterology journal found that a gluten free diet reduced diarrhea symptoms in IBS symptoms.
This is because gluten can be a common culprit for aggravating the gut barrier and digestive health can benefit if this doesn’t happen. If you’re an IBS patient with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there’s a good chance that things will get better on a gluten free diet.
One study involved 34 IBS patients whose symptoms were being managed on a gluten free diet. They were split into two groups, with one group asked to eat gluten on a daily basis for 6 weeks. One week later, the gluten group experienced a greater amount of constipation, diarrhea, bloating, discomfort and fatigue compared to the non-gluten group. This led researchers to decide that gluten is at least partly to blame for IBS symptoms.
There’s another reason why going gluten free can make a difference to IBS symptoms. Insoluble fiber in whole grains can cause problems for people with IBS and trigger symptoms.