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Other Ailments That Masquerade as IBS

The main four conditions that mimic IBS and can also be triggers for IBS if not treated are celiac disease, yeast overgrowth, lactose intolerance, and food sensitivities and allergies. They all have so many symptoms in common with IBS that you have to understand their subtleties and do some food avoidance and challenging testing to determine whether your IBS is really one of these ailments.

Celiac disease mimics IBS

Celiac disease is a genetic condition caused by an immune response to gluten, a protein found mainly in three grains (wheat, rye, and barley) and contaminating another grain (oats).

Oats don’t actually contain gluten, but they’re invariably farmed, stored, and/or milled in facilities that also handle wheat, rye, and barley, so they can be contaminated with tiny trace amounts of gluten — still enough to trigger some people with celiac disease. Some oats are grown, stored, and milled in isolation and bear the gluten-free symbol.

The immune system attacks the gluten, damaging the intestines and impairing their absorption of food. The main symptoms of celiac disease include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • GI symptoms

  • Headaches

  • Poor concentration

  • Infertility

  • Weight loss or gain

  • Depression

  • Muscle, joint, or bone pain

  • Anemia

  • Fatigue

The treatment for celiac disease is simple: Avoid gluten grains and products that use these grains.

Yeast overgrowth triggers IBS

Yeast is a type of fungus, a cousin to mold and mildew in the form of tiny round buds that grow naturally on your skin and in your intestines. Yeast buds don’t have mouths or stomachs — they grow into their food, absorbing sugars in the form of table sugar, milk sugar, fruit sugar, and glucose molecules from simple carbohydrates like bread.

When a round yeast bud grows to a critical size, it can no longer absorb enough food through its surface to reach the center, so it breaks off into smaller buds that form their own colonies.

Antibiotics can contribute to yeast overgrowth because they kill all gut bacteria, including the good stuff, leaving room for yeast to take over.

Symptoms of yeast overgrowth include

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Allergies, sinusitis, and asthma

  • Vaginitis or prostatitis

You can starve out yeast by avoiding sugar, wheat, and dairy.

Lactose intolerance can trigger IBS

Lactose (milk sugar) is what makes milk taste a bit sweet. Up to 75 percent of adults worldwide have diminished capacity to digest dairy products, so lactose intolerance isn’t a rare condition. Experts estimate that about 50 million Americans feel the effects of lactose intolerance, and that figure doesn’t count the millions who suffer occasionally when they load up on lactose.

The reactions occur because undigested dairy becomes fodder for intestinal organisms that feed and breed off your waste. It can also attract water, which makes your stools very runny. The symptoms of lactose intolerance are very much like the symptoms for IBS:

  • Abdominal pain and bloating

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea (usually very runny)

  • Alternating constipation and diarrhea

  • Cramps

  • Gas

  • Nausea and vomiting

To determine whether your condition is lactose intolerance or dairy-triggered IBS, you can take a lactose tolerance blood test or a hydrogen breath test (lactose intolerance creates an excess of hydrogen in the breath).

Your doctor first takes a preliminary reading of either your blood glucose or the amount of hydrogen in your breath, depending on which test you’re taking. After you drink a liquid containing lactose, you repeat the test and compare the results. If your blood glucose has suddenly become elevated or your hydrogen breath reading has spiked, you are diagnosed with lactose intolerance, not IBS.

The best way to treat lactose intolerance? Avoiding lactose.

Food allergies and food sensitivities and IBS symptoms

Food allergies and sensitivities are two separate animals that can both cause IBS-like symptoms. The medical definition of a food allergy is a reaction to food causing an immediate reaction with swelling of mucus membranes and a positive IgE blood test showing elevated antibody levels.

Strawberries, shellfish, and nuts are some of the big food allergy culprits; if you have an allergy and eat an offending food, your body releases histamines and other chemicals, causing hives, itching, and swelling that can occasionally be life-threatening. Only 1 percent of adults and 3 percent of children suffer IgE food allergies; naturally, if you have a food allergy, you want to identify and avoid that food.

Chronic food allergies can take up to 48 hours to appear, so associating them with food intake can be difficult unless you do avoidance and challenge testing. Dairy, wheat, soy, and corn are common IgG food allergies, and a positive test shows a higher level of IgG antibodies.

Unfortunately, most doctors only recognize IgE food allergies and not the IgG kind, so you often have to do the dietary testing yourself to make your own diagnosis. Many nutritionally oriented doctors perform the IgG allergy tests to determine food allergies, but Carolyn finds that the food avoidance and challenge testing works just as well or even better.

You can take IgG food allergy blood tests, but if you have a leaky gut, molecules of undigested food can be absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream. Your immune system attacks those molecules with IgG antibodies and can give you a false positive IgG test result for just about every food you’re eating.

Food sensitivities are foods that you may have identified as unique triggers for your symptoms without any clear medical reason. The designation food sensitivity is more in the realm of inability to digest a particular food, with symptoms of mucus, nausea, or upset stomach after eating.

You may burp after a pizza due to inability to digest green peppers, or dairy products may give you mucus and you find yourself clearing your throat after drinking a milkshake. Many foods that cause symptoms in people with IBS are labeled food sensitivities. That’s where a food diary and avoiding and challenging foods become very important tools.

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