Can a gluten-free diet make my IBS worse?

Most studies showed IBS patients who followed a gluten-free diet experienced symptomatic relief rather than distress. But the only way to find out if this diet will make your symptoms better or worse is to try it under the supervision of a health professional.

Your IBS is as unique as you

One of the most important things to remember about IBS is this: how it manifests itself is unique to you. You may meet other individuals afflicted with IBS who experience symptoms you have never experienced. 

How is it possible that individuals with the same bowel condition experience a different set of symptoms?

For one, there are personal lifestyle factors such as stress levels, sleep quality, and eating habits that influence what triggers your IBS symptoms. There are also different types of IBS—diarrhoea-predominant IBS (IBS-D); constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C), and the mixed type of constipation (IBS-M)—that each come with their own distinct symptoms.

Why gluten?

Gluten is a family of proteins that is naturally present in wheat, barley, and rye. It was already identified as the culprit behind coeliac disease in the early 1950s. 

In the late 1970s, it was observed that patients who were not afflicted with coeliac disease and who stopped eating gluten-containing foods experienced relief from their symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhoea. While non-coeliac gluten sensitivity has been around for close to five decades, it is still a relatively new condition that requires more studies and research.

Interestingly, some clinical trials and studies showed a link between gluten and IBS.

Gluten and IBS

There are healthcare professionals who recommend a trial of the gluten-free diet to their IBS patients. This is because gluten has been found to trigger IBS symptoms in several studies and clinical trials.

One of these studies was conducted in 2015. The results of the study showed 50% of the participants showed an improvement in their IBS symptoms.

Another international research study showed that individuals with IBS as well as gluten sensitivity experienced several benefits while following a gluten-free diet.

Some studies found that gluten-free, specifically a wheat-free diet, had benefits for IBS patients who were also sensitive to gluten. 

These findings might lead you to hastily conclude that a gluten-free diet is ideal for those with IBS. But as we have established earlier, every person’s body and health condition is different. While there is evidence that some IBS patients who eliminated gluten from their diet experienced less IBS flare-ups or less severe symptoms, that does not automatically mean that going on a gluten-free diet will resolve everyone else’s IBS—including yours—once and for all.

Similarly, if you have heard or read reports of IBS patients whose symptoms got worse after following the gluten-free diet, it will be a mistake to assume that you will, too. 

The common mistakes

Unfortunately, there are people who make the mistake of adopting the gluten-free diet based on these studies alone, or worse, hearsay. The fact that going gluten-free has become somewhat of a trend nowadays has made this kind of diet more appealing to those who don’t even need to follow it.  

Another common mistake is people go on this diet (or any other type of diet, for that matter) without even consulting their doctor or dietitian.

If you have been diagnosed with any type of IBS and are looking for ways to manage your symptoms, start your recovery on the right foot and go to the experts. Do not follow the gluten-free diet (or any other type of diet) without seeing your doctor or dietitian first. Otherwise, you’ll put yourself at risk for nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, and other conditions borne out of malnutrition.

Dietary modifications for IBS patients

Most IBS patients are advised to follow the low-FODMAP diet because this type of diet has already been proven to improve IBS symptoms. And if there’s anything the research studies mentioned above indicate, it’s this: the gluten-free diet potentially has the same benefits for this same group of people.

The reason why the treatment of IBS patients involves dietary changes is because foods are usually the triggers of their symptoms. Once changes to their diet have been made, it is very likely that there will also be changes to how their condition manifests itself. Whether the change will be positive (less frequency or severity of IBS symptoms) or negative (more frequent or severe IBS symptoms) is up to your body’s unique response to the diet and other personal factors.

You probably know from experience that Ingesting just a small amount of a certain food can set off an IBS attack like no other. The purpose of trying the gluten-free diet is to discover whether gluten is really the culprit behind your IBS attacks. 

Trial and error

The bottom line is this: trying the gluten-free diet comes without any guarantees. That means it may or may not work for you. If the gluten-free diet ends up making your IBS symptoms worse, it doesn’t mean the studies that had the opposite results were fake, or that the diet is ineffective. It just means this diet is not the right diet for you. 

And again, this is why consulting your doctor or dietitian before you try the gluten-free diet is critical. 

Given their knowledge of your specific IBS condition, the unique nutritional requirements of your body, your lifestyle, and the potential benefits and risks of the gluten-free diet, they are in the best position to discern whether this diet is worth trying and for how long.

There is no way to predict whether the gluten-free diet is the best dietary treatment for you. But don’t let the uncertainty of the results stop you from asking your doctor or dietitian if this diet is worth considering as part of your IBS treatment program.

We’re here to guide you in your IBS journey

Living with IBS can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Once you are armed with the right knowledge and support, managing your IBS symptoms will become so much easier. We have helped many Brisbane residents suffering from IBS. Book an appointment today with our accredited practising dietitians and nutritionists by calling us at (07) 3071 7405.