Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects about 12 percent of the U.S. population, is a type of gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that causes a variety of symptoms. These can include stomach upset, cramps, and bloating, as well as issues with bowel movements, such as diarrhea and constipation.
The level of severity can vary. Some people experience mild symptoms, while the lives of others may be disrupted.
Due to the complexity of IBS, there’s no single known cause. Instead, it’s important to focus on what triggers your symptoms, including your diet.
Sugar — both manufactured and naturally occurring — is one ingredient to consider with your IBS treatment plan. While not all sugars trigger IBS symptoms, eliminating certain types may help manage your condition.
This article explores why sugar may trigger IBS symptoms, and the types of sugars that may do so.
When you consume sugar your small intestine releases certain enzymes to help digest it. The molecules are then absorbed through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream where it can be used for energy.
It’s thought that a lack of enzymes needed to digest sugar may trigger symptoms of IBS. Hormones, alterations in gut bacteria, and stress may also play a role in triggering symptoms.
Not everyone with IBS will be sensitive to the same types of sugar. Identifying your individual triggers early on can help alleviate your symptoms.
Sugar is available in a variety of forms, both commercially made and naturally occurring. Below are the three main types of sugars that can cause potential issues with IBS.
Better known as table sugar, sucrose is perhaps the most widely used sugar in foods. It’s derived from sugarcane or beet sugars. While classified as its own type of sugar, sucrose is technically made with the combination of two sugar molecules: fructose and glucose.
Not only can you buy sucrose to bake with or to add to your coffee, but many packaged sweets and premade meals contain sucrose, too. Despite its wide use, sucrose can be especially harmful for certain health conditions like IBS.
Fructose is another potentially problematic sugar if you have IBS. You can find forms of fructose in fruit juices, sodas, and packaged sweets.
However, even natural forms of fructose in fruit can be problematic. This is especially the case with high fructose fruits, such as apples, grapes, and pears, as well as honey.
You don’t have to avoid fruit altogether though. Instead, swap out higher fructose-containing fruits with ones that are known to contain less fructose. Berries, peaches, cantaloupe, and citrus fruits aren’t as likely to trigger IBS symptoms.
Some people with IBS are also sensitive to lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in milk. Your body breaks down milk with the help of lactase enzymes in the small intestine, similar to sucrase enzymes needed to break down sucrose.
Not everyone with IBS will have lactose intolerance, but lactose-containing foods are triggers for many. You may consider avoiding milk, as well as other dairy products, including cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.
Due to the digestive upset caused by natural sugars, some people opt for sugar substitutes. Unfortunately, many of these are linked to IBS symptoms, too.
Sorbitol and xylitol are two common types of sugar substitutes that have been linked to abdominal cramps and diarrhea from IBS. These sugar substitutes are found in sugar-free desserts, candies, and gums.
Stevia may be safe for IBS, but it’s important to read product labels carefully. Pure stevia is safe, while other additives, such as erythritol, can aggravate your symptoms.
You should also approach “natural” sweeteners with caution if you have a history of IBS symptoms triggered by sugar. Honey and agave, for example, both contain fructose, so if you’re sensitive to other fructose-containing foods, these sweeteners may not be the best option.
IBS can be similar to having food intolerances in that the only way you can completely avoid negative reactions is by avoiding triggering foods altogether.
However, depending on the severity of your condition, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever have a sweet treat once in a while. The decision ultimately depends on how bad your digestive system reacts, and whether eating certain sweets is really worth it.
Dietary approaches can significantly help treat IBS. Some people need medications based on whether they have IBS with constipation or diarrhea. While taking medications can help ease your IBS symptoms, your doctor will still likely recommend an appropriate diet based on your food triggers.
Aside from sugars and sweeteners, there are other foods that can trigger IBS symptoms.
The following foods and beverages commonly cause symptoms in people with IBS:
- beans, legumes, and lentils
- cruciferous veggies, including broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower
- spicy foods
- fried and processed foods
- caffeinated foods and beverages
You can try cutting these foods and beverages from your diet to see if your symptoms improve. But remember that everyone with IBS is different, and restricting certain foods may not be necessary.
It’s a good idea to work with a knowledgeable healthcare professional, such as a doctor or registered dietitian, if you’re interested in trying an elimination diet to improve your IBS symptoms.
To process sucrose, your small intestine releases sucrase enzymes. Some people have a genetic condition called congenital sucrase-isomaltase deficiency (CSID), also called sucrose intolerance.
People with this condition have a fewer number of enzymes to break down sucrose. They also have problems digesting maltose, a naturally occurring sugar found in grains.
When sucrose or maltose passes through the small intestine undigested, it causes symptoms similar to those of IBS, including bloating, diarrhea, and excess gas. The symptoms typically occur immediately after eating sucrose or maltose-containing foods.
Unlike IBS though, CSID can be severe enough to interfere with human development and growth. Although considered rare, CSID is most often detected during childhood, where children experience malnutrition and symptoms of failure to thrive.
Numerous foods can trigger IBS symptoms, with sugar being just one type. Negative reactions to sugar can occur based on a lack of enzymes in your digestive system, but it can also be related to stress, alterations in gut bacteria, and hormone imbalances.
Typically, the best way to find relief from sugar that aggravates your IBS is by removing your triggers altogether. Not everyone reacts to the same sugars, and you may find that certain types trigger your IBS when others do not.
Talk to a doctor about ways you can help identify your food triggers and how your overall diet can play an overall role in IBS management.