Stress, certain foods, and some medications can trigger IBS flares and worsen constipation. Identifying and managing your triggers can help you better navigate the condition.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder that can cause a variety of symptoms. These include:

  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • gas
  • changes in bowel movements

It’s estimated that about 10% to 15% of people in the United States live with IBS.

The condition is grouped into subtypes, depending on the primary symptom. When constipation is the primary symptom, it’s known as IBS-C. If you’re experiencing constipation, you may have:

  • fewer than three bowel movements per week
  • dry, hard, or lumpy stools
  • stools that are hard or painful to pass
  • a feeling that you’re not able to fully empty your bowels

If you live with IBS-C, you may go through phases when symptoms are stable. Other times, the discomfort of living with IBS-C can make it harder to get through your day. It can be helpful to understand what might trigger a flare of your symptoms.

It’s not always possible to prevent flares of IBS, but keeping track of your symptoms may help you notice patterns and identify your triggers. Here are some common IBS-C triggers and how you can help prevent or manage them.

Fiber is the part of plant-based foods that our body doesn’t digest. High fiber foods include:

  • whole grains
  • beans
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • fruits
  • vegetables

There are two types of fiber:

  • Soluble fiber: This type of fiber dissolves in water and turns to gel during digestion. This helps slow digestion and may improve stool consistency. Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, and some fruits and vegetables.
  • Insoluble fiber: This type of fiber bulks up stool and may help food pass more quickly through the digestive system. It’s found in wheat bran, whole grains, vegetables, and legumes.

In theory, fiber adds more bulk to your stool and helps keep your digestive system moving. Of course, it’s not always that simple.

For some people, eating more fiber sources can be helpful. For others, some high fiber foods can increase digestive discomfort. And eating too much fiber at once can cause bloating and gas, which can trigger IBS symptoms.

It’s recommended that adults get 25 to 34 grams of fiber a day, depending on age and sex. If you find that fiber triggers your IBS-C symptoms, it’s best to increase your intake slowly.

Talk with a doctor or registered dietitian, if you have access to one, about how much fiber you should you eat and which fiber-containing foods may be best for your symptoms. You may also consider asking about a fiber supplement made from psyllium, which may help improve IBS symptoms and manage constipation.

Along with eating enough fiber, drinking plenty of fluids is also important. If you’re eating more fiber but don’t drink enough fluid, your IBS symptoms may actually get worse.

The large intestine, or colon, is the section of the digestive tract just before the rectum. One of the jobs of the large intestine is to pull extra water from the stool to keep more fluid in your body. If you’re already dehydrated, your large intestine will want to take as much water as possible from your stool. This makes stool drier and even harder to pass.

When you’re well-hydrated, your stool can retain more water and stay softer and easier to pass.

Fluids include water, tea, dairy-free milk, soup, and juice. Foods naturally high in water, such as fruits and vegetables, also add to your fluid intake.

Some fluids, such as carbonated drinks and alcohol, can make your IBS symptoms worse. You may want to keep track of what you drink and your symptoms to help identify potential triggers.

Many people find that certain foods and drinks trigger their IBS symptoms. These trigger foods are different for everyone.

Common foods and drinks that may worsen IBS symptoms include:

  • wheat
  • dairy products
  • citrus fruits
  • beans
  • onions
  • cabbage
  • processed foods
  • fried foods
  • carbonated drinks
  • products made with artificial sweeteners

Research from 2019 shows that following a low FODMAP diet may help manage symptoms of IBS. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. A low FODMAP diet focuses on limiting certain types of carbohydrates that can be hard to digest.

Consider keeping a food journal to track which foods may be triggering your IBS symptoms. Once you identify potential trigger foods, you can remove them from your diet to see if it helps improve your symptoms. You may want to work with a doctor or registered dietitian to help you develop an elimination diet for IBS.

Travel can be full of adventure, but it’s often hard on your digestive system. Changes in routine and being in another time zone can contribute to constipation. On top of that, you may be eating different foods than you’re used to or dealing with shared bathrooms or changes in bathroom availability. These things can all make your symptoms worse.

While you’re away, do your best to keep to your usual meal and activity schedule. Make time to try to have a bowel movement. If you’ll be away for more than a few days, consider asking your doctor or pharmacist about short-term laxative use.

Eating stimulates the digestive system to help keep things moving. An irregular meal routine can make you more prone to constipation. Long periods between meals or skipping meals can slow down your digestive system.

Irregular meal timing can also lead to changes in appetite. You may have experienced the extreme hunger that can come with skipping a meal. This may lead to eating more or faster than usual, making you feel even more bloated.

Do your best to eat meals and snacks around the same time daily. If you know you will be away from home during a usual meal or snack time, pack something with you to eat.

Many medications have constipation as a side effect. This can’t always be avoided, but it’s good to be aware.

Medications that may cause constipation include:

  • narcotic pain medications
  • diuretics, often used to manage blood pressure
  • iron supplements
  • antacid medications that contain calcium and aluminum
  • some types of antidepressants

If you’re starting a new medication, you may want to talk with your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects. You can also ask if there are alternatives or ways to take the medication that limits the side effects.

Stress can worsen IBS symptoms. And dealing with the uncomfortable symptoms of IBS can be stressful, creating a cycle that may be hard to break.

You may not be able to avoid stress altogether, but there are steps you can take to manage it. Strategies that may help you de-stress include:

  • practicing relaxation techniques
  • meditating
  • doing activities and hobbies you enjoy
  • spending time with family and friends
  • exercising regularly
  • getting plenty of sleep

Moving your body can be helpful to keep your digestive tract moving. Regular physical activity can also help manage stress and anxiety, which can worsen constipation and other symptoms of IBS.

Try to find an activity that you enjoy and do your best to get into a routine with it.

You can also consider finding ways to sit less. If you have a desk job, make a point to get up and stretch or move around at least once an hour.

There are a variety of laxative products for constipation. Some are helpful for occasional use. With prolonged use, some can actually make constipation worse.

Stimulant laxatives, for example, work by triggering the nerves in your digestive system to keep stool moving through. This type of laxative may create dependency.

If you have dealt with constipation for years, it makes total sense that you might use laxatives. It can be so frustrating to deal with all those uncomfortable symptoms, and you just want some relief.

Because different laxatives work in different ways, it’s helpful to talk with a doctor about which kind you use. It’s possible there could be better options for you.

Our bodies like routine. If you’ve ever gone through times of having regular bowel movements, you may have noticed that they happen around the same time of day.

When life gets busy, it may feel like you don’t have time to stop and use the bathroom. Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement can make constipation worse.

One strategy to manage constipation is to take time every day around the same time to sit on the toilet. This might feel strange at first but it can be helpful.

Pick a time of day, morning if possible, to sit on the toilet for about 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t try to have a bowel movement and don’t feel discouraged if it doesn’t happen. The goal is just to train your body into a routine.

IBS-C is a subtype of IBS with abdominal pain and irregular, dry, hard stools as the main symptoms. It’s not always clear what makes constipation and other IBS-C symptoms worse, but there are some things to be aware of.

Not getting enough fiber and fluids might affect you. Inactivity and irregular routines may make constipation worse. Travel and medications can also trigger symptoms.

Consider keeping a journal of your symptoms to see if you notice any other patterns. When you better understand your symptom triggers, you may be able to take steps to manage them.