Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder that causes a variety of symptoms. These can include stomach and abdomen upset with cramps and bloating, as well as problems with intestinal peristalsis, such as diarrhea and constipation.

The severity level can vary, in fact some people have mild symptoms.

Due to the complexity of IBS, there is no single known cause. Instead, it's important to focus on what triggers abdominal pain, including diet.

Particular attention must be paid to the consumption of sugar, an ingredient to be considered in the IBS treatment plan. Although not all sugars trigger symptoms, eliminating some types can help manage the condition.

Why does sugar trigger IBS symptoms?

When sugar is consumed, the small intestine releases certain enzymes to help digest it. The molecules are then absorbed through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream where they can be used for energy.

A lack of these enzymes, which are needed to digest sugar, is believed to trigger IBS symptoms. Hormones, changes in the gut flora, and stress can also play a role in triggering symptoms.

What types of sugar trigger IBS symptoms?

Not all people with IBS are sensitive to the same types of sugar. Identifying individual triggers early can help relieve symptoms.

The three main types of sugars that can cause potential problems with IBS:


It is the common table sugar, derived from sugar cane or beet sugar technically produced by the combination of two sugar molecules: fructose and glucose.


Fructose is another potentially problematic sugar, it is naturally present in fruits, but some of these have a higher content, therefore they can cause problems in people with IBS. Among these we remember: apples, grapes and pears.

Conversely, peaches, cantaloupe and citrus fruits are not as likely to trigger IBS symptoms.


Some people with IBS are also sensitive to lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in milk.

Not all people with IBS have lactose intolerance , but lactose-containing foods are triggers for many. It would be preferable, therefore, to avoid milk and other dairy products, including cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

What about sugar substitutes?

Due to the digestive upset caused by natural sugars, some people opt for sugar substitutes - common sweeteners. Unfortunately, many of these are also linked to IBS symptoms.

Sorbitol and xylitol are two common types of sugar substitutes that have been linked to abdominal cramps and IBS diarrhea. These are found in sugar-free sweets, candies and gum.

An exception could be stevia , which is better tolerated.

In general, for "natural" sweeteners it would always be recommended to consume them with caution in case of IBS. 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.

Are there other foods to avoid if you have IBS?

In addition to sugars and sweeteners, there are other foods that can trigger IBS symptoms.

The following foods and drinks commonly cause symptoms in people with IBS:

  • beans, legumes and lentils
  • cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower
  • onions
  • garlic
  • gluten
  • chocolate
  • spicy foods
  • fried and processed foods
  • foods and beverages containing caffeine
  • alcohol

Attention, remember that as I have already anticipated, subjects with IBS show a different tolerance towards certain foods, therefore it would be indicated, through a particular diet called " exclusion", to understand which foods should actually be limited.


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Dr.ssa Marina Putzolu

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