By Kejal Shah, Nutritionist
Most moms-to-be can expect their digestive tracts to take a beating during pregnancy. Whether it’s constipation, gas, diarrhea, bloating, nausea, vomiting, or all of the above or a combination, few expectant moms escape their nine months without some tummy troubles. But women with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be wondering how their condition will affect their pregnancies — and whether they’ll be dealing with even more digestive symptoms than they would otherwise.
Though it’s tough to predict what your experience will be like if you have IBS until you’ve been through your entire pregnancy (and remember that each pregnancy is different), here’s some info about what you might go through and how you may be able to prevent or control flare-ups while you’re expecting.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a common long-term or recurrent disorder of gastrointestinal (GI) functioning that affects 10 to 15 percent of the population — is characterized by abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating or gas, diarrhea and constipation. If you’ve had to deal with IBS, you know that the symptoms can often be quite difficult to manage and may even have an impact on your quality of life.
How does Pregnancy Affect IBS?
Because pregnancy affects IBS differently in different women, there’s actually no way to predict how things will go for you. Some moms-to-be report being entirely symptom-free during pregnancy, while others find their symptoms stay the same or get somewhat worse.
One reason why it’s so hard to pinpoint the effect of pregnancy on IBS — and vice versa — is that bowels are almost always impacted (so to speak) by pregnancy. Expectant women are more prone to constipation (just like those with some types of IBS are), and some pregnant women experience looser stools more often (also a symptom of IBS). Same for gas and bloating, which typically worsen when you’re expecting, whether or not you have IBS.
And since the hormones of pregnancy wreak havoc on all parts of the body, even IBS sufferers are left guessing: A woman who is normally diarrhea-predominant might suddenly find herself dealing with constipation, while a woman who is usually stopped up might find it’s become easy — too easy, in fact — to move her bowels.
How does IBS Affect Pregnancy?
Some research shows a small increased risk of miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, while other studies have found no increased risk. Just be alert to any signs of impending preterm contractions, but don’t be worried.
The most important thing if you’re pregnant and dealing with IBS is to make sure you’re getting good prenatal care with a practitioner who knows about your condition and works with you to help keep it under control as best as possible.
Treating IBS During Pregnancy
- If you’ve been taking medication for your IBS, be sure to speak to both your prenatal practitioner and your gastroenterologist (or other doctor who’s treated you for the condition) about whether the drugs are compatible with pregnancy. Some IBS meds aren’t safe to take while you’re pregnant, so you may need to stop or switch to a different kind.
- To keep your symptoms manageable, stick to the techniques you typically use to combat IBS during other times in your life: Eat small, more frequent meals (good advice for any pregnant woman), stay well hydrated (ditto), try to avoid excess stress (which often ups the symptoms of IBS), and steer clear of foods or drinks that make your symptoms worse (like alcohol and overly greasy or fatty foods).
- Be sure to gradually increase the amount of fiber you’re getting (think fruits and veggies like strawberries, blueberries, oranges, cucumbers, carrots, leafy greens and broccoli; and breads, cereals and other foods made of whole grains or oats). As you may already know, there are different kinds of fiber (soluble and insoluble) that can affect IBS in different ways, especially when you’re pregnant. So go slowly rather than suddenly adding a lot of extra fiber all at once, or you could wind up exacerbating your symptoms.
- If you’re following a low-FODMAP diet for your IBS (a plan limiting short-chain carbohydrates like fruit with a lot of fructose, including onions and garlic, which that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine and rapidly fermented by bacteria in the gut), talk to your dietitan about your diet to make sure you’re getting the right balance of nutrients for your pregnancy.
- You might also want to consider adding some probiotics to your diet in the form of yogurt or yogurt drinks with active cultures, or in powder or capsule form. They can be surprisingly effective in regulating bowel function, and they’re safe during pregnancy. Check with your dietitan for a recommendation.
- Don’t forget to get moving! Exercise is important for IBS sufferers, and it’s especially good for a mom-to-be. Stick to pregnancy-safe workouts that make you feel good, mentally and physically.