Can Intermittent Fasting Help IBS?

Watchful eating, regular exercise, medication and antibiotics are traditional methods of managing IBS symptoms. However, more and more patients are recognizing the benefits of intermittent fasting in dealing with IBS. 

Can intermittent fasting help with IBS? Anecdotal evidence shows that intermittent fasting can indeed improve a patient’s quality of life by reducing pain and discomfort, as well as regulating bowel movements. 

In this article, we talk about the benefits of intermittent fasting on IBS, and what happens in your body when your intestines aren’t busy digesting food.

What Is Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting (or IF) is an eating pattern with periods or cycles of eating and fasting. Unlike regular meal times, people on an IF schedule fast for a specific number of hours and only eat within a certain window. Intermittent fasting is not concerned with the kinds of food you eat but is more focused on the timing of consumption. 

Intermittent Fasting VS Regular Fasting

Regular fasting can be predicated on medical conditions or religious practices. Individuals undergoing a fast go on hours of not eating, sometimes extending to days, in respect to medical prerequisites (when preparing for a colonoscopy) or according to religious mandates (during the holy month of Ramadan). 

On the other hand, intermittent fasting is a dietary option usually done for its perceived benefits, the most popular of which is weight loss. Unlike regular fasting, intermittent fasting follows a schedule and is recurring. Individuals who adopt IF often make adjustments to their lifestyle, specifically with their meal times, in order to accommodate the cycles of eating and fasting. 

Read more: Can IBS Cause Weight Gain and What Can You Do About It

Types of Intermittent Fasting

intermittent fasting types

The key principle of intermittent fasting is limiting your meal times within a certain window. As such, there is no one way to do IF. Below are three of the most popular ways to do IF: 

1. 16/8 Method

Considered by many as the most sustainable way to perform IF. The 16/8 method involves 16 hours of fasting and a window of 8 hours for consumption. The 16/8 window can be adjusted into 14-16 hours of fasting with 8-10 hours of consumption.

The 16/8 is sustainable because it already resembles regular feeding patterns. An example of a 16/8 method is eating your last meal at 6 PM and eating your next meal at 10 am. To many people, this eating pattern is already instinctive and doesn’t need to be reinforced. But to those who tend to snack every hour, IF might prove beneficial for their weight loss goals. 

2. 5:2 Fasting

The 16/8 method requires a daily commitment to the fasting and eating times. Another option called the 5:2 fasting only involves 2 days of fasting every week. Instead of consuming the usual 1,500 – 2,000 calories per day, dieters are expected to eat only 500 – 600 calories for two select days and eat normally for the rest of the week.

Although less restrictive, the lower amount of calories consumed twice a week may prove too few for some individuals. The 5:2 fasting is typically not recommended for individuals who need consistently high energy to complete their day to day activities. 

3. Eat-Stop-Eat 

Eat-Stop-Eat refers to a 24-hour fasting cycle done one to two times a week. Doctors don’t recommend fasting for more than 24 hours for longer than 3 days because this can severely impact your energy levels. 

Drinking water, coffee, and tea are allowed during the 24-hour fast. Caloric beverages such as energy drinks and shakes are also not allowed. Individuals doing the eat-stop-eat IF are recommended to reach their daily caloric goals on their feeding days. Additional restriction on non-fasting days can increase the chances of failure and lead to binge eating. 

The Effect of Intermittent Fasting On IBS

Intermittent fasting has many known benefits. For people who want to lose weight, IF offers an opportunity to cut down on calories and control one’s relationship with food. But its real health benefits hailed by science go beyond cutting down extra weight.

By altering feeding and fasting cycles, the body is able to “take a break” from digesting food. The modern human consumes a significant amount of preservatives from everyday foods. But even without these preservatives, sugars, oils, and salts in the system, the mere quantity of food being digested today is usually enough to upset the stomach, which is especially true for people with IBS. 

IF allows the body to restart certain metabolic processes that promote better overall health. Studies show that intermittent fasting can decrease inflammatory responses and reduce stress, both of which are crucial in managing gastrointestinal syndromes, specifically IBS.

How Intermittent Fasting Can Help With IBS

For the majority of IBS patients, food consumption often triggers symptoms. Diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain can occur immediately after eating. Intermittent fasting can help manage symptoms by limiting gut responses to specific meal times. 

Read more: What Makes Irritable Bowel Syndrome Worse?

This means that patients no longer have to endure discomfort throughout the day. Instead of feeling abdominal pain 24/7, patients who undergo intermittent fasting have better control over their symptoms, and can easily make adjustments in order to prevent any episodes. 

More importantly, IF allows the gut to relax and repair itself by establishing periods of non-consumption. Instead of introducing new foods every 3 hours or so, the gastrointestinal system doesn’t have to work on digesting foods, which for many patients is enough to trigger abdominal pain and distension. 

With no food to process, the gastrointestinal system doesn’t produce any uncomfortable responses. When done right, intermittent fasting can put an end to urgent bowel movements, constipation, and bloating. 

Patient Success With Intermittent Fasting

happy man holding his tummy

Although more research is needed to make intermittent fasting a definitive solution to managing IBS symptoms, anecdotal evidence shows that IF can significantly improve a patient’s quality of life. 

Patients report a “lighter” experience due to the eating restrictions necessary to perform intermittent fasting. Patients feel less bloated and less prone to urgent bowel movements. For patients whose sleep is disturbed by untimely bowel movements, IBS has been proven to regulate their toilet visits as long as a strict eating window is followed. 

One patient affirms that intermittent fasting has helped regulate his bowel movements. With a slow digestive system, food takes a lot longer to process and is often expelled at irregular times. Even then, as is the case with majority of IBS cases, the bowel movement doesn’t relieve the feeling of having to go to the toilet. 

But with intermittent fasting, patients have reported a significant improvement in abdominal pain, distension, irregular bowel movements, and stool consistency. 

Benefits of IF for IBS: The Science Behind a Clean Gut

The feeling of being “lighter” and “cleaner” after adopting intermittent fasting isn’t just a placebo effect. IF activates certain mechanisms that are difficult to maintain with constant eating. Periods of fasting or “emptiness” allow the gastrointestinal system to resume maintenance procedures that normally wouldn’t be triggered during digestion.

The Role of Bacteria in IBS

Changes in gut bacteria can interfere with normal intestinal functions, affecting intestinal motility (or the movement of the intestinal muscles) as well as mucus secretion that protects the intestinal lining. 

Bacterial composition changes depending on a person’s age, environment, eating habits, and drug use. However, bacterial cultures in IBS patients are different from healthy individuals, in that beneficial bacteria are lower in individuals with IBS. 

In order to control the symptoms, it’s important to promote bacterial balance in the gut in order to restore normal digestive functions. 

What Is the Migrating Motor Complex (MMC)

The migrating motor complex is a series of processes in the gastrointestinal system. Although what triggers the MMC is still unclear, scientists have observed that this kicks in about three hours after the last meal. 

The MMC’s primary role in the digestive process is to clean out any undigested residual material. Extra bile secretions are also observed during the MMC, which plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy habitat for beneficial bacterial culture. Bile is also known to manage systemic inflammation, which is useful to patients trying to regulate their IBS symptoms. 

Here’s a general rundown of what happens when the MMC is activated:

  • Smooth muscle contractions happen and during which stomach acid is secreted
  • This stomach acid will sweep away undigested food particles and bacteria left over in the stomach
  • Muscle contractions will aid in moving particles along into the pylorus, a “valve” that separates the stomach and the small intestine
  • Stomach contents move through the small intestine
  • Pancreas and gallbladder enzymes are released to neutralize stomach acid 
  • The small intestine moves the enzymes and stomach contents towards the colon
  • As bile moves through the gastrointestinal system, it starts killing off residual bacteria, preventing any from attaching to the gut wall
  • Bile is redirected into the gallbladder and reabsorbed. During which, antimicrobials are released again to eliminate any remaining bacteria
  • Bacteria and other stomach contents move to the colon and stays there until the next MMC or until food is consumed

The MMC occurs every 1.5 to 2 hours as long as no food is present. Once food is reintroduced into the system, the MMC stops completely. Instead of “maintenance”, food in the stomach signals your body to redivert its energy to digesting food instead.

Is it bad to interrupt the MMC? Yes. Continuous interruptions of the MMC can lead to bacterial build up in the small intestine. Healthier individuals are equipped with the system to fight off any effects of bacterial build-up. However, IBS patients, due to an increased sensitivity, will only suffer the effects of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. 

Increasing Good Bacteria: Firmicutes and IBS

gut bacteria

IBS patients are no strangers to the world of antibiotics. Prescriptions are taken regularly, often after every meal, to control bacterial growth in the gut. However, some studies suggest that beneficial bacteria can be cultivated in the gut just through intermittent fasting alone. 

Animal studies and a number of human intervention runs have shown that intermittent fasting can encourage the regrowth of good bacteria and aid in fighting off bacterial attacks. A study involving Salmonella-infected mice reported that an alternate day fasting for 12 weeks resulted in better immune responses and increased mucus production that protected the intestinal lining.

The same is also applicable to human hosts.  A study found out that an increase in the bacteria Firmicutes is observed after intermittent fasting. Firmicute bacteria are associated with reduced inflammation in the gut. 

When Is Intermittent Fasting Not Beneficial For IBS?

Just like a low FODMAP diet, success with intermittent fasting isn’t guaranteed. Depending on your type of IBS, your stomach might respond negatively to a lack of food. 

Intermittent fasting may not be useful for patients whose symptoms occur as a response to an empty stomach. Patients who experience acid reflux and abdominal pain due to an empty stomach are not good candidates for intermittent fasting.

As with any new technique for managing symptoms, we suggest easing into this new process. Instead of fasting for 24 hours or even 16 hours, we recommend doing shorter fast times in order to evaluate whether or not your stomach is against fasting. 

In order to preserve the benefits of intermittent fasting, make sure you don’t overeat during your feeding time. Consuming excess calories during your feeding time is only going to make your fasting attempt irrelevant. Stick to a healthy calorie limit and eat foods that won’t aggravate your symptoms. 

Read more: Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Symptoms and Causes

Managing IBS With Gastro Center in New Jersey 

IBS is a long-term battle that requires patience, understanding, and proactive medical help. At Gastro Center NJ, our goal is to find the right lifestyle modifications to improve your quality of life.

Book a consultation with us today to learn more about the different techniques used to manage IBS symptoms, and how intermittent fasting can benefit you.