Jennifer Smith
reviewed by Dr Michael Yapko
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Jennifer Smith
Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Trick or Treat? 5 Ways to Keep IBS on Track over Halloween


Feeling cursed with an irritable bowel but still want a happy (candy-filled) Halloween? While IBS flare-ups can be frightful at any time of year, many people find that Halloween treats can trigger a variety of uncomfortable gut symptoms, such as pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.

You don’t have to completely give up the candy to avoid an IBS attack. There are several things you can do to limit the risk of a flare-up, like choosing lower FODMAP candies, reducing your intake, or listening to hypnotherapy for IBS.

Keep reading to discover why Halloween can be a scary time for people with IBS and learn five quick tricks to keep gut troubles in-check. 

Why does IBS feel worse during Halloween?

If you’ve already had some sweet treats and noticed an increase in gut problems, it could be the types of candies you’re eating that are triggering an increase in your IBS symptoms.

Many common candies, including soft candy (e.g., Haribo gummy bears), hard candy (e.g., Dum Dums), chocolates (e.g., Kit Kats, Reeses Pieces, and Milky Ways), and even some chewing gums (e.g., Extra Bubblegum) can all be high in FODMAP ingredients. 

How does high FODMAP candy affect the gut? 

FODMAPs are types of carbohydrates (sugars) that are poorly absorbed by the gut. Normally, when we eat a healthy diet, some sugary foods high in FODMAPs might be included as an occasional treat, but during Halloween, it can be hard to resist the urge to overindulge.

Because high FODMAP foods ferment rapidly in the gut they can trigger excess gas production, causing digestive symptoms in people with IBS. So, if you significantly increase your intake of high FODMAP foods over a short period of time during Halloween, you may experience a sudden rise in IBS symptoms too. 

ibs halloween approved food guide infographic

Common FODMAPs in Halloween candy

FODMAPs found in typical candy and treats include:

  • Polyols: including sorbitol and mannitol. These are sugar alcohols found in artificial sweeteners and are included in sugar-free candy and gum. 
  • Monosaccharides: including fructose. This is a type of sugar found in honey and high fructose corn syrups, two frequent candy ingredients.
  • Disaccharides: including lactose. This type of sugar is found in dairy products like milk, and chocolate.

However, even if you try to avoid high FODMAP candy ingredients, some people still find their IBS symptoms are triggered by unhealthy food in general. One recent study suggested that people who ate junk food or snack food had a higher prevalence of gut symptoms.

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How to manage IBS flare-ups over Halloween

1. Avoid high fructose corn syrup

During Halloween, it’s especially important to check your labels for this highly processed ingredient. As a cheap alternative to cane sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is often used instead of sugar in food production, particularly in many types of Halloween candy.

While HFCS is not necessarily more dangerous to your health than other forms of fructose (gram for gram), HFCS when added to common processed foods, like candy, can make it easy to consume very large quantities of fructose which can lead to increased health and gut troubles.

When there is more fructose than glucose in food, it isn’t effectively absorbed by the gut. Many common varieties of HFCS that are often found in candy (HFCS-55, HFCS-80, and HFCS-90) contain more fructose than glucose and as such, they can cause flare-ups in IBS symptoms, such as loose stools.

Even for people without IBS, HFCS are more of a health trick than a fun treat. In addition to having a negative effect on gut health, research has shown that excessive intake of fructose is linked to diabetes, an increased risk of fatty liver disease, and weight gain.

2. Steer clear of sugar-free sweets

If you want to avoid fructose in your Halloween treats, then you might think that sugar-free candy is a smart way to go—after all, they’re known to be a ‘healthier’ option as they’re typically lower in calories and better for your tooth enamel than other forms of sugar.

However, ‘sugar-free’ polyols (sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol) can also cause gut symptoms.

Sorbitol and mannitol, like you would find in sugar-free gum or sugar-free gummies, are frequently linked to increased IBS symptoms and abnormal flatulence. Additionally, when people consume excessive amounts of polyols (like sorbitol and mannitol), it can draw water from the body into the gut, causing diarrhea.

Try and avoid sugar-free options this Halloween. Stick to small amounts of regular candy or choose candy made with maple syrup, rice malt syrup, or invert sugar.

3. Choose the right kind of chocolate

Would it be Halloween if you couldn’t unwrap at least one Reese’s Pieces? You don't have to give up chocolate altogether to avoid an IBS flare, you just need to choose a gut-friendly variety.

Milk and dairy products contain lactose. This FODMAP (disaccharide) is not well digested by many people worldwide—including people who haven’t been diagnosed with IBS.

Some research suggests that people with IBS are more likely to have lactose intolerance (particularly those with IBS-D) than people who don’t. Typical gut symptoms from lactose intolerance are similar to those of IBS and include abdominal discomfort, bloating, and loose stools.

Dark chocolates can be a gut-friendly alternative to high-lactose milk and white chocolate. Also, some brands of dark chocolate, such as 70%, 85%, and 90% dark chocolate from Lindt, are completely dairy-free.

However, while dark chocolate has less lactose, it contains another common IBS trigger: caffeine. Caffeine stimulates your colon and can cause diarrhea in people with IBS.

In a study of 330 people with IBS, coffee was reported to be one of the top ten IBS triggers, with the three most common symptoms including indigestion, pain, and loose stools.

The darker the chocolate, the more caffeine. Two ounces (60g) of 70% dark chocolate contains about 50-60 mg of caffeine. So, as the recommended caffeine intake for people with IBS is typically restricted to 400 mg caffeine, it’s a good idea to watch your portions and stick to a few fun-sized snacks.

4. Watch your portion control

When it comes to IBS symptoms, it’s not just what you eat that can trigger an IBS attack, it’s how much you eat too.

While the link between binge eating and gastrointestinal complaints is not well understood, a study from 2013 into binge eating suggested a link between overeating and gastrointestinal symptoms such as pain, bloating, and constipation or diarrhea. 

While candy (and lots of it) can feel like a major part of your Halloween tradition (even for adults!) there are many ways to get into the spooky spirit of things that don’t revolve around eating food.

If you’re looking for flare-free Halloween activities, you can try:

  • Pumpkin carving 
  • Scary movie marathons 
  • Apple picking/Apple bobbing (without eating them)
  • Halloween decorating
  • Costume making

5. Plan for a possible IBS flare-up

If you’re not willing to miss out on triggering treats, there are some things you can do to soothe an IBS flare-up the day after.

Relax: If you’ve overindulged, take a deep breath and realize these things happen. It’s hard to avoid triggers during the holiday season. Acute (short-term) stress can make IBS symptoms worse, so taking time to relax can help alleviate symptoms.

Exercise: if too many treats have caused an increase in gut symptoms, like constipation, exercise can help. Exercise helps to naturally soothe gut pains by releasing endorphins and can help to stimulate intestinal contractions to relieve constipation.

Listen to gut-directed hypnotherapy: Gut-directed hypnotherapy programs have been shown to improve symptoms of IBS without the need for drugs or diet changes (which means more Milky Ways this October). You can access IBS hypnotherapy programs at-home through easy-to-use apps, like Nerva

Try peppermint oil: Peppermint oil contains antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anesthetic properties that may relieve symptoms of IBS. Additionally, the menthol in peppermint oil is thought to reduce pain by acting on the smooth muscles of the gut.

The wrap up

Halloween can be a scary time for people with IBS. Sugary treats with high FODMAP ingredients (including HFCS and sugar-free alternatives) can trigger a variety of uncomfortable gut symptoms, such as pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Additionally, the caffeine in chocolate and the effects of overeating may cause additional gut problems. Try to avoid triggering foods by choosing lower FODMAP candies and reducing your intake. If you do experience a flare-up, prepare some soothing activities for the days after and remember to check in with your doctor or nutritionist if your symptoms persist. 

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Our Sources

Mindset Health only uses high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed research, to support our articles. We work with experts to ensure our content is helpful, accurate and trustworthy.

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