Pregnancy can be a difficult time for the gut: increased levels of estrogens and progesterone (sex hormones) can affect the digestive tract causing symptoms associated with IBS. What's more, you have a little human growing in your abdomen, so it's no wonder your digestion takes a hit.
If you already have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and are newly pregnant or thinking about growing your family in the future, you may have questions about how to manage your symptoms.
Read on to find out about IBS and pregnancy and learn helpful strategies to manage IBS while pregnant.
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal (GI) condition characterized by altered bowel habits (such as diarrhea or constipation) and abdominal discomfort or pain.
IBS can mimic some of the more unpleasant symptoms expectant mothers face. Many women will experience constipation or diarrhea during pregnancy, so you may wonder whether your IBS is worse than normal or if you're experiencing common pregnancy symptoms.
Will pregnancy make my IBS worse?
Because of hormone changes during pregnancy, most women can expect some bowel discomfort at one time or another—after all, at one point, you'll have around 7.5 pounds of baby pushing against the organs of your abdomen.
However, there is no clear evidence that pregnancy makes the symptoms of IBS worse. While research shows that nearly three-quarters of women in the first-trimester report symptoms consistent with functional bowel disorders, there are limited studies into the effects of pregnancy on IBS.
Many future-mothers with IBS have widely different digestive experiences during pregnancy, ranging from no symptoms to challenging IBS flare-ups.
IBS blogger, Stephanie Clairmont, describes how her two pregnancies couldn't be more different:
“When I got pregnant with my second son in early October, my digestive issues returned. It was strange because with my first son three years earlier, I didn't have any issues. I could eat four doughnuts, three hamburgers, and a pint of chocolate milk and have NO issues! It was glorious…but this time around was not the same. Even though I was eating pretty good for digestion, symptoms came back to me.”
Will IBS hurt my baby?
If you're feeling anxious about frequent bathroom trips affecting the health of your baby, take heart—generally speaking, IBS will not affect the health of your unborn child, even if it does make you exceedingly uncomfortable at times.
That being said, frequent bouts of diarrhea or restrictive IBS diets, like low FODMAP, may affect your (and your baby's) nutrient intake.
Additionally, some research suggests that women with IBS have a slightly increased risk of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy, however the same study also showed no increased risk for preeclampsia or stillbirths.
How to help IBS during pregnancy
As Stephanie's story suggests, IBS pregnancy management can sometimes be closely linked to your food choices.
Dietary interventions are often recommended as a first-line treatment for gut troubles during pregnancy. Some prescription medications (including some medications for diarrhea, pain, or constipation) are off-limits due to their potential effect on the unborn baby.
If you're struggling with your bowel habits during pregnancy, consider the following dietary changes:
- Increase fiber intake to help with bowel movements: raw fruit and veg can be difficult to digest, so cooked fiber may be easier on your gut.
- Drink plenty of water: Staying hydrated can help to alleviate constipation.
- Avoid gas-producing foods: such as beans, cabbage, broccoli, lentils, cauliflower.
- Keep an eye on comfort eating: Many pregnant women crave carbohydrates and fatty foods (think sweets, fresh doughnuts, garlic bread). Unfortunately, often those foods can trigger your IBS symptoms, so you'll have to resort to IBS safe comfort foods.
- Avoid triggers: While your doctor may give the O.K. for one or two cups of coffee, make sure you continue to avoid foods and drinks known to trigger flares.
- Keep moving: Pregnancy might seem like an ideal time to put your feet up and relax, but for your bowel's sake, try to maintain a regular schedule of gentle exercise, such as walking.
Some women switch to a low FODMAP diet to manage their IBS symptoms during pregnancy. Developed by Monash University researchers, this diet cuts out short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that are poorly digested by the body.
A low FODMAP diet may not be appropriate for pregnant women with specific nutritional needs. It's best to consult your doctor or a dietitian before starting on any diet during pregnancy.
Pregnancy-safe IBS medications
If dietary changes, increased water intake, and exercise aren't having a significant effect on your gut health, you can ask your doctor about pregnancy-safe medication for IBS.
Psyllium (stool bulking), docusate sodium (stool softening), and lubricant laxatives have not been associated with an increased risk of malformations.
Osmotic laxatives (like Miralax, which attracts water into the colon) and stimulant laxatives (like ExLax, which causes intestinal muscle contractions) should only be used under your doctor's guidance. These kinds of IBS medications are only recommended for short-term or very occasional use as they can cause dehydration or electrolyte imbalances in pregnant women.
Other strategies for IBS and pregnancy
Pregnancy can go hand in hand with increased stress, which in turn can speak IBS flare-ups.
A little anxiety during pregnancy is fairly common, especially when you're experiencing physical changes, worrying about what will happen when the baby comes, or feeling overwhelmed by nine months of rollercoaster hormones.
Managing your mental well-being is just as important as your physical health. Stress has been shown to trigger or worsen IBS symptoms, so it's worth investing in some calming activities for the body and the mind.
Some relaxation ideas you can try at home include:
- Take some gentle exercise: such as walking, prenatal yoga, tai chi.
- Enjoy a warm bath: soak away stress and aches in the tub but make sure the water is not too hot!
- Make time to rest: nap, meditate, improve your sleep hygiene, and ensure that your body has the time it needs to rest and grow.
- Sip peppermint tea: A soothing tea ritual can carve out some quiet time in your day and help calm an irritated gut.
- Talk it out: You don't have to manage pregnancy stress alone. Talk to your partner, a friend, or family member to share your feelings or ask for support.
Hypnotherapy for IBS during pregnancy
If you're looking for an IBS management tool that can help calm your gut and your mind, then you may want to consider looking into hypnotherapy for IBS.
IBS hypnotherapy has been proven to be an effective treatment for IBS. Because hypnotherapy is drug and diet-free, it's ideal for women who want a naturally effective IBS treatment option during their pregnancy.
If you want to learn more about hypnotherapy for IBS, you can search for a licensed provider near you. You may also want to try an IBS hypnotherapy app, like Nerva, which allows you to complete a 6-week hypnotherapy program at home.
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The Wrap Up
Although pregnancy can bring additional risks and challenges, it's possible to manage IBS symptoms while waiting for your little bundle of joy to arrive. To maintain better gut health, remember to drink enough water, exercise, and avoid IBS triggers. If you want to take IBS medications, make sure you talk to your doctor first, as some laxatives and pain medicines are not appropriate for use during pregnancy. Finally, make time to relax. Meditation, exercise, and hypnotherapy for IBS can help soothe IBS symptoms and pregnancy nerves at the same time.