Research shows those with IBS are more likely to develop eating disorders, and those with eating disorders are more likely to develop IBS. However, more research is necessary to understand the relationship between the two.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which some also call nervous colon or spastic colitis, is a chronic gastrointestinal condition that can cause frequent pain and discomfort. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, cramping, and bloating.

IBS is very common. According to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG), up to 10–15% of people in the United States are living with IBS. IBS affects twice the number of females than it does males.

Eating disorders and disordered eating behavior are separate issues.

Disordered eating behavior is the name doctors give to a group of conditions involving disrupted or atypical eating patterns or habits. Examples of disordered eating behavior include not eating breakfast or lunch and binging at nighttime, and purging by vomiting after eating or taking laxatives unnecessarily.

Eating disorders are conditions characterized by a persistent and severe disturbance in eating behaviors and the associated distressing thoughts and emotions. People may confuse eating disorders and disordered eating behavior.

Eating disorders affect around 5% of the population. Most often, females between the ages of 12 and 35 are affected.

Research has not yet determined the exact cause of eating disorders. However, many researchers believe that biological, psychological, and emotional factors all have a part to play in their development. The most common eating disorders are bulimia and anorexia.

Read on to learn about the connection between IBS and eating disorders, the treatments for eating disorders, and treatments for IBS.

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While there does appear to be a connection between IBS and eating disorders, the exact nature of the relationship, and whether one condition actually causes the other, remains unclear.

According to a 2019 article, people receiving treatment for gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, such as those with IBS, are at greater risk of developing disordered eating habits than the general population. Around 23% of those with GI issues also show disordered eating practices, compared to 10% of the general population.

According to the same article, “over 90% of patients with anorexia or bulimia have functional GI symptoms” of some sort, potentially due to low nutrition diets, restricted eating, electrolyte imbalances, or laxative misuse. While this study focused on people with eating disorders having GI issues, more research is needed to investigate whether people with IBS also often have an eating disorder.

The causal link between IBS and eating disorders remains unknown. However, some evidence suggests that the dietary restrictions that many people use to manage their IBS symptoms may lead to a psychological change in their relationship to food.

This is because the need to avoid foods that trigger IBS symptoms requires them to focus on what they can and cannot eat more than before. According to a 2021 paper, up to 90% of people with IBS avoid eating specific foods to help reduce or prevent their symptoms.

One 2019 study found that study participants who adhered more closely to a low FODMAP diet to treat their IBS symptoms were also more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who adhered to the diet less closely.

IBS may also cause a person to develop disordered eating habits by making them dread the consequences of eating if it leads to pain and discomfort. Eventually, this anxiety around eating may develop into an eating disorder. However, more research is necessary to conclusively prove the link between IBS and eating disorders.

It’s important that anyone who believes they may be experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder speak with a healthcare or mental health professional. Disordered eating and eating disorders raise a person’s chances of both physical complications and mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

The most effective treatment plan for an individual will depend on the specific type of eating disorder. Typically, treatment options for eating disorders include:

Help is available

Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.

Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.

For general mental health support at any time, people can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24 hours a day at 1-800-662-4357 (or 1-800-487-4889 for TTY).

Many other resources are also available, including:

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Treatment for IBS focuses on symptom relief and overall improvement of a person’s daily quality of life.

Typically, IBS treatment will involve dietary interventions, and learning how to manage anxiety, stress, and triggering emotions.

Nutrition planning

Strategies a person can adopt to help manage IBS symptoms include:

  • avoiding artificial sweeteners typically found in products such as gums and sugar-free sodas as these can produce a laxative effect
  • consuming oats, as these can help reduce bloating
  • eating meals at consistent times each day
  • eating at a moderate pace to help avoid straining the digestive system or getting gas from swallowing air
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • avoiding carbonated drinks, such as sodas and sparkling wine
  • eating low FODMAP foods
  • staying well hydrated
  • avoiding foods and drinks known to trigger flares

Avoiding gluten can also help reduce the risk of flares for some people. Gluten-free food products and alternatives are commonly available in most U.S. stores.

Learn more about gluten and gluten sensitivity here.

The following are some questions people frequently ask about IBS and eating disorders.

Can IBS make anorexia worse?

Potentially, yes. IBS may worsen symptoms of eating disorders by making a person anxious about eating if it makes them feel unwell. This may add to the malnutrition that anorexia can cause.

Does IBS affect your eating habits?

Yes, most people find that their eating habits change after an IBS diagnosis. Many people deliberate eating habit changes as a strategy to help relieve symptoms and manage their condition.

How do you eat with severe IBS?

People with severe IBS should work closely with a doctor or dietitian to design a nutrition plan that works for them and minimizes symptoms. People may need to experiment with elimination diets to identify and avoid triggers.

Research is still lacking regarding a clear relationship between IBS and having an eating disorder.

It appears that those with eating disorders are more likely to experience functional GI issues and conditions, such as IBS. However, whether those with IBS are more likely to have an eating disorder requires further research.

It’s important that individuals who believe they may be experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder speak with a healthcare or mental health professional. Untreated eating disorders can lead to both medical and mental health issues. Treatment for eating disorders typically involves psychotherapy, such as family counseling or CBT.

Treating IBS involves identifying and eliminating triggers such as foods and managing other triggers like stress to help relieve symptoms.