IBS During Pregnancy: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on December 14, 2015
4 min read

Most pregnant women can expect some GI challenges during those 9 months. Morning sickness and heartburn are common. The iron and calcium in prenatal vitamins can make you constipated. Plus, your growing baby is physically pressing against your organs as food moves through them.

If you already have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms -- constipation, diarrhea, belly pain, and gas -- you’ll probably have more digestive troubles than the average mom-to-be. “Pregnancy can definitely make symptoms worse,” says Sherry Ross, MD, a women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

And that baby bump means you need to be even more aware of what you eat and how you feel. It’s not all bad news, though. With the right moves, you can keep your symptoms in check and keep yourself and your baby healthy.

Colleen Francioli noticed her IBS symptoms got worse in her first trimester of pregnancy. She sometimes went as many as 5 days between bowel movements. Bloating was a problem, too. “At times, it was very uncomfortable to wear pants, bend over, or even go walking,” says the San Diego-based nutrition consultant.

Stress, which can aggravate IBS symptoms, was taking a toll on her, too.Her mother had died recently, “so it was an emotional time for me,” she admits. “I knew I had to keep my body and mind relaxed not only to keep IBS at bay, but ... for my baby to thrive.”

She'd had success easing her symptoms before she got pregnant, and she didn’t want to lose ground. But she knew because she was expecting, she’d have to take extra steps to stay well.

When you’re juggling both IBS and pregnancy, it’s important to talk to your doctor about how to prevent and control flare-ups of your symptoms. Often, a few habits in your everyday life can help, too.

Rethink your meds.Medications often help people with IBS handle constipation, diarrhea, and other problems. But some of these drugs may not be safe for pregnant women. Check with your doctor to see if it’s a good idea to keep taking your IBS meds. You may need to stop them or switch to others until you deliver your baby.

Drink plenty of fluids. “Water is the best choice,” Ross says. “I recommend drinking at least eight to 10 8-ounce glasses a day.” Prune juice can help relieve constipation. So can sipping warm liquids in the morning.

Keep moving. “Exercising regularly aids in digestion and makes you feel physically and emotionally stronger,” Ross says. Try a daily walk or other heart-pumping activity for 30 minutes on most days.

Get enough fiber. Foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can ease constipation. “Fiber helps bring water into the intestines, softening the stool and allowing it to pass more easily,” Ross explains. But stay away from gassy foods like beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. They may add to your problems.

Track your foods. Keep a food log for a week or two that also notes when your IBS flares. The details can help you see which items trigger your symptoms so you can avoid them.

Make over-the-counter adjustments. A stool softener can relieve constipation. A gentle fiber supplement like psyllium (Metamucil) or wheat dextrin (Benefiber) can make a difference for some women. But avoid stimulant laxatives like senna (Ex-Lax, Senokot.) “They can be hard on your intestines,” Ross says. And remember to always check with your doctor before you take any drug or supplement, even those you can buy at the pharmacy.

Find ways to relax. Since stress plays a big part in IBS, it’s important to stay aware of your emotions. Talk therapy helps you change negative thought patterns. Biofeedback shows you how to slow your heart rate and reduce muscle tension. You’ll have a better idea of when your GI tract is about to act up, rather than waiting for symptoms to return.

To ease IBS symptoms during her pregnancy, Francioli focused on her diet. She chose a plan that limits carbohydrates called FODMAPs, like the sugar in dairy foods, the artificial sweetener sorbitol, and foods that have a lot fructose, like fruit, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup.

She also stayed active with prenatal yoga and practiced meditation to relax, especially when her symptoms flared.

“I found that the more relaxed I was and the more positive thinking I could do, the more relaxed my gut was and the faster I felt better,” she says.

Today, she blogs about living with IBS at FODMAPLife.com. “If you didn’t take very good care of yourself before, [pregnancy] is the best time to treat your body, soul, and mind to what it needs.”

If your IBS symptoms get out of control, it can put your pregnancy at risk. Diarrhea that goes on too long can cause dehydration, which may lead to serious problems like preterm labor. And constipation can affect the muscles, tissues, and nerves in your pelvis. In extreme cases, this can cause the uterus to slip out of place. Women with IBS are also at a higher risk of miscarriage.

How do you avoid these risks? Stay in touch with your doctor, and let her know if your IBS symptoms are getting better or worse.