Whole Wheat and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Close up of a bowl of whole wheat cereal
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Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, affects between 25 and 45 million people in the United States, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. It is considered a mild digestive disease, but it can be a source of great discomfort and embarrassment. Whole wheat is often recommended as a dietary aid because it contains fiber, which can help move the bowels, and is higher in nutrients than refined wheat. However, whole wheat can cause digestive problems for some people with IBS. If whole wheat exacerbates your IBS symptoms, talk to your doctor or other qualified health practitioner.

About IBS

The cause of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is unclear, but the problematic symptoms occur because the muscles of the large intestine contract more quickly or more slowly than normal. Common symptoms of IBS include abdominal cramps, gas, bloating and either diarrhea or constipation -- or alternating incidences of both. Diet plays an important role in both triggering symptoms and treating IBS. Whole wheat is often recommended for IBS because the fiber helps create a solid stool that moves through your large intestine more easily, possibly reducing symptoms of pain, gas and bloating.

Whole Wheat

Whole wheat is wheat that has not been refined to remove parts of the seed. Refining, or processing, whole wheat, helps soften the wheat but also removes vital nutrients found in the seed. Although refined wheat products, and other refined whole grain products, often have nutrients added back into them, they are not as nutritious as whole wheat and typically don't have as much fiber, according to the American Heart Association. The fiber content and high-nutrition content are the main reasons institutes such as the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center recommend whole wheat products for people with IBS. However, the fiber content, and other constituents in whole wheat, may cause problems for some with IBS.

Possible Problems

Whole wheat contains primarily insoluble fiber, which doesn't dissolve in water. The fact that it can't dissolve in water, plus the fact humans can't digest fiber, results in a more solid, bulky stool when digesting insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber, however, may also cause increased gas, bloating and cramping for some with IBS. Soluble fiber -- fiber that creates a more watery stool and is found mostly in vegetables -- does not typically cause problems for IBS patients, but it does not create as bulky a stool. Whole wheat also contains a protein called gluten, also found in barley, that can cause problems for some with IBS, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Wheat is also a common trigger for allergic reactions, which some health professionals believe may be a trigger for IBS.

Seeking Treatment

Whole wheat can be an important part of your diet if you have IBS due to its fiber and nutrient content. If, however, your IBS symptoms are exacerbated by whole wheat products, it's best to consult a qualified health practitioner for a suitable alternative. A health practitioner may recommend another source of fiber or a specific fiber supplement. You may have to experiment with different fiber-containing foods to find one that doesn't exacerbate your symptoms. A qualified health practitioner can also test to see if you are either sensitive to the gluten in whole wheat or have an allergy.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.