Is my IBS triggered by salt?

How many times have you sat down at the computer and turned to Dr Google? If I asked myself, my answer would be too many times to remember. When you’ve been struggling with ongoing unpleasant symptoms with a diagnosis that lacks a clear cause, it’s common you might turn to Google to seek instant relief, advice and information.

Woman holding bowl of salt

This is the reality for many of us, and paints a picture of what some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) go through. It can be difficult to get your head around a medical diagnosis, particularly when the cause is yet to be determined and this is common in many cases of IBS, as Registered Nutritionist Charlotte Turner says, IBS is ‘multifactorial’.

“What we do know from research is that stress, anxiety, diet and possibly our genetics could mean that we’re more predisposed to having the condition. So it’s not just one thing, unfortunately. Less common causes are mental health, stress, potentially sleep as well can all play a role in our general health and gut health in particular. 

“It’s always not just as simple as what you might have eaten,” says Charlotte.

Salt and IBS

So why am I talking about salt when IBS can be more than just food? Well, in the past year over 250 people sought the help of Nutritionist Resource for ‘salt and IBS’, so if you’ve been trawling over what could cause your IBS flare-ups, you’re not alone and a high salt diet may be a contributing factor.

Salt can actually affect many different bodily functions that have been linked to IBS flare-ups. For example, a recent study determined that a high-salt diet can kill off a type of good gut bacteria, Lactobacillus, which has been linked to a decrease in anxiety and stress levels. So if we’re continually consuming salty foods, it could leave us feeling stressed, overwhelmed and anxious – and stress is a common trigger for IBS.  

But is salt the definitive factor in your IBS flare-ups? Let’s take a look.

Processed foods 

IBS is a complex condition, and instant relief may not always be realistic. We do know though is that salt is part of a wider contribution towards IBS flare-ups, and it could be helpful to understand and reduce your daily salt intake. 

“Let’s start by saying that foods high in salt tend to be highly processed as salt is usually added to products to increase their shelf life,” says Charlotte. “Highly processed foods are often high in fat, sugar and low in fibre. This is why we cannot just say it’s just salt that is the cause as we also know that a diet low in fibre and high in fat, sugar and salt is not as beneficial to our gut health as a more balanced diet with plenty of plant diversity.”

Dehydration

“Another factor is that high salt diets cause us to be dehydrated,” says Charlotte. “If you don’t have enough water in your body, the large intestine soaks up water from your food waste making the process of moving food waste through your bowel slow and hard to pass, meaning we become constipated.” Constipation is a common complaint of IBS.

For adults in the UK, the NHS recommends eating no more than 6g of salt a day (that’s just one teaspoon) and for children even less so. Charlotte says adults are actually consuming almost double that daily guideline, eating approximately 10g a day. 

“Most of the salt we consume is eaten in convenience and processed foods, restaurant foods and takeaways,” says Charlotte. And you might be unaware that you’re eating an excessive amount of salt as often foods (even marketed as healthy) contain added salt to enhance their flavour. So to start, it’s helpful to understand how salt is labelled on foods, which is often as ‘sodium’. For a food to be considered low in salt, it needs to contain no more than 0.3g of salt or 0.1g sodium. Medium to high salt foods contain 0.3g – 1.5g of salt or 0.1g – 0.6g of sodium.

Symptoms of a high salt intake

If you regularly experience some of the following, you may be eating a high salt diet:

  • frequent mild headaches
  • constantly craving salty foods
  • find plain or bland food unappealing
  • persistent thirst 
  • chapped lips 
  • puffiness or bloating

It’s important to note that these symptoms aren’t exclusive to high salt intake and you should always contact your GP if you recognise these symptoms, as they are similar to a number of medical conditions.

But if you know your diet often consists of convenience foods, Charlotte suggests four nutritional recommendations that can be helpful in combating salt-related IBS flare-ups:

  • drink at least 6-8 glasses of water per day 
  • have 2-3 servings of vegetables at lunch and dinner
  • limit salt consumption to under 6 grams per day
  • add a base of fibre-rich wholegrains to each of your meals per day 

So, how does salt intake affect IBS? As Charlotte says, it depends! “What we know is that high salt intake isn’t the sole cause of IBS but certainly having a diet high in salt isn’t helping your gut health or your IBS symptoms.

“Often making these small changes may help reduce your symptoms, if not please reach out to a registered dietitian or registered nutritionist RNutr for dietary support.”

If you have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and are looking for personalised support to help ease uncomfortable symptoms, Nutritionist Resource lists over 600 nutrition professionals. Simply use the search tool to find a dietitian or nutrition professional who’s right for you. 

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Written by Katie Hoare

Katie is a writer for Nutritionist Resource.

Written by Katie Hoare

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