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Be a Digestive Detective

Cause and Effect

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It's important to try to connect the dots between the root cause and your symptoms.  That way you can cut down or stop eating and drinking the things that are actually causing you problems and not eliminate the ones that don't.  A healthy diet has as much variety as possible.

But connecting the dots isn't always easy.  We often eat many different foods in one meal, everyone digests food at different rates and there are factors other than food that can affect digestion. 


Understanding the timing of your IBS symptoms is a good place to start, especially if you track your meals and symptoms.

Timing of Digestion and IBS Symptoms

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Tracking and Journalling

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Whether you use an app on your phone or do it old school, tracking and/or journalling about your food and drink intake and your symptoms is the best way to start connecting the dots between root causes and symptoms.

The more information you record, the more clues you will have to work with as a digestive detective.  As you can see from this section, recording timing of meals and symptoms is important.

You'll find recommendations and examples of tracking and journalling resources at the end of this page.

0-15 Minutes

  • Usually an immune (food allergy) or biochemical (e.g. sulphite sensitivity) reaction

  • Too soon for food intolerances that happen in the intestines e.g. lactose

  • Possible to feel effects of acid reflux

15-90 Minutes

  • Food starts to enter small intestine

  • Allergic and biochemical reactions can still occur

  • IBS-C possible gas, bloating and painful distension - intestines fill up, body can't have BM to free up space, but reaction usually not to do with food you just ate

  • IBS-D possible crampy, urgent diarrhea, especially after large, high fat or high volume meals (e.g. salads) due to accelerated Gastrocolic Reflex (GCR)

  • GCR normal reflex triggered by eating, stimulates the intestine (mainly colon) to contract and move stuff along to make room, but IBS-D often contract more intensel 

2-8 Hours

  • Meal starting to move out of small intestine and remaining waste now enters the colon, meets bacteria

  • 2 hours possible, but usually 4 hours for typical meal

  • Problems here caused mainly by malabsorption, or undigested stuff in the colon, which gives bacteria lots to feed on (e.g. FODMAPS or fat)

  • Symptoms can include gas (often smelly), gas pain, bloating and/or loose stools (often light colour, smelly)

After 8 Hours

  • Gets harder to figure out the link between what you ate or drank and your symptoms, often eaten more food

  • Could have symptoms in morning from something you ate the night before

  • Can take up to 72 hours for something to fully leave your system, so possible that symptoms like excess gas and bloating could last for a few days

  • But if symptom suddenly appears don't blame something you ate 3 days ago.

Tips for Playing Digestive Detective

Start by eating a healthy and balanced diet.


This is a good step before you start food eliminations and may actually help alleviate some of your symptoms.  Food restrictions make it more difficult to get the nutrients your body needs, so best to start from a place of strength.

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Reevaluate current food restrictions.

It's common for people with digestive issues to stop eating certain foods, or even whole food groups, because at some point in time they linked that particular food to their symptoms.  If that's you, then it might be time to reopen the case.  Sometimes clues can be misleading, other factors like stress might have interfered with judgement and symptoms can change over time. 

Recognize, accept and do your best to overcome food fear.

When eating is linked to pain, it's normal to be afraid of eating certain things.  But in the course of your detective work, you will almost definitely eat or drink something that makes your belly hurt.  It may be the only way to figure out the root cause of your symptoms.

Fear can cause stress and stress can make your symptoms worse.  So take a few deep breaths before you try something new or a food that you've restricted in the past and remember that it's not going to do any actual damage to your intestines.  If your food fear is overwhelming, get help from a professional if you can.

Figure out your main suspect.

Look over the list of common IBS triggers and start with one that is the most applicable to you.  If you drink a lot of coffee or eat a lot of greasy fast food, then start there.

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The amount counts!

IBS food and drink triggers are not the same as an allergy.  Often people with IBS can have smaller amounts of certain things without triggering symptoms.  So it's important to note whether you ate a small scoop or an entire tub of ice cream while you are tracking your food and symptoms.

Don't eliminate everything at the same time!

Living with IBS can be awful and it's understandable to want to try anything and everything you can to feel better.  But it's important to follow each lead one at a time so you can figure out the true culprits.


Remember that other factors can impact IBS symptoms.

Food and drink aren't the only things that affect IBS symptoms.  Stress levels can have a big impact, so it can be helpful to include this while tracking or journalling.  Hormones can also affect symptoms, especially for women, so marking days when you are premenstrual or have your period can also provide valuable clues.

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