- Have you had pain or discomfort for 3 or more days per month in last 3 months?
- Is the pain or discomfort relieved by passing a bowel motion?
- At around the time the pain or discomfort started, did you also have a change in the frequency of bowel motions (more or less often)?
- At around the time the pain or discomfort started, did you also have a change in the consistency of bowel motions (looser or firmer)?
If you answered YES to number 1, and to at least two from number 2-4, then you quite possibly have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
To confirm this, it is important that other causes for your irritable bowel habits have been ruled out.
Who Gets Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Women are affected three times more likely to suffer from this condition than men. The condition commonly begins in teenage to early adulthood. Symptoms can seem like some other problems (such as endometriosis) and misdiagnosis is common.
What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Irritable bowel syndrome should really be renamed “irritable bowel symptoms”- it is now recognized to be exacerbated by a number of stimuli. For some people it is foods such as wheat, dairy products (although often yoghurt is OK), citrus fruit, tea, coffee and alcohol. An imbalance in the normal intestinal flora (SIBO) caused by a previous round of antibiotics or a viral, bacterial or parasitic infection can lead to inflammation and spasm of IBS. Anxiety and stress reactions also seem to be strongly associated.
During symptomatic episodes the digestive tract may contract excessively, creating abnormal bowel function. Pain is often crampy, caused by strong contractions of the large intestine, coupled with a heightened sensitivity of pain receptor nerves in the small intestine.
Breath testing can determine the role of excessive bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO) or the role of undigested sugars such as lactose and/or fructose.
What can I do to Help my Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Firstly, follow some simple dietary guidelines:
- Avoid eating large meals, as too much pressure against the intestinal wall can cause it to contract, causing pain and spasm.
- Eat less often, limiting your meal sizes. This will assist proper digestion and gentle movement through the digestive tract. Allowing time between meals ensures that the last meal has “moved on” before adding for food to the digestive system.
- Remove common problem foods from the diet, such as gluten – BUT only after consulting a health practitioner to rule out Coeliac Disease.
- Gluten is the protein component of several grains but is especially high in wheat grains. It gives bread the sticky, doughy consistency. Many people find gluten difficult to digest; it may be because humans didn’t evolve to eat grains. For the sufferer of Irritable Bowel Syndrome it makes sense, therefore, to eliminate gluten from the diet completely, and if symptoms subside quickly, it is advised to commence eating gluten again and if the same symptoms return, to request a screening to rule out Coeliac Diease. Wheat gluten is frequently implicated in the disorder. It is well known that gluten can damage the intestinal lining.
- A high fibre diet is a mainstay of management, but it is not recommended to increase insoluble fibre, such as wheatbran, while continuing to eat foods that aggravate the condition – this can actually make symptoms worse, due to faster motility and more painful spasm and diarrhoea.
- Soluble fibre in the diet acts as a gentle bulking laxative by pulling water towards it. This can both bulk the loose stool in diarrhoea and soften it if the tendency is to constipation. A bonus side-effect of increasing soluble fibre in the diet is that it also helps with reducing both raised blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- Apples and pears may be well toleratd – they can be stewed with the skin on. Add psyllium powder (a seed husk) to water or juice, or sprinkle it on food. If you find that these particular foods, or other “FODMAP” foods aggravate your symptoms, may have SIBO, in which case we recommend a breath test to establish if this is likely. Alternatively, you can make an appointment to discuss your options.
- Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) bark powder is a nutritive herb that tones and soothes the irritated intestines and acts as a gentle bulking laxative. Add 2 teaspoons of slippery elm powder in a cup of hot rice milk or water, sweeten with a little honey if you like and add a dash of cinnamon. A pinch of clove powder has a mild pain-killing action.
- Aloe vera juice is healing and tonic to the digestive tract. It reduces inflammation and stimulates cell growth, which supports healing of the gut lining. A good quality Aloe vera juice contains useful amounts of mucilage, which is a soluble fibre. The juice should be a murky colour, with the small fibres of mucilage visible when a glass of juice is held up to the light. Lesser quality Aloe vera juices are almost as clear as water (which they mostly are) and are not to be judged by a flash label or advertising.
- Avoid sugar and refined foods. Fermentation of high carbohydrate foods in the intestines can also contribute to irritation and intestinal spasm.Here is another reason to avoid bread not to mentions pastries and baking which have a high glycaemic index, raising sugars in the intestines and blood stream. These foods, along with sweets, are also acid forming and they hinder the body’s nutrient absorption. A high sugar diet has been shown to increase inflammation, slow the transit time of food through the intestines and alter stool composition.
- Try Probiotics. Natural yoghurt and naturally fermented foods (such as sauerkraut, tempeh etc) help to restore the beneficial bacteria of the intestines. Your naturopath may recommend a specific probiotic powder or capsule with good gut bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and other specific organisms to help restore balance in the intestines and speed the reduction of symptoms. Some people with IBS feel their symptoms are worse if they take probiotics. If this happens to you, please make an appointment using the link below.
Hypersensitivity of organs in IBS sufferers contributes to a heightened perception of pain. A healthy gut produces natural factors that help with sensitivity, for example, strains of Lactobacillus act on opioid receptors in the cells that line the intestine and help to bring pain relief. When constipation is a problem, probiotic organisms can increase stool frequency and also reduce moderate to severe abdominal pain and bloating. However, recent research has made a very strong connection between excess hydrogen-gas production in cases of diarrhoea-predominant IBS (who tend to experience more pain) and excessive production of methane gas in those with constipation-dominant IBS. Both of these situations are accurately evaluated with a SIBO-breath test.
Herbs can also be used to nourish and relax the nervous system and reduce stress and anxiety responses. Your herbalist may choose ones that have a specific benefit to the gut as well, such as Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), which is well known for soothing the gut and as a nervous system relaxant and tonic.
IBS can be successfully alleviated with natural approaches. Reducing stress, testing for SIBO, lactose intolerance or fructose malabsorption are important first steps. Dietary changes, supplements and herbal remedies as prescribed by your health consultant are important to help soothe and heal the gut. Generally, however, food is NOT the problem. Food aggravates the problem!
We can help you!
Identify your Food Allergies
Foods are often contributing to the problem – other than those mentioned above, you might have some that are a specific problem for you. However, the development of allergies in a person who was previously not allergic to food is extremely uncommon. Reactions to foods that you used to eat without problems is an important clue for us in determining what’s beneath your digestive disorder. What is far more common is food intolerances. For example, you may notice you are better if you avoid some of the foods identified as “high FODMAP” on the table. However, it is not recommended to follow this diet for longer than about six weeks, as it eliminates important nutrients for a healthy gut. If you are better with such restrictions, or by restricting starches and carbs, we recommend ruling out small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
However, if you have always had allergic reactions read more about the different types of allergies and the various methods of identifying them. We recommend blood-based food intolerance testing using robust ELISA methodology.
Once your problem foods have been identified we will work through a plan with you.
A low FODMAP diet is often recommended for IBS. It sometimes helps.
What other Natural Therapies can help Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
In addition to following the dietary advice of your practitioner, certain herbs that are effective in soothing inflammation and pain in the gastrointestinal tract may be prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It is also important to stimulate the digestive juices of the stomach, liver and gallbladder to support optimal digestion.
Bitter herbs such as milk thistle (Silybum marianum), globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus), schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), gentian (Gentiana lutea) and hops (Humulus lupulus) may be used for this.
Medical herbalists also value the following herbs for IBS:
- Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis)
- Liquorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) as a tea has been safely used for thousands of years for its healing properties. It is a valued herb for treating the digestive tract.
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is another, the flower petals contain number of substances that make if a great tissue healer, and it works on the immune and lymphatic systems to help bring relief from IBS symptoms.
These can be components of a herbal formula or can also be taken as teas. There are many other herbs that might be used – your naturopath will select those that are most suitable for you based on your Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms and other factors.
Reducing Stress and Anxiety can Alleviate Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms
Working from a mind-body-medicine perspective is important.
Our qualified practitioners have a range of effective ways to support your stress management and counteract anxiety – read about them here.