IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, affects tens of millions of people in the U.S. alone. Each person suffers a different set of symptoms, but will commonly have bowel changes that can include diarrhea, constipation, and a frequent or urgent need to use the bathroom.
In addition to bowel changes, people suffering from IBS may have mild to debilitating bloating, stomach pain, indigestion, or gas. And, some may even have mucus in their stool.
As a syndrome, the cause of IBS is not exactly known, yet there seems to be a strong correlation with stress and anxiety. Therefore, it is likely due, at least in part, to poor signaling between the enteric (gut) nervous system and the brain.
Naturopaths have great success helping their patients reduce and prevent IBS symptoms by looking for their cause. In this case, we are looking for anything that can disturb proper gut function. Common areas we investigate are:
Food sensitivities are caused by foods you either have difficulty digesting or that create a delayed immune reaction. They cause gastrointestinal inflammation that often results in IBS symptoms, not to mention fatigue, joint pain, headaches, brain fog, and more. Many people have these sensitivities without knowing it, yet they are at the core of many common ailments.
Your large intestine has an enormous amount of microbes (mostly bacteria with fungi and other cool stuff) within it that work to aid in digestion, immunity, and likely many other important functions. Unfortunately, everyday modern life takes its toll on these helpful inhabitants. Pharmaceuticals (especially antibiotics and acid blockers), environmental toxins, inflammatory foods, and stress can greatly impact the health of your microbiome resulting in IBS symptoms.
Microbial infections can cause dysbiosis and inflammation, leading you to suffer from IBS symptoms. SIBO and SIFO (Small Intestinal Bacterial/Fungal Overgrowth) are two difficult, but unfortunately common forms of infection. Both occur when microbes sprawl from the large intestine where they can do their good work to the small intestine where they cause bloating, fullness, gas, and other IBS symptoms.
Poor Gut Function
Proper functioning of your digestive tract requires a synchronized flow of stomach acid, enzymes, and muscular contractions. Alterations in any of these can reduce your ability to digest foods properly leading to constipation, diarrhea, gas and other IBS symptoms.
Increased Intestinal Permeability, aka “Leaky Gut”
All of the above can cause inflammation and an unhealthy increase in the permeability of your intestines. This allows poorly digested foods, microbes, and toxins direct access to your bloodstream. Your immune system rightfully doesn’t like this and will react leading to inflammation and IBS symptoms. If that’s all that happens, count yourself lucky! A leaky gut can also lead to more serious autoimmune diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, and Multiple Sclerosis.
For Longer-Term IBS Prevention, It’ll Be Worth Investing Your Efforts in These Few Key Ways
1. Minimize and Manage Stress: As I discussed above stress and anxiety seem to be strongly correlated to IBS. To reduce stress try a daily meditation or prayer practice that you enjoy and can commit to doing on a daily basis. If you prefer a guided meditation, there are many options online. And, of course, seek professional help. Counseling to reduce emotional triggers can really help, especially when combined with diet changes.
2. Life Regularity Improves Bowel Regularity: Stress isn't just in your head. Your body needs regular sleep and movement to reduce physical stress. Get regular and adequate sleep on a schedule and move every day. Walking, yoga, Tai Chi, playing at the park with your kids, whatever you really enjoy and will do is your best choice. You will reduce your stress levels and improve your bowel function.
3. Track Your Diet: Keep a diet diary to quickly identify symptom triggers. Common triggers are alcoholic beverages, chocolate, dairy, caffeine, soda, sweets, fatty foods, high fructose corn syrup, and drinks sorbitol, but yours may be different.
4. Experiment with Your Diet: If journaling doesn’t help try a short-term elimination diet or even a low FODMAP diet to reduce your symptoms and gain good information about what your bowel is sensitive to. It’s worth getting professional help with these, as they need to be done precisely.
5. Eat Probiotic Foods: Probiotic foods are fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, raw apple cider vinegar, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. They all support a healthy gut microbiome, which can help with IBS symptoms and improve your mood and overall health. You can also consider taking probiotic supplements, but talk with your Naturopath as not all probiotic brands are made equally.
6. Use Botanicals: Herbal remedies such as turmeric, which is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer and an otherwise all-around culinary rock star, can contribute to a healthier digestive tract. You can use it raw or dried in curries, golden milk, and other recipes for day-to-day support. The active ingredients in turmeric are the curcumins so you'll often hear turmeric and curcumin interchanged. And, while eating turmeric as a spice is great therapeutic doses may only be reached using a curcumin supplement.
Here Are Some Strategies for Managing Acute IBS Symptoms in the Moment
By using the above strategies you are likely to reduce your IBS flares over the long-term. That said, life throws curve balls and flares happen. Here are some quick remedies you can try in the moment when your IBS symptoms take over your life.
1. Apply Heat: Use a water bottle or heating pad to relax and reduce muscle spasms. Use the heat over a layer of clothing or a towel to avoid burning your skin. You can increase the effectiveness of this treatment by using the same time for meditation, breathing exercises, or even just to listen to relaxing music.
2. Use a Castor Oil Pack: If you’re struggling with constipation a castor oil pack can get things moving. These may seem like too much work, but once you're set up they are easy and even enjoyable. Directions are provided below. If you have diarrhea, you'll want to skip this and move on to option 3.
3. Use Peppermint: Peppermint soothes gas pain and relaxes muscles. Peppermint tea is particularly good at soothing your belly and reducing gas pains. Peppermint oil can reduce muscle spasms and therefore decreases cramping pain. It comes in enteric-coated capsules or you can try 1-2 drops of a high-quality peppermint essential oil in a glass of water (adults only). You may find ginger and/or fennel teas helpful too.
4. Do a Short Water/Herbal Tea/Bone Broth Fast: A 24-hour water fast can be immediately helpful for IBS symptoms by giving your digestive tract a rest. If you’ve been ill or are on medications you should talk with your doctor before starting. Be sure to drink plenty of water and herbal teas. And, if you use bone broth try to always use organic chicken or grass-fed beef bone broth.
5. Take a Probiotic: Probiotics can be helpful for both reducing the number and severity of IBS flares. Many probiotic foods may be too harsh during a flare except for Miso broth. Find a probiotic that works for you (talk with your doctor for help) and keep it on hand.
Don’t accept your IBS symptoms as a way of life. No doubt, navigating IBS can be tricky, but the symptoms can be reduced while you look deeply for the cause and cure. If you need help managing your symptoms see a licensed Naturopath. We have many more tools to help with the symptoms of IBS and other digestive tract disorders. And, we can run detailed tests that help find their cause to improve your chances of eradicating them for good.