According to statistics, around one-third of us are affected by the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) at some time during our life. If I had a 50 p for every client I have seen with a diagnosis of IBS, I would be an incredibly wealthy nutritionist.
IBS is not a condition but rather a variety of symptoms that, if the cause is not found, can lead to conditions such as diverticulitis or inflammatory bowel disease.
IBS is often called a “functional disorder” of the bowel, which basically means a disturbance in the bowel function without any change in the structure or obvious cause. Diagnostic tests such as blood tests or endoscopy do not reveal any obvious abnormality.
What Is IBS?
To diagnose IBS, there must be at least 12 weeks (which need not be consecutive) in the preceding year of abdominal discomfort or pain characterized by at least two of the following fundamental three features:
- It is relieved by defecation.
- Its onset is associated with a change in the frequency of the stool.
- Its onset is associated with a change in the appearance of the stool.
The following symptoms also cumulatively support the diagnosis of IBS:
- Fewer than three bowel movements a week
- More than three bowel movements a day
- Hard or lumpy stools
- Loose or watery stools
- Straining during a bowel movement
- Needing to urgently rush to the loo
- Rumbling noises and excessive passage of wind
- Sharp pain felt low down inside the rectum
- Abdominal pain that is relieved by going to the loo
- A feeling of “not quite getting it all out” incomplete bowel movement
- Mucus (a white sticky or stringy substance) present in or around the stool
- A feeling of fullness, bloating, or swelling in the abdomen
Other symptoms frequently reported are headaches, dizziness, backache, passing urine frequently, tiredness, muscle and joint pains, indigestion, nausea, shortness of breath, anxiety and depression.
The modern diets and busy lifestyles that we lead can leave us all vulnerable to most of these symptoms at times; the cumulative effect of many of these can lead to an IBS diagnosis.
Dealing With IBS
What all these symptoms have in common is that they relate to a disturbance of the colon or large intestine, although there is no reported physical abnormality and therefore no physical “cause” as such.
However, there is much that can be done effectively and naturally to address the symptoms. The five primary areas of focus for natural treatment are as follows:
1. Increase Dietary Fiber Intake
This is recommended to the IBS sufferers who experience constipation. The fiber most commonly recommended is wheat bran. However, like those with digestive vulnerability, IBS patients have a heightened chance of developing food allergy.
Include at least two varieties of fiber with every meal to boost your intake.
So instead, choose fruit (stewed for easier digestion) and vegetables such as apples, pears, figs, green leafy vegetables, or root vegetables such as squash or beetroot. These are also dense in antioxidants needed to heal the inflamed gut wall.
2. Eliminate Allergenic Foods
The more recent studies on IBS have further documented the association between food allergy and an irritable bowel. According to a double blind challenge, the majority of patients with IBS (approx two-third) have at least one food allergy and some have multiple allergies!
The most common allergies are dairy and grains. If you think this could be your problem, get a food allergy test and an elimination diet.
3. Remove Sugar From The Diet
Meals high in sugar encourage bacterial growth in the small intestine by decreasing intestinal motility. It also results in the glucose running through our bloodstream to rocket, which causes the muscular rhythmic flow to slow down even further. This in turn causes muscular paralysis in the gut and food matter become sitting tenants.
The answer is to replace refined sugar (the packaged ones) and all its products such as confectionery and pastries with small amounts of local honey or maple syrup to wean yourself off your sweet tooth. Also be aware of those hidden sugars in ready-to-eat foods.
4. Address The Psychological Factors
This is a tricky one. Many of us live a busy life and because we “manage” it day in and day out, we grow used to the stress that comes along with it.
Unfortunately, we are not always aware that the lack of our emotional and physical health in this lifestyle results in conditions such as IBS. Increased motility (the rhythmic flow again) of the colon in the gut during exposure to stressful situations has been shown to occur in IBS patients.
Psychotherapy, in the form of relaxation therapy, biofeedback, counseling, or stress management training, has been shown to reduce symptoms of IBS.
The gut is also known as the “second brain” because it has many neurotransmitters also found in the brain. This explains the idea of having “butterflies in your tummy” or a “gut instinct” and further explains the link between emotions and gut function. Exercises such as those with deep breathing will not only help you relax but also provide a greater source of oxygen for healing.
5. Use Food Supplements
Sometimes, the gut could do with a helping hand and the following nutritional supplements have been shown to be of much benefit:
- Enteric coated peppermint oil preparations (0.2–0.4ml) twice per day between meals
- 3–5 grams of fiber supplements (such as psyllium husks) per day before bed and with plenty of water (effective with constipation and/or diarrhea)
- Lactobacillus acidophilus or lactobacillus plantarum
- 320 mg of artichoke extract 3 times per day (artichoke supplements produced an overall reduction of 71% in IBS symptoms within an average of ten days in a recent study)
- Turmeric (has anti-inflammatory properties)
Despite more research and public awareness of IBS, no cure has been found. Medical treatment may vary from advice on diet and relaxation to the use of anti-spasmodic drugs and low-dose antidepressants.