What is IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a broad term for a number of digestive symptoms.
These can include abdominal pain, mucus in the stools, irregular bowel movements and alternating between diarrhoea and constipation. There are many triggers for IBS such as environmental factors, emotional stress, infection, and diet.
Research has shown that the neurotransmitter serotonin – one of the body’s happy hormones, the majority of which is made in the gut – may be important in addressing IBS symptoms. Serotonin can alter the function of nerve cells in the bowel, causing changes in pain sensation and bowel function.
Symptoms of IBS
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Alternating diarrhoea and constipation
- A sensation that the bowels are not fully emptied after passing a motion
- Abdominal bloating
- Mucus present in the stools
- Nausea and fatigue
Causes of IBS
Infection: An episode of gastroenteritis will often result in persistent bowel symptoms, long after the offending bacteria or virus has been eliminated. The cause of this is unknown but may involve changes to nerve function in the bowel or changes in the normal bacterial population of the bowel. Up to 25% of IBS may be due to this problem.
Food intolerance: Impaired absorption of the sugar lactose (found in dairy and many processed foods) is the most common dietary trigger for IBS. Other sugars believed to trigger IBS are fructose (present in many syrups) and sorbitol. Gluten can contribute to IBS as well.
General diet: Modern day high-processed foods and low-fibre diets can exacerbate constipation. Some people find that spicy or sugary foods may also cause problems.
Emotional stress: Strong emotions, such as anxiety or stress, can affect the nerves of the bowel in susceptible people. Stress can also lower immune function and serotonin levels.
- Medication: Antibiotics, antacids, and painkillers, for instance, can lead to digestive disorders.
Diagnosis of IBS
Laboratory tests are utilised in IBS diagnosis and can include:
Lactose intolerance tests. Lactase is an enzyme you need to digest the sugar found in dairy products. If you don't produce lactase, you may have problems similar to those caused by IBS including abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhoea. Your doctor may order a breath test or ask you to remove milk and milk products from your diet for several weeks.
Breath test for bacterial overgrowth. A breath test also can determine if you have bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine. Bacterial overgrowth is more common among people who have had bowel surgery or who have diabetes or some other disease that slows down digestion.
Upper endoscopy. A long, flexible tube is inserted down your throat and into the tube connecting your mouth and stomach (oesophagus). A camera on the end of the tube allows the doctor to inspect your upper digestive tract and obtain a tissue sample (biopsy) from your small intestine and fluid to look for overgrowth of bacteria. Your doctor might recommend endoscopy if celiac disease is suspected.
- Stool tests. If you have chronic diarrhoea, your stool might be examined for bacteria, parasites, or bile acid (a digestive liquid produced in your liver).
Natural Management of IBS
- Restore gut microbes. Probiotic-rich foods such as coconut yoghurt and kefir can help increase good gut bugs. For optimum results, add in prebiotic foods such as artichokes, leeks, white beans, chicory, and asparagus to feed those probiotics.
- Be sure to drink lots of water. Do this every day as staying adequately hydrated helps your body systems function more effectively.
- Exercise. You can increase and improve circulation in your digestive tract with a good exercise routine. Embracing mindfulness and meditation practices will help to undo stress and relax both the body and mind. Matilda Tilly Anderson has some great yoga sequences to help you get started.
- Eat smart. Fermented foods are great for helping to maintain a healthy gut. Some research shows that following a diet low in FODMAPs can help relieve symptoms of IBS. When certain foods are not absorbed properly, they are fermented and produce gas and additional symptoms of IBS including bloating, pain and constipation. Be careful of poor food combinations (e.g. legumes with fruit) and avoid processed foods.
- Avoid triggers. Dairy, caffeine, alcohol, smoking, soda and energy drinks can trigger IBS. Gluten can be inflammatory while some raw vegetables can irritate the digestive tract.
- Eat slowly. Really take the time to eat your food. Before you eat, allow yourself a few moments to smell and see the food or think about their different flavours & textures. Most people don’t know this, but digestion begins before you actually put food in your mouth! Just the smell alone can trigger the digestive enzymes to start working in the mouth. Chew slowly and don’t use drinks to wash down your food – saliva should be enough.
- Disconnect from devices. Leave your desk or TV occasionally so you can eat more mindfully. This will help you feel more satisfied.
- Get plenty of sleep. Not getting enough sleep stimulates the production of certain hormones in the body, sending messages to the brain that you are hungry even if you don’t actually need more food. Lack of sleep also leaves you fatigued and foggy-headed; likewise, it causes a lower stress-tolerance level, making you more susceptible to IBS symptoms.
- Try to increase serotonin levels. Laughter stimulates the production of serotonin. Sunlight and vitamin D also help increase serotonin levels. In addition, make sure your nutrients like B12, B6 folate, and 5-HTP are within normal ranges. Magnesium can be excellent for constipation. Introduce digestive enzymes if necessary.
- Essential oils. When applied topically, peppermint, spearmint, and essential oil blends can ease the symptoms of IBS.
- Acupuncture. Some people find that acupuncture is a helpful alternative therapy for IBS.
Follow these steps and you should feel some relief from the symptoms of IBS. Your diet and lifestyle are large contributing factors towards IBS symptoms. The more closely you can incorporate some of these ideas will help reduce your discomfort.
Qin Xiang Ng et al. A Meta-Analysis of the Clinical Use of Curcumin for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2018 Oct; 7(10): 298.
Dale HF, Rasmussen SH, Asiller ÖÖ, Lied GA. Probiotics in Irritable Bowel Syndrome: An Up-to-Date Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2019 Sep; 11(9): 2048.