Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a widespread digestive disorder. It causes abdominal pain, discomfort, and irregular bowel movements. Having IBS is a frustrating mess, and its no wonder it is one of the more common reasons that folks visit the doctor.
Symptoms of IBS
IBS is a chronic condition. The symptoms may come and go, but these are signs to look for:
- Rumbling sounds from the gut
- Diarrhea or constipation, or both
- Abdominal pain
Symptoms relieved with bowel movements or passing of gas
- Symptoms triggered by a stressful event, after surgery, or after use of antibiotics.
A medical provider will look for symptoms that occur often, and that seem to resolve with passing of stool or a change in stool consistency. Factors that may rule out IBS include: being over age 50 when symptoms start, unexplained weight loss, blood in stool, and fever.
What causes IBS?
Causes of IBS vary from on person to the next. Infections, antibiotics, and food intolerances may cause intestinal damage. That damage could be microscopic, but still have major effect on GI function, gut-brain signals, and gut microbes.
But why is IBS so why spread? It may be a result of the connection between emotional health and gut function. IBS and stress are intimately connected. Let me try to explain:
- Our emotions activate parts of the nervous system that run between gut and brain. We call this the Emotional Motor System. This system connects muscle movements, both conscious and unconscious, to our brain’s stress response system.
- Changes in nerve signals and hormones due to stress disrupts normal gut function. The movement of food debris along the small intestines slows down in times of high stress. This can lead to bacterial overgrowth, poor absorption of nutrients, and increased sensitivity.
- Bacterial overgrowth can lead to diarrhea or constipation.
- Stress hormones cause the body to release a protein called zonulin, which is as tough as it sounds. Zonulin protein can break the bonds between cells of the gut lining. These tiny gaps and holes allow for leaks, poor nutrient absorption, and inflammation.
- Healthy gut cells are great for producing the chemical serotonin. Serotonin is an anti-stress chemical signaler that causes relaxation. And its #1 production site in the body is the intestines. In the gut, it helps manage a steady passage of food through the intestines. But since serotonin travels freely around the body, changes in gut serotonin levels will affect the brain. Abnormal levels of serotonin are found in people with IBS, diarrhea, and mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
Medical treatments for IBD include medications like anti-depressants, anti-diarrheals, and antibiotics. Medical treatments for IBD include medications like anti-depressants, anti-diarrheals, and antibiotics. Integrative approaches may include supplements like probiotics, certain amino acids, vitamins, minerals, curcumin, aloe vera, and digestive enzymes.
Additional Holistic Approaches
Using a holistic approach, along with some of the options suggested above, is likely to improve management of IBS. Diet changes like timing of meals, eating slower, elimination diets, and increased fiber intake may be beneficial. A structured exercise plan can help with mood and also bowel movement regularity. Also, therapy for mental health is worth including in a treatment plan for IBS.
Many present-day medications were developed based on research on plants. Using whole plants medicine guarantees that all the beneficial components of the plant will make their way into the body.
Here are some herbal options that I would recommend for anyone struggling to deal with IBS:
Peppermint. Peppermint leaf packs a punch against IBS. It is antimicrobial. It helps to relax smooth muscle, like that of the intestinal tract. It regulates enzyme production, especially bile acids, which are key to digestion of dietary fats. It is also a natural antidepressant! Research suggests that peppermint oil can slow the slow down transit time of food debris through the intestines. Peppermint oil may work better for controlling IBS as compared to a placebo, medications, and changes in fiber intake.
USE: Taken as a tea, tincture, or as supplement, this plant is safe for children and adults with IBS with diarrhea. Use for at least 1 month to see lasting benefits. Note, this is not recommend for people with acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Chamomile. The flowers of the chamomile plant have long been used to calm nerves, elevate mood, reduce gut inflammation, and help with tissue healing. Chamomile stimulates digestion by triggering the release of digestive acids and enzymes. As such, it can be used to help normalize digestive function and enhance nutrient absorption. Research even suggests that chamomile is more effective then placebo for reducing general anxiety and depression symptoms.
USE: Taken 3 times per day, a tea of chamomile flowers steeped for at least 5 minutes can be used for adults to help manage acid reflux and IBS. A shorter brew time would be soothing for inflammations along the GI tract, like a sore throat or ulceration like mucositis.
Ginger. Ginger works well for nausea, acid re-flux, improving movement of food through the GI tract, and reducing gut inflammation. Ginger can bring the same level of a relief as medications for IBS, but with fewer, if any, side effects. Bonus, it is antibacterial.
USE: Consider taking 2-4 grams of fresh root daily, or 500 mg dried root capsules. To drink, infuse boiled water with 1/2 teaspoon of dried ginger or 2-3 centimeters of the fresh root and let steep for 20 minutes. Enjoy this drink 2-3 times/day.
Marshmallow. This plant root and leaves are both used medicinally. Each part of the plant is highly mucilaginous, which means it will make a gel with water. Marshmallow gel is soothing, softening, and lubricating when taken internally. Marshmallow gel forms a protective layer over irritated tissues, allowing cells of the gut lining to heal and thrive. This gel gives bulk to the stool, making it a gentle laxative as well.
USE: Try using the roots of marshmallow to soothe the GI system, whether with IBS or inflammatory bowel disease. Infuse 2-4 grams of the root in cold water, leaving it to sit overnight. Drink 1 cup, 3 times per day. Take caution as this gel may bind with medications and prevent their absorption.