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Natural Treatment Methods for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Dr. Matthew Marturano By Dr. Matthew Marturano, Naturopathic Physician
Thursday, July 19, 2012
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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive condition affecting between 10 and 20 percent of people. IBS is characterized by abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas. These symptoms are often worse following meals and may be accompanied by diarrhea, constipation or both.  

While these symptoms can be very unpleasant and concerning, IBS doesn't appear to cause lasting damage to the large intestine. However, when left untreated, some people can experience worsening symptoms more frequently. Unlike some conventional medical treatments, there are many natural solutions available that work with the body, rather than against it.

What causes IBS?
The precise cause of IBS is uncertain, although there's a growing body of evidence suggesting it's connected to the state of gut microbiota -- microscopic organisms living in the gut which can both prevent and induce symptoms and disease states. The intestinal wall includes layers of muscle that, when functioning normally, will contract and relax in a rhythmic pattern as food moves through the intestinal tract. With IBS, these waves of contraction may become either stronger and more frequent, or weaker and less frequent. When the former happens, food is forced through the digestive tract too quickly, which may cause IBS symptoms and also impair the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food. When the latter happens, food moves through the digestive tract at a slower pace causing IBS symptoms such as constipation and cramping. Over time, this may also contribute to recirculation of toxins to the body, leading to undue strain on the liver.

There are few factors that may contribute to IBS. For instance, people with abnormal levels of serotonin may also have abnormal digestive system function, which can cause IBS. Individuals that don't have enough "good" bacteria in their intestinal tract may also experience IBS symptoms. As we now know, there are as many neurons surrounding the digestive tract as there are in the brain and activity of gut bacteria strongly influences the levels of neurotransmitters being secreted by gut neurological tissue. So, there can sometimes be a "chicken and egg" scenario, where an upset gut leads to an upset brain, which contributes to further disturbances in gut function. 

Become Aware of Triggers
For those who experience IBS, it may be helpful to keep a symptom journal in order to determine if there are any triggers causing the problem. Keep in mind that there are some types of food, such as dairy products, that many people are allergic to, and food allergies or intolerances are often confused with IBS symptoms. Certain types of allergic reactions can take up to 72 hours to develop, so it's important to keep this in mind when analyzing a symptom diary.

Stress can be another contributing factor. Many people with IBS find their symptoms become worse when they're under emotional stress. It's important to take action to eat in a minimally-stressed environment where both the body and mind are in a relaxed state. Avoid eating on the run and watching television programming which can be upsetting.

Hormones can also play a role in making IBS worse. For example, during their menstrual periods, women with IBS may find their signs and symptoms become aggravated. Becoming aware of what triggers your symptoms or makes them worse will help you and your doctor determine an effective treatment plan. 

Natural Treatments for IBS
While IBS doesn't cause life-threatening symptoms, the disorder can be very frustrating. Many aspects of life -- from work to social life, and general feelings of well-being and happiness -- can suffer greatly from symptoms of IBS. In addition, there are many conventional treatment methods that may temporarily alleviate symptoms but cause unpleasant side effects and don't cure the problem long term. 

Fortunately, naturopathic medicine offers a number of natural methods that don't cause side effects while effectively treating IBS:

  • Diet:
    Since common food allergens, such as wheat and dairy, are in so many food items, it's important to begin carefully reading ingredient lists on food products. Following an elimination diet by removing one possible food allergen at a time may help you determine the culprit that's causing your symptoms. Different foods also interact with gut bacteria, so it's important to find the right combination of foods for one's body. 
  • Stress Reduction:
    There's a close relationship between the nervous system of the gut and brain, which means chronic stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on the digestive system. When symptoms become worse under stress, it may be helpful to apply some stress management techniques such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga. 
  • Peppermint Oil:
    Peppermint oil has become one of the most effective natural remedies for IBS. This herb provides a soothing effect on the intestinal tract to reduce intestinal spasms. 
  • Probiotics:
    In order to ensure the gut has a healthy amount of "good" bacteria, it may be necessary to supplement your diet with probiotics. With a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria, your intestinal tract will function optimally and IBS symptoms will be minimized. Keep in mind most commercially available formulas contain somewhere between one and 10 billion colony forming units (CFU) per dose. In some cases, a much higher dose may be required in order to repopulate the gut, however, the need for this should first be determined with a stool test which uses a technology called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to quantify the levels of probiotics in the gut.
  • Acupuncture or Acupressure:
    These treatments have a fairly good track record for relieving the symptoms of IBS. Expect to commit to somewhere between eight and 12 treatments in order to see lasting results.

While IBS can be quite troublesome and disturbing, there are a number of natural solutions available that can be used in conjunction with, or in lieu of, conventional drug treatments. Oftentimes, mild symptoms can be managed with a handful of dietary supplements, however, more severe symptoms often require a comprehensive approach based upon a more thorough investigation into the state of the digestive system by a trained professional.

Products you may like:

New Chapter Probiotic All-Flora  New Chapter Probiotic All-Flora 
Why you may like this product? This formula contains nine live probiotic strains in a non-dairy base to promote proper digestion without aggravating your system and causing symptoms. New Chapter's probiotic supplement also helps to support the immune system.
Now Foods Peppermint Gels  Now Foods Peppermint Gels 
Why you may like this product? These peppermint softgels from Now can help to soothe the intestinal tract to reduce symptoms. These softgels are enteric coated to help them pass through the stomach and get to the intestines without dissolving.
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