As a health coach, wellness entrepreneur, author, and speaker, I often get asked what to do about different health conditions and ailments. Over the years of studying Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, nutrition, herbs, yoga, and more, I’ve amassed quite the knowledge base on a variety of health concerns, including, more importantly, the fundamentals to improving health.
It was one such conversation (and possibility of lengthy followup) that sparked the idea for this series of “Start Here Guides.” The question was about IBS, so that’s where we’ll start today.
Guide to Improving IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
IBS manifests as digestive distress, accompanied by either constipation or diarrhea, or both. There is usually no physiological change in the body or intestines to warrant the symptoms (as in the case of IBD), which leaves doctors perplexed and useless, and patients frustrated and upset.
Because of the lack of treatments offered in conventional medicine, we must look to holistic means to reduce the symptoms and severity of IBS. There are 3 fundamental pillars I see to improving IBS.
As with any health challenge, diet should always be the first step. For IBS, there are foods to remove and some to add.
- Gluten – causes problems for many people, and most find their IBS symptoms mitigate when removing wheat from their diet.
- Processed and packaged foods – these contains additives and chemicals that may cause digestive problems. Among the most well-known are carageenan, and potassium sorbate.
- FODMaPs – short for fermentable oglio-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols, these types of carbohydrates ferment in the gut causing bloating and gas and include cauliflower, beans, and garlic, among many others.
- Dairy – some people may also need to remove all dairy to see improvements.
- Drink more water – particularly if you suffer from IBS-Constipation, drinking more water may help to alleviate the constipation.
- Eat fermented foods – IBS may be partly caused by gut dysbiosis or imbalance of gut bacteria. One way to feed the good and necessary gut bacteria is to eat more fermented foods such as Kombucha, kimchee, sauerkraut, and kefir. Fermented foods are different than FODMaPs because most of their fermentable carbohydrates have already been fermented out, leaving just the good bacteria and none of the bloat.
Because IBS is such a conundrum and varies so much by individual, dietary changes are usually insufficient to totally eliminate all IBS symptoms, so the next step would be to look to supplements.
- A probiotic composed of homeostatic soil organisms such as Prescript-Assist or Garden of Life Primal Defense may offer more symptom relief than other probiotics. There are thousands of different kinds of bacteria that can live in the gut, and most of the common probiotics contain bacteria that may cause IBS suffers, especially those with constipation more discomfort. By contrast, many people do better with a probiotic composed of soil-based organisms.
- To help feed the good gut bacteria a prebiotic may be necessary, but many prebiotics are actually FODMaPs, which are usually not well-tolerated by IBS sufferers. Therefore, supplementing with Resistant Starch may be the next best option. Resistant starch may be easiest as unmodified potato starch–start with a 1/2 teaspoon and work up to 4 tablespoons per day. Other alternatives include plantains, green bananas, boiled and cooled potatoes, or parboiled rice. Start slow when you begin adding RS in as you may initially experience more bloating.
- Adaptogens are herbs that help relieve stress and fight the negative effects of stress. Given that some experts believe IBS is one (very serious) symptom of stress, reducing the effects of stress may in fact help to reduce IBS. Adaptogenic herbs include rhodiola, ashwagandha, gynostemma, eleuthero, and many more. They come as tictures, capsules, herbal infusions, and occasionally as a spray. Keep a couple of them handy for anytime you feel stressed out.
- Another supplement that can ensure normal neural functioning, which may help to regulate and normalize bowel movements is Phosphatidylserine. This one is also predicated on the idea that stress is causing the abnormal bowel habits.
The third pillar of what to do if you have IBS is to manage your stress. As alluded to above, IBS is thought to be caused by stress, anxiety, and thoughts. For example, the fear of public speaking may cause someone to experience diarrhea–an example of thoughts affecting bowel movements, and thus being labeled IBS. Therefore, for IBS sufferers, it is critical to learn to manage their stress, reduce their anxiety, and redirect their thoughts. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Practice deep breathing. Deep belly breaths rebalance the central nervous system, reduce the fight or flight response, and return the body to the parasympathetic nervous system, which means better digestion.
- Take up yoga or meditation. Both of these practices can help you become a witness to your thoughts, without judging or critiquing them. They can help bring you back into the present moment and full body awareness, thus reducing the activity of the mind, and in so doing limit the effects of thoughts on digestion.
- Listen to hypnosis to relieve IBS symptoms. The program, IBS Audio Program of Self-Hypnosis, seems to come highly regarded, though I don’t know anyone personally who has tried it.
- Acupuncture can also improve IBS through its effects on Qi, reducing stress, strengthening neural connections, and reducing spastic activity.
These ideas to reduce IBS symptoms come from my own synthesis after reading countless articles, listening to podcasts by functional medicine practitioners, and reading patient stories to glean what has been the most effective. All are non-invasive, most are very affordable, and everything can be done at home, on your own, without the guidance of a doctor.
It’s a matter of trying the different items on the list individually or in combination for 15-30 days to see what works for you and what may be less effective or require more time.
If you do follow any of these guidelines, please leave a comment below and tell us your experience–we’d love to know how much things improved for you.
Disclaimer: The does not constitute medical advice. Always seek a practitioner of your choice for medical concerns and to determine drug-supplement interactions before starting any herbs or supplements.