Taking the Irritable out of IBS: Naturopathy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a digestive ailment characterized by abdominal cramping, pain, bloating, diarrhea, and/or constipation. It has been estimated that 15% of our population suffers from IBS, making it one of the conditions most commonly diagnosed by physicians.

To render a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, doctors must rule out other gastrointestinal issues that mimic this condition, such as ulcerative colitis, celiac  disease, and Crohn’s disease. For this reason, IBS is considered a diagnosis of exclusion because all other possible gastrointestinal diseases have been considered and rejected. Doctors rely on the patient’s medical history and current symptoms to diagnose this condition.

Common symptoms include the following:

• Abdominal pain or discomfort for at least 12 weeks out of the previous 12 months (these 12 weeks don’t need to be consecutive);
• A change in bowel habits (frequency of movements and/or appearance of stool);
• Uncontrollable urgency to have a bowel movement;
• Mucus in the stool;
• Inability or difficulty to defecate;
• Bloating.

The intestinal tract of those diagnosed with IBS is extremely sensitive to many stimuli. Diet, drugs, hormones, and minor irritants can bring on the symptoms of IBS. The gastrointestinal tract is influenced by our brain and therefore, our thoughts, feelings, and stress levels also have a tremendous impact.

Although pharmaceuticals exist to treat IBS, many patients find symptoms difficult to manage with conventional medicine.  Antispasmodics, antidepressants, and laxatives are commonly prescribed by medical doctors to silence the symptoms of IBS; however, these drugs have serious side effects and do not address the root cause of the syndrome. As a result, many patients with IBS seek naturopathic care.

Naturopathic doctors recognize the significant role that stress and diet play in the development and treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The colon is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is greatly affected by stress.  Consequently, feelings of stress, both physical and emotional, trigger the nervous system to react and produce spasms in the colon.  These spasms are responsible for the symptoms of cramping, pain, and changes in bowel patterns. IBS can be aggravated by certain foods; therefore, identification of food intolerances is absolutely necessary. This can be done through blood testing or the elimination diet. Consult with a naturopathic doctor to learn more about these methods.

The treatment of IBS needs to be tailored to the individual because not all patients experience IBS for the same reasons. Naturopathic doctors may use botanical medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, clinical nutrition, and supplementation to improve symptoms and heal the gastrointestinal tract. For those suffering with IBS, listed below are a few natural, safe, and effective recommendations:

1. Relaxation therapy: Practising activities such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing can reduce stress levels, thereby decreasing the nervous stimulation responsible for IBS symptoms. Bodywork such as massage, bowen, and shiatsu also have a relaxing and therapeutic effect on the nervous system.

2. Probiotics: Our gastrointestinal tract is lined with healthy bacteria. If levels become low due to illness, poor digestion can result, along with an overgrowth of candida. Taking a probiotic supplement regularly can restore friendly bacteria to the bowel.

3. Eat clean: Focus on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean meats, legumes, and unrefined carbohydrates. Where possible, choose organic foods to avoid harsh chemicals and pesticides.

4. Avoid dairy and gluten: These are two of the most common food intolerances. Eliminating these foods from the diet often reduces symptoms of IBS. (Gluten-free grains include quinoa, rice, amaranth, and millet.)

5. Stay hydrated: Aim for 8-10 glasses of water each day. Avoid drinking a ½ hour before and after meals – doing so dilutes our digestive enzymes, which can lead to symptoms of gas and bloating.

If you are suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, consult a naturopathic doctor or other medical professional.  The symptoms of this condition can be vague and variable.  If you are being told by a doctor that there is nothing wrong, trust yourself instead. Take charge of your health!

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