Once called ‘spastic colon’, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that involves the entire digestive tract. Symptoms vary from person to person and frequently change over time. They can include any combination of constipation, diarrhoea, gas, bloating, fatigue, abdominal pain or cramping, and headaches.
With IBS there is no structural damage to the body – the disorder is believed to stem from impaired nervous system regulation of the normal functioning of the lower digestive tract. Inflammation at the microscopic level in the lower intestine may also play a role; however, IBS is distinct from IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Treatment of IBS using integrative medicine is more successful than a strict conventional medical approach that relies on antibiotics or other medication. Reducing stress is key to controlling IBS symptoms. Practise stress management techniques, such as yoga, meditation or breath work on a daily basis. Regular physical activity reduces stress and also helps maintain bowel regularity. A number of studies suggest that clinical hypnosis can help ease IBS, especially in women.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), biofeedback therapy or acupuncture may also provide relief. Keep a diary for six to eight weeks to help you identify foods that may set off your symptoms; people with IBS are often more sensitive to wheat, beef, pork, lamb, beans and raw fruits and vegetables. A high-fibre diet can ease constipation (but may worsen diarrhoea). Eat small, frequent meals that provide plenty of whole grains and cooked vegetables and fruits; sprinkle a tablespoon of freshly ground flaxseeds on cereal, soups or salads daily, or use a psyllium-based fibre supplement (make sure you drink plenty of water with it).
Eliminating dairy products helps some people, as does avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and tobacco, which can irritate the gastrointestinal tract. Non-nutritive sweeteners, such as sorbitol and xylitol, can make diarrhoea worse for IBS sufferers. I also recommend avoiding products containing carrageenan, a common food additive that may be associated with digestive disorders.
Enteric-coated peppermint oil (Mentha piperita) taken in capsule form or turmeric (Curcuma longa) may help reduce abdominal cramps due to intestinal spasms. Used occasionally, a tablespoon of carob powder mixed with a little stewed apples or honey can help soothe the irritated tissues of the digestive tract, as can a soup made with slippery elm (Ulmus rubra).
A good probiotic supplement containing bifi dobacterium infantis or lactobacillus GG will help to stabilise the digestive tract – take with, or just before, meals.