Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is what some would refer to as a disease of affluence, seen almost exclusively in developed countries, due to its main causes, which are diet and lifestyle. It affects between 10% – 20% of people in Westernized countries – or approximately 60 million people in North America alone.
Symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea, often alternating episodes of each. Despite the discomfort and inconvenience experienced by the sufferer, sometimes to the point of being unable to leave the house, a colonoscopy generally reveals nothing out of the ordinary – a frustrating experience for the patient, whose symptoms are probably causing havoc in their everyday life.
Why does IBS happen?
The main causes are:
– Food allergies/intolerances
– Stress, emotional upheaval or overwork
– Prior antibiotic use
– Refined or processed diet.
Overwhelmingly, the main offenders are gluten or diary. Although food allergy has fairly immediate or serious consequences, food intolerances are more chronic and insidious, and may go undetected or undiagnosed for years.
Allergies or intolerances often cause the body to produce excess amounts of mucus, which is a protective mechanism, but can cause further problems in the bowel department.
Other common allergens, such as soy, corn, nuts or eggs may be a trigger for some people. It may be helpful to be tested for allergies or sensitivities, even if you have been previously tested in the past. What your body can or cannot tolerate may change over time, especially during times of extra stress on the body, such as during illness or pregnancy.
Spicy foods and caffeine may also exacerbate symptoms, or increase inflammation.
If you want to know more about food allergies click here
Stress, Emotional Upheaval, or Overworking
You may have the best diet in the world, 100% pure, organic and home-grown, but if you are stressed, living an emotional rollercoaster, or driving yourself to the brink of collapse via overwork, your body will start to suffer, sooner rather than later.
This is because the gastrointestinal tract is influenced by the autonomic nervous system. Any form of stress, or even chronic negativity, will direct the body into fight or flight response. This means that energy and blood supply are directed away from the digestive system, making it sluggish and prone to putrefaction and constipation. However, if the stress response is particularly strong, this may have the opposite effect, resulting in explosive diarrhoea.
To know more about stress, anxiety and IBS coping techniques click here.
Prior use of antibiotics
Antibiotics have been an important life-saving medical treatment, however, it has taken us approximately seven decades to begin to fully comprehend the downside of antibiotic use. Although antibiotics are usually very effective at destroying bacteria (if the bacteria has not already developed resistance), they do not differentiate between beneficial bacteria, necessary for healthy digestion, and harmful bacteria that has spread beyond its healthy limits within a well-balanced microflora.
Due to this action, antibiotics limit the diversity of normal gut microflora, and into this void, pathogens can multiply and take hold, causing havoc in the bowels.
If antibiotics are absolutely necessary, they should be followed by a good quality probiotic that contains as many strains of beneficial bacteria as possible, and/or adding fermented foods into the diet, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, unsweetened yoghurt or raw apple cider vinegar.
Similar to antibiotic use, chronic use of anti-inflammatory medications like common painkillers can affect the lining of the gut, making it irritated, or more permeable, which allows undigested food to enter circulation. This activates an immune response, leading not only to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, but systemic symptoms, such as mood disorders, allergies and depression.
There are two problems with refined, processed or “fast” foods in the diet. They usually lack fibre, so tend to cause sluggish digestion and they displace more nutrient-dense foods in the diet, which quickly lead to suboptimal nutrient levels.
When digestion is sluggish due to lack of fibre, it causes the contents of the bowel to putrefy, allowing overgrowth of pathogenic fungi, yeasts and microbes. Another side-effect of long transit time in the bowel is that water and toxins are re-absorbed back into circulation, which results in systemic toxicity. This can manifest as headaches, fatigue and even acne.
Modern farming methods and heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers means that today’s food is already lower in nutrients than in times past. Add to this, growing consumption of processed, refined foods, better described as “empty calories”, and it’s easy to see why nutritional deficiencies are epidemic.
It is important that any protocol to heal IBS also addresses replenishing nutrient levels, perhaps via the gradual introduction of super-foods, or whole-food supplements.
Do want to know the worst foods for IBS click here.
Other issues which may contribute or exacerbate the problem are intestinal parasites, nutritional deficiencies, specifically zinc or magnesium, and/or heavy metal toxicity.
Learn more about other causes here.
Conventional treatments usually rely on a fibre supplement, such as Metamucil, and medications to manage uncomfortable symptoms. Some medical practitioners may even recommend an ultra-refined diet, which is puzzling, given that such a diet probably helped to cause the problem in the first instance. While it is true that sufferers often experience a worsening of symptoms when fibre is added to the diet, this doesn’t mean that fibre should be avoided altogether. Rather, it means that fibre should be added to the diet gradually, after the bowels have a chance to heal and adjust.
During the healing period, it is indeed helpful to stick to a bland mono-diet, such as cooked brown rice or grated apple, for several days, while also taking slippery elm powder for digestive healing. A juice fast may also be recommended, depending on the patient’s level of vitality and willingness. Digestive enzymes and probiotics may also prove helpful.
It is important to drink at least 2 litres of pure or filtered water each day, to keep the body hydrated, and promote digestive health.
Gradually begin to add in steamed, non-starchy vegetables, and then slowly introduce other healthy foods, such as raw salads, or steamed fish. Pay extra attention and listen to your body during this healing period. If symptoms flare up, back off from adding in new foods, until your digestive system has settled.
It is important during this stage to practice stress-management or relaxation techniques. It may be a chance for reflection on your life, and decisions about prioritizing and simplifying your life, where possible. Create a calm, relaxing and enjoyable atmosphere or ritual around meal-times.
Uncomfortable symptoms in our body are not an opportunity to suppress and force it into keeping up with our intense schedules, but rather an invitation to take a step back and reflect on what message our body is sending us, and if there might be an imbalance in our life that needs attention.
If you want to know 5 simple steps to cure IBS click here.
Dr Mark Hyman, 5 Simple Steps to Cure IBS, http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/09/16/5-simple-steps-to-cure-ibs-without-drugs/. Accessed 3rd March, 2017.
Trattler R, Trattler S. Better Health Through Natural Healing, 3rd Edition: How To Get Well Without Drugs or Surgery, 2013, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.