By Dr. Hilary Booth, ND
Many people struggle with irregular or frustrating bowel habits, but they may have been struggling for so long that the discomfort becomes “normal”. However, bloating, gassiness, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea are not normal and are not something that you need to live with. These symptoms are associated with a condition called irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which is extremely common and can be successfully managed by your Naturopathic Doctor.
What is IBS?
IBS is diagnosed by symptoms of alternating or predominant constipation or diarrhea with symptoms of gas, bloating, abdominal pain, indigestion, mucous in the stool, undigested food in the stool, and/or irregular bowel habits. IBS symptoms can be difficult to pin down, but they are generally worse with stress, change in routine, and/or poor eating habits. If you have IBS, imaging and most lab tests run by your MD will come back normal.
It’s important to note that IBS does not cause bleeding. If you see blood in the stool or in the toilet bowl, you should speak with your ND or MD about getting testing (such as a colonoscopy) to rule out other conditions.
What causes IBS?
The exact cause of IBS is unknown. From a Naturopathic perspective, we look it from two “ends” of the spectrum (forgive the pun).
The first reason is that you may not be digesting food well in the stomach and upper digestive tract. This is often seen in elderly patients, people who eat on the run or in a stressed-out state, people with poor liver, pancreatic or gall bladder function, and people on certain medications. When we don’t break down food well in our upper digestive tract, it can lead to gas, bloating, pain, undigested food in the stool, and diarrhea once it reaches the lower digestive tract.
The second reason, which is more common, is that there is inflammation in the lower digestive tract. Inflammation can be caused by an altered gut bacteria, yeast, stress, antibiotic use, some medications (including the birth control pill), and eating inflammatory foods such as artificial sweeteners, sugar, gluten, and dairy. When the gut lining becomes inflamed, we experience constipation, diarrhea (sometimes alternating back and forth), abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and mucous in the stool.
How is IBS treated?
Your naturopathic doctor will make a treatment plan that is specific to your symptoms and medical history. To treat the upper digestive tract, it is important to get the digestive juices flowing before eating. To do this you should smell your food, chew thoroughly, and eat in a relaxed, slow manner. It may also be helpful to take apple cider vinegar or digestive enzymes with meals to improve your digestion.
To treat the lower digestive tract, we must always remove the causative factors: food intolerances, stress, yeast, and altered gut bacteria being the most important. Once we do this, we can use proteins like L-glutamine to heal the gut, a good probiotic to repopulate the gut with good bacteria, and anti-inflammatory herbs such as tumeric and Boswelia to reduce inflammation. Usually, after doing this protocol for 4-8 weeks, depending on your body’s response, you can return to eating at least some of the foods that were causing issues for you in moderation.
IBS is usually something that needs to be managed for the rest of your life, but Naturopathic treatment can help to minimize or eliminate symptoms so that you can regain control of your bowel habits for the long term.