Quite often, our sense of health and wellbeing comes from our core: stomach, intestines, bladder, and kidneys. While many types of pain, headaches for example, can be endured, gastrointestinal discomfort is hard to ignore. When things aren’t going right at the core, everything gets thrown off, and other health problems can develop over time.
One common gastrointestinal ailment is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which can be a frustrating issue for both patients and physicians. IBS is less a distinct condition than a collection of sometimes contradictory symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain and cramping – without evidence of a more serious diagnosis such as Crohn’s disease or leaky gut. The one unifying theme is irregular bowel movements which could be caused by many factors.
Regardless, because IBS is such a vague condition, treatment often requires a more generalized approach. In other words we need to focus our therapeutic strategy on overall gastrointestinal health.
Eliminate potential causes
Before we discuss things we can add to our diet to control IBS, let’s talk about something we might need to subtract — gluten. IBS shares a number of symptoms with gluten sensitivity, so it only makes sense to experiment with a gluten-free diet. In many cases, this may solve the problem rapidly, but at the very least it can rule out gluten as the cause.
Another problem which can aggravate IBS is stress. We’ve all heard the term “nervous stomach,” so it’s no surprise that anxiety can have a serious impact on the gastrointestinal tract. There are a variety of ways to reduce stress: meditation and mind-body exercises top the list. Mind-body therapies which simultaneously relax and support core health include yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, mindful meditation and deep breathing, and others.
Support digestive health
Proper digestion relies on a process called peristalsis, the muscular contractions in the digestive system that move food along and assist nutrient absorption. Needless to say, if the process breaks down — moving too fast or too slow — food will not be digested properly and nutrition and bowel movements will suffer.
One way to support this natural movement is with minerals: magnesium, calcium and potassium in particular. Remember these minerals need to be kept in balance. Too much magnesium and potassium without enough calcium can lead to soft stools.
Another potential issue in IBS is an imbalance of digestive flora — the wide array of bacteria that play such a crucial role in digestion and overall health. A diet rich in probiotics (beneficial bacteria) and prebiotics (specific ingredients that nourish beneficial bacteria) can greatly relieve bowel issues. Recent research has also found a link between healthy levels of beneficial bacteria and stress reduction.
In people with IBS, digestive enzymes might not be working at peak efficiency. Supplementing with natural, plant-based digestive enzymes such as amylase, protease, lipase and others can help. You also need to make sure you have enough hydrochloric acid (HCl) with the enzymes — sometimes an extra HCl supplement is taken with enzyme supplements. For this reason, it’s important to avoid drinking water or other fluids while eating, as they can dilute enzymes and stomach acid needed for proper digestion. Drink ten or fifteen minutes before a meal, so the liquid is fully absorbed. Also, slow down, chew slowly and thoroughly and be a mindful eater. This will also help bolster overall digestive function by taking off some of the burden.
One approach to overall digestive health that can have an excellent impact on IBS is eating more fiber. This may seem counterintuitive to those suffering from diarrhea, as fiber is commonly thought to move digestion along. However, fiber’s function is more complex. It actually acts as a modulator for digestion and can improve both constipation and diarrhea.
There are a number of herbs and botanicals that improve digestive health and have proven useful for patients with IBS. In my clinical practice, I recommend a formula which contains the following ingredients:
- Pomegranate Seed strengthens digestive activity by improving intestinal movement and gastric secretions and providing antioxidants.
- Pepper Fruit improves circulation, including digestive circulation. The ingredient piperine may also enhance nutrient absorption.
- Cassia Bark and Chinese Cardamom Fruit are warming herbs that support numerous aspects of digestion.
- Tangerine Fruit alleviates cramping and gas.
- Ginger Root is used as an anti-flatulent, laxative and antacid. Research shows ginger root supports intestinal movement and fights nausea.
- Sacred Lotus Seed has been used in Asia for thousands of years, primarily for abdominal cramps, loose stools and other gastrointestinal issues.
Remember, IBS is an indistinct condition, so treatment may require several combined approaches. With the possible exception of gluten sensitivity, it’s often more than one issue that’s causing the condition, so it may take more than one tactic to solve it. The good news is that the natural solutions recommended here can address multiple aspects of digestive, as well as overall health. With a bit of mindfulness, IBS can be alleviated using simple solutions which can offer long lasting relief and support core vitality and wellness in the process.