Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS is a painful condition and can be debilitating for sufferers. It is surprisingly common – it is estimated that at least 15% of adults in the US have IBS, probably more. The symptoms of IBS are variable, and may include abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea, flatulence, nausea, and reduced appetite. There may be an increased production of mucus in the large intestine, which may be seen in the stool. People with IBS may also experience symptoms outside of the intestinal tract, including headaches, chronic fatigue, lower back pain, fibromyalgia, urinary frequency and urgency, painful intercourse, poor sleep, menstrual difficulties, and more.
IBS is difficult to diagnose, because these same symptoms can be caused by other conditions. Before diagnosing you with IBS, your doctor will rule out other potential causes. Some of these causes are benign but some are more serious, so it’s important to have a doctor evaluate you if you are experiencing IBS-like symptoms for an extended period of time.
Naturopathic treatment of IBS starts with a dietary assessment. Your doctor may have you fill out a “diet diary” – in which you write down everything you eat for several days – to get a sense of what you are eating that might be contributing to your condition. This also helps you become more aware of specific foods that might be contributing to your symptoms. Certain foods, like caffeine and sugar, frequently make IBS symptoms worse. Sugar contributes to IBS in several ways: it feeds the bacteria in the gut, leading to overgrowth of “bad” bacteria, and it also slows down the transport of food through the intestinal tract. Fiber is also important – both the amount, and type of fiber play a role in IBS in many people.
Other foods contribute to IBS in some people, but not others, because of differences in people’s immune systems. Just like some people are allergic to peanuts but others are not, some people are sensitive to foods that other people do not react to. Sensitivities can even develop in people over time – you may be sensitive to a food now, that you never reacted to before. Sometimes we call these “food allergies,” but “food sensitivities” is probably a better term. Your doctor can help you figure out which foods you may be sensitive to through laboratory testing, or through a self-test called a food elimination and challenge diet.
As mentioned previously, bacterial overgrowth can contribute to IBS. You probably know that the bacteria in your gut contribute to gas – but did you know that there are beneficial bacteria in your gut as well? Achieving the right balance of bacteria – and making sure the “good” bacteria outnumber the “bad” bacteria – is important for everyone, not just IBS sufferers. That’s why your naturopathic doctor may suggest a test that measures which bacteria are most numerous in your gut. She may also suggest probiotic foods and nutritional supplements to add more of the “good” bacteria.
Herbal medicines have been used for thousands of years to treat gastrointestinal tract symptoms. Herbs can be used not just for symptomatic relief of gas, but also to help repair the gut if it has been damaged by eating the wrong foods or having the wrong bacteria. There are a variety of different herbal preparations – from capsules to liquid tinctures to teas – and your naturopathic doctor will help determine the one that will best help your condition.
Finally, there is a strong connection between our gut and our brain – which is probably why IBS sufferers may also have anxiety, depression, anger issues, and sleep problems. There are several theories about why this connection exists, but little agreement – researchers don’t know for sure if IBS contributes to emotional problems, or if it’s the other way around. However, it is certain that reducing stress is a key component of treating IBS for many people. Stress reduction techniques such as meditation or regular physical activity are helpful for many people.
The naturopathic approach to IBS begins with diagnosing the problem. Because IBS can mimic other, more serious diseases, it’s important to see a doctor if you are experiencing the symptoms listed above. It’s also important to continue to follow up with your doctor throughout your treatment. Because each person with IBS is different, there is no “one size fits all” approach. If your treatment plan isn’t working, your doctor will suggest additions or changes, or she may decide to go back and re-evaluate the diagnosis. Your doctor is your partner in IBS treatment – together, you can achieve a life free from IBS!