Irritable Bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition of abnormal bowel function in the absence of any structural issues. IBS is not a life-threatening condition however it is a long term condition that can cause a great deal of distress and discomfort to the sufferer. It is estimated that up to 20% of the Australian and New Zealand population experience IBS.

The most common symptoms of IBS are constipation or diarrhoea (often both are experienced interchangeably), abdominal pain, bloating, excessive and smelly flatulence and a sensation of incomplete evacuation. Other symptoms may include things like nausea, fatigue, indigestion and reflux.

There are several factors that need to be considered when addressing irritable bowel symptoms. Some of these factors may be more important than others depending on the individual’s presentation. The good news is that there are many safe and effective strategies that can address these aspects of the syndrome to help alleviate or manage symptoms successfully. Below are some of the key areas of importance;

Diet – Food sensitivities can either cause or aggravate IBS symptoms. Food sensitivities can be caused by an immune response to proteins in foods. This immune reaction can be tested for in the blood or alternatively determined through a well-designed elimination and re-challenge diet.

Another type of food reaction which has drawn a great deal of attention in relation to IBS is a reaction that occurs in some people to specific types of poorly digested and absorbed carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are not broken down and absorbed within the gut, but instead fermented by bacteria in the small intestine producing symptoms of gas, bloating, pain & diarrhoea. Determining if these specific carbohydrates are a problem relies on an elimination and re-challenge process. This diet is often referred to as the FODMAPS diet. FODMAPS is an acronym for Fermentable Oligo-, Di and Monosaccharides and Polyols.

Other common intolerances include foods high in naturally occurring chemicals such as Salicylates, Amines & glutamates, and additives used in foods. Other foods may aggravate symptoms due to their ability to stimulate hypersensitive nerves along the intestinal tract of the IBS sufferers.

Dysbiosis – Dysbiosis means an imbalance or disruption in the normal bacteria that reside in the human gut. The microflora of the gut has a huge role to play in regulating digestive health. A disruption in the normal digestive flora has been commonly found in people suffering IBS and in some cases the onset of symptoms can be triggered by gut infection. Improving the intestinal environment to promote healthy gut flora is an effective strategy in managing symptoms. Using foods and carefully selected strains of pro-biotic supplements can help to restore bacterial balance in the digestive system and reduce symptoms. Not all strains of probiotics are equal in their quality, dose and therapeutic benefit. This is why it is important to choose quality products specific for your needs. Check out our blog post on Probiotics for more information.

Inflammation –While routine colonic biopsies generally do not identify inflammation, some sufferers have higher than normal levels of inflammatory markers suggesting the occurrence of low grade inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet is very important here, removing foods that are considered inflammatory and using beneficial foods as medicine to help soothe the gut. There are some fantastic herbal medicines that have been shown to reduce inflammation. Most commonly used in IBS are Slippery Elm, Boswellia, Turmeric, Licorice, Aloe Vera and Ginger .

Nervous system support – One of the features of IBS is a hyper-reactive nervous system in response to normal stimuli. This hypersensitivity within the gut may be responsible for much of the pain and discomfort experienced by sufferers. It has also been noted that certain personalities are more prone to IBS and it is not uncommon for sufferers to experience co-existing mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Supporting the nervous system and managing stress is an important treatment target in aiding the reduction of symptoms.

Lifestyle aspects need to be addressed first and foremost. Appropriate exercise, sleep hygiene, rest and relaxation are all important areas when looking after your nervous system. There are also many herbs and nutrients that assist with stress and mood, and that can help to reduce pain.  Magnesium and B group vitamins are key nutrients for the nervous system and deficiencies in these may exacerbate symptoms. Herbs such as Rhodiola, St John’s Wort , Chamomile and Passion flower are just a few of the herbs that beautifully assist nervous system function. Not all herbs and nutrients are suitable for everyone so get some professional advice before self-prescribing.

Disclaimer: This information is provided for general interest and education only. It is not designed to replace the advice of your doctor or natural therapist. Herbal and nutritional medicines should be prescribed by a health professional trained in this area to make sure they are both safe and beneficial.