Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition causing abdominal pain, cramping, constipation, and/or diarrhea.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that as many as twenty percent of Americans – approximately fifty-four million people – struggle with irritable bowel syndrome1.
Typically, IBS presents itself in late adolescence or early adulthood, and seldom after the age of fifty. Nearly twice as many women suffer with IBS as men – sixty to sixty-five percent compared to thirty-five to forty percent2 – but this figure may be reflective of the fact that women are more inclined to report health problems than men.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome – Difficult to Diagnose
IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, meaning it is characterized by chronic abdominal complaints without a structural or known biochemical cause to explain the symptoms. As such, IBS does not show up on x-rays, nor does any visible inflammation or damage to the tissue occur.
While IBS is an extremely common digestive disorder, it is one of the most difficult to diagnose and treat because the symptoms are often inconsistent, and it is a problem of both the bowel and the brain. IBS is a lack, or excess, of communication between your brain and your gut – otherwise known as brain-gut interaction.
Three Types of IBS
The cause of the miscommunication between the brain and gut is mostly unknown, so there is presently no cure for irritable bowel syndrome. To understand how IBS works, it is useful to understand how a properly functioning digestive system operates in comparison.
In a healthy system, the muscles in the walls of the intestines contract and relax in a consistent rhythm as food moves from the stomach and into your entire digestive tract. When these contractions slow down or speed up, so does the movement of food through your system.
If you suffer from IBS, your digestive contractions move in a non-specific rhythm, which can cause unpleasant symptoms.
- IBS-C (IBS with constipation predominant): When signals are sent less often, contractions are less frequent, and often cause constipation.
- IBS-D (IBS with diarrhea predominant): When signals are sent more often, contractions are more frequent, and often cause diarrhea.
- IBS-A (IBS with alternating stool pattern): When signals are sent sporadically, contractions are inconsistent, and often cause bouts of both diarrhea and constipation.
IBS is characterized by abdominal pain, cramping, or discomfort; bloating and flatulence; constipation or diarrhea; the presence of mucus in stool; the feeling of having had an incomplete bowel movement; heartburn; and nausea.
Other symptoms – such as a change in the frequency of bowel movements or their appearance, feelings of uncontrollable urgency to have a bowel movement, inability to, or difficulty, passing stool – may be present.
Weight loss, fever, bleeding, and persistent severe pain are not symptoms of IBS, but may indicate other problems such as inflammation.
Why Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome as Common as the Common Cold?
To answer this question, consider why one person contracts whatever is going around, and another remains healthy and immune? It all boils down to individual vulnerabilities: the adverse affects of food (the standard American diet as well as individual sensitivities/allergies), internal toxicities, emotional well being and, of course, genetics.
One of the main reasons IBS is so common is a direct result of the toxins backed up in our systems – toxins that poison our immune systems. We eat foods that contain ingredients such as polypropylene; this chemical, also found in antifreeze, is used in most of our food packaging. And much of our standard American diet is comprised of processed, junk, and fake foods, which are all full of toxins, chemicals, and additives.
Since more than sixty percent of our immune system is contained within the intestines, dealing with internal toxicity is of vital concern.
Irritable bowel syndrome is an indication that something wrong, and there are likely multiple causes. If you have a food allergy to, say, gluten or dairy, ingesting food containing these products will irritate your gut, and your immune system will turn its attention to dealing with the food it considers to be an irritant rather than focusing on the function of providing you with immunity to illness.
Eventually, the issue will manifest in your joints, or your brain, as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), IBS, or a variety of other health problems; the irritation could take up residence in any part of your body that is capable of having an autoimmune response to overload.
Emotional Well Being
Digestive problems have long been associated with distress. We’re all human, but each of us responds differently to the emotional challenges of life’s trials.
Many of us have learned to cope with troubles by soldiering bravely on. Eventually, however, if left unchecked, stress will get the better of us, and our unresolved emotional baggage may turn up as a physical ailment such as IBS. For many people, irritable bowel syndrome is an emotional response to the challenges of daily living.
IBS Is Not Life Threatening
While irritable bowel syndrome causes a great deal of discomfort and distress, it does not permanently harm the intestines. IBS is in no way fatal, nor does it lead to other conditions such as ulcerative colitis, malnutrition, and/or cancer.
In order to manage this syndrome, however, it is vital to be aware of the role that food and toxins can play, supplements available to alleviate symptoms, and coping strategies to ease the psychological factors related to IBS.
Three Steps to Relieving IBS Symptoms
A multi-pronged approach to managing IBS symptoms includes,
Step 1: Flushing out Internal Toxins and Restoring Healthy Flora – IBS, Colon Cleansing, and Probiotics
Step 2: Examining Food Sensitivities/Allergies – Irritants and IBS
Step 3: Fostering Emotional Well Being – Stress and IBS
An understanding of your own unique response to the food you ingest, and the way your body copes with stress is the key to managing – and possibly preventing – the onset of irritable bowel syndrome. But first, it’s important to start with a clean, hydrated, and toned colon – which goes along way toward alleviating some of the unpleasant symptoms you experience from IBS flare-ups.
Step 1: Flushing Out Internal Toxins and Restoring Healthy Flora – IBS, Colon Cleansing, and Probiotics
The place to begin is with a detoxification of your entire body, starting with your colon. Get those bowels moving two or three times a day! Cleansings can also help to relieve abdominal pain and discomfort, bloating and flatulence, constipation, and heartburn.
Colonic irrigation and herbal cleansing can help to remove impacted waste; make passing stool easier; and flush out excess mucus, parasites, and toxins that have built up in your colon over a lifetime. Removing these impurities can go a long way toward helping your body absorb nutrients, enhancing energy levels, and increasing regularity…all necessary aspects of managing IBS symptoms.
The more support given to the colon, the less likely it is that toxins will accumulate in your immune system. By cleansing your colon, you’ll be helping your body eliminate toxins before they get reabsorbed. Although we do not recommend it, even if you live on potato chips and chocolate bars, you’ll still be better off for having cleansed yourself.
After cleansing your colon, it’s important to restore certain bacteria to stop unhealthy bacteria from inhabiting the area, preventing toxic material from re-infecting your colon. This is particularly true in the case of those with IBS, where there may be excess bad bacteria in the small intestine3. Probiotics are the good bacteria your system needs in order to restore its healthy flora.
It’s wise to begin a cleanse with considerably less than the suggested dosage if you’re elderly, and have struggled with constipation for decades. If you have irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D), or are experiencing bleeding, a cleanse should not be your first step, but it ought to be a consideration. Probiotics is a great first step for those with IBS-D.
Step 2: Examining Food Sensitivities/Allergies – Irritants and IBS
Miracles can happen when you tweak your diet. Begin making changes by gradually removing potential irritants. Monitor your response to food – especially known irritants such as dairy and gluten-containing products like wheat, rye, barley, and oats. These are the key players in bowel, lung, and skin diseases.
Lactose intolerance can cause IBS-D. Dairy products and gluten-containing foods are genetically allergenic. Some people simply aren’t equipped to digest dairy and gluten, and these foods become irritants in their intestines, setting up an auto-immune response that taxes the entire immune system.
In these cases, it’s not lactose intolerance that causes the problem; it’s a different kind of genetic problem, so a lactose enzyme won’t be effective. But if you avoid a food that is problematic, your system won’t constantly be in overdrive.
Other Dietary and Nutritional Considerations:
- Eat a variety of good, healthy food
- Eat five or six small meals throughout the day; do not skip meals or eat a lot at one sitting
- Drink plenty of purified, distilled water – at least half your weight in ounces daily
- Minimize alcohol and caffeine consumption (coffee, tea, cola, caffeinated sodas, and chocolate)
- Avoid sorbitol and/or fructose (and other food preservatives/additives)
- Consume twenty-five to thirty grams of fiber daily
If you have irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D), ensure that your fiber intake is of the soluble variety – soluble fiber absorbs fluids in the colon. Insoluble fiber, however, may irritate an already sensitive colon.
Avoid Gas-producing Foods Such As…
- Foods high in fat
- Processed foods, junk, and fake foods
- Fried foods (trans fats)
- Brussels sprouts
Some people find
it effective to take two or three grams (or half a teaspoon) of psyllium after each meal to alleviate IBS symptoms. A natural vegetable fiber, psyllium helps regulate bowel motility, which works to relieve IBS abdominal pain.
Many IBS sufferers experience reduced levels of nutrients – they skip meals during flare-ups and IBS itself affects nutrient absorption. The balance of their entire body can be upset by the chain reaction caused by one missing nutrient. For this reason, people with IBS ought to supplement their diets with a high-quality, easy-to-absorb multi-vitamin with food to ensure adequate nutrient intake.
Step 3: Fostering Emotional Well Being – Stress and IBS
It is a well-documented fact that anxiety and depression alter our immune functioning. Sixty percent of all neurotransmitters are produced in the gastrointestinal tract (GI). Low levels of one type of neurotransmitter – serotonin – have been associated with clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder, migraine, tinnitus, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders.
Feeling troubled, mentally or emotionally overwhelmed, or angry can trigger colon spasms in people with IBS. The colon is connected to the brain by a myriad of nerves, and is partly controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which responds to stress. The colon can be overly responsive to the slightest conflict or stress for those with IBS.
IBS is affected by the immune system, which in turn is adversely affected by stress. For this reason, stress management is a crucial aspect of managing IBS symptoms; it is vital to make changes to alleviate any stressful situations in your life.
Twenty-one Tips for Managing Stress
There are many ways to cope with life’s trials, reducing and even preventing a stressful response to challenges that have the potential to overwhelm.
1. Implement a regular exercise program. Your regimen can be as simple as a quick daily workout with Jaime Brenkus’ 15 Minutes to Fitness Daily Definition Series.
2. Consider meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, or learning a martial art.
3. Have regular massages.
4. Buy a stress ball to squeeze when you feel anxious.
5. Breathe deeply throughout the day – remind yourself with a note on your computer or refrigerator.
6. Take regular stretch breaks.
7. Go for a walks, especially in serene settings.
8. Take time out from work and hectic social schedules.
9. Distract yourself from worry – take a course, develop a hobby, read a book, see an uplifting movie, or play peaceful music.
10. Confide in family and friends, or talk to a professional counselor.
11. Keep a journal, expressing the things that are troubling you.
12. Make it your policy to just say no to people and activities that foster stress in your life.
13. Set achievable goals.
14. Manage your time wisely.
15. Learn how to better manage your finances.
16. Stop over analyzing.
17. Appreciate yourself – spend time alone, perhaps listening to your favorite music.
18. Make changes, even if it’s scary.
19. Take a hot bath.
20. Get an adequate amount of sleep.
21. Enjoy your sensuality: safe sex is a great stress reliever!
And remember, Mom was right – keep your chin up, stay positive, learn to laugh at yourself, and try to smile…even when you’re angry or stressed. Fake it until you make it!
A Few Final IBS Do’s and Dont’s
For everyone – and especially those with IBS – it is important to…
- Never put off the urge to have a bowel movement.
- Avoid chemical laxatives or enemas – they may provide immediate relief, but in the long run you’ll be no further ahead by conditioning yourself to rely on such methods to produce bowel movements.
- Make sure to avoid unnecessary medications – they can wreak havoc on the digestive system.