You may not be familiar with it, but irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) actually affects 10 to 20 percent of the population. It is the most common disease diagnosed by gastroenterologists, and one of the most common disorders seen by all physicians.
Women tend to seek medical attention for IBS more often than men, but it shows up about equally in both sexes. A person can develop IBS at any time, but it most commonly starts between the ages of 15 and 40. Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, but they usually include gas, bloating, abdominal cramping and pain, diarrhea or constipation, or both.
The cause of IBS is not fully understood, but from a naturopathic perspective, the symptoms of IBS may be related to five key concerns — read on for more information about how to prevent digestive problems and reduce symptoms of IBS:
1. Food allergies
The most common food allergies are wheat, dairy, citrus, gluten (the protein in rye, wheat, and oats), corn, and soy. I recommend trying a detox or elimination diet. This involves avoiding all of the foods listed above for a specific period of time, usually two to three weeks.
The most important part of this process is the re-introduction of food after the period of avoidance. You should re-introduce one new food into your diet every two days. Eat each food two to three times on that one day only, and then go back to the diet. If you find your symptoms return, or you react negatively when you re-introduce a food, then you must decide whether you will continue eating that food or not.
Keep in mind that too much or too little dietary fibre, too much fat, or a very rich or spicy diet may upset the the bowel and trigger the symptoms of IBS. Alcohol, coffee, tea, and smoking can all act as stimulants to the bowel and should be avoided.
2. Deficiency of enzymes
Enzymes in our saliva help us break down proteins, carbs, and fats, and stomach acid works to help break down foods, as does bile from the liver. Supplementing your diet with a complete digestive enzyme complex may help to significantly reduce symptoms of gas and bloating. I recommend starting this along with the detox diet.
3. Improper bacterial balance
If you have taken antibiotics in the past, have a tendency to overeat carbohydrates, or have taken corticosteroids, you may have an overgrowth of yeast in the digestive tract. Also, travelling to another country may have caused you to pick up a bug that could be irritating your digestive system. Taking an acidophilus supplement twice daily on an empty stomach will help to replace the healthy bacterial levels in the digestive tract.
Anxiety, depression and stress are commonly associated with IBS. Feeling low may occur as a result of distressing bowel symptoms, but in some it occurs spontaneously and seems to aggravate the problem. A disturbance in the interaction between the gut or intestines, the brain, and the autonomic nervous system can alter bowel function and lead to some of the digestive symptoms commonly seen in IBS.
5. Irritation of the digestive tract wall
If you’ve had issues with any of the four problems above, the walls of your digestive tract could become irritated or overly sensitive. Taking a product like DGL (licorice) may help to heal and soothe the digestive-tract lining — check the link for advice on when and how to use it safely, and don’t take it orally if pregnant. The amino acid glutamine also helps to keep the cells of the digestive tract healthy, and can provide relief for loose stools and diarrhea. The typical dosage is 1500-3000 mg per day.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique.