With it affecting between 10% - 20% of the UK’s population, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a complex condition. It is the cause of much misery, pain, discomfort and embarrassment for many millions of people. Doctors are unable to do much more than diagnose and prescribe various drugs to deal with the symptoms of constipation, diarrhoea and, more seriously, the depression it can ultimately cause. Unfortunately, all this does is mask the symptoms of a disease which may have its roots in more than just the physical body – the gut is also the seat of your emotions.
There are so many diets, cleanses, colonic irrigations and many supplements and herbs which work for some people yet not for others (FODMAP, Gluten free), one size certainly does not fit all – an individual, holistic approach is often the most beneficial and the most likely to produce results.
Best-selling author and practicing family physician, Dr Mark Hyman is firmly committed to tackling the root cause of disease – he is a pioneer for a system he calls “Functional Medicine”. Viewing the body as one integrated system, it seeks to identify and address the root causes of disease and addresses the whole person instead of a set of symptoms. Using this system, if 5 people come to him with identical symptoms of IBS, he believes that the causes may be very different for each person. He states, “There are really only five causes of all disease: allergens, microbes or imbalance of the bugs in your gut, toxins, poor diet, and stress. All of these can trigger symptoms and create thousands of diseases.”
#1. Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) – A Major Cause of IBS
Dr's Pimentel and Lin originated the theory that SIBO is the underlying cause of IBS, in one study they found that 84% of IBS patients tested positive for SIBO. Many factors can cause this overgrowth such as; stress, overuse of antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, poor diet, too much alcohol and more. Once the bad bacteria take over in your gut, this can lead to them fermenting the food you digest (particularly sugar and starchy foods), which in turn leads to bloating after meals. This is caused by the bacteria literally lunching on your lunch! This bacterial overgrowth can break down the lining of your stomach leading to “Leaky Gut Syndrome”, once the lining has been compromised it leaves the immune system exposed to foreign particles from food, bacteria and other microbes, this can then trigger an immune response or allergy that will irritate your enteric nervous system creating the havoc that can lead to IBS and many other problems. Whilst eliminating problem foods from your diet can help, if you have SIBO this won’t address the underlying cause of the problem.
If you feel that you have tried everything to alleviate your IBS symptoms yet they still persist, you may very well be suffering from SIBO. It is strongly recommended that you seek help from a naturopath or registered herbalist should you wish to follow a herbal protocol – no fixed diet or protocol can predict an individual's complex bacterial, digestive, absorptive, immunological, and genetic circumstances; therefore customizing is necessary – this is best done in conjunction with a professional who has the necessary equipment to test you before and after the treatment and to advise you on the best diet to follow. There are, however, many self-treated success stories worthy of note and in this article I will outline some of the approaches that have provided relief from IBS symptoms.
#2. Food Allergens/Sensitivities
Food sensitivities are not true allergies, rather low-grade reactions to foods that can act as triggers to a chain reaction of events, which can ultimately lead to IBS symptoms. In a landmark paper published in the British Medical Journal “Gut”, it was found that eliminating foods identified by testing for IgG antibodies resulted in dramatic improvements of IBS symptoms. IgG stands for "Immunoglobulin G" and is produced as part of a delayed hyper-sensitivity reaction to certain foods.
The most common thing in food that people react to is gluten – this is partly to do with the fact that our wheat today bears only a passing resemblance to the wheat we would have eaten just a few decades ago. According to “Wheat Belly” author Dr William Davis, “this thing being sold to us called wheat—it ain’t wheat. It’s this stocky little high-yield plant, a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to bake muffins, genetically and biochemically light-years removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago.” Add this to the fact that glutens have been increased for better baking properties and it is of little wonder that there has been an explosion celiac disease and digestive disorders. Put so eloquently by David Zivot founder of the company “Grainstorm”:
“We have mutant seeds, grown in synthetic soil, bathed in chemicals. They're deconstructed, pulverized to fine dust, bleached and chemically treated to create a barren industrial filler that no other creature on the planet will eat. And we wonder why it might be making us sick?”
Dairy can be a big problem too with around 75% of IBS sufferers being lactose intolerant. This generally only occurs when drinking pasteurised milk, raw milk comes with its own lactase to digest the lactose, further highlighting the need for us to stop allowing scientists to mess around with our food and to consume it as close to its natural state as possible.
There are many, many more food allergens in this day and age and the best way to find out your individual sensitivities would be to get a test from your doctor if this is possible. You can also try eliminating known allergens (soy, eggs, sesame and most importantly sugar) for 12 weeks and then reintroduce and see if they cause symptoms. As always, if you listen to your body it will tell you what it needs.
#3. Eliminate Bad Bugs in the Gut
As discussed earlier, bacterial overgrowth can be a huge contributing problem to IBS. The trick is to reboot your gut by eliminating the bad stuff whilst putting in the good stuff and this can be done a number of ways. As always, nature is on hand to provide us with the perfect healing herbs to address this problem very effectively. A recent study found that herbal therapies are at least as effective as the antibiotic “Rifaximin” (usually used to treat SIBO), and appear to be as effective as triple antibiotic therapy for SIBO rescue for Rifaximin non-responders.
Herbal antibiotics for SIBO include; Neem, Goldenseal, Allicin, Oregano Oil (food grade) and any herbs containing “Berberine”. Yeast (candida) overgrowth further exacerbates the problem and can be addressed with herbs such as; Pau D’arco, Marigold, Marshmallow, Peppermint or our specially created "Candida Care Tea Blend". Some people have experimented with these herbs and compounds to find their own optimum combination of herbs, however it is recommended that you contact a herbalist to discuss dosing and protocol.
Generally, herbal antibiotics take longer to work than their pharmaceutical cousins (think of using a handgun instead of a grenade), it will usually require at least 30 days of protocol to “reboot” your gut and fully eliminate bacterial overgrowth. Once this is achieved it’s time to add in the good stuff!
#4. Heal and Seal Your Gut
If your stomach lining has broken down to the point of “leaky gut syndrome”, you are likely to still be missing vital enzymes, pre and probiotics and are probably deficient in certain essential vitamins and minerals – this is due to the inability of your body to absorb these nutrients properly.
GAPS Nutritional Protocol
Neurologist and Neurosurgeon Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride also holds a “Master of Medical Sciences in Human Nutrition”. She is well known for developing the concept of Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS). Based on the premise that all diseases start in the gut - when the gut flora is damaged, the health of the whole body enters a downward slide towards disease. She has written various books explaining the GAPS protocol and the many disorders (including IBS) it can help with – thousands of people around the world who have implemented this protocol have reported life-changing results. The diet has been specifically designed to heal and seal the gut whilst recolonising with healthy bacteria. I have included links at the bottom of this article to her website and an introduction sheet to this diet.
Supplementation with powerful probiotics is recommended, as is eating pre-biotic foods – these are none digestible specialised plant fibres which nourish the good bacteria already in the colon – a fertiliser for the probiotics! Whilst probiotics are very delicate and sensitive to heat and stomach acid, pre-biotics are hardy and not destroyed in the body. Even whilst supplementing it is worth getting in the habit of eating wholefoods which provide these important compounds:-
- Active Culture Yoghurt (coconut yoghurt is an excellent replacement for dairy)
- Kombucha Tea
- Sauerkraut (or any fermented vegetables)
- Pickled Fruit and Vegetables
- Raw Chicory Root (powerfully antioxidant and a great system cleanser)
- Raw Jerusalem Artichoke
- Raw Dandelion Greens
- Raw Garlic
- Raw or Cooked Onions
- Raw Asparagus
#5. Digestive Enzymes
Taking digestive enzymes with meals will help to break down food whilst your gut heals. Other nutrients that help to heal the lining of the gut are gamma linolenic acid (GLA), zinc, vitamin A and glutamine. An excellent source of GLA is Spirulina – second only to human breast milk, it is powerfully anti-inflammatory and a fabulous source of highly digestible protein. It is also very easy on the digestive system with its amino acids being delivered directly to the body for almost instant absorption.
#6. Vitamin D Deficiency?
An interesting study was done recently by the University of Sheffield, UK where they found that a large proportion of IBS patients were vitamin D deficient – out of 51 test subjects, 82% were found to be deficient. Although this was only an exploratory study, the process of designing a larger and more definitive clinical trial has now been set in motion. One researcher, Vicky Grant, had suffered with IBS for over 30 years. She reported a significant improvement in her symptoms following an introduction to a high-dose of vitamin D3 supplement approximately five years ago.
#7. Stress and IBS
Stress is something we all have to live with in today’s busy society – in fact, stress isn’t all bad and is a necessary part of survival as it will produce the “fight or flight” response necessary for avoiding danger. However, in this day and age we can be exposed to low-level stress for prolonged periods of time, which in turn leads to the damaging effects we now see that are related to stress. Whenever we are emotionally stressed or excited, that feeling of "butterflies in the stomach" is actually starting to be backed up by science. Recent studies indicate that the gut truly is the seat of our emotions, with IBS sufferers seemingly "super-sensitive" to this phenomena.
Stress activates a specific brain network in all individuals which in turn triggers two main pathways; the pituitary-adrenal axis (increases hormone circulation – especially cortisol) and the autonomic nervous system which regulates involuntary bodily functions, including bowel function. Both of these pathways directly or indirectly affect gut function through the unique system of nerves within the bowel wall (enteric nervous system). These pathways, along with the brain and enteric nervous system, are collectively referred to as the “brain-gut axis.”
Recent research has discovered a family of peptides that drive the stress response named “corticotrophin-releasing factor” (CRF). These peptides and receptors are located in regions linked with digestive functions, emotional activity and autonomic nervous system activity. It is increasingly recognised that they are activated during stress and play a key role in the endocrinal, behavioural and gut responses to stress.
Research points to the fact that IBS sufferers seem to have an “amplification of information” from the gut to the brain and an increased sensitivity to CRF. This may cause the pronounced, sustained and more frequent activation of CRF pathways which is associated with increased IBS symptoms. To date, the conceptual framework emerging supports that sustained activation of the CRF1 system at sites in the brain and/or in the gut may be one component underlying IBS symptoms.
De-stressing Your Life
Whilst it’s almost impossible to avoid stress, learning to balance its negative effects will contribute to the holistic approach necessary to combat this debilitating condition. Identifying your stress triggers, getting enough sleep and just unplugging from the world for 20 minutes daily will help to balance your nervous system. Meditation and Yoga are also great ways to mindfully detach from the stresses and strains of everyday life – meditation actually releases stress and reverses the effects of the fight or flight response mechanism. Magnesium chloride baths are also a great way to relax and promote a good night’s sleep whilst topping up your magnesium levels.
IBS is a very individual condition with individual causes. However, it does seem that it is possible to identify root causes and address common triggers such as SIBO, diet, allergens, to heal the gut and appropriate nature’s bounty of healing herbs to help to alleviate symptoms. Each healing journey is an individual and personalised process – the body is designed to heal and rebalance itself, belief that we can heal and trust in our bodies is of utmost importance.
For further information and success stories, please explore the sources provided at the end of this article.