By David Blyweiss, M.D.
It might begin with a little gas or bloating. Or perhaps your favorite foods suddenly start disagreeing with you. Sometimes eating anything at all can cause cramping and heartburn. Over time, you might even develop chronic unexplained diarrhea or constipation.
So what’s going on?
For answers, you might head to the doctor to help you figure out this litany of mysterious symptoms. Unfortunately, most physicians don’t have a clue either. So they take one of two approaches: they either test you for every gastrointestinal problem under the sun or they tell you that your problems are all in your head!
If your tummy troubles seem to worsen when you’re under stress—and medical tests haven’t uncovered a specific problem—it’s a good bet you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
IBS is a condition that affects the large intestines. What causes it? No one really knows. The good news is, since IBS isn’t an inflammatory disorder, it doesn’t cause any permanent damage to your digestive tract. The bad news is that IBS can make your life miserable. Things seem even bleaker when you realize there’s no cure. And no drug that can safely and effectively treat the wide range of gastrointestinal symptoms…in spite of the pharmaceutical industry’s best efforts.
But that’s not to say you don’t have any options. Eating an IBS-smart diet, adding a few proven supplements, and learning to tame stress can help to keep symptoms under control.
Here’s my checklist for anyone suffering with IBS:
- Keep a food journal to help you pinpoint which foods trigger symptoms.
- Cut out caffeine. Not only does caffeine shock the intestines, it’s also a central nervous system stimulant that increases your susceptibility to stress.
- Be careful with dairy. Milk, cheese and other dairy products are notorious for aggravating IBS symptoms. This may be due to lactose-intolerance or it may be a reaction to cow’s-milk proteins. If you can’t avoid dairy completely, take a digestive enzyme designed to digest both lactose and milk proteins.
- Boost your fiber intake—especially if you are prone to constipation. Slowly add foods like oatmeal, barley, brown rice, beans, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables to your daily diet.
- Add beneficial bugs. Studies show that probiotics can be especially helpful for controlling symptoms. In one study, volunteers received 10 billion CFU (colony forming units) of Lactobacillus salivarius or Bifidobacterium infantis, or a placebo, in a malted drink once daily. Those who took the B. infantis probiotic experienced a significant improvement in abdominal pain, bloating and bowel movement difficulty or urgency.1
- Try supplemental peppermint oil. Clinical trials show that peppermint helps relieve abdominal pain in 58% of IBS sufferers.2 Just be sure to take enteric-coated capsules to ensure that the peppermint actually reaches the colon where it’s needed most. Take a total of three to six capsules every day between meals.
- Get a handle on stress. Though stress is no longer considered a direct cause of IBS, there’s no doubt it adds fuel to the fire. When left unmanaged, it can cause increased sensitivity and interfere with normal gut function. Breathing slowly from the abdomen instead of the chest helps relax the body and mind. Other good stress-busting activities include meditation, yoga, massage, or exercise. Another benefit of working out, especially aerobically, is that it can help with constipation and other intestinal discomforts.
- Opt for hypnotherapy. Clinical trials show that hypnotherapy can reduce colorectal sensitivity and motility as well as anxiety and depression.3 It’s best to work with a hypnotherapist with training in IBS. To find one in your area, go to IBShypnosis.com.
If you suffer from IBS, it can seem like the condition is in total control of your life. But making the changes I’ve outlined here can put you back in charge and put IBS in its place.
- O’Mahony L. Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium in irritable bowel syndrome: symptom responses and relationship to cytokine profiles. Gastroenterology. 2005;128:541-551.
- Grigoleit HG. Peppermint oil in irritable bowel syndrome. Phytomedicine. 2005;12:601-606.
- Hefner J. Hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome–a systematic review. Z Gastroenterol. 2009;47:1153-1159.