Irritable bowel syndrome-also known as IBS or spastic colon-is a condition that affects at least 10 to 15 percent of all American adults. In fact, IBS is second only to the common cold as a cause of missed workdays. Most people with IBS typically develop the condition in their 20s and have it, either periodically or frequently, for life.
Each IBS sufferer has a slightly different mix of symptoms as well as different triggers, which set off an “attack” or episode. The severity of symptoms also varies among IBS sufferers. Yet there is one thing that all sufferers have in common: during an attack of IBS, their colons do not contract properly. Some people’s colons may contract too vigorously, producing cramps and diarrhea. Others may not contract enough, causing constipation. And in some sufferers, the bowels alternate between the two extremes, causing the sufferer to vacillate between periods of diarrhea and constipation.
While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, some experts believe that certain people have hypersensitive colons, which react adversely to different foods. Since many female IBS sufferers experience more severe symptoms during menstruation, hormonal changes are thought to play a role as well. Stress also appears to worsen symptoms, probably because the colon is partially controlled by the nervous system.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome occur shortly after meals and include:
Conventional Medical Treatment
If you notice recurring changes in your bowel movements, visit your doctor. To rule out other bowel conditions-such as colon cancer, colitis, or Crohn’s disease-your physician may perform a digestive stool analysis and rectal examination, and might administer a barium enema.
If you are diagnosed with IBS, your doctor may recommend that you try to limit stress and change your diet. You may need to increase your fiber intake by adding bran, oatmeal, whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables to your diet or by using an over-the-counter fiber preparation, such as methylcellulose (Citrucel) to help ease constipation, promote regular bowel movements, and normalize watery stools. However, fiber alone will not prevent or cure a case of IBS. You also need to avoid foods that trigger episodes. For some people, this means staying away from acidic foods, such as tomato-based dishes. Other people experience IBS symptoms after eating any type of sugar, including fructose and corn syrup. Caffeine and carbonated beverages can cause problems for many IBS sufferers. Other common triggers include lactose-based foods (such as milk and ice cream), fatty foods (such as packaged snack foods, chocolate, pastries, and red meat), and certain vegetables, such as brussel sprouts, beans, carrots, celery, and onions. If your symptoms are severe, you may require medication. The medications your doctor prescribes will depend on your symptoms. For example, if chronic diarrhea is the main problem or if frequent stools occur, cholestyramine or loperamide may be useful.
In some cases, medications, such as antianxiolytics and antidepressants, are prescribed to improve symptoms associated with stress, but their use poses the risk of dependency. New medications that act on serotonin receptors in the digestive tract are being tested for use in IBS.
Complementary and Alternative Treatments
Nutrition and Supplementation
To help keep the bowel clean and clear, eat a high-fiber diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains and legumes. Supplement with fiber; psyllium powder works well because it regulates bowel movements. Drink 6 to 8 glasses of pure water daily.
Alcohol and tobacco irritate the lining of the stomach and colon; limit your intake-or better yet, eliminate them from your diet. Other foods prevent the absorption of nutrients and are mucus-forming. These include: animal fats, carbonated beverages, caffeine in any form, candy, chocolate, dairy products, fried foods, ice cream, junk food, margarine, processed foods, sugar, wheat products, and sugar-free gum. Be sure to check for your own particular food sensitivities.
During an attack, eat a bland diet. Organic baby food can help at a time like this. At all times, avoid eating directly before bed; wait at least 2 hours before lying down.
The following recommended daily supplements will help the IBS sufferer lead a healthy, active life.
- Vitamin B complex (50 to 100 mg 3 times daily)-promotes proper muscle tone in the gastrointestinal tract
- a prodophilus formula (as directed on label)-replaces friendly bacteria; important for digestion and for the production of B vitamins
- garlic (as directed on label)-aids in digestion; destroys toxins in the colon; use liquid form
- psyllium fiber (as directed on label)-heals and cleanses
- free-form amino acid complex (as directed on label)-repairs mucous membranes of the intestines
- N-acetyl glucosamine (as directed on label)-protects the intestinal lining from digestive enzymes
- flaxseed oil (as directed on label)-supplies essential fatty acids that protect the intestinal lining
- calcium (1000 mg in divided doses)-helps the central nervous system
- magnesium (1000 mg in divided doses)-prevents colon cancer; cut back if bowels become loose
- calcium carbonate (500 mg)-to absorb in testinal toxins
- ginger (25 mg)
- gamma orizanol (as directed on label)-protects and heals the stomach mucosa
- bovine colostrum (as directed on label)-heals damaged stomach tissue
- curcumin (as directed on label)-anti-inflammatory agent
If you’re prone to cramping, some aromatherapists recommend massaging and kneading the abdomen with antispasmodic essential oils. Combine 3 drops of peppermint oil and 1 teaspoon of carrier oil (canola or safflower). You can also add 3 drops of Roman chamomile to 2 teaspoons of the blend, and you can substitute lotion for the carrier oil. Apply to your stomach and massage very gently in a circular pattern.
An Ayurvedic practitioner may advise taking triphala, a mild Indian laxative, twice a day to ease the alternating constipation and diarrhea associated with irritable bowel syndrome. 1tiphala is made from three Indian fruits and may help restore a healthy tone to the intestinal tract.
Ayurvedic products are available at many health food stores and Indian pharmacies. Remember to consult your doctor if symptoms persist.
[ Read: How To Deal With IBS Related Nausea ]
Peppermint has anti-spasmodic properties and is a good choice for relieving the intestinal cramps that accompany irritable bowel syndrome. There are two ways to take peppermint: Mix 2 or 3 drops peppermint oil in 1/4 cup warm water. Drink 3 or 4 times a day. Or infuse 1 teaspoon dried peppermint leaves in 1 cup boiling water for 10 minutes; strain. Drink several times a day, as needed.
Chamomile, marshmallow root, and slippery elm teas are also calming to the intestinal tract. Steep 1 teaspoon of one of those dried herbs in 1 cup boiling water for 10 minutes; strain. Drink 3 to 4 times a day.
Herbal products are available in health food stores and in some pharmacies and supermarkets. Follow package for specific directions.
Irritable bowel syndrome may respond to homeopathic treatment. However, the selection of a remedy-more than one is available-depends on your symptoms and the stage of the condition. Don’t try treating this disorder yourself. See a homeopathic professional.
Constitutional therapy (alternating applications of hot and cold towels to the front and back of the body) may provide some relief. Apply several times a week.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
The acupuncture points targeted will vary, depending upon the patient’s complaints, although treatment probably will include points along the spleen, liver, kidney, and large intestine meridians.
Acupressure The practitioner may concentrate on Liver, Stomach, Pericardium, and Spleen. Additional points may be added, as warranted by the patient’s specific symptoms.
Acupressure can also help reduce stress and enhance relaxation, which can have a positive impact on this condition.
Chinese Herbal Therapy Fennel is a time-honored nausea remedy. Some TCM practitioners believe that anxiety or sadness also may be a contributing factor in the development of irritable bowel syndrome and may recommend herbs that address these conditions as well. Ginseng and Astragalus Formula can be used to build the system.
Yoga and Meditation
If stress is the cause of your irritable bowl syndrome, try a daily routine of deep breathing exercises, three or four yoga poses, and meditation to help you relax. Vary the poses from day to day, but be sure to include the Corpse, Baby, Wind Removal, and Root Lock.