Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a common concern involving a combination of chronic digestive symptoms such as cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.
IBS is defined as a functional disorder, meaning that despite no obvious medical abnormality the person has digestive symptoms. There is no one cause, rather there is thought to be many contributing factors to IBS, such as changes in the motility, immune function, gut bacteria or even the nerves of our digestive tract that dictate how our brain sends and receives messages to and from the gut.
As a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) I have a strong interest in helping people with IBS. A chief reason for this is that naturopathic approaches tend to have great success in treating this condition! Given the multifunctional nature of IBS, a holistic approach allows for the discovery of both the root causes and practical resolutions. Gut health is vital for overall health and as such, there exists a wide range of health concerns linked to poor digestive function including autoimmunity, hormonal imbalance, and depression. Often the key to treating these lies in treating the gut.
My approach to this condition varies depending on who I am working with and their particular situation. The following are four of the (many) areas that I consider when working with someone with IBS:
- Diet: This is a big one! There are various reasons why certain foods don't work for some people and we ND's can help figure it out. Sometimes for a given individual we identify specific food intolerances, and other times we identify a group of food intolerances. An example of this is FODMAPS foods, which contain specific types of carbohydrates that may be poorly absorbed leading to pain, bloating, flatulence and changes in stool consistency. Some may find that a low FODMAP diet can alleviate their symptoms. I think of this diet as helpful for managing symptoms in the short term, but given that many high FODMAPS foods are healthy, a long-term plan to reduce prolonged avoidance of these foods is important!
- Microbiome: The microbiome is a term used to describe all of the microorganisms that live in our bodies and in this case, our digestive tracts. These days, more and more research is showing that these organisms play a vital role in our overall health. Some people find that supplementing with probiotics can improve digestive symptoms. On the other hand, an overgrowth of bacteria, or the wrong types of microorganisms can cause disruptions in digestion. Through discussion and possibly testing, we work to find ways to optimize this balance for the comfiest belly.
- Motility: How the muscles contract to coordinate movement through the digestive tract will also predict how we feel. Weak muscular contraction can slow things down and lead to hard dry stools, while stronger, or uncoordinated contractions could lead to gas, bloating and diarrhea. Supporting healthy motility may also be an area of focus for IBS patients.
- Enzymes and Acid: We need a good supply of stomach acid and digestive enzymes to properly digest our food. Inflammation in this area can compromise our body’s ability to produce these. Temporary use of digestive enzymes can help to break down food properly while we work on the underlying causes of the deficiency.
There are many other areas, such as stress and hormonal balance that may prove useful to explore depending on the individual. Getting to the bottom of your IBS may do more than simply help your belly feel better. It may also help improve other health concerns such as depression, fatigue, and pain, and could prevent future health problems, big and small!
Dr. Alexis Blanks is a naturopathic doctor. She is co-owner of Flourish Naturopathic at Moss Healthcare. She would be happy to see you in her office to help you better understand your health and take it to the next level. Learn more at FlourishND.com.