Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects 15-20 per cent of adults, and is twice as common in women as in men.
It’s also a frustrating and embarrassing disease, characterised by abdominal pain, flatulence, bloating, and either diarrhoea or constipation or alternating bouts of each. While most of us may have the occasional bad bowel day, a diagnosis of IBS is usually only made when changes to bowel habits last longer than 12 weeks.
Researchers have proposed many causes, but the jury still remains out on why IBS develops. The list of suspects includes a bacterial, viral or parasitic infection; overuse of antibiotics; lactose intolerance; or adverse reactions to foods, such as wheat, citrus or yeast. Stress and depression are thought to contribute, as are certain medications, such as NSAIDs and HRT. Some women experience a worsening of symptoms at menstruation, so hormones appear to play a role, too.
To help those suffering with IBS, we’ve put together our top natural remedies to help ease your symptoms.
- Aloe vera juice – Well known for its healing and anti-inflammatory properties, this calms the digestive system and repairs the gut wall.
- Vitamin D – A 2015 UK study suggests that close to 80 per cent of people with IBS are vitamin D deficient. While experts aren’t 100% clear on how vitamin D affects the gut, it is probably a good idea to have a blood test and check your levels, if you are supplement with 1,000IU daily.
- Psyllium – A type of dietary fibre, this works to correct constipation and is useful for diarrhoea, because it absorbs water in the intestine and adds bulk to the stool. Drink at least eight 200 ml glasses of water a day when using psyllium.
- Probiotics – These ‘good’ bacteria improve gut health and function by helping to digest food and curb the growth of harmful bacteria that cause disease. One study reported that 84 per cent of patients with IBS registered abnormal lactulose breath tests, meaning they had an overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria in the small intestine. Note that not all probiotic strains have the same effects, but one particular strain, Lactobacillus plantarum, reduces the inflammatory cytokines in the digestive system that cause IBS symptoms, therefore significantly improving pain, flatulence and stool frequency.
- Adjust your diet – Food allergies and sensitivities can cause or worsen IBS. Keeping a food diary will reveal possible trigger foods, which may then be eliminated. Common culprits include gluten, dairy, soy, sugars and artificial sweeteners, fried foods, eggs, peanuts, corn and carbonated drinks.
- Drink up – Keep your fluid intake high to support optimal bowel function. Gentle herbal teas are an excellent choice: peppermint and fennel have traditionally been used to relieve colicky spasmodic pain in the bowel and chamomile is particularly helpful for digestive problems associated with stress and tension.
- Take control of stress – Relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga may help. Exercising for at least 20 minutes a day can also help to keep the bowels moving normally and reduce stress.
- Try a low FODMAP diet – FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols. In simple terms these are types of carbohydrates found in certain foods, and researchers have found a link between FODMAPs and digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea and constipation. A low-FODMAP diet has been shown to help symptoms of IBS. Below is a sample from Monash University’s comprehensive database of FODMAP food information.
|Food category||High FODMAP foods||Low FODMAP food alternatives|
|Vegetables||Artichoke, asparagus, cauliflower, garlic, green peas, leek, mushrooms, onion, sugar snap peas||Eggplant, beans (green), bok choy, capsicum, carrot, cucumber, lettuce, potato, tomato, zucchini|
|Fruits||Apples, apple juice, cherries, dried fruit, mango, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, watermelon||Rockmelon, grapes, kiwi fruit, mandarin, orange, pineapple, strawberries|
|Dairy and alternatives||Cow’s milk, custard, evaporated milk, ice cream, soy milk (made from whole soyabeans) sweetened condensed milk, yoghurt||Almond milk, brie/camembert cheese, feta cheese, hard cheeses, lactose free milk, soy milk (made from soy protein)|
|Protein sources||Most legumes / pulses, some marinated meats /poultry / seafood, some processed meats||Eggs, firm tofu, plain cooked meats / poultry / seafood, tempeh|
|Breads and cereal products||Wheat / rye / barley based breads, breakfast cereals, biscuits and snack products||Corn flakes, oats, quinoa flakes, quinoa / rice / corn pasta, rice cakes (plain), sourdough spelt bread, wheat / rye / barley free breads|
|Sugars / sweeteners and confectionary||High fructose corn syrup, honey, sugar free confectionary||Dark chocolate, maple syrup, rice malt syrup, table sugar|
|Nuts and seeds||Cashews, pistachios||Macadamias, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, walnuts|