Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is believed to affect one in six of us at some time in our lives. This condition is characterised by one or more of the following symptoms – abdominal pain or cramping, bloating, and bowel dysfunction (loose bowels, constipation, or a fluctuation between the two).
Although it is important to first visit your GP in order to rule out any serious underlying medical condition, the drugs prescribed for IBS by mainstream medicine frequently include antidepressants and antispasmodics. While these may help to control the symptoms of IBS, they do nothing to address the underlying causes.
Treatment for IBS should concentrate on diet and lifestyle factors, avoiding foods that trigger the symptoms and managing any emotional components such as stress and anxiety, or even hormonal changes (many women suffer from the symptoms of IBS at particular points in the menstrual cycle).
Identifying and understanding your own food and drink sensitivities is crucial, and keeping a daily food diary will help pinpoint those foods that may be causing unpleasant symptoms. Some of the more common ‘trigger’ foods include those containing gluten found in wheat, barley and other grains. Gluten is difficult to digest, and many of us eat proportionately far more gluten than we should – cereal, bread, pasta, cakes, and other processed foods.
Add more vegetable fibre to your diet a little at a time – too much too soon may result in flatulence, cramping, bloating or diarrhoea. Good sources of fibre include fruit, vegetables and pulses. Increase your fluid intake too.
The gut flora, or ‘friendly’ bacteria that inhabit your gut and aid digestion need to be healthy too. This can be achieved by reducing the amount of sugar and processed foods in the diet. A little extra help can be provided by the use of a high quality probiotic supplement or by regularly eating fermented foods such as natural organic yoghurt, kimchi or sauerkraut.
Herbs also have a place in the treatment of IBS symptoms. Fenugreek seeds (Trigonella foenum-graecum) have a soothing, calming and anti-inflammatory action on the digestive tract; its bitter constituents also help stimulate the appetite and encourage the production of digestive enzymes. Avoid excessive doses which may cause diarrhoea and flatulence.
Psyllium husk also has demulcent and laxative properties and has long been used to treat both sluggish and irritable bowels. Its non-irritant nature means that it is even safe to use in inflammatory conditions as Crohn’s disease. If you suffer from constipation, psyllium husk will help soften your stool and increase the frequency of bowel movements; conversely, it will help with stool formation and decrease bowel frequency when loose stools or diarrhoea are a problem. It is also is a good source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids. Adequate fluid should be taken with psyllium to ensure that it swells effectively in the stomach.
For a majority of IBS sufferers there is an emotional component such as stress or anxiety, all too common in our high-pressure society. It is as important to address those underlying factors as it is to treat any physical symptoms. Examine your lifestyle and try to reduce or eliminate stressors. Consider counselling if the emotional factors are severe, or take up a hobby such as cycling, walking or dancing. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can also be of benefit.
The above information is for guidance only, and is not intended to take the place of diagnosis and treatment by a qualified practitioner. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or taking any other medication, you should seek advice from a health professional.