If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’re not alone. It’s estimated that one in six people have IBS, and women are twice more likely to develop it than men. Not surprisingly, IBS is the top gastrointestinal condition diagnosed by doctors and accounts for 30% of all referrals to gastroenterologists.
What are the Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Some people are highly symptomatic, while others have few symptoms at all. But in general, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include:
- Vague chronic abdominal pain,
- Irregular bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation, or a combination of both,
- Heartburn (GERD),
- Flatulence (increased gas)
- Difficulty swallowing,
- Decreased appetite.
Left untreated, irritable bowel syndrome can also affect your cardiovascular system—leading to heart palpitations or a racing heart. The reason is that IBS can affect nutrient absorption, including your body’s uptake of magnesium and B vitamins, which affect heart rhythm. IBS can also lead to an overgrowth of “bad bacteria” in your gut, as well as inflammation that can lead to heart disease.
For all of these reasons, it’s extremely important to not just mask IBS with over-the-counter remedies, but to address IBS at its source. But before I get to the treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, I want to explain what triggers it in the first place.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Causes
Just as the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome vary widely, so do the theories about what causes IBS—and the research is still evolving. What scientists do know is that some people are genetically prone to developing IBS. Plus, people with IBS are more likely to have elevated numbers of lymphocytes (white blood cells), mast cells, and pro-inflammatory cytokines, which all indicate an active intestinal immune response.
There are also many biological and environmental triggers of irritable bowel syndrome:
- Intestinal infections: Irritable bowel syndrome can develop after an infection with an intestinal bug such as a virus, parasite, or bacteria (i.e. post-infectious IBS).
- Medications: I always ask my patients about the medications they take, including antibiotics, NSAIDS, aspirin, steroids, laxatives, birth control pills, and acid blocking medicines. All of these medications can affect the gut flora and lining of the digestive tract.
- Ingestion of glyphosate: New research suggests that exposure to glyphosate, a chemical sprayed on most non-organic foods, causes an increase in intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut syndrome," which is often a precursor to IBS. Unfortunately, this hidden poison is now so common in our environment that even organic foods can test positive for glyphosate residues.
- Stress: It’s well established that stress can lead to and potentiate IBS symptoms. Think of it this way: When under stress, digestion is not a priority, so chronic stress negatively impacts digestive health.
- Improper carbohydrate metabolism: If your body has difficulty digesting and metabolizing carbohydrates, it can contribute to increased intestinal permeability, which can trigger IBS.
The Best IBS Treatment Is Eliminating Gluten
Hands down, the best treatment for irritable bowel syndrome is eliminating gluten from your diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, and it’s responsible for the destruction of the gut lining in patients with celiac disease. Gluten is also found in other grains, such as spelt, rye, barley, and malt—plus it can be “hidden” in foods like oats if they’re processed in the same plant as wheat.
Gluten is the prime culprit in leaky gut syndrome and IBS. In a normal, healthy intestine, cells are bonded together with Velcro-like connections. But gluten disrupts those tight bonds, allowing food and bacteria to leak out into your bloodstream—activating the immune system, and setting the stage for irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disease, and other inflammatory conditions to develop.
Some people can digest and break down gluten better than others. For someone with celiac disease, for example, gluten literally acts as a “poison” and must be avoided. For others, gluten is unknowingly contributing to health ills. And for some people, gluten literally has no effect.
Clinically, I have found that about 80% of my patients feel much better on a gluten-free diet. They have less fatigue, headaches, rashes, and joint pain and better cognitive function. Plus, taking gluten out of the diet can help tremendously with gas pain, bloating, abdominal pain, and other IBS symptoms. If you’re unsure if you’re gluten sensitive, I recommend eliminating gluten-containing grains for at least three weeks and see if you notice changes in your body.
Does Everyone with IBS Have Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Probably not. But if someone is suffering from classic irritable bowel syndrome symptoms (i.e. gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, etc.) AND they have other symptoms/conditions (i.e. allergies, eczema, malabsorption, brain fog, fatigue, joint pain, autoimmune disease, etc.), a leaky gut is more likely.
Unfortunately, we have very limited testing available for leaky gut syndrome, so the diagnosis is really based on clinical judgment. The gold standard in research to quantify intestinal permeability has been the Lactulose/Mannitol test, which measures the ability of these sugar molecules to pass through the intestinal lining.
Then there is Cyrex labs, which looks at the immune system’s response to lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and zonulin. LPS and zonulin should ideally be contained within the intestines, but with leaky gut syndrome these molecules enter the bloodstream and cause the immune system to overreact. If you think you may have leaky gut syndrome symptoms, you can ask your doctor about these tests.
More Natural Treatments for Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Remove unwanted “bugs” from the gut. Sometimes yeast, pathogenic bacteria, or parasite species need to be removed before a leaky gut can be healed. If this is the case for you, you want to work closely with an integrative or functional medicine practitioner to select the best antimicrobial substances.
- Eliminate trigger foods. Common allergens that can contribute to irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut syndrome include gluten, dairy, soy, and corn. Ideally, you want to entirely eliminate these foods for a minimum of three weeks, and then reintroduce them one at a time to determine which ones may be a trigger for you.
- Take digestive enzymes. These enzymes help to assist the stomach and small intestine to break down foods and make vitamins and minerals more accessible. Take as directed with meals.
- Use probiotics to restore healthy intestinal flora. Look for a probiotic formula that contains at least one billion organisms per dose, and take one to two times daily with food. Plus, eat more fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso, which contain probiotics that help to support intestinal health.
- Fortify the gut lining with L-glutamine, aloe vera, and slippery elm. Take L-glutamine (5,000 mg once daily), aloe vera (I like Lily of the Desert Inner Fillet gel; take as directed), and slippery elm (1,000 mg one to two times daily).
- Support the intestinal barrier and gut immune health with Colostrum or Serum Derived Bovine IgG (immunoglobulin G - dairy free). These compounds work to reduce inflammation in the gut by modulating the immune response.
- Increase your fiber intake to 30 grams, or more, daily. Fiber can help to improve some of the symptoms of IBS like diarrhea or constipation. Plus, fiber is broken down into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like butyric acid that provide fuel for the intestinal cells, and can help modulate the immune system. If increasing fiber leads to an increase in IBS symptoms, then you may want to lower fiber intake and look into SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) as an underlying condition.
- Drink bone broth soups to help heal your gut. Bone broths are loaded with gelatin and other nutrients to help support the intestinal immune system, reduce inflammation, and help heal the intestines.
A healthy lifestyle is also important. Eat fresh, non-GMO, organic whole foods and eliminate processed high sugar foods. If you think about food as fuel, you want the highest quality octane foods to be put into your body to support and nourish the cells lining the digestive tract.
To reduce irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, it’s also important to reduce stress by balancing the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, meditation, and deep breathing are great ways to reduce stress and put our bodies more into parasympathetic (rest and relax) mode.