What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Michael T. Murray, ND, and chair of Pharmaca’s Integrative Health Advisory Board, talks to us about IBS symptoms and how to effectively manage them with simple changes to diet, lifestyle and supplementation.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is characterized by some combination of abdominal pain or distension; altered bowel function, constipation or diarrhea; flatulence, nausea or loss of appetite; and varying degrees of anxiety or depression. According to Dr. Murray, “IBS is a functional disorder of the large intestine. What this means is that there is no disease process per se or evidence of accompanying structural defect. It simply reflects that the digestive process not functioning as it should.”

What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
There are four main causes of IBS that have been identified over the years: stress, insufficient intake of dietary fiber, food intolerance/allergy, and meals too high in sugar.

Stress, sleep and digestive function
Stress is a big factor in disrupting gut function. It can disrupt motility, the rhythmic contractions of the intestine that propel food through the digestive tract, as well as lead to abdominal pain and irregular bowel functions. Strategies to decrease stress, such as physical exercise, meditation, yoga and tai chi have been shown to produce significant improvements in IBS. Getting enough sleep each night is also helpful. Dr. Murray also believes that “eating in a relaxed manner with mindfulness and thoroughly chewing your food helps improve overall digestive function.”

Important dietary factors in Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The three most important dietary factors that contribute to IBS are food intolerances, sugar and low dietary fiber.

  • Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are a major cause of IBS. Recent studies have shown the majority of patients with IBS (approximately two-thirds) have at least one food intolerance, and some have multiple allergies. The most common offending foods are dairy products (40–44 percent) and gluten-containing grains (40-60 percent). Many patients have noted marked clinical improvement when using elimination diets that simply remove all dairy and sources of gluten.
  • Sugar consumption contributes to IBS for many people. After a high-sugar meal, the normal rhythmic contractions of the gastrointestinal tract slow down, and in some portions of the intestines stop altogether. A diet high in refined sugar may be the most important contributing factor to IBS being such a common condition in the United States.
  • Dietary fiber promotes proper colon function. Patients with constipation are much more likely to respond to dietary fiber than those with diarrhea. Increasing intake of dietary fiber from fruit and vegetable sources rather than grains may offer more benefit to some individuals.

Dietary supplements to try for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  • Soluble dietary fiber such as psyllium seed husks, guar gum or pectin, either alone or in combination, can be quite helpful. Dosage: 3–5 g at bedtime.
  • Probiotic supplements supplying Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria species are very important for IBS or any other gastrointestinal issue. Dosage: A product that will provide 5–20 billion live bacteria daily.
  • Digestive enzymes can help break down large food molecules into smaller units. “When digestion is incomplete it leads to lots of problems with gas, bloating and indigestion, which are also the key symptoms in IBS,” says Dr. Murray. “A high-potency, multi-enzyme formula can really help relieve these symptoms.” There are also digestive enzyme products available for specific issues like intolerance to lactose, casein, gluten and other food components. Dosage: Follow label instructions.
  • Enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules have been shown to be very effective in IBS. It is most useful in relieving intestinal spasm and pain. Dosage: 1–2 capsules three times daily, 20 minutes before meals.
  • Artichoke extract appears quite helpful for patients with IBS. Artichoke extract appears to be most helpful for abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, lack of appetite, and nausea. Dosage: 300–600 mg, three times daily.

Final comment from Dr. Murray
“Sometimes people with digestive disturbances like IBS have to become a bit of a detective in trying to find out possible causes as well as solutions. The key is to keep focusing on ways to improve digestion and not just suppress the symptoms.”