Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a long-term condition affecting the digestive system. It causes an array of embarrassing and debilitating symptoms including stomach pain, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and flatulence.
IBS is a relatively common condition, thought to affect up to one in five people. Although anyone can have IBS, it most commonly develops in early adulthood and affects more women than men throughout their lives.
Unfortunately, there are no specific tests to determine whether or not you have IBS. On examination, no physical abnormalities can be found in IBS, the structural and biochemical environment of the gut remains unchanged.
Most diagnoses are made after an examination of symptoms and having ruled out more serious health conditions.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown and in many cases a number of contributing factors are thought to have an impact. This very much varies from one person to another. The most common factors though to cause the condition include:
- Food - certain food types are thought to trigger IBS symptoms more often than others, although this is very individual. Food intolerance should also be considered
- Digestive problems – bowel contractions are often either too slow or too fast in IBS resulting in constipation, diarrhoea or both
- Gut sensitivity - some people have a more sensitive gut than others leading to an increase in pain perception
- Psychological factors – Stress, anxiety, panic disorder and depression are all psychological factors that can affect the normal functioning of your digestive system. Episodes of feeling stressed or anxious can exacerbate symptoms
- Hormones – the link between hormones and IBS is not clear, but as more women than men suffer the condition, it is thought that the cyclical pattern of hormones have their part to play. This is apparent both during the menstrual cycle and in the menopause
- Gut bacteria – your gut bacteria, otherwise known as microbiota is very important in gut health. Different strains of bacteria vary across people and may differ in those with IBS. It is important to support your friendly gut bacteria and protect it from the bad
- Genetics – research has uncovered a possible genetic cause for IBS. However, the precise nature of this is still uncertain and disputed by some scientists.
- Experience discomfort after most meals?
- Find it difficult to get to sleep due to stomach pains?
- Wake up in the night with tortured guts?
- Have bouts of constipation and/or diarrhoea?
- Go up a clothes size or two from the morning to the evening?
- Suffer belching and flatulence?
- Feel as if someone regularly takes a monkey wrench to your insides?
- Experience that ‘food like a stone in the stomach’ feeling?
- Feel that your food is often trying to make its way back up rather than going down?
If you fall into several of these categories, you definitely have poor digestion and should tackle it forthwith, regardless of what letters you want to affix to it.
If you just get uncomfortable after a large or rich meal or when eating late, mend your foolish ways and you should have no more problems!
Or, alternatively, use Milk Thistle before or after a rich meal, and Centaury before a late meal, and your discomfort will be minimised.
For those of you whose bowels have irritability down to a fine art, there are some basic things that you need to appreciate about your digestive tract.
What goes in needs to come out: If you are eating 3 meals a day and your bowels are only moving once every 2 or 3 days, there will be a backlog in there!
Your stomach needs some warning that food is on its way. If you grab and gobble, food will land in your stomach before it has time to produce digestive enzymes, with the result that food will not be properly broken down.
Take heed of the wise Chinese saying: the stomach has no teeth! If you don’t chew the food in your mouth, there is precious little chance that it will be chewed anywhere else.
Your body can’t run and eat at the same time. You know not to go swimming after eating, but did you realise that the same applies to rushing around the office, running to the shops and dashing for the bus?
Bowels should move
If your bowels don’t move every day, you are much more likely to suffer pain in the lower abdomen. Much of your bloatedness and ‘weight’ could be due to putrefying wastes sitting around inside you. Yuck. Use ground psyllium husks (my favourite brand is Lepicol) in water to bulk and soften the stool. This is not a laxative but makes that bowel movement easier and more frequent, painlessly. If you are severely constipated and this doesn’t work for you, try a natural laxative combining Linseed with the stimulating action of Senna and Frangula, but try it in small doses first as it is extremely effective with even the most stubborn bowel!
If you get alternating constipation and diarrhoea, treat the constipation, because ongoing constipation can be the cause of diarrhoea.
Chew your food
Yes, like your granny told you. Chewing not only starts to break the food up but it also sends signals to the stomach that food is on its way, and the stomach responds by producing digestive enzymes and stomach acid. Chewing is free! It amazes me how reluctant people are to do this simple thing!
If you are a habitual gulper, hardly giving your food time to touch the sides, do the chewing thing (please!) but also use Centaury, a stomach bitter, to retrain your stomach. Taken 10 minutes before a meal, its bitter taste sends messages to the stomach to produce balanced amounts of the digestive juices. If you get that ‘stone in the stomach’ feeling, this will release it. Suffer from acid stomach? Centaury’s the herb for you. It will rebalance your stomach acid production, leaving you with the right amount to tackle your food. It is by far more effective than conventional antacids, I have found.
Give your body time to digest
Sit and relax. It’s not that hard, really. Don’t run around. Your body can’t digest if it’s running about.
And on the subject of bloating
It does seem to be one of the things that distresses people most. Getting the bowels moving and using the stomach bitters to improve the digestive reflexes will help minimise the bloat potential, but there are several foods that unfortunately encourage bloating as well as the painful spasms that can grip the whole abdomen, so you would be wise to avoid them.
- Wheat, including wheat-based cereals, bread, pasta and products using flour
- Coffee (sometimes tea, especially if drunk by the gallon – you know who you are, you tea addicts…)
- Dairy products
- Citrus fruits
- Fatty and fried foods
There is no need to retreat screaming into a corner. Every good health store will be able to provide you with alternatives in the way of wheat-free pasta, soya or rice or oat milk, and many more easily digestible goodies. Just ask. If you refuse to even contemplate changing your diet, you should stock up on Peppermint, which will reduce the worst of the pangs from your guts, soothing and calming the inner turmoil.