Those frequent stomach aches, cramps and bowel problems aren’t just your typical indigestion. Irritable bowel syndrome, commonly called IBS for short, is a condition that produces a group of symptoms that occur together, causing significant pain and discomfort. Oddly enough, these symptoms come without any visible signs of damage in your digestive tract. As a result, it can be difficult to diagnose, the causes are still unknown and there is no known cure. But the good news is that there are many effective remedies and treatments that can help manage your symptoms to reduce the negative impact this condition can have on your overall health and wellness.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome, also referred to as spastic colon, irritable colon, mucous colitis, spastic colitis or IBS for short is a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that causes frequent episodes of abdominal pain or uncomfortable symptoms that are accompanied by, often, undesirable changes in bowel movements. These symptoms can range in intensity and duration among individuals and tend to occur all together, and may consist of:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating and gas
- Swelling of your stomach
- Urgency for bowel movements
These symptoms can last days, week or months at a time and can get more or less severe. There are also various things that can trigger IBS symptoms, such as certain foods, stress, and anxiety.
It’s also important to mention that the painful cramps produced by IBS will also come with at least two of the following:
- A change in the way your stool looks
- A change in how often you have a bowel movement
- Some relief after a bowel movement
The good news: irritable bowel syndrome is not linked to a shortened lifespan. However, the cluster of symptoms can be quite uncomfortable and painful, severely impacting your overall health and wellness quality of life.
The Difference Between Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease
At first glance, IBS appears to be very similar to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and although both share similar symptoms (and acronyms), IBS is a separate condition in itself and unrelated to other bowel conditions.
For example, inflammatory bowel disease is a term used for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which comes with chronic inflammation of the GI tract. However, with irritable bowel syndrome, the GI tract appears entirely normal. Some other key differences are:
- IBD is associated with chronic inflammation in GI tract, which is visible in tests whereas the GI tract appears normal in those with IBS.
- IBD may produce other alarming symptoms, such as fever, blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss
- IBD is an autoimmune disease whereas IBS is a disorder of the gut-brain interaction
What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Despite irritable bowel syndrome affecting 5-10% of people and numerous studies and research being done, the exact cause is still unknown. Routine tests typically reveal no abnormalities in the digestive system of those struggling with IBS either. As a result, it has been classified as a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder.
However, there is a significant amount of evidence linking IBS symptoms to being caused specific triggers, such as:
- Abnormalities in the movement of the gut: The intestine consists of layers of muscular walls that contract to move food through the digestive system. When these contractions become stronger and longer than normal, they can cause symptoms such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea. On the other hand, weak contractions can impede the movement of food and result in hard, dry stools.
- Improper immune system function (either overactive or underactive)
- Changes in the microbiota (the bacteria that reside in the gut): Some examples of this include changes in bacteria, fungi and viruses, all of which typically reside in the intestines and play a key role in health.
- Increase in bowel inflammation: Inflammation is the body’s response to protect it against infection.
- Disruption in the central nervous system: When the nerves in your digestive system are not functioning properly, you may experience discomfort as your abdomen expands due to gas or a stool. The signaling between the brain and intestines can become disrupted, leading your body to overreact to routine changes in the digestive process. This can cause symptoms such as pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
Genetics may also play a factor in the development of irritable bowel syndrome, as studies have found a possible hereditary component to IBS. It’s been discovered that children of mothers with IBS and siblings of people with IBS have a slightly increased likelihood of developing the condition.
Additionally, there are some other risk factors that may make you more susceptible to developing IBS, such as:
- Getting food poisoning
- Being female
- Having anxiety or depression
- Taking antibiotics
- Having somatic symptom disorder
- Having neuroticism
Treatment for IBS
Unfortunately, there is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome but there are various forms of treatments offered to provide you with relief from those uncomfortable and painful symptoms. Often times, doctors will suggest making some lifestyle and dietary changes to see if your symptoms improve. If there are no significant improvements, your doctor may suggest using medication. There are some medications that are designed to help treat all IBS symptoms together and others that target specific symptoms. Some examples of medications your doctor may recommend include:
- Anti-constipation drugs
- Medications to control muscle contractions/spasms
- Tricyclic antidepressants for pain relieve
- Anti-diarrheal medications
- Anticholinergic medications to relieve bowel spasms
- SSRI antidepressants to help with depression, pain and constipation
- Pain relief medications
Natural Remedies for Treating IBS
Although prescription medication for IBS is available, it can have potential side effects that can be far worse than the symptoms you’re using the medication to treat. If you are hesitant to take medication, natural remedies could be a helpful alternative. In fact, they may be sufficient to manage your IBS symptoms in the long term. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective natural remedies and tips for managing IBS symptoms.
- Aloe vera: Commonly enjoyed in the form of juice, aloe vera is believed to alleviate diarrhea and constipation symptoms due to its anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce inflammation in the gut
- Peppermint oil: Peppermint oil has been shown to be more effective at treating IBS symptoms than antispasmodic medication. It can also help soothe the muscles in the gut, improving gut motility and the movement of food, which can help relieve bloating, urgency and pain. Peppermint is also the first herb to be approved for the treatment of IBS. It is believed to.
- Ginger: Ginger is a plant with antibacterial, antiemetic, and sedative properties, and that contains an active ingredient called gingerol that can help reduce gas and bloating while simultaneously restoring gut function. Put all of this together and ginger can be an effective remedy for treating IBS.
- Chamomile: This natural plant can be ingested in the form of tea, liquid, or capsules and is believed to help reduce gut spasms and pain. Chamomile can also assist with stress relief and relaxation.
- Teas made from berry leaves: The leaves of blueberry, blackberry or raspberry, are known to contain tannins that can help reduce inflammation. These teas are believed to be effective in alleviating diarrhea.
Tips for Managing IBS
- Manage stress: With stress being a main contributing factor for IBS symptoms, it’s crucial to practice stress management and relaxation techniques, such as deep breaking, talk therapy, meditation, and mindfulness.
- Get regular exercise: Getting your body moving regularly can be key for keeping those IBS symptoms at bay.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
- Cut back on caffeine: Caffeine stimulates the intestines, so opt for caffeine-free alternatives.
- Take your probiotics: Increase the good, healthy bacteria in your gut can make a significant improvement in your condition and overall health. It can also help relieve bloating and gas. You can increase your intake of probiotics by eating foods, such as yogurt or by taking a dietary supplement.
- Stay away from spicy foods.
- Avoid greasy foods.
- Try a low-FODMAP diet: This style of eating cuts out foods that are hard for the body to digest and highly revolves around basic healthy eating and eating habits.
- Sprinkle on some psyllium powder: This soluble fiber is the active ingredient in the popular fiber supplement, Metamucil, and it can help treat IBS symptoms.
- Book an acupuncture appointment: An excellent alternative therapy for treating IBS symptoms, especially constipation, is acupuncture as it helps get the bowels moving again. Acupuncture can also help calm the autonomic nervous system, which may help bring balance back into your GI tract.
- Try hypnotherapy: studies found that hypnotherapy, where a trained professional teaches you how to enter a relaxed state, can reduce IBS symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, and nausea by as much as 72%.
Although there is no known cure for irritable bowel syndrome, there are all kinds of effective natural remedies that can make a significant difference in the management of your symptoms.
These remedies include herbal supplements, dietary modifications, exercise, and relaxation techniques like hypnotherapy, and all of them can be done right from the comfort of your own home. However, it’s important to seek medical attention if your symptoms worsen.