5 ways to tackle IBS symptoms

18 November 2015 by
First published: 5 November 2015

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic autoimmune reaction to certain foods, caused by a bacteria imbalance in the gut. It’s not a digestive system disease (like Crohn’s), instead it’s caused by variations in the physiology of the bowel – making some people more likely to experience typical IBS symptoms, such as diarrhoea, bloating, constipation and abdominal pain, than others.

Just some common culprits that can trigger or exacerbate the condition include: the exposure to antibiotics, an episode of food poisoning, high levels of stress or anxiety over a prolonged period, and the consumption of inappropriate probiotics that can upset the lining of the gut.

We’ve tracked down some top experts who’ve been researching the condition and asked how those suffering with IBS can improve their gut health naturally. Here are five major changes you can make today:

Choose your probiotics wisely

‘Our intestinal tract harbours a diverse and complex community of one-celled organisms or microbiota that play a central role in our health. And this influences digestive enzyme activity,’ explain registered dieticians and cookbooks – Becoming Vegan and Becoming Rawauthors Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis.

So the logical solution would seem to be to replenish this gut bacteria, but supplementing with certain probiotics can actually do more harm than good to our digestive tract, creating further gut microbiota imbalances and triggering the wrong immune response. So when choosing a probiotic, look out for references like La-14 or NCFM next to Lactobacillus Acidophilus on the ingredients list. These abbreviations correspond to a type of strain and tell you exactly what that probiotic is going to do – either boosting immunity, increasing natural killer cells or improving overall gut health. To get the most out of any treatment, rotate different strains of probiotics and choose acid-resistant vegetable capsules over any other shell, as this will increase absorption by at least 15 per cent.

The package labelling on probiotic supplements is often confusing. Should they be taken with meals, before or after meals, or on an empty stomach? A 2011 PubMed study looked at the impact of meals on a probiotic supplement and discovered that probiotics should be taken with a meal, mixed in smoothies or sprinkled on food, or even taken 30 minutes before a meal.

Eat ‘alkaline’ 

A recent study by the World Journal of Gastroenterology has found that an overgrowth of bacteria called Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) occurs in 78 per cent of IBS patients when gut flora is growing too abundantly. Ensuring the bacteria in your gut stays at healthy levels is a delicate balancing act, and what you’re putting into your body certainly affects it. ‘A highly important factor in determining the mix of gut bacteria is the food that goes to sustain it,’ agrees Vesanto. ‘Those basing their diets on plant foods harbour fewer of the disease-causing organisms that trigger low grade inflammation. And the fibre in their intestines results in a greater abundance of protective microorganisms linked with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, intestinal disorders and obesity.’

Consume more raw food 

The evolutionary biology department at Harvard University has produced new evidence in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology to show that by cooking food, 10 – 20 per cent more of the energy is available to us in protein, as it is broken down and more easily processed by our digestive enzymes.

But for IBS sufferers, cooking food causes more problems, so it’s better to eat raw. We do not have the digestive enzymes to make proper use of the protein in cooked foods. Instead, the body’s own immune system recognises such proteins as “foreign” and attacks healthy cells, resulting in a wide range of autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Many people find that what works for them is to base about 75 per cent of the diet on raw plant foods, and the rest on cooked items. The cooked items might be baked or steamed yams, or wholegrains such as quinoa. For irritable bowels, soft fruits such as bananas are best, and in some cases, juiced vegetables can be used with good effect. ‘An otherwise entirely raw diet can be topped up with legumes – beans, peas and lentils – as these are outstanding sources of protein,’ says Melina.

Stop restricting calories 

Many diets that target people suffering from IBS can prove extremely restrictive and can sometimes do more harm than good. ‘The problem with a lot of restrictive diets is that people are sometimes using them with the belief it’s going to solve all of their problems, so they go down the road of compulsive restriction of certain foods without any absolute health reasons,’ points out gastroenterologist Dr Peter Gibson. ‘Another theoretical risk of eliminating food groups is that you’re going to create an environment in your bowel where you won’t have as many health-promoting macrobiotics and thus a bacteria imbalance.’ In fact, a 2006 study in the Obesity Research Journal found that when individuals went on a calorie-restricted diet for eight weeks, their gut hormones significantly decreased for up to one year afterwards.

Keep stress and anxiety at bay

The primal connection that exists between our brain and our gut plays a major role in our health, and episodes of chronic stress can dramatically alter the functions of the gastrointestinal tract. Exposure to stress raises the adrenal hormone cortisol, which impairs nutrient absorption and degrades the gut lining.  Stress, when combined with other factors such as poor diet, overindulgence in alcohol, loss of sleep and overexercising, can contribute to ‘leaky gut syndrome’ and our gut hormones can become desensitised. For functional medicine expert Mike Mutzel, the key to activating gut hormones, reducing inflammatory reaction and improving digestion is to focus on implementing lifestyle changes, such as being mindful when chewing food to make digestion easier, to practice some sort of parasympathetic nervous system boosting activity (like meditation) in the morning and to do appropriate exercise.