What is IBS and What Causes It?As many as 45 million Americans suffer from excess gas, mucus in the stool, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation. If you’re one of them, then you know IBS is painful and embarrassing. And it’s the second leading reason why Americans call in sick at work. Yet, despite its prevalence, what IBS is and what causes it are questions that haven’t been answered by the medical community. IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that the variety of its symptoms can’t be pinned on an obvious cause. For example, we know what causes Celiac disease. But IBS is diagnosed when a doctor sees the symptoms but can’t determine their cause with certainty. With no known direct cause, IBS is difficult to treat. That said, there are several factors and triggers associated with IBS:
- Diet: Your bowels are the final stop for what you eat and what is discarded during the digestion process. A poor diet produces more toxic waste because the body only keeps the nutrients and discards the rest. Just as a poor diet affects your entire body, it directly affects the health of your bowels. And sometimes, sensitivities or allergies to certain foods can cause IBS. Some of the more common foods associated with IBS symptoms are: wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk and carbonated drinks.
- Stress: The role of stress in IBS is a little more complicated than diet. Stop thinking about IBS for a second and think about a time where you could “feel” stress affecting you. Some common examples are headaches, heartburn, muscle tightness, and high blood pressure. My point is that the way your body handles stress is different for everyone. And studies have shown that chronic stress is common for people with IBS.
- Sorbitol: Foods and medicines that contain sorbitol (a sugar alcohol often used as an alternative to sugar) have been known to trigger IBS symptoms. Why sorbitol? Undigested sorbitol will overstay its welcome in your small intestine, where it ferments the bacteria also living there. That fermentation produces hydrogen gas, which causes the signature bloating, cramps, and flatulence associated with IBS. Sorbitol is a signature ingredient in “sugar free” foods – artificial sweeteners, diet drinks, gum, diabetic products. It’s also in a lot of medications, such as antibiotics and antidepressants. If you have IBS and are prescribed medication, ask your doctor about sorbitol-free medications.
- Genetics: Research suggests that your genes and family health history can make you more likely to develop IBS. But even if your genetics are working against you, you do have options. More on this below.
Side Effects of standard IBS TreatmentBecause there are a lot of possible causes of IBS, it is difficult to treat IBS with precision. For many people, IBS is a lifelong disorder, which means that it can take years of different treatments and medications to find lasting relief. There are dozens of over-the-counter and prescription medications for IBS, and each carry its own set of possible side effects. I’ve always been a skeptic of IBS medications – for both their effectiveness and side effects – and a recent study confirmed that. In the study, 668 people with IBS, who took traditional IBS therapies (laxatives, fiber, and stool softeners) were surveyed about the successes, side-effects, and their satisfaction with their treatments. Nearly 75% of them reported that they discontinued treatment because of side effects and that those side effects caused them to miss work, school and social activities.
Natural Remedies for IBSHere are some of the best ways I’ve used to treat IBS. Unfortunately, none of these are a sure-fire “silver bullet”, but one or a combination of some of them can greatly reduce your IBS symptoms.
- Vitamin D: Recent research showed that Vitamin D deficiency is common in people with IBS. So it’s no surprise what happened when researchers studied the effects of Vitamin D on IBS symptoms. It worked, of course, and here’s how. Stress, alcohol, poor diet, and antibiotics are some of the biggest killers of your gut flora. Vitamin D can help maintain these gut flora. By adding it to your diet, it’s possible that it can restore bacterial balance to your digestive system. As I said earlier, sunlight is the best natural source of vitamin D—try to get at least 15 – 20 minutes of direct sun exposure a day. I also recommend that you take a 5,000 IU supplement daily.
- Probiotic Supplement: Diets high in unhealthy fats can rob the stomach and digestive tract of microbial flora, which are key for breaking down food waste before it passes out of your intestines. Making healthy changes to your diet is crucial, of course. And in additional to taking vitamin D, I also suggest you take a high-quality probiotic to also help shore up your gut flora. Look for a product containing at least 10 billion live organisms per dose.
- InflammaCore: is a multi-purpose nutritional supplement. For IBS, it can improve digestive health by strengthening intestinal walls and regenerating mucosal cells. On top of that, it’s an immune system booster and inflammation fighter.
- Oregano Oil: Oregano oil can help relieve inflammation in your stomach and intestines, which can trigger IBS. Oregano oil has one side effect though (a good one this time!): happiness. Yes, oregano oil is also an aphrodisiac and can stimulate a happy mood and reduce stress.
- Lembo, A. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome Medications Side Effects Survey.” Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. Published October 2004.
- Whiteman, Honor. “Could Vitamin D Supplements Treat IBS?” Medical News Today. Published January 27, 2018.
- Morato, Monica. “Vitamin D Improves Gut Flora and Metabolic Syndrome.” Frontiers Blog. Published December 22, 2016.