Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has been in the medical news a lot lately because—guess what—it’s real, and increasingly common. Contrary to popular opinion, IBS does not cause colon or other cancers, but it can make your life uncomfortable, and if you have irregular and uncomfortable bowel movements, you should be evaluated for the possibility of a more serious disease.
IBS is distinct from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is a more serious category of gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease (ulcers in the small intestine) or ulcerative colitis (bleeding from large intestine). IBS typically presents as chronic loose and urgent stools, often with pain and cramping, and it’s not always easy to sort out the cause.
Foods to Avoid with IBS
The “big 9” food irritants are:
One other consideration: Fructose-induced diarrhea. This is not uncommon, especially if you eat more than 2-3 servings of fruit daily. To figure out if a certain food is causing your symptoms, you need to completely avoid the potentially offending food for 2-3 weeks, then reintroduce it into your diet and watch for symptoms. IBS can also present with heartburn, fatigue, headache, back or abdominal pain, and even palpitations. If after 3 days of reintroduction there are no undesirable changes to your gut function, skin, mood, joint stiffness, or other symptoms, that food is likely fine.
This takes careful organization of your diet, and it really helps to work with a licensed professionals, such as a naturopathic physician, integrated medical doctor, and/or holistic nutritionist.
Natural Solutions for IBS
During the acute phase of IBS (lots of watery stools and cramping), try a hypo-allergenic diet (see “Foods to Avoid with IBS” above). As improvement occurs, eggs and yogurt (preferably from goat’s milk) can be added if they don’t worsen the symptoms. Always be sure to cook your food thoroughly. Well-cooked foods are much easier to digest than raw foods.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower can be challenging to digest if you have IBS. But as your symptoms stabilize, you can slowly add cruciferous vegetables back into your diet. These provide many important nutrients, but can be hard to digest, so are best cooked with digestion-aiding herbs such as fennel, caraway, cumin, anise, and dill. Nuts and seeds, grape skins, and red meat are also all difficult to digest, but may not be the causes of your GI distress.
Gluten is a buzz word among health advocates. The bottom line is that some people find they don’t feel well when eating wheat. Try to broaden the number of foods you eat, and don’t eat the same thing every day. This will ensure you’re getting an array of nutrients. Supplement with digestive enzymes and probiotics (such as LifeSeasons Digestivi-T).
Many IBS sufferers have found relief with a low FODMAP diet. This basically means avoiding fermented foods (kombucha, pickles, yogurt); short-chain (simpler) carbs such as those found in high fructose corn syrup; honey; inulin; wheat; soy; garlic; onions; beans/peas; celery; mushrooms; most fruits; many condiments, dips, and sauces; beer; wine; coconut water; fruit juice; and all dairy. A low FODMAP diet may work better if you have confirmed SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).
What’s left to eat? Most squashes, sprouts, pumpkin, potato, chard, kale, fennel, zucchini, yam, blueberries, banana, clementines, oranges, lemon, lime, papaya, pineapple, carrots, cucumber, ginger, radish, clean beef, chicken, lamb, pork, turkey, tuna, salmon, cod, most fresh fish and crustaceans, bone marrow, oats, quinoa, rice, seeds (chia, pumpkin, sunflower, etc.), maple syrup, mustard, eggs, and cocoa powder.
Carrageenan is a common additive used to make ice cream and other confections “smooth,” but is very irritating to the gut. Avoid this additive when possible, which is used in a lab setting to make mice guts bleed. Very spicy and very sweet foods are also GI irritants, as are fried foods, alcohol, and caffeine. Keep in mind that we’re exposed to more chemical additives than ever in our food and drink, so read labels and try to stick to food that is as close to the way it grew as possible. And cook your food thoroughly. Well-cooked foods are much easier to digest than raw foods.
An Effective Nutrient Blend for IBS
Products that support proper nerve impulses and are nourishing to the tissues lining the intestinal tract can be extremely effective for alleviating IBS symptoms. “The goal with any product designed for IBS sufferers is to restore healthy bowels, and quiet pain and cramping,” says Robin Rogosin, LifeSeasons VP of Product Development. Here are a few of the most effective remedies for IBS (all of these are in LifeSeasons IB Soothe-R).
Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus helveticus (probiotics) are critical to help normalize the healthy balance of bacteria in our microbiome. “Triphala is an ancient blend of three fruits used in Ayurveda that act as prebiotics, and improve the function of the intestine,” says Rogosin. Caraway, Fennel, and Chamomile have inflammation and spasm relieving properties, and Marshmallow root, Red Raspberry leaves, Slippery Elm, and Lemon Balm soothe and calm the intestines.
Other Helpful Remedies to Try
Additional supplements that often help heal and soothe the gut include liquid Chlorophyll (1 Tbs. daily), Alfalfa tablets, Glutamine (about 2 grams daily), and calming Herbal Teas (lemon balm, chamomile, fennel, peppermint, and ginger). And for acute crampy pain, heat to the abdomen (hot water bottle or heating pad) can be very soothing.
Slow Down and Breathe
“Your mental health can’t help but affect your physical health. That’s why it’s important to spend five minutes 2 or 3 times a day just breathing slowly, in and out,” says Rogosin. Focus on what you’re eating—no multitasking. Reading or watching TV while eating isn’t good for digestion. Eat while sitting down, and take your time to chew every mouthful at least 20 times. Enjoy the smells and tastes of your food! Regular exercise helps everything, including being a highly effective stress reliever.