IBS, short for irritable bowel syndrome, is a medical conundrum because symptoms vary, causes are unknown, and there isn't any definitive, effective conventional treatment. When patients detail their symptoms to a doctor, they are likely checked for appendicitis, gallstones, tumors, an ulcer, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis. If none of these are the culprit, the diagnosis may be IBS.
"This very broad diagnosis of IBS doesn't tell you more," says Stephen Wangen, ND, cofounder and medical director of the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle, and Santa Monica, Calif. "Basically, your bowel irritates you and now you know you've got a syndrome called ‘my bowel irritates me.'"
What Is IBS?
Digestive discomfort is technically considered IBS when one or more of these symptoms persists for several months: diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, or abdominal pain. With Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, there is damage to the intestinal lining that can be detected with a colonoscopy. While this isn't the case with IBS, the condition can be quite debilitating, but there's much that you can do to alleviate the symptoms.
"I've taken care of a lot of patients over the years with IBS and Crohn's and colitis," says Josh Axe, DC, author of Eat Dirt, "My diet for them has been an all-vegetable and meat diet, for the most part, cooked in a crock pot, and it works great." Here are his three steps to digestive relief.
1 - Rest your gut
"You want to do as much as you can to make it easy on the digestive system," says Axe. With that goal in mind, the least labor-intensive foods to digest are bone broths and soups, made with meat or poultry, vegetables, and herbs, and cooked for a long time. (See our Gut-Healing Chicken Broth recipe.)
"When you cook something for 12-24 hours all together in one pot, the enzymes, the foods, they all come together as one," says Axe, "It's like being on what's called a mono diet, where your body only has to work to digest one thing and not all the complex parts." Traditional Chinese medicine, he says, has recognized the value of such dishes, calling them "one pot," for thousands of years.
Intermittent fasting is another way to give your digestive tract a break. For example, instead of spreading out three or more meals during the course of the whole day, try eating only at noon, mid-afternoon, and around 6 pm, without any snacks at other times. This leaves about 18 hours without any food entering your system.
2 - Avoid the triggers
Each of us is unique in our ability to digest various foods, but there are some common ones that trigger digestive problems for many people. "Sugar feeds yeast," says Axe, and can lead to an overgrowth. Grains that are not sprouted or fermented are also notoriously difficult to digest.
One good choice is authentic sourdough bread, because it's made with a starter culture-a mixture of yeast and beneficial bacteria-that ferments the grain and makes it easier to digest. However, commercial "sourdough" can be made with acidic ingredients to produce a sour flavor without fermentation. The only way to tell if sourdough bread is real or fake is to ask the baker or make your own.
Gluten is another common trigger, but sprouted or fermented grains can sometimes be well tolerated by people who generally react badly to gluten. Other common trigger foods include dairy, eggs, and soy.
3 - Balance microbes
Antibiotics in medicines and conventional meat and poultry-as well as antimicrobial ingredients in tap water, hand sanitizers, soaps, and body-care and home cleaning products-kill off good gut bugs and contribute to the overgrowth of bad ones. To restore balance, Axe recommends avoiding good-bug killers, as well as getting probiotics from fermented foods and supplements. Gut-healing supplements include:
- Probiotics with multiple strains, including soil-based organisms: 50-100 billion units daily.
- L-glutamine: 2,000-5,000 mg daily.
- Zinc: 30 mg daily.
- DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice): 500-1,000 mg daily.
- Formulas that contain a combination of these ingredients and other herbs that calm digestive inflammation, such as slippery elm and marshmallow root.
- Chamomile tea.
In severe cases of IBS or inflammatory bowel diseases, Axe tells patients to start adding probiotics by taking a single teaspoon of sauerkraut juice daily, and perhaps a quarter of the usual dose of a probiotic supplement, increasing the supplement each week by one-quarter, to reach a full dose in about four weeks.
Everyday Healing Habits for IBS
"We've made an enemy of dirt and germs and we've swung the pendulum too far in one direction from where it used to be a hundred years ago, when lack of sanitation was the leading cause of death worldwide," says Axe. As a result of an overly sanitized environment and food supply, our digestion and immunity suffer because we lack different types of microorganisms, including good bacteria, good viruses, and good fungi that we should be exposed to in the normal course of life.
Good viruses in our gut, called phages, are even tinier than bacteria, but powerful. They devour harmful bacteria, helping to maintain a healthy balance. Good fungi help to prevent overgrowth of harmful fungi.
To correct the imbalance, Axe says, we need to be exposed to beneficial organisms in a variety of ways:
- Get a dog or cat and play with it. You'll share some good bugs.
- Walk barefoot outdoors for at least 5-10 minutes every day when weather permits.
- Swim in the ocean, the top source of beneficial viruses. If you're land-locked, swim in local lakes or rivers.
- Eat raw local honey to be exposed to beneficial local microbes and pollen (unless you're allergic to bee products).
- Eat pesticide-free vegetables that come from your garden or are locally grown and not over-cleaned. Carrots, for example, should not be peeled and should retain imperfections and natural dark specks. Wash them, but don't scrub or use vegetable washes, as this will get rid of the beneficial microorganisms that we really should be eating.
- Eat shiitake or other medicinal mushrooms, with the stems.
At the same time, avoid substances that kill off beneficial organisms:
- Use antibiotics and other pharmaceutical drugs only when they are medically necessary.
- Eat antibiotic-free (preferably organic) meat and poultry.
- Don't drink tap water, because chlorine and fluoride kill good bugs.
- Replace products containing chemical antimicrobial ingredients-including hand sanitizers, wipes, and body-care and cleaning products-with natural versions that contain essential oils.
"Germ warfare has backfired on us," says Axe, "And we need to bring good dirt and good germs back into our lives."
How to Find the Right Physician
Underlying causes of IBS are unique to each individual, says Stephen Wangen, ND. It could be a yeast overgrowth; imbalances in bacteria, fungi, parasites; or some type of immune reaction causing inflammation. If you try various diets and supplements but don't get relief, it's time to look for the right health professional.
"You want someone who feels that there is hope," he says, "who knows that there must be a cause, who's going to be looking for what's going on in you, the patient, as opposed to just telling you ‘it's always this.'" Wangen offers more information at ibstreatmentcenter.com.To find a naturopathic doctor near you, visit naturopathic.org.
Simple Ways to Relieve Heartburn
Technically called acid reflux, heartburn is the symptom of partially digested food regurgitating up the esophagus. To avoid it: Don't rush or multitask when you eat; chew food thoroughly; stop eating before you're full; have smaller, more frequent meals; and avoid foods that you know trigger the problem. If that doesn't do the trick, instead of antacids or drugs, try one or more of these natural remedies:
- Before meals, drink a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar mixed in water.
- Take chewable DGL (a specific form of the herb licorice) a few times a day.
- Take digestive enzymes with meals.
DIY Hand Sanitizer
To make your own hand sanitizer, Axe recommends mixing pure aloe vera gel with tea tree oil, or essential oil of lavender or myrrh-nature's way of fighting bad bugs without destroying good ones. For more recipes and DIY remedies, visit draxe.com.