Naturopathic Approach to Irritable Bowel Syndrome
When it comes to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, food is often only half the issue.
I take a personal interest in working with patients with this ailment, as I dealt with chronic Irritable Bowel Syndrome for about 26 years. I see so many folks dealing with the stress, anxiety, dietary restrictions and lifestyle obstacles that come with IBS that are often overlooked. It’s a multi-faceted imbalance that encompasses a whole body approach including stress reduction, mental/psychosomatic therapy and of course specific food allergies or intolerances that need to be identified and removed.
When IBS lingers
When IBS is present for several months, this can cause what’s called “dysbiosis” in the gut flora, meaning the probiotics within your digestive tract can become unbalanced and disturbed. When this is an ongoing issue, disrupted probiotics can greatly weaken the gastrointestinal lining and also hinder the digestion, metabolism and absorption of foods. Over time, digestive issues (i.e symptoms of IBS) may become worse because the volatility of the digestive tract is becoming more reactive. What may have been a sensitivity to one single food, may expand to dozens of foods, often making the triggers for IBS attacks extremely hard to pin point.
As symptoms of IBS continue for months and even years, an extreme amount of stress and anxiety can develop around the otherwise common practice of simply eating food. Eating out, eating while traveling, going to work or even going out at all may become a stressful trigger for someone with chronic IBS. In some cases, just the thought of an IBS attack is enough to mentally develop digestive symptoms that were almost completely caused by the mental hyperactivity, not a food trigger. This is called a “psycho-somatic” reaction – when our mental brain causes a gut-brain reaction. Even unconscious stress can trigger digestive problems, leading to quite a cyclical whole body digestive imbalance.
Therapies and Strategies
When I work with someone diagnosed with IBS, I always gain an underlying sense of their lifestyle, work, stress load, home life, self care rituals and of course their dietary inputs. I may do food intolerance assessments with them and request they also get tested for food allergies. But what is most important to me is to know how IBS presents for them individually and what their triggers are. Food is often only half of the issue. Stress reduction is the other 50% of their treatment plan. Herbal medicines work amazingly well to not only help the digestive process, but also to support the stress response. I strongly feel like herbal medicine was an enormous ally for me to overcome my struggle with life-long IBS.
If you think you may have IBS or have been diagnosed with IBS, here are a few tips to help begin building a clearer picture:
1. Get a clear symptom picture: Become very conscious of how digestive upset shows up for you and write it down to identify patterns. Do you feel spasms, pain, burning, cramping or bloating? Does it present as diarrhea or constipation? Do you know of any clear food triggers that always set off symptoms? Write everything down.
2. Be honest with yourself about your stress load. If you’re feeling stress, where does it show up in your body? Do you feel tightness in your stomach or intestines? Is your mental state agitated or hyper-active? What are your triggers?
3. Practice mindfulness and meditation practices. Deep breathing is a lifesaver for a sudden IBS attack. Although it may not solve the issue completely, it can buy yourself some time until you’re in a place where you feel safe and comfortable. Close your eyes, breathe deeply into your lower digestion and visualize a calm stillness. Do this for 5-10 repetitions, as often as needed. Do this even when you feel calm to develop the habit.
4. Incorporate warm chamomile tea into your daily routine. Chamomile is a digestive calming aid that is soothing, cooling and anti-spasmodic to the entire digestive tract. Warm tea is so wonderful on a daily basis for digestion. A chamomile tincture is also great to carry around with your for acute attacks when you’re not at home.
Working with a professional
As far as dietary strategies, I would strongly recommend working with a nutritionist to develop a nourishing food plan while your digestive system is compromised. This will gradually add in more and more foods to support digestion and also heal the lining of the intestines and colon while building up a probiotic culture base again. It’s a slow process, but cultivating a holistic approach to digestive health while solving IBS can be accomplished if you have the right tools and guidance.