The ABC of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects the large intestine and is one of the most common digestive disorders. About one in five adults has symptoms of IBS.

IBS, also referred to as spastic colon, usually affects people between the ages of 25 and 45. Twice as many women suffer from the condition as men.

In IBS, the normal rhythmic contractions of the digestive tract become irregular and unco-ordinated. As a result, the normal movement of food and waste material is disrupted, leading to the accumulation of mucus and toxins in the intestine. The accumulated material results in the partial obstruction of the digestive tract, trapping gas and stools, which in turn cause bloating and constipation.

IBS symptoms

IBS symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea (often alternating), flatulence, mucus in the stools and nausea.

Possible causes

The precise cause of IBS is unknown. The following factors may however play a role:

  • Weak intestinal contractions can slow food passage and lead to hard and dry stools.
  • Abnormalities in the nerves in your digestive tract may result in poorly co-ordinated signals between the brain and the intestines. This can cause your body to overreact to changes that normally occur in the digestive process, resulting in pain, diarrhea or constipation.
  • Some people with IBS have an increased number of immune-system cells in their intestines, which is associated with pain and diarrhea.
  • IBS can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea (e.g. gastroenteritis) caused by bacteria or a virus. IBS might also be associated with an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines.
  • Lifestyle factors such as stress and diet, food allergies, the overuse of antibiotics, antacids and laxatives have also been linked as common causes.
  • Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are also associated with IBS.

Health problems associated with IBS

Malnutrition is a common problem with IBS, as nutrients are often not absorbed properly. Protein requirements may increase by as much as 30%. Mineral and trace element requirements are also increased as it is often depleted by diarrhea.

Although painful, IBS is not serious and most people with IBS can lead active and productive lives by simply changing their diets, by getting regular exercise and by replacing nutrients.

Supplements to consider

The following supplements play a very important role in the management of IBS:

Supplements to consider

Supplements to consider

Herbs to consider

  • Milk thistle, licorice and red clover are good for regular liver cleansing, which is recommended for people with IBS. Avoid licorice if you have high blood pressure.
  • Alfalfa contains vitamin K, which is needed to build intestinal flora needed for digestion and healing and cleansing of the bloodstream.
  • Aloe vera is also healing to the digestive tract and can be taken regularly, on an empty stomach.
  • Peppermint aids in healing and digestion and can bring relief from bloatedness.

Dietary recommendations

  • Following the correct diet, using supplemental fiber and drinking plenty water are key in controlling IBS.
  • Limit the intake of meat, as it can take more than 12 to 15 hours to be completely processed. Instead, increase the intake of fresh and raw foods and lightly steamed foods.
  • Lactose (milk sugar found in dairy products) can irritate the wall of the intestinal tract and is best to avoid.

Good to know

People with IBS should receive regular physical examinations, as this disorder has been linked to a higher-than-normal incidence of colon cancer, gallbladder disease, arthritis, candidiasis and diverticulitis.

By Elmarie Jensen

Phyllis, A & Balch, JF. 2000. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

The Content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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