Do you find yourself in the unpleasant situation of being among the estimated 30% of Americans who live with ongoing digestion problems? You may be struggling with irritable bowel syndrome, and it’s a good bet you’ve tried the usual contenders among IBS medicine, like laxatives and anti-depressants. But…have you considered natural treatments for IBS?
You’ll want to try the IBS help techniques we’ll discuss in this article for several reasons, not the least of which being that typical IBS medicines often come with side effects. Most doctors only recommend laxatives for short-term use because they can cause dependance. And anti-depressants? They work, but it’s not ideal to use medications for reasons other than their purpose.
Don’t underestimate your body and the mind-gut connection – some 95% of your serotonin receptors are in your digestive tract. Dr. Steven Lamm goes so far as to call the gut “your surrogate brain”. Meaning? Explore this link and IBS gets better. You might do that with the following treatments, along with herbals and probiotics that appear to keep IBS at bay.
Overview: A collection of practices involving needles inserted at various points in the body, acupuncture is one of the best-known exports of traditional Chinese medicine. The logic behind acupuncture is that stimulating acupuncture joints corrects inbalances in flow of qi throughout the body. Define qi as ‘natural energy’, or your ‘life force’.
How it Works: We don’t know much about acupuncture and how it reduces pain. Some researchers speculate that the needles may stimulate electromagnetic signals in the body. These signals may either encourage release of pain-killing chemicals or gently kick-start the body’s healing process.
For: Acupuncture appears to reduce pain from various conditions and has a wide range of applications, from erectile dysfunction to fibromyalgia. The National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization and the UK’s National Health Service have all endorsed acupuncture for certain conditions.
Against: Claims of quackery. There’s scant evidence pointing to acupuncture as an effective treatment for IBS. If it works, you’ll most likely need to pursue acupuncture with other treatments.
Proof: Not much for IBS, but studies suggest that acupuncture can reduce abdominal pain in some people. Most acupuncture patients report feeling better after a session. Whether that’s a placebo effect or that it really works is up for debate, but there’s enough here to make acupuncture worth a look.
How to Pursue It: Speak with your doctor before trying acupuncture. If he/she gives the green light, read this article on how to find an acupuncturist.
Overview: Where there’s an ailment, there’s probably an herbal remedy to fix it. Herbal proponents will have you believe that anyway, and there’s some evidence they might be on to something. Peppermint is among the most popular herbals for IBS, which you can buy individually, as supplements or commonly as an oil.
How it Works: Peppermint appears to soothe the colon, which may be responsible for IBS-related diarrhea and abdominal discomfort. Some evidence also suggests certain herbals may reduce inflammation of the GI tract as well.
For: Herbals are about as natural as you can get and many folks swear by them. Peppermint oil in particular appears to help reduce IBS symptoms. And, of course, herbals don’t have the same dependancy issues linked to laxatives nor do they require a prescription like anti-depressants.
Against: Herbals aren’t free of side effects, and peppermint oil, for all its potential, may cause heartburn. Some herbalists claim peppermint should not be used by itself or for long periods. Moreover, if you’re really interested in herbal therapy for IBS, you may want to consult with an herbalist certified with the National Center For Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAOM). That will take time and money.
Proof: Some. The NCCAOM cites several studies which suggest that enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules may indeed reduce symptoms of IBS, including abdominal pain, bloating and gas. Some studies also reveal that ginger may reduce nausea, though it’s unknown if it helps IBS.
How to Pursue It: Speak with your doctor before trying herbals to address IBS. Assuming you’re not a pregnant or lactating women, and your physician clears you for any interactions with medications or conditions, you can try an herbal IBS supplement from your local health store. A better strategy, though, may be to go all in for a consultation with a registered herbalist.
Overview: Probiotics are the ‘friendly’ bacteria that occur naturally in the gut. Didn’t think bacteria make residence in your GI tract? Yup, they sure do – trillions of’em, actually and they do good work, with evidence showing substantial improvement for IBS symptoms and related quality of life.
In No Guts No Glory, Dr. Lamm describes the ideal balance of good versus bad bacteria as 85/15, and that inflammation, intestinal disorders and, you know where we’re going here, IBS symptoms are common when this balance is disturbed.
How it Works: Probiotics are essential to digestive function, killing dangerous bacteria like salmonella and C difficile, the latter linked to 14,000 deaths from diarrhea each year. Probiotics have many benefits, among them better nutrient absorption, stronger immune system and cosmetic benefits like better skin and hair condition.
For: Less diarrhea, GI inflammation, stress and improved quality of life. Probiotics are team players that have your body’s best interests in mind, on the inside and out. Studies clearly show probiotics can help patients reduce IBS symptoms. They’re safe too, because they occur naturally in the gut. They’re supposed to be there!
In one study, hypnotherapy reduced physical symptoms of IBS by 52%. All without touching a laxative or antidepressant.
Some experts take this a step further and even link this balance of microflora – maintained by these helpful bacteria – to emotional well-being.
Against: Not much, though patients with severe IBS may want to try probiotics with other treatments.
Proof: A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that probiotics reduced diarrhea from antibiotics by 42%. In another study, researchers found that bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium infantis improved emotional and physical symptoms of IBS after four weeks – with no reports of side effects.
How to Pursue It: Eat foods that are high in probiotics like milk, and low-fat yogurt. Patients with persistent IBS might also try IBS Relief System by Digestive Science, which has supplements for probiotics and digestive enzymes, along with a fiber supplement with the superfood chia.
Overview: Remember what we said about the mind-gut axis? Well, new studies show that it’s key to reducing IBS pain and making life more manageable. Mindfulness meditation, which we’ll discuss shortly, is one way to do this, and hypnotherapy is another.
How it Works: Hypnotherapy is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which trains patients to identify and change inaccurate perceptions they may have about themselves and their environment. Turns out this is one of the most effective ways to manage IBS – in one study, hypnotherapy reduced physical symptoms of IBS by 52%. All without touching a laxative or antidepressant.
For: Hypnotherapy works, with lasting results. In the above-mentioned study, the improvements remained when researchers followed up with participants six months later. That’s not surprising when you consider the influence of the gut over the brain.
Against: Assuming you go into hypnotherapy therapy with an open mind and have the time and discipline to see it through, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider this breakthrough technique.
Proof: Plenty of that. More studies are showing that the key to treating IBS is in the brain, with some of the most compelling proof coming from two studies of 135 people with IBS, all of whom received 12 weekly one hour hypnotherapy sessions. It was this group that experienced the 52% improvement in symptoms. They’re hardly alone – another study shows a 30% improvement in emotional quality of life.
How to Pursue It: Speak with your doctor or visit the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis’s database to find the name and contact information of a qualified hypnotherapist.
Overview: That other promising mind-gut treatment for IBS, mindfulness meditation made headlines in 2011 with a study conducted at the University of North Carolina in which participants who practiced the technique over eight weeks reported a 26.4% reduction in IBS symptoms.
How it Works: Mindfulness meditation is a behavioural technique that focuses the patient in the present moment, with non-judgemental awareness of the body’s sensations, and releasing thoughts of the past and future.
For: Mindfulness meditation explores the mind-gut axis, making among the most effective IBS treatments, with nary a laxative, IBS medicine or anti-depressant required. The results appear to last as well – 38% of the patients who practiced mindfulness meditation said their IBS was less severe three months after the study ended.
Against: More research is required before we can definitively recommend mindfulness meditation as a mainstream IBS treatment. While a 26% reduction in IBS is impressive, and that percentage could go up with further studies, it falls short of the 52% improvement linked to hypnotherapy.
Proof: The study consisted of 75 women between 19 and 71. Half the group received mindfulness meditation training, the other participated in an IBS support group.
Both groups took an eight week course that included weekly sessions and a half-day retreat.
On the study’s conclusion, the women in the meditation group reported that 26.4% improvement in IBS symptoms, compared to just 11.8% in the IBS support group.
How to Pursue It: Many community colleges teach mindfulness meditation. Or for a quick primer, watch this introductory video along with this article on how to practice the technique. Remember that meditation takes practice. You’ll need to keep at it, but the results may be worth your time and make your IBS symptoms much more bearable.