Irritable Bowel Syndrome : You and Your Healthy Belly - Part 1

Written by Clare Abercrombie and Lauren Houser, CRNP

Are you or is a loved affected by diarrhea, constipation, abdominal bloating and pain, cramping and gas? You may be shocked to learn that 90 million Americans are affected by digestive disease. Gastrointestinal disease is the second leading cause of disability claims and the economic impact exceeds $141 billion dollars! Due to the sheer prevalence of digestive illnesses, we decided to dedicate a special blog series to the most common digestive conditions. We will explore each condition and help walk you through an interactive approach to improving your gut health. Let’s start with Irritable Bowel Syndrome …

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, that can cause a variety of symptoms including those mentioned above—stools that are too frequent, too infrequent, abdominal pain or bloating, cramping and gas. This disorder occurs when the gastrointestinal tract doesn’t behave ‘normally’ but does not show physical signs of damage. Often IBS is directly linked to non-GI disorders such as: chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, temporomandibular joint disorders, depression, anxiety, and somatoform disorders. As integrative providers, we are not surprised there is a connection between our minds and bodies, and our aim is to help patients develop a healthier relationship with themselves. While IBS and the other GI and non-GI symptoms associated with it can create a variety of symptoms, characteristic IBS symptoms include abnormal stool consistency, bowel movement patterns, and severity of abdominal pain/discomfort. This disorder can be frequent in women under the age of 45 but can affect people of any age and gender.

What are the Causes of IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a multi-factorial disorder which may be influenced by nutritional, physical, and/or emotional distress. Intestinal infections, chronic inflammation, food and environmental allergens, common illnesses, and psychological stressors can cause an IBS flare-up.

When an IBS episode occurs, in addition to GI motility issues (constipation or diarrhea), and pain -usually in the abdominal region, you may also experience persistent bacterial infections, complications with neurotransmitters (hormone changes), issues with brain-gut communication (i.e. sense of urgency before bowel movement), and mental health changes (anxiety, depression).

Conventional Treatments

Conventionally, Irritable Bowel Syndrome has no cure but can be managed by a tailored diet, nutrition, and specific medications such as antidiarrheals, antispasmodics, antibiotics, or antidepressants. Depending on your physician’s scope, they may also recommend following a FODMAP diet (stands for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and PolyolS). This may involve lowering or eliminating foods containing fructose, lactose, fructo- and galacto- oligosaccharides and polyols.

Integrative Approach to IBS

Conventional approaches to Irritable Bowel Syndrome have begun to overlap with integrative methodologies due to the abundance of research supporting the effectiveness of integrative therapies in relieving IBS symptoms. An integrative approach looks at the whole person- how diet, stress level and all lifestyle choices and circumstances can affect the body-mind connection. While certain foods may cause IBS to arise, psychological issues have also shown to trigger and influence chronic IBS issues. Integrative treatments to IBS incorporate the patient’s mental state as well as physical symptoms. We recommend diet changes along with practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training to learn to work with mental stressors and emotional triggers.

A combination of cognitive therapies, an elimination diet to target foods that cause IBS episodes, and probiotic supplements/supportive agents (fiber, peppermint, zinc), may prove to be a dynamic treatment for this multi-faceted, complex disorder.  Reestablishing balance in the microbiome, feeding our good bacteria with healthy fiber, calming intestinal wall spasm with anti-spasmodic peppermint, and healing and reducing the intestinal lining with the right forms of zinc—zinc carnosine and glycinate have different nutritive and anti-inflammatory effects—can be part of the solution. Having relationship with a provider who listens and has your best interests in mind is another essential component to recovery and a return to better health.