Foul Bowels

Battling IBS requires more than just intestinal fortitude.

By Karyn Maier

February 2006

Any ailment that affects up to 22 million people is nothing to be pooh-poohed. In this case, we’re talking about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which according to the National Institute for Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease, results in 2.2 million prescriptions each year.

These are pretty serious numbers for an ailment described as just being “irritable.” Yet in a society where bowel dysfunction is not considered a topic of polite conversation, it can be difficult to find help for IBS. In fact, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastro­intestinal Disorders (IFFGD), most IBS sufferers may not be getting the medical attention they need. If you think you may be one of them, then it’s time to trust your gut and get to the bottom of your discomfort.

What is IBS?

To understand IBS, it’s important to recognize what it is not. IBS is not an inflammatory disease such as Crohn’s or celiac (but can be secondary to these), nor a condition that leads to other life-threatening illnesses. While still a complex functional disorder, IBS merely relates to a set of symptoms that fail to indicate disease in diagnostic tests.

This doesn’t mean the disorder is all in your head. Symptoms may include gas, bloating, nausea, vomiting, mucus in the stool and a full sensation after even a small meal. Scientists believe IBS may be caused by a bowel that overreacts to triggers which don’t faze less-sensitive intestines.

According to the IFFGD, clinical IBS is characterized by at least 12 weeks out of a 12-month period of abdominal pain or discomfort, recurrent diarrhea and/or constipation (conditions that should always prompt a practitioner’s visit to rule out other causes). Basically, IBS equates to bowel irritation that can either send you running to the restroom faster than a wide receiver on a fly pattern or desperately reaching for a laxative.

A Natural Approach

There is no specific cause of IBS and no sure cure. However, there are some factors that may trigger bouts of IBS, such as food allergies, enzyme deficiency, disordered intestinal flora and stress. Of the latter, James Scala, PhD, author of 25 Natural Ways to Relieve Irritable Bowel Syndrome (McGraw-Hill), believes that “stress, anxiety and emotions influence our biochemistry, which in turn affects what goes on in our bowels.” If you are a “gut responder” and tend to internalize tension, exercise or self-affirming meditations may help reduce your stress level.

Diet is also vital in managing IBS. Processed foods are a no-no, and caffeine and alcohol must be consumed in moderation. If you suspect a food allergy, an elimination diet—rotating possible trigger foods in and out of your meal plans—can determine the cause. In some cases, an inability to metabolize carbohydrates (including gluten) or fruit and/or milk sugars can be a major trigger for IBS.
Mary, a 39-year-old from New Paltz, New York knows this first-hand. “My symptoms began about three years ago,” she recalls. “There were days when I would actually keel over with pain.” By eliminating dairy and fruit juices, Mary reports that “the pain and gas have disappeared and I feel like myself again.”

Although IBS is not an inflammatory disease, inflamed tissue may occur nonetheless. “When the tissues in your bowels inflame, it also expands,” explains Dr. David Dahlman, director of The Hyde Park Holistic Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, who specializes in the treatment of IBS. “As with bad sunburn, your intestinal lining swells and the pores enlarge.” This condition, called leaky gut syndrome, allows undigested foods and bacterial enzymes to leak into the blood. Since the body is not used to processing this material, it calls forth an immune response. The resulting release of histamine aggravates the problem.

Inflammation may also be attributed to an over-production of an omega-6 fat called archidonic acid, which is produced by the body but also found in dairy fat and meat. To counter this imbalance, supplementation with omega-3 (EPA) may help. Scala suggests that one should start with up to 1,000 mg of EPA taken with meals. “If no discomfort is experienced, you can take up to three capsules [or 3 grams] daily.”

Probiotics are dietary supplements that introduce beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium to help increase production of digestive enzymes such as lactase to digest dairy products. Mayo Clinic researchers found that B. infantis 35624 helped relieve bloating, while British studies found that the strain significantly normalized bowel habits among IBS patients (American College of Gastroen­terology meeting, 11/05).
Many people who have IBS try to overlook it, but it can’t be ignored for long. Balanced living can leave the gas, pain and strain behind.

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