IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) is pretty common, affecting about one third of us in the UK, and that’s the only pretty thing about it. Lets be frank, this chronic condition is a beast to live with.
I know this having suffered for decades; it began with an episode of bacterial dysentery from working in India in the mid-1990s; from then on my gut reacted to a wide range of triggers from stress to sugary foods of any kind and, particularly, fizzy sugary drinks with food. It’s been pretty well under control for several years now, thank goodness, due to a combination of gut-calming supplements and practices.
IBS makes your tummy hurt, bloat and, for many people, means you spend your life wondering if the next gurgling feeling in your belly will necessitate a dash to the nearest loo – and just where is that when you’re not at home? For others, the main symptom is constipation and all the discomfort that stems with that.
There is no single cause for IBS. Although it may start, as mine seemed to do, with one episode, the symptoms result from a number of factors acting in combination. These include abnormal muscular gut activity where the intestine pushes and squeezes its contents on its journey in an over-vigorous fashion, which can be quite painful. People with IBS also seem to be more than usually sensitive to the way this is happening and feel the pain more easily.
Another key factor is an imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gut bacteria, now much talked about. (See my piece on Gut Bugs here.) Food intolerances or sensitivities often play a part and, not least, your state of mind – stress is a big influence for many of us.
Here are some treatments that may help:
There is a strong link between the brain and the gut. Think, for instance, of butterflies in the tummy when we get nervous. This connection can also be used in a positive way to help people regain control over their gut and make it work more normally, according to Professor Peter Whorwell, author of ‘Take Control of your IBS: The Complete Guide to Managing Your Symptoms’.
He explains that hypnosis is a technique for producing a state of deep relaxation enabling people to develop the ability to control bodily functions that we are not usually able to control such as blood pressure and pain and, in this case, the function of their gastrointestinal system.
‘Over the years, we and others have shown that with the use of hypnosis people can learn to control the amount of acid made by the stomach, the muscular contractions of the bowel, the sensitivity of the gut and even the way the brain processes pain signals from the body. In addition, hypnosis has the advantage that it can also reduce stress and anxiety, which, although not the cause of IBS, can certainly make it worse.’
Professor Whorwell says that ‘gut focused hypnotherapy can improve the symptoms of IBS in approximately 70 per cent of IBS patients who have not responded to any other previous treatment. In addition, it helps all the different symptoms from which many severe IBS patients suffer, such as back pain, constant tiredness and nausea. Fortunately, the benefits of hypnotherapy are long lasting and therefore patients don’t have to keep coming back for more treatment. Furthermore, hypnotherapy has absolutely no side effects.’
If you want to explore this option, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor and consult a qualified and experienced professional. More details here.
I would add that self-calming techniques such as deep slow breathing, mindfulness, meditation and yoga (see below) can also help.
Intestinal adsorbents aka ‘gut sponges’
For those who suffer from chronic diarrhoea, an oral product such as Enterosgel can help. Anti-diarrhoea products slow down the frequency of bowel movements but leave the harmful substances to create more havoc in your digestive tract. Enterosgel is a drug-free product which has decades of research showing that the recommended 20-day course can mop up and binds bacterial toxins, immune proteins, fat molecules and bile acids, which may contribute to IBS. These are then eliminated when you go to the loo. That can help reduce the symptoms and prevent more flare-ups.
Pharmacist Shabir Daya recommends Enterosgel, pointing out that, due to its formulation, Enterosgel doesn’t remove water, vitamins and other beneficial substances from the gut. NB Enterosgel should only be given to babies and children under the advice of a doctor. £18.43 for ten sachets.
Both walking and Iyengar yoga have been shown to help some people control their symptoms. According to nutritionist Kym Lang, ‘a 2015 pilot study looked at the effects on people with IBS enrolled in twice-weekly Iyengar yoga classes versus regular walking. Those doing yoga reported significant decreases in symptom severity, gut sensitivity and anxiety. The walking group showed significant decreases in overall gut symptoms and anxiety. Interestingly, more people kept up a walking practice after six months, and subsequently benefited from ongoing symptom relief.’
Foodfests like Christmas and Easter, weddings and parties, even Valentines Day with boxes of choccies and romantic dinners, can mean misery for IBS sufferers – either you avoid all the goodies (being a ‘misery guts’…) or, well, you suffer…
Here are a few thoughts from women’s health expert and nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville, who has written a book on Natural Solutions to IBS, available here. Actually, of course, they work all the time – not just on high days and holidays.
Chew, chew, chew. The first part of digestion happens in your mouth and how well the rest of the journey goes depends on that. Take time to eat small mouthfuls, concentrating on your food. Avoid talking with your mouth full (it causes belching) and drinking much with food as that dilutes important enzymes in your saliva.
Drink peppermint, fennel and chamomile teas. Sip peppermint after a meal. Research shows it can eliminate or reduce spasms, bloating, trapped wind, constipation and diarrhoea. Fennel helps prevent and reduce flatulence and bloating. Chamomile is calming before bedtime to relax both body and mind: it can reduce spasms and control ‘nervous’ reactions in the gut, making it less sensitive to food and other triggers. Try Pukka Herbs teabags.
Evidence strongly suggests probiotics help IBS so consume natural, organic, probiotic yogurt, which is an excellent gut soother. Full fat is fine, but both yogurt – or probiotic drinks – must be sugar- and sweetener-free.
Add one tablespoon of organic ground flaxseeds to oat porridge in the morning, or take the same amount in water. If you have diarrhoea predominantly, try one teaspoon initially to see how your gut reacts.
Avoid fizzy drinks, both alcoholic and non-. They are often triggers for digestive problems.
Investigate gut bugs and the effect of carbohydrates
If lifestyle and dietary changes aren’t improving symptoms you may want to have some simple tests to provide further information. IBS symptoms can be caused by the way the bacteria in your bowel interact with what you eat, according to Dr Anthony Hobson, Clinical Director of The Functional Gut Clinic in London.
Hydrogen and methane breath testing can assess how well you digest common sugars such as milk sugar (lactose) and fruit sugar (fructose). ‘We can also assess if your gut bacteria has moved into the small bowel. This small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, or SIBO, can play havoc with your own normal digestive processes, cause IBS symptoms and stop normal dietary interventions from working properly.’
Dr Hobson says ‘this can often be treated successfully with a short course of non-absorbable antibiotics. Most people can then go back to eating a normal diet.’
Nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville helped a very unhappy little girl I know by recommending a comprehensive stool analysis, which identified issues with her gut bacteria. Here’s the story.