What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition which effects the large intestine. Like most other gut issues, IBS is environmental. It is thought to start as leaky gut. Leaky gut is caused by years of exposure to everyday toxins, poor diet and stress. If left unchecked, irritable bowel syndrome can turn into worse conditions such as Colitis or Crohn’s disease.
The large intestine is also known as the colon. The colon is a large organ made up of multiple sections. These sections are known as the secum, the ascending colon, the transverse colon, the descending colon, the sigmoid colon, the rectum and the anal canal. The wall of the colon contracts rhythmically to move waste through it when it is functioning properly.
During these contractions, the colon is absorbing water and nutrients from the bulk moving through it. Irritable bowel syndrome causes the contractions to become erratic and abnormal. If the contractions are too fast, it will lead to diarrhea. The waste will then be moved through the colon too fast for the nutrients and water to be absorbed. This can lead to dehydration and nutrient deficiencies as well as severe weight loss. If the contractions are too slow, waste does not move through fast enough, which causes constipation. Constipation can be excruciating if it goes on too long.
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include abdominal pain and discomfort, loss of appetite, bloating, gas and cramping. IBS has been shown to be caused by leaky gut. The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are exacerbated by stress and a poor diet. 60 million Americans suffer from some form of irritable bowel syndrome. That amounts to 20% of the population of the United States! Something is obviously amiss and like so many other health issues that we face today, it is directly linked to our diet.
What Causes IBS?
Until fairly recently, doctors did not know how to treat irritable bowel syndrome or what caused it. Many medical doctors still don’t know. It has been shown that an underlying cause of IBS is leaky gut. Leaky gut is the result of the lining of the small intestine breaking down. This break down is caused by exposure to environmental things like toxins, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, stress and poor diet. Over time, the lining gets weaker and weaker until it begins to leak.
The interior of the small intestine is supposed to be sterile. Once the lining of the small intestine is compromised, bad bacteria from the large intestine can enter. These bacteria then begin to grow exponentially. This is referred to as SIBO, or small intestine bacterial overgrowth. As the bacteria grows in the small intestine, it ferments everything that passes through and causes bloating as well as many other problems.
The body’s gut flora consists of 500 different species of bacteria and make up three pounds of your body weight! Some are good, some are bad and some are ugly (as in, they can kill you). This ecosystem makes up 60% of the body’s immune system and it is the core of maintaining good health.
Sugary and starchy foods feed the bad bacteria. This allows them to get out of control, thus throwing off the balance in your gut. The breakdown of the sugars and starches by these bacteria causes more bloating from the production of gas. SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) can be diagnosed by a breath test or a urine analysis. The breath test will determine the amount of gas being produced. The urine analysis will show the byproducts of the bacteria.
Other causes of IBS are food sensitivities and allergies, lack of digestive enzymes, parasites, worms, microbes, yeast overgrowth and deficiencies of key minerals such as zinc and magnesium. The most difficult part of treating IBS is that there is no “one size fits all” protocol. Symptoms and causes are different for everyone who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome so the treatment must be personalized.
A good place to start is to test for SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth). Bacteria overgrowth can be treated in one of four ways. First by diet using the SIBO specific food guide, second is an Elemental Diet, third is using herbal antibiotics such as Berberine containing herbs, Allicin (methane), Oregano, and Neem. The final way is using a non-absorbed antibiotic called Rifaximin. It is a selective antibiotic that is minimally absorbed by the body, unlike other antibiotics. This antibiotic is administered orally and taken for 10 days. It has been shown to dramatically clear out the bad bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
From there, you should begin to eliminate foods that you are sensitive or allergic to. If you’re not sure which foods are the ones that cause you problems, you can do the IGG food allergy test. You can also do the elimination diet if you can’t afford the allergy test. This diet focuses on the foods that are most commonly known to cause problems. Keep a food diary so you can track what you ate and the reactions it caused, if any.
The foods that are targeted in the elimination diet are gluten, dairy, yeast, corn, eggs, soy and peanuts. You should stop consuming them completely for 12 weeks and then slowly reintroduce them to your diet. This will give you a good idea of which ones to avoid. A stool sample can be taken to test for things like parasites and worms if the elimination diet doesn’t improve symptoms.
Enzymes are very important. They help to break down food molecules into a more absorbable size. Enzymes are organic molecules that act as catalysts. A catalyst, by definition, is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction but is not consumed or altered in the process. Catalysts are very important in chemistry and biology, because they speed up the biochemical reactions necessary for life. They can be thought of as little engines driving all the necessary processes of the body. Fortunately, digestive enzymes can be found in supplement form.
Prebiotics (Food for The Good Guys)
Prebiotics are compounds found in certain foods that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms.
The most common example is in the gastrointestinal tract, where prebiotics can alter the composition of organisms in the gut’s ecosystem. Prebiotics are food for probiotics.
In other words, probiotics are the good guys. You need to keep the good guys healthy so they are strong enough to fight the bad guys. Probiotics eat prebiotics. Prebiotics are the undigestible plant fibers found in high fiber, raw, whole foods.
These foods include chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, wheat bran, apples and bananas. Good ways to incorporate raw foods into your diet are with smoothies and salads. As with all foods, the composition changes if they are cooked. Make fiber your friend! It is essential for overall digestive health and helps to soften the stool, which is helpful for relieving constipation, and firms up the stool, which is helpful for diarrhea.
It is best to eat raw fruits and vegetables but there is still fiber and nutrients in the cooked form. If you must cook them, minimal heating is best. For example, lightly steamed is better than sautéed. If you are not used to consuming fiber, start slowly. Begin by consuming a small salad twice a week and an apple a day, or something along those lines.
Probiotics (The Good Guys)
Probiotics are living microorganisms that reside inside of your gastrointestinal tract. They aid in the digestion of food by cleaning out the gut so that things keep moving. Like all living things, probiotics need to be fed and nourished to remain active and healthy. You can also repopulate the gut with good bacteria by consuming foods that contain probiotics.
Probiotics are found in many foods. Foods that are high in probiotics are fermented dairy products like hard cheeses, yogurt, kefir and sour cream. If you need to stay away from dairy because of allergies or lactose intolerance, there are other non-dairy sources that contain probiotics. These sources include, sauerkraut and kimchi (both of which are fermented cabbage), fermented pickles, apple cider vinegar, kombucha (fermented tea), coconut milk yogurt, miso paste and natto (fermented soybeans).
Fermented foods can be made at home with very little effort. Fermented foods were once a way of preserving foods that didn’t keep well, before the advent of pasteurization and refrigeration. The health benefits of the good bacteria in fermented foods has been known since ancient times. Prebiotics and probiotics can both be found in supplement form.
Most importantly, sugar and starchy foods should be avoided at all costs until the overgrowth of bad bacteria is under control. Sugar and starch are the bad bacteria’s favorite food and they come in many forms. Dairy products contain lactose, which is a sugar. Refined sugar is the worst form!
Bread and even some vegetables, like corn and squash, should be avoided due to their high starch content. You’ll want to keep the bad bacteria in check, so it is best not to feed them! If you have a yeast overgrowth (which is a fungus), avoiding sugar and starchy foods is equally important because these things also feed yeast.
A 10-day detox diet is also a good idea. It will jumpstart your metabolism and reboot your whole system. It will remove toxins from the body, curb cravings for sweet and salty foods, help you to sleep better and give you more energy. You will feel more balanced and focused.
Be sure to take magnesium and zinc supplements as well as vitamin A and a good multi-vitamin. This will help to balance the body’s hormones and support the immune system. Magnesium is especially important as it is the key to eliminating many issues. See my article on Magnesium here
There are many types of detox diets. They range from mildly effective to comprehensive programs. Here are some links to very good programs. 21 Day Purification Program or Complete Detox & Restore Webinar and Free Detox eBook
The Benefits of Herbs
Herbs are an excellent health supporting resource! They have the ability to reduce inflammation and promote the healing of the intestinal lining. Herbs can be taken in supplement form and as oils and tea. Adding herbs to your meals is a great way to expand your culinary experience! They can be used fresh or dried. So many herbs have amazing benefits to offer.
When incorporated into your diet, they can assist in the task of curing IBS naturally. Mint, ginger, turmeric, aloe, chamomile, calendula, fennel, slippery elm, burdock root, dandelion root and mallow root are all very helpful. They ease, sooth and calm the entire digestive system. You can also take fish oil supplements to reduce bloating. In the words of Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Enzymes, prebiotics, probiotics and herbs are all very important tools. They work together to cleanse, heal and maintain the gut. Your immune system is located in your gut, so if you haven’t already, you should stop eating junk food. The avoidance of nutritionally deficient food will be your best defense against IBS.
High unhealthy fats and low fiber foods tend to increase the symptoms of IBS. Preservatives and additives don’t do your gut any favors. We were not designed to digest these things and they will only enhance your gut issues. I recommend that you find a good functional medicine doctor. The cure for IBS is not one size fits all. Functional medicine doctors understand the intrinsic connection between the health of the human body and nature. They will be able to guide you down the path of natural healing and optimal health.
Like most chronic illnesses, inflammation is at the core of irritable bowel syndrome. Anything you can do to decrease inflammation will help you to relieve your symptoms. Stress causes inflammation and inflammation causes damage. Damage leads to disease. Stay hydrated. Stay active. Adjust your diet. Practice deep breathing and meditation. Good health requires self-discipline but it is obtainable and sustainable! Take care of your gut because you’ll miss it when it’s gone!
Best of Health,
Daniel Lonquist, DC, CCST, CCWP