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Remedies for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)


Updated May 16, 2014

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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive disorder characterized by abdominal pain, cramping, and changes in normal bowel function, including bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.

As many as one in five adults in the United States has irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It is a functional disorder, meaning that the symptoms are due to changes in how the gastrointestinal tract works. IBS is known by a variety of other terms: spastic colon, spastic colitis, mucous colitis, nervous diarrhea, nervous colon and nervous or functional bowel.

Natural Remedies for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

1) Enteric-Coated Peppermint Oil

Enteric-coated peppermint oil is widely used for irritable bowel syndrome. It is thought to reduce the abdominal pain and bloating of irritable bowel syndrome, possibly by blocking the movement of calcium into muscle cells in the intestines and easing excessive muscle contraction there. Peppermint is considered a carminative herb, which means that it is used to eliminate excess gas in the intestines.

Eight out of twelve studies on enteric-coated peppermint for irritable bowel syndrome have found that it is more effective than a placebo.

Although peppermint oil is available in many forms, it should only be used in enteric-coated capsules otherwise the oil can relax the lower esophageal sphincter and cause heartburn.

Peppermint oil, in excessive doses, may result in nausea, loss of appetite, heart problems, nervous system disorders, and lead to kidney failure and even death.

Peppermint oil should not be taken internally by children or pregnant or nursing women. Peppermint oil may interact with the drug cyclosporine (used to prevent organ transplant rejection and for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis), so they should not be combined unless under medical supervision.

For more about peppermint oil, read my article Peppermint Oil: What You Need to Know.

2) Probiotics

Probiotics are live microbial organisms that are naturally present in the digestive tract and vagina. Sometimes referred to as "friendly" bacteria, probiotics are thought to promote health include suppressing the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, improving immune function, enhancing the protective barrier of the digestive tract, and helping to produce vitamin K.

There are over 400 species of microorganisms in the human digestive tract and the balance between beneficial bacteria and potentially harmful bacteria is important. One theory is that people with irritable bowel syndrome may have an imbalance in their normal intestinal bacteria, with an overgrowth of gas-producing bacteria.

Studies have found that probiotics may be helpful for people with irritable bowel syndrome. For example, a fairly large study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology examined the use of three different doses of Bifidobacterium infantis or a placebo in 362 women with irritable bowel syndrome. After four weeks, the B. infantis dose of 1 x 10(8) c.f.u. was found to be more effective than a placebo at reducing abdominal pain, bloating, bowel dysfunction, incomplete evacuation, straining, and gas.

There are many different probiotic strains, and some may be more effective for irritable bowel syndrome. Another study compared lactobacillus salivarius, bifidobacterium infantis, or a placebo in 77 people with irritable bowel syndrome. Only people who took B. infantis had a greater reduction in abdominal pain, bloating, and bowel movement difficulty.

For more on probiotics, read my article Acidophilus & Other Probiotics.

3) Partially Hydrolyzed Guar Gum

Partially hydrolyzed guar gum (PHGG) is a water soluble, non-gelling fiber that may help to reduce constipation and to a lesser extent diarrhea and abdominal pain in people with irritable bowel syndrome. PHGG also appears to increase the amount of beneficial bacteria, lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in the intestines.

One study compared PHGG (5 grams per day), wheat bran (30 grams per day), and a placebo in 199 people with irritable bowel syndrome. After 12 weeks, both the PHGG and wheat bran resulted in an improvement in absominal pain and bowel habits, but the PHGG was better tolerated and preferred.

Find out more about Guar Gum.

4) Food Intolerances

Food intolerances may play a role in irritable bowel syndrome, possibly by triggering immune responses in the gut, leading to low-grade inflammation and an imbalance of intestinal bacteria.

The most common food intolerances reported by people with irritable bowel syndrome are dairy and grains.

A trained practitioner can supervise an elimination and challenge diet. Many foods are removed from the diet for a brief period of time, then re-introduced sequentially to isolate the body's reaction to the offending foods. Since grains are a common culprit, it is important to remember that carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth and that chewing grains thoroughly allows amylase, the digestive enzyme present in saliva, to digest the grains.

Other Remedies

Stress may play a role in irritable bowel syndrome. Learn about Stress Management For Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Acupuncture has been explored for irritable bowel syndrome. Find out about Acupuncture For Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Pancreatic enzymes have been suggested for irritable bowel syndrome symptoms that are aggravated after a fatty meal.

Hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, has also been used for irritable bowel syndrome.

Related: Hypnosis For Anxiety

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome is a group of symptoms you have had for at least 12 weeks in the last 12 months. It always involves abdominal pain or discomfort along with two of the following three characteristics:Pain or discomfort relieved by defecation

  • Change in the frequency of bowel movements
  • Change in the appearance of stools
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