There are a lot of different labels that are used when our bodies are not properly functioning, and one of those labels is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
IBS isn’t really a disease–although it can definitely turn into one–and would more accurately be described as symptoms of a greater problem. This is not to say that people are not suffering from it and conservative estimates report that over 50 million Americans may be afflicted with IBS.
IBS is characterized by symptoms including bloating, abdominal pain, excessive gas, constipation and diarrhea. So basically being diagnosed with IBS means that our plumbing has gotten a little out of whack for an extended period of time. IBS may be caused by exposure to toxins or allergens, which can disrupt the digestive system and cause inflammation. Overgrowth of “bad bacteria” in the small intestine, known as SIBO, may also be an underlying cause of IBS.
By understanding that symptoms of IBS are pointing to underlying causes–causes that are easily preventable–we can take being diagnosed with IBS as a wake up call to take better care of our health. Natural treatments for IBS include reducing stress, supporting our friendly bacteria with probiotics and eliminating food additives such as preservatives from our diet. There is no quick fix for IBS, and pharmacological treatments–such as antibiotics–may actually exacerbate the problem. By creating an environment for ourselves that supports our health not only physically, but also emotionally and mentally, we can easily find relief from IBS.
We Need to Stop Treating Symptoms and Recognize Causes.
To heal from IBS we need to recognize that the symptoms of IBS are just that; symptoms! Typical “medicine” loves to treat symptoms and it seems that in the modern age there is a pill for almost everything, and that includes IBS. Treating symptoms is completely ridiculous and the following example illustrates it wonderfully.
Imagine a farmer with a beautiful grove of fruit trees. One day the farmer goes out into his field and sees that the leaves of one of his prized trees has turned unseasonably brown. If this farmer only wanted to treat the symptom he would go and get some green paint and make those leaves green again! Obviously this is a ridiculous solution. The browning leaves are a symptom being caused by the tree itself not properly functioning. In this scenario the intelligent farmer would likely ask himself questions such as:
“I wonder if something is wrong with the soil?”
“Have these trees been getting enough water?”
“Have these trees been exposed to any chemicals that might have caused the leaves to turn brown?”
When it comes to IBS–or any disease for that matter–we should be like the farmer and try to identify the underlying causes behind our symptoms.
Possible Underlying Causes of IBS.
So we know that IBS means that we’re having some issues with our digestive system–and for some people this can be incredibly painful–but what is causing this in the first place?
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
One likely cause is what is known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Our small intestines–the place where we absorb the majority of the nutrients from our food–is filled with trillions of bacteria. Think of the gut like a massive community of tiny microbes. These microbes can be placed into two broad categories being “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria”. 
When we talk about SIBO we’re really talking about an overgrowth of the bad bacteria. The bacteria in our guts need food just like we do, and one major factor determining which kinds of bacteria we have populating our gut is the food that we eat. Bad bacteria tend to feed on sugar. This means any kinds of sugars including carbohydrates (bread, pasta, grains etc.), which are broken down into sugars once inside the body.
Bacteria produce waste products just likes humans do and these waste products can be harmful to our bodies. Symptoms of IBS such as gas, bloating or abdominal cramps can be caused by the overproduction of toxic waste products from the cultures of bacteria populating our gut, and reducing these cultures has been shown to treat IBS. 
Good bacteria support our health by helping us to digest food, absorb nutrients and can even assist our immune system in fighting off pathogenic bacteria and viruses. We can support the growth of good bacteria in a number of different ways. In terms of the food we’re eating, good bacteria feed on indigestible fibers, which can be found most abundantly in non-starchy vegetables. Other great sources of natural fibers include ground flax seeds and psyllium seed husks, both of which make a great addition to a smoothie.
We can also support our friendly bacteria by consuming cultured foods, meaning foods that have live cultures of bacteria in them. Some examples are sauerkraut, kimchi and raw dairy products like yogurt. It is important to note that most dairy in The United States is not raw–meaning it has been pasteurized–and to find local sources for grass-fed, raw dairy I suggest visiting realmilk.com.
We can also take probiotic supplements and studies have shown that these can improve symptoms of IBS and reduce inflammation. Probiotics are cultures of bacteria usually coming in the form of a capsule or a powder. When buying probiotics we want to look for cultures such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus on the label, as these are the species of good bacteria that tend to populate our guts. 
Inflammation caused by toxins and potential allergens in foods.
Any doctor will confirm that whenever these is disease in the body, there is also inflammation. Inflammation is another symptom–not a root cause–and its effects can contribute to IBS. There are many factors which can cause inflammation in the gut–including SIBO–and another major cause of inflammation is overexposure to potential toxins in our food. Toxin can be a scary word and the average person would probably not consider some of the following substances to be “toxins”, but they have been known to cause inflammation–the precursor to disease–so what else can we really call them?
Preservatives are toxins that can cause inflammation and also kill our healthy gut bacteria. Manmade preservatives can be found in almost all packaged foods and simply eliminating them from the diet may completely eliminate IBS like symptoms for certain people.
Preservatives are just one type of “food additive” that may contribute to inflammation. There are all sorts of manmade chemicals added to packaged foods, usually for the purpose of making food look better, taste better, last longer on a shelf or transport better. When we look at a label and see words we don’t recognize, this is a good indication that we’re looking at a food additive, which may contribute to inflammation.
Sometimes these additives can be disguised in a number of ways. The vitamin C found in packaged foods is a great example of this because usually it is a chemically isolated version of Vitamin C called ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid is synthesized from corn syrup–corn that is likely GMO–and acts effectively as a preservative, which leads to inflammation and may promote IBS.
Many food additives have now gone through what has been dubbed “clean labeling”. Clean labeling means that these inflammation promoting chemicals have be renamed to sound completely harmless. One shocking example is “rosemary extract”, which probably sounds like something straight out of grandma’s kitchen right? In fact rosemary extract–which is indeed derived from rosemary through an extraction process involving harsh chemicals and heavy industrial processes–can contain the toxic substance butylhydroxyanisole (BHA), a potent preservative. 
Common food allergens may also contribute to inflammation in the gut. Gluten is an example of a common allergen. A protein in gluten called gliadin has been shown to break apart “tight junctions” in the small intestines of some people. These tight junctions are the barrier between the gut–which is technically outside of the body–and the bloodstream. Usually these junctions open and close intelligently, letting in nutrients and keepings inflammatory substances out of the bloodstream.
When these tight junctions break apart and don’t close up properly, we have what is called leaky gut syndrome and symptoms of leaky gut are are very similar to IBS. The inflammation created by such a leaky gut has been linked to symptoms of IBS. Other common allergens include soy, processed dairy and corn. In many people these substances can cause inflammation in the intestines as well, and may promote symptoms of IBS. 
Characteristics of a Healthy Digestive System
People experiencing symptoms of IBS essentially have an improperly functioning digestive system. An improperly functioning gut can be considered the root of an incredibly wide range of conditions. So what are some characteristics of a healthy gut?
Frequent and well-formed bowel movements.
This can be an uncomfortable topic for some people, but our stool is actually one of the best indications of our overall health. It is one of the only direct indications we have for what is going on inside of our bodies.
The typical person in our society has on average one bowel movement per day and many people actually consider this normal. To call our movements healthy we should be aiming for two to three bowel movements per day. This means that we are effectively eliminating toxins because our stool is formed not only from the that food we eat, but also from waste products gathered from all different parts of our body. Going to the bathroom only once per day means more toxins are sitting around in our bodies, which can lead to inflammation.
A healthy stool has a number of key traits. It should be relatively thick, not the size of a pencil. It should be smooth or have a minimal amount of “cracks” in it and it should be a medium brown, something like the color of cardboard. It should also come out fairly easily, in one big piece or in a few large pieces, not in a bunch of tiny balls. There is an awesome web based tool called Stool Analyzer that can help determine where we fall on the scale of healthy bowel movements.
Infrequent non-smelly gas.
Excessive stinky gas is one common symptom of IBS. This can be formed from an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut. It can also be caused by slow elimination. When food is sitting in our intestines for too long it can begin to ferment, which leads to offensive smells. Gas is normal however it should be relatively odorless and mostly made up of air if we are healthy.
Not feeling bloated.
Bloating is another symptom of IBS and is commonly experienced after meals. This can be due to eating meals high in sugar and carbs, which promote bad bacteria growth. As the bad bacteria feed on their favorite food–sugar–the waste products they produce can create the feeling of bloating.
Bloating can also be caused by poor combinations of foods. Combining fruit–and especially watermelon–with a meal can lead to this feeling. This is because fruit is meant to pass through the stomach in about 30 minutes and when combined with other foods–foods that need to stay longer in the stomach–the fruit can start fermenting. When starchy foods–or anything high in carbs–are combined with protein rich foods such as meat, this can happen as well.
Different foods require different digestive processes and especially for someone with a weak digestive system (anyone with IBS) proper food combining should be practiced to promote healing. Check out this article for more information and some practical tips on food combining. This doesn’t need to be practiced religiously, but observing some of these rules can help with IBS for sure.
What We Should be Focused on Instead of Treating Symptoms.
Our health is directly correlated with our environment. By environment I mean everything that we are exposed to every single day including the food we eat, the water we drink, the products we put on our skin and the air that we breath. These things constitute the physical environment, however our environment expands beyond the physical and includes our emotions and our thoughts as well. Every single thought and emotion that we experience can be communicated to our cells by complex biological signaling involving neurotransmitters and hormones.
There is a major myth in our society that genes control our biology and this is complete nonsense. Sure, genes may predispose us to developing certain conditions or having certain traits, but they don’t control our fate. In fact the science of genetics is old news and the new science is called epigenetics, which actually says that genes do not entirely control our biology. Hurray, we’re no longer victims of our genes! Epigenetics studies how the environment can actually dictate gene expression.
In a famous experiment conducted by Dr. Bruce Lipton–Author of The Biology of Belief and a pioneer in this field–identical stem cells were divided into 3 different petri dishes. Dr. Lipton changed the culture medium in each dish–meaning the fluid that these cells were floating around in–and the results were incredible. In one dish the cells formed muscle cells, in another bone cells and in the last fat cells. The destiny of these identical cells–all with identical genes–was controlled by the environment of the cell.
Humans are no different because in fact we are composed of roughly 10 trillion cells. So knowing that our environment dictates the fate of our cells–and thus the whole community of cells called the human body–we become empowered to create a health promoting environment.
To heal from IBS–or any disease–we want to create an environment for our bodies that supports good health. This means–from a physical perspective–promoting our healthy bacteria, reducing our intake of toxins and providing our bodies with all of the essential minerals and vitamins that it needs. From a mental and emotional perspective it means surrounding ourselves with healthy relationships–people who support us–and taking time to reduce stress in our life through practices such as yoga or meditation.
Stress potentially created by persistent negative thought patterns, a taxing relationship or a draining work environment may contribute to IBS and in fact “chronic life stress” has been proven to be an accurate predictor of symptom intensity for patients with IBS. Stress has also been linked to increasing incidences of IBS symptoms and one study suggests that people suffering from IBS may react more strongly to stress.  
By creating an environment for ourselves that supports health we can heal from the symptoms of IBS–by treating the underlying causes–and enjoy long lasting health and vitality.
- SIBO a Possible Cause of IBS
- Eliminating SIBO may Treat IBS
- Probiotics Relieve Symptoms of IBS and Reduce Inflammation
- All About "Clean Labeling"
- IBS Related to Inflammation Caused by Increased gut Lining Permeability
- Chronic Life Stress Linked to IBS
- People Suffering From IBS React More Strongly to Stress