Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common digestive problem that is a combination of abdominal pain and changes in the normal function of the bowel. Along with the pain, there may be diarrhea, constipation or both. It is considered a “functional” problem because the symptoms are so variable, and there is no clear disease process associated with it. The underlying problem is that the bowel is irritated, and whatever symptoms come from that are part of the syndrome.
In my experience in treating IBS, the condition can have multiple causes, and many patients do not get completely well until all are addressed. The most common cause is food sensitivities. Many foods are irritating to patients, with the most common being wheat and dairy. These are not as severe as true allergies, such as celiac disease, but more of a low-grade irritation of the bowel. It can be difficult to trace exactly which foods are a problem for the patient, because there is not always an immediate, obvious reaction; rather, the irritation either builds up over time, or is delayed. For many patients, eliminating the foods they react to is a crucial first step in getting control of the problem.
Another common IBS trigger is past antibiotics use. Many of these medications directly irritate the bowel, and they also change the normal balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This can trigger a chronic low-grade irritation, and if the patient has had several courses of antibiotics, it may not be possible to restore the bowel to normal without some treatment. Probiotics (supplements and foods that contain the bacteria beneficial to our guts) are a good start, and they should be used during and after every course of antibiotics.
Once any food sensitivities are addressed, there are many natural treatments for IBS. I typically start with supplements to soothe the lining of the bowel; this is especially helpful with the pain. I also use supplements that support stomach and gallbladder function. If these organs are not doing their jobs properly, they will pass incompletely digested foods along to the bowel, which will add more stress and irritation. Of course there are supplements that help with bowel function, including probiotics, herbals, and others. Acupuncture can be of great benefit for IBS sufferers; it tends to have a calming, healing effect on the whole body, and calming down an inflamed bowel is a big part of the treatment.
It is also helpful to eliminate any stress on the bowel, even if it does not come from the digestive system itself. Joint and muscle problems in the low back can add to the burden, and IBS symptoms can ease when they are corrected. This can be done with manipulation. Trigger points in the abdominal muscles can be another stress, and they may be completely “silent,” meaning the patient has no idea the knots are there until the area is tested by someone who knows how to look for them. They can be addressed with massage, electrotherapy, or acupuncture, and the patient may be given stretches to help as well.
Because it is a complex problem, IBS requires a complex treatment, tailored to the individual patient. Plenty of medications are available to ease the symptoms, but they do not address the underlying cause; as always, they should be a last resort. Many, if not most, patients get enough relief from natural treatments that the medications are not necessary.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.