Constipation, bloating, wind, cramps, diarrhoea. The symptoms of IBS often leave doctors stumped and with only short-lived fixes. But there are proven natural fixes that can provide longer-term relief
A staggering one in five of us suffer regularly with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and the diarrhoea, consultation, cramping and bloating that come with it. But while doctors usually prescribe short term help to deal with the symptoms, there are longer term fixes out there that could help lessen and even eventually, clear up the symptoms.
‘It’s important to see your doctor first about IBS first to rule out any medical causes,’ says Kerry Beeson, a nutritional therapist specialising in natural support for IBS. ‘Sometimes thyroid problems, serious inflammatory bowel disease and even cancer may show up as some of the symptoms of IBS and it’s important your doctor rules out anything serious.’
IBS SYMPTOM #1: Stomach pain and cramping
Pain or discomfort in the tummy (abdomen) is perhaps the most common and most debilitating symptom of IBS. You may feel this in your lower tummy on your left-hand side and the pain may vary from a sudden sharp stab to a constant dull ache. You may also get on-off cramps which ease if you go to the loo and may get worse after eating. Short term fixes include scopolamine butylbromide (brand name Buscopan) which relieves cramps in about 15 minutes but can come with side effects such as dry mouth, constipation and blurred vision.
Natural help for stomach pain and cramping:
Take probiotics Most people know that probiotics – that’s supplements that help recolonise the good bacteria in your gut – have a part to play in helping IBS. But few of us know that not all probiotics are created equal.
In fact, probiotics come in species called familiar Latin names such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis. But more importantly, within each species are various strains of bacteria. They come with names consisting of numbers, letters or both (for example, HN019 or NCFM) and each plays different roles in supporting your body’s ability to fight certain conditions and reach better health.
‘Given that gut health plays a part not only in IBS and digestive health but also in immunity and brain health, this means that various strains, while having a global effect on health, can also help specific conditions,’ says Beeson.
OptiBac Probiotics have created a range of probiotics based on strains that have been shown in extensive human research to help with specific conditions including vaginal health and immunity. On their website you can find a fascinating Probiotics Database in which you can look up conditions – from bloating to mental health – and find out which strains work on it, with all the science behind them and find out more about probiotic strains and why they matter.
When it comes to IBS, the strains in their ranges not only have an overall effect on health, they also help with specific symptoms.
For example, says Beeson, ‘The HN019 strain of probiotic has been shown to be particularly helpful if you’re suffering from abdominal pain. Other helpful strains for cramping are NCFM and Bi-O7,’ Beeson explains. OptiBac For Everyday Max £35.99 contains both these strains for abdominal pain and could also have an overall effect on IBS symptoms.
Add more fermented foods to your diet Your gut bacteria functions best with lots of different species and strains of good bacteria working together, rather like a healthy rainforest or garden. The different plants complement each other. Adding a variety of fermented foods to your diet will help re-colonise many different strains of good bacteria into your gut, which could over time help ease IBS symptoms including pain and cramping.
Fermented foods rich in healthy bacteria include sauerkraut – look for the live variety kept in the fridge in health food stores (we love the Laurie’s brand from Ocado) as opposed to the stuff in long life jars. Other great sources include refit, a fermented milk drink, Kombucha, a fermented tea and kimchi, a fermented Korean pickle dish.
IBS SYMPTOM #2: Constipation
Now, onto another type of strain. Struggling to do a poo or not going as often as you’d like. One in seven British adults are affected by constipation one report found and the NHS defines constipation as not doing a poo three times weekly or more. Ouch. Doctors tend to prescribe laxatives, but these can make the bowel lazy, says Beeson. You might also find yourself needing stronger and stronger laxatives over time, if the underlying problem is not dealt with.
Exercise. Even something as simple as brisk walking or jogging for half an hour daily will encourage peristalsis, which is simply a fancy word for helping food and waste move through the bowel quicker. One study on middle aged patients split 43 constipated subjects into two groups, one made no changes to their lifestyles and the second was asked to walk briskly for 30 minutes daily. The latter strained less when pooing and also found they went to the loo more often.
Choose the right probiotic strain ‘Constipation can often be down to an imbalance in the gut bacteria,’ says Beesopn. ‘But one of the world’s most researched strains of bacteria, Bifidobacterium lactis BB12 is helpful for constipation and diarrhoea [see below].’ BB12 was the subject of one of the biggest clinical research studies ever conducted on probiotics, Beeson points out. OptiBac Bifidabacteria & Fibre £7.99 contains the BB12 strain.
IBS SYMPTOM #3: Diarrhoea
‘Diarrhoea is a distressing symptom and it’s very important you see a doctor to rule out medical conditions such as a thyroid problem or inflammatory bowel disorder which can sometimes show up with diarrhoea,’ says Beeson. Once that is ruled out, the over-the-counter medicine loperamide (brand name, Immodium) can help the immediate symptoms. But if your diarrhoea is happening often, it’s important to look at helping out what might be the underlying causes.
Natural help for diarrhea:
Try a food intolerance test Diarrhoea can be a key sign of food intolerance, Beeson explains. Certain foods are known to stimulate gut reactions, but a diet suitable for one person may not help another as every individual has his or her own triggers. Many people try a food diary or cutting out certain foods, but it can be hard to ascertain what is causing a reaction.
One way is to test for IgG antibodies in the blood – your body produces the antibody as a defence against certain foods that may not agree with you. A food-specific IgG test, such as the YorkTest IBS Diet Programme £319 from food intolerance testing company YorkTest is designed for IBS sufferers and can pinpoint what your body is reacting to. It involves a simple finger prick blood test carried out at home that analyses reactions to 158 foods and drinks. Once these are identified, a dietary programme of eliminating the offending foods is recommended and research shows, this can be effective for overcoming IBS.
Take Saccharomyces boulardi This is another specific strain of probiotic that as been proven to help diarrhoea. ‘This strain has been researched for 50 years and in some countries is classified as a medicine and used in hospitals for symptoms such as diarrhoea,’ says Beeson. ‘Diarrhoea can often be caused by an overgrowth of what we would call pathogenic or ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut. Saccharomyces boulardi has a sugar called D-mannose on its outer cell membrane that will attract these pathogens and escort them out of the digestive system, helping to reduce the infection. It could also stimulate the body’s anti-inflammatory processes so it helps calm the gut inflammation that can result in loose stools.’ Try Optibac Saccharomyces boulardi £6.79 from pharmacies and online.
IBS SYMPTOM #4: Bloating and gas
Bloating is rarely a symptom on its own. ‘You’ll often find bloating in combination with gas and wind,’ says Kerry Beeson. ‘It may also come with constipation symptoms because if food is lying around the digestive tract for a long time, then it’s fermenting and that is creating extra gas and bloating symptoms’. Equally, when you have diarrhoea, the inflammation and overgrowth of bad bacteria may also cause bloating symptoms. ‘It’s not a one size fits all with bloating,’ says Beeson. ‘For women, it’s important to check bloating symptoms with your doctor as it could be something gynaecological.’
Natural help for bloating and gas:
‘The best treatment for bloating will often be related to other symptoms associated with it and the underlying cause,’ says Beeson. For example, if you tend to get bloated after eating a food intolerance test might help (see above).
Deal with stress. Bloating can often be caused by stress because stress can affect the way you digest your food. ‘Gut health and mental health problems often go hand in hand and sometimes when people treat their gut health, their stress levels get better because their symptoms were making them stressed out. But it can also work in reverse, if people treat their mental health and stress, their gut health might improve’. There are indeed two strains of probiotics that help gut health but have also been shown in studies to help anxiety symptoms, Beeson explains. These are Lactobacillus rhamnosus Rosell-11 and Lactobacillus acidophilus rosell 52. They’re found in OptiBac For Everyday £35.99.
Drink more water Drinking water is essential, especially the filtered variety if you can. It helps the passage of wind and food through the intestine and helps keep it lubricated, making things flow more smoothly. Try and drink two litres daily of filtered water and or unsweetened herbal tea.
IBS SYMPTOM #4: Tiredness
‘if your gut health is compromised, it’s common to feel fatigue because you’re probably not absorbing your food correctly,’ says Beeson. Dehydration from diarrhoea, pain and cramping or feeling sluggish if you’re constipated can make you feel like you don’t want to do anything at all. ‘Fatigue should always be investigated by a doctor to rule out key vitamin deficiencies or serious medical conditions, but once that is ruled out, if you have tiredness in conjunction with other IBS symptoms, your gut health might be to blame.’
Natural help for tiredness:
All of the above Exercise, dealing with stress and if you need it, figuring out any food intolerances (see above) may help overcome tiredness related to IBS, once medical conditions have been ruled out.
A probiotic with a number of different strains to help the various symptoms could also help improve not only IBS symptoms but also energy levels, general wellbeing and immune function, suggests Beeson. Everyday Extra Strength from Optibac £25.99 contains five extensively researched strains that could be helpful for IBS symptoms and general wellbeing.
Click here to find out more about more about which probiotic products are for IBS.
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