Home Remedies for IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic gastrointestinal condition that is characterized by abdominal pain and changes in motility.
There is no known cure for irritable bowel syndrome. Therefore, rather than treatment that will resolve the disease, it is up to patients to find the right combination of symptom management.
Read on to learn about the changes you can make at home in order to relieve the symptoms of IBS.
What is IBS?
IBS is a common gastrointestinal disorder, affecting up to 20% of adults in the United States.
IBS can affect any person at any age, but it more likely to affect women and typically appears before the age of 35.
It is characterized by functional changes within the gastrointestinal tract.
Functional disorders are classified by biological processes misfunctioning in a way that is not visible on medical tests or through inspection of the effected organs.
For example, in contrast, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is marked by visible, lasting inflammation to the intestine or digestive tract that can cause permanent physical damage. In functional disorders, no physical damage can be found, but the organ(s) are malfunctioning.
What are Signs and Symptoms of IBS?
The symptoms of IBS can vary in duration and intensity from person to person. The symptoms can include:
- Changes to motility (diarrhea or constipation, in some cases alternating between both)
- Bloating or distention of the abdomen – especially after eating
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Feelings of incomplete emptying
- Excess gas (flatulence and/ or burping)
- Mucus in the stool
IBS is generally classified as one of three categories:
- IBS-C. IBS-C is primarily characterized by constipation.
- IBS-D. IBS-D is primarily characterized by diarrhea.
- IBS-M. IBS-M is characterized by a mix of both constipation and diarrhea. Sometimes also referred to as IBS-A.
The intensity and frequency of symptoms can vary drastically from one patient to another, with some individuals suffering from debilitating symptoms on a daily basis and others experiencing episodes on a weekly or sometimes monthly basis.
One study conducted in 2001 that surveyed ~1,450 patients found that 57% suffered daily, 25% weekly, and 14% monthly.
In a 2002 survey of 350 patients conducted by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), over one third of patients rated their pain as extremely or very severe.
What Causes IBS?
The unclear nature of the pathophysiology, or physiological processes, associated with IBS is the main reason why no definitive IBS cure has been found.
Researchers and physicians believe that the disorder is multifactorial, likely induced by a variety of factors that relate to the brain-gut communication axis. Some of these factors include:
- excess fermentation and/ or gas production in the intestines
- alterations in the gut microbiome due to gastritis
- impaired transit of intestinal gas
- increased visceral sensitivity
- anxiety or depression
- genetic variations, especially since your chances of having IBS are greatly increased if a family member has the same condition
Home Remedies for IBS
For mild IBS symptoms, there are a variety of over the counter options that can help to temporarily manage symptoms. The directions on each of these should be followed closely, as they often are not meant to be taken long term.
- For bloating, distention, gas, abdominal cramps: IBgard (peppermint oil capsules, Gas-X chewable tablets or Mylicon drops (both containing simethicone), Beano (enzyme-based dietary supplement)
- For diarrhea: Imodium (loperamine)
- For constipation: Colace(stool softener), Ex-Lax (stimulant laxative), Milk of Magnesia (magnesium hydroxide, an osmotic laxative)
FODMAPs – IBS Foods to Avoid
Many IBS sufferers find that avoiding some or most FODMAPs in their diet provides them with significant relief from their symptoms.
FODMAPs stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols.
These are short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that are generally poorly digested and absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. These molecules act as fast food to the bacteria that live within your intestines – the bacteria rapidly break down (ferment) the undigested material, which leads to the uncomfortable symptoms that accompany IBS.
- Oligosaccharides – molecule made up of multiple sugars. These include fructans and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), most commonly found in garlic, onions, wheat, rye, and beans.
- Disaccharides – A disaccharide is a double sugar molecule. This includes lactose, most commonly found in dairy products such as milk and yogurt.
- Monosaccharides – single sugar molecule. This includes fructose, which is found in many fruits, honey, and especially in high fructose corn syrup.
- Polyols – also known as sugar alcohols. These include sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, xylitol, and isomalt, which are found in certain fruits and are used as artificial sweeteners in products such as sugar-free gum.
This information was originally discovered by a research team at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and has gained wide popularity among IBS sufferers.
Although you find diet in the name, the goal of the elimination diet is neither weight loss nor to completely eliminate FODMAPs from your diet; the goal is to find the level at which each FODMAP can be tolerated in order to create the least restrictive long term diet possible.
The elimination diet is done in two phases:
- Phase 1: All high FODMAP foods are restricted for 4 to 6 weeks. It is recommended that you consult with a dietitian to ensure you are still getting an adequate amount of nutrition during this phase. It is important for you to keep track of any symptom changes or improvements during this period.
- Phase 2: During this phase, each category of FODMAP is gradually reintroduced one at a time. When reintroducing a food group, you should begin with a small amount (e.g. add fructans, such as wheat, to one meal), and work your way to whatever a “normal” amount of that category would be for you (e.g. if you would normally a bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner, you should work up to this amount). A detailed journal should be kept during this phase in order to document symptoms. Before you move on to the next FODMAP category, you need to return to phase 1 for one week in order to re-establish a symptom free baseline.
It is important to note that, while the FODMAP elimination diet produces life changing results for many IBS sufferers, it is not universal and some patients do not see their symptoms improve.
Other foods not addressed by the elimination diet that can contribute to IBS symptoms and therefore may need to be avoided include:
- Spicy foods, especially containing capsaicin
- Fatty, fried, or greasy foods
- Carbonated beverages
- Coffee/ Caffeine
- Soluble and/or insoluble fiber, depending on whether you have IBS-D or IBS-C, respectively
Foods that Promote a Healthy Gut
- Soluble and Insoluble Fiber – whether a certain fiber will be harmful or helpful to you personally depends on the type of IBS that you have. IBS-D sufferers should focus on increasing soluble fiber, while IBS-C sufferers should increase their intake of insoluble fiber, in order to help relieve constipation.
- Fermented food – foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt contain the bacteria Lactobacillus which produce lactic acid and are proven to improve the digestion of lactose and stimulate the gut immune system.
- Probiotics – similar to eating fermented foods, taking probiotic supplements may contribute to a healthy, diverse gut microbiome and a reduction of IBS symptoms. However, it is important to note that long term effects have not been effectively proven. Additionally, since dietary supplements are not regulated as drugs in the United States, patients should carefully research any probiotic and their manufacturer before beginning treatment.
- Water – staying well hydrated helps to promote a healthy gastrointestinal tract, as well as helping to combat constipation.
There are also a variety of alternative methods that many patients have reported to have brought them relief. All of these methods aim to calm the central nervous system, which has been proven confer benefits on the digestive tract. This makes intuitive sense too – if you are anxious or dreading a coming event, you often experience “a knot in the pit of your stomach” accompanied by nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, or other gastrointestinal distress. Alternative treatment methods include:
- Meditation or mindfulness practice
- Yoga or gentle stretching
- Hypnotherapy (especially if the IBS protocol is used by your practitioner)
Home Remedies Not Supported by Research
If you search online for home remedies for IBS, you will stumble upon many results that are not based on research and do not have any scientific backing. Oftentimes nonexperts will mistake a single animal study that had modest results as evidence that the same approach would be effective in humans. This is an inaccurate assumption; more often than not, human trials do not have the same result as animal trials.
While a lack of research doesn’t always mean a lack of effectiveness, or that research won’t come to back up the anecdotal evidence in the future, it is important to know that these claims are not evidence based:
- Apple cider vinegar (ACV): ACV has long been touted as a miracle cure for everything from IBS to weight loss to depression. However, there is little to no research to support any of these theories. There are no peer-reviewed studies regarding any association between apple cider vinegar and IBS.
- Coconut Oil: Coconut oil has gained recent notoriety for its supposed health benefits, including IBS relief, “detoxification,” and anti-inflammatory effects. Again, these claims are not supported by research. In fact, because coconut oil is a fat, it can worsen IBS symptoms for many people because fats tend to overstimulate the gastrocolic reflex, which controls peristalsis (the involuntary contraction of the intestines during digestion). This can contribute to abdominal pain and changes in motility.
- Lemon water: Lemon water is often claimed to offer general “cleansing” or “detoxification” properties. First, it is important to note that “detox diets” are very popular at present, but have no basis in research. The body (namely, the liver and kidneys) is quite skilled at removing toxins and waste products on its own. Additionally, it is suspect that these diets don’t specify which “toxins” they are supposedly eliminating. Lemon water is unlikely to worsen IBS symptoms, but it is also unlikely to help them.
When to Contact a Doctor
Despite the fact that IBS is often debilitating, it is not a life threatening condition. However, similar conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) can have grave consequences to your health that worsen the longer they are left untreated. If you are experiencing unintended weight loss, reduced appetite, fatigue, blood in your stool, or black, tarry stools, you should contact your physician right away.
Do you think you have IBS? Learn more about the signs and symptoms of IBS or how your diet may be affecting your GI system
While the treatments listed above all have proven effectiveness, consulting a physician for an accurate diagnosis before using home remedies is usually the best course of action.
If you or a loved one are experiencing IBS-like symptoms, you can make an appointment with your primary care physician.
Read more from our IBS Series: