Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Cramping Your Style?
Our bowel habits usually aren't cocktail party fodder, but some gastrointestinal problems are so common that several of your fellow partygoers are likely to suffer from one of them. Take irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example: This condition -- which affects an estimated 15 percent of Americans -- can cause uncomfortable changes in bowel habits, including diarrhea, chronic constipation or a combination of both. People with IBS may also experience bloating, gas and intense abdominal pain. No wonder no one wants to talk about it.
Living with IBS can be frustrating, especially if you rely on conventional measures to treat it. The condition can have a devastating impact on your happiness, your relationships and even your career. In fact, IBS is one of the leading causes of absenteeism from the workplace. True, some prescription drugs (such as rifaximin for gas and bloating, tricyclic antidepressants and antispasmodics for pain and lubiprostone for constipation) can help improve symptoms. But the Food and Drug Administration has banned or restricted the use of other medications, like Zelnorm (banned) and Alosetron (restricted), because of their potentially harmful effects. So what's a person with IBS to do?
Mother Really Does Know Best
Before I share with you my recommendations for easing IBS symptoms, I'd like to tell you about my mother. She's the reason, after all, that I became a gastroenterologist and developed an interest in complementary and alternative therapies in the first place.
You see, when I was in my high school, my mother suffered from IBS. Together, she and I went from doctor to doctor, looking for ways to treat the extraordinary pain that this condition caused her. The results were disappointing, to say the least. But my mother was a courageous and intelligent woman. So she began researching complementary and alternative therapeutic approaches to treating her gut problems -- reading books and magazines on natural healing, listening to radio shows on the subject: You name it, she learned about it.
Her healing became a team effort. So what happened? Six months after she began this treatment protocol, mom was a new woman. Her friends and family were amazed at how quickly her symptoms had eased -- and so was I. When I later became a physician, I began to incorporate complementary and alternative therapies into my own practice. The results have been impressive.
My Top Five Natural Remedies for IBS
When it comes to seeking relief from IBS, my mother wasn't alone: People with IBS are usually willing to try anything to improve their symptoms, and about 50 percent experiment with complementary and alternative approaches as a result. While not every natural therapy can treat IBS, research suggests that several can help ease symptoms -- in some cases, more effectively and more safely than conventional medications. Here's what I recommend to keep IBS at bay. Try one or more of these approaches to see what works for you:
Most people with IBS notice that their symptoms tend to worsen under stress. That's not surprising: The brain and the gut's nervous system are intertwined through a series of hormones and biochemicals, which means that negative thoughts can have profound effects on digestive function. Stress management techniques like meditation, deep breathing, yoga and even hypnosis can all improve IBS. Try them one at a time and see what works best for you, then practice your favorite regularly.
Food is a notorious trigger of IBS symptoms for many people. In most cases, it's difficult to guess the specific culprits, so when my IBS patients tell me that food seems to set off their symptoms, I place them on an elimination diet that removes the most common food allergens (such as corn, soy, dairy and wheat). Studies show that eliminating such allergens can be quite effective at easing IBS symptoms. If you believe food may be triggering your IBS symptoms, ask your doctor about following an elimination diet.
This ancient Asian technique has long been used to alleviate pain and relax the mind, both of which can benefit people with IBS. Some research has found a possible link between acupuncture and the relief of IBS symptoms, but regular visits (once or twice a week) are thought to be necessary to see results. Fortunately, many insurance carriers now cover the much of the costs for acupuncture visits, which typically range from $35 to 65.
This soothing herb appears to calm intestinal spasms, offering rapid relief for people with IBS. One 2008 review of clinical trials published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice found that encapsulated peppermint oil was more effective than conventional medications at improving symptoms of IBS. Look for enteric-coated peppermint oil and take 0.2 mL in capsule form two to three times per day with meals. Teas, unfortunately, are not as helpful.
A healthy gut requires sufficient quantities of "friendly" flora. More than a dozen clinical trials, using a number of different strains of friendly bacteria (known as probiotics), have been conducted, with promising results. Consider using probiotic strains that have been either proven in clinical trials to be safe and effective (such as VSL#3) or that are from companies that adhere to good manufacturing practices. The starting dose for taking probiotics is 10 billion colony-forming units daily. If you're lactose intolerant, look for dairy-free formulations.
As my mother knew only too well, managing IBS can be challenging. With some crucial lifestyle changes and a few key supplements, though, you can improve your symptoms and start on the path back to good gut health.
Follow Gerard E. Mullin, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drmullin