Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is a common condition - so common it is estimated that 1 in 5 people in the UK suffer from it at some time in their lives. It is much more common in women than men. IBS can occur at any age but often starts during the teenage years. IBS is common in chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
IBS is not a life threatening condition, but if you suffer from it, it can have a major impact on your quality of life. Some people experience symptoms almost daily, while others go through bouts of “upset digestion’.
IBS is a functional problem. Symptoms occur when digestive function has been upset. Helping restore good digestive function helps not only IBS but also health in general.
What are the symptoms of IBS?
Some of the symptoms associated with IBS are:
· constipation alternating with diarrhoea
· abdominal pains or cramps
· excess wind
· harder or looser stools than normal (rabbit-like pellets or flat ribbon stools)*
· abdominal distension
There are three general patterns of IBS (but don’t worry if you don’t fit neatly into a pattern because your herbalist treats every person as an individual not a pattern).
The three basic types are predominantly diarrhoea, predominantly constipation, and alternating diarrhoea/constipation. Pain may be present or absent in any category. Some people experience nausea although this is not a common symptom.
Cramping pain is a sign that the stomach or intestines are sore and irritated. The cause of the irritation may be infection, food poisoning, excessive nervous tension (the gut has a large supply of nervous tissue), or poor digestive function.
N.B. These symptoms can exist in other conditions and can also be helped with herbal medicine
* Bristol Stool Form Scale may be helpful
What causes or triggers IBS?
IBS may result from a combination of physical and psychological factors. In some people stress, tension, and anxiety can trigger the IBS symptoms. For others there is a clear food connection, often dairy produce or foods containing gluten such as wheat, or sugars. Many women experience symptoms at certain times in their menstrual cycle. Some people experience symptoms following an infection, after taking antibiotics, or after “traveller’s diarrhoea’ and it is likely that the balance of normal good bacteria in the gut has been disturbed.
Research has not shown whether these cause the problem in the first place or simply exacerbate the symptoms once the function of the bowel has been upset.
Other symptoms outside the gut
For some people, IBS is not limited to digestive symptoms. Fatigue, depression, urinary symptoms (irritable bladder syndrome can occur with or without irritable bowel syndrome), headache, joint pain are some of the additional symptoms some people complain of.
Part of these other symptoms may be associated with absorption problems - if your digestion is not functioning well you are at risk of not having optimum levels of nutrients which will affect your whole system - physical, mental and emotional. Some of them may be due to stress and some may be due to food sensitivities giving rise to symptoms elsewhere in the body. Having an ongoing health problem such as IBS is likely to make you feel low or tired which will compound the original problem.
While you can take steps to avoid the triggers, and reduce the frequency of flare-ups, there is much a herbalist can do to help. Anything that impinges on our digestive health affects our overall health - a digestive system that is not functioning well means we are not assimilating all the nutrients in our food that will establish and maintain good health, and not getting rid of our normal waste matter. While IBS is not life threatening, good health depends on good digestion. The aim of treatment is to get your digestion back in balance so that you enjoy a healthy life.
How Can Herbal Medicine Help IBS?
We all know that nutrition is fundamental to our health and well-being - we have to eat well to be well. Herbal Medicine is as close to food as medicine can be. Like the plants we eat as food (fruit and vegetables), Herbal Medicine improves natural function by providing nourishment and support, allowing the body to return to a vibrant state of health. In the digestive system for instance, herbs help restore and establish good gut bacteria, soothe inflammation, ease constipation and/or diarrhoea, relieve stress and anxiety, and relax tense muscles and nerves. And not just in the digestive system - herbs do the same for the whole body, helping to make you feel well and stay well. A good diet is also essential to help maintain a strong immune system so you are less likely to develop health problems in the first place.
It may seem obvious but things that will help constipation dominant IBS may not be useful in diarrhoea dominant IBS. Hence treatment must be individualised.
Consulting a herbalist will involve a thorough evaluation of a person’s general state of health along with looking closely at your diet and lifestyle. Two people (or 20) may have the same diagnosis - IBS, but the medicine and advice they receive will be specific to them. A prescription of herbs will be made to suit your individual needs, along with dietary advice. Sometimes you may be asked to keep a food diary for a few days to see if there is a link with your food - all will be discussed at your consultation.
N.B. There are symptoms that are not associated with IBS that need further investigation:
· unintentional weight loss
· blood in the stools
· pain or diarrhoea that interferes with your sleep