Easing Irritable Bowel Naturally

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the gastrointestinal tract — at least one in five North Americans suffers from it. IBS may be brought on by food intolerance, excessive stress or a sensitive colon, and may result in frequent bouts of constipation, diarrhea, gas and/or bloating. IBS can be managed through changes to diet and lifestyle, and with the help of a few well researched supplements.


Many studies have shown peppermint helps the symptoms of IBS. Peppermint’s volatile oils are known to affect the smooth muscle of the digestive tract and reduce spasm. At the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Department of Health, 42 children with IBS were given peppermint oil capsules or a placebo for a two-week double-blind controlled trial. When completed, 75% of those receiving peppermint oil capsules reported reduced pain. In a second study in Taiwan, 110 patients with IBS were given peppermint capsules for one month. Here, 79% taking peppermint experienced significant pain relief. In addition, 83% reported less bloating, 83% reported reduced diarrhea, and 79% reported less flatulence.


The healthy gut needs “friendly” bacteria to keep “bad” disease-causing bacteria, such as E.coli, in check. For many of us, however, that balance isn’t where it should be and we lack adequate friendly bacteria. This is thought to be especially true for those with IBS. Ensuring adequate friendly bacteria, through eating fermented foods like yogurt or kefir, or through probiotic supplements, may be an important factor in managing IBS. In a recent study, 60 IBS patients took either a probiotic supplement or a placebo daily for four weeks. Those taking the probiotics had far less gas and discomfort. Even 12 months later, those who had taken the probiotics had better overall gastrointestinal function. Probiotics are also instrumental in immune function, cholesterol metabolism and nutrient absorption.


In IBS, bowel function often alternates between diarrhea and constipation. Both extremes are improved by increasing dietary fibre. However, the type of fibre used is important, especially for IBS patients. Using wheat bran, an insoluble fibre, can actually worsen symptoms, since it may contribute to malabsorption and allergic inflammation. Psyllium, on the other hand, is a soluble fibre which creates a soothing, jelly-like coating on the intestinal wall while also increasing stool size to promote regular elimination. Psyllium is available in capsule or loose form in most health and nutrition stores.

Sources: J Pediatr 2001 Jan;138(1);125-8; J Gastroenterol 1997 Dec;32(6):765-8; Encyc Nat Healing by Alive Research Group. Alive:1997; Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements by M Murray, Prima:1996; Dietary Supplement Information Bureau