Natural Alternatives for IBS

Studies show some natural alternatives relieve symptoms for irritable bowel syndrome

By Martin F. Downs
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Many people turn to natural treatments to relieve symptoms because there is no one treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that works for everyone, and because scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of the condition. Studies of some natural alternatives have had promising results, but none are proven.

Irritable bowel syndrome is not a disease. As the name implies, it is a syndrome -- a group of symptoms that fit a pattern. The main symptoms of IBS are problematic bowel movements, gut pain, and bloating. Some people who suffer from IBS have constipation, others have diarrhea, and some have both.

Before it was called IBS, the syndrome was usually known as "spastic colon." There is nothing physically wrong with the intestines of people with IBS, but the contractions that move food through the digestive tract may be disturbed. With IBS the nerves and the muscles in the bowel are extra sensitive. It's also thought that IBS sufferers may be particularly sensitive to the rumbling and burbling that goes on in the bowel during digestion. What you eat may play a role, too.

Christine Frissora, MD, a gastroenterologist at New York's Weill Medical College of Cornell University, says that before she writes a prescription to treat people who have the condition, she encourages IBS patients to try lifestyle changes. "They have to stop smoking, they have sleep, they have to eat properly, they have to exercise," she says.

You Feel What You Eat

When it comes to eating properly, some people find that cutting certain foods out of their diet helps. What you eat obviously has different effects on your bowel. Fluids also help stool pass regularly. "I always recommend water and soluble fiber -- meaning fibers that are gentle on the GI tract, such as oatmeal, berries, lentils, and split peas," Frissora says.

"Dietary modification, I always tell patients, needs to be individualized," says Philip Schoenfeld, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan and spokesman for the American College of Gastroenterology. "Each patient tends to be a little bit different in terms of food or drinks that tend to spur their irritable bowel syndrome symptoms," he says.

For example, if your worst IBS symptom is pain caused by bloating, eating lots of beans and leafy greens wouldn't be best for you, because they cause gas. But if you primarily have trouble with constipation, then adding fiber to your diet may help. Frissora points out that there is a difference between soluble and "crude" fiber. Crude fiber includes bran and the skins of vegetables such as eggplant and bell pepper. These things can be irritants and don't help.

Other commonly reported triggers for IBS symptoms include:

  • Dairy products such as milk and cheese
  • Fatty foods such as French fries
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine found in coffee and some sodas
  • Chocolate
  • Carbonated drinks such as soda

Probiotics: In With the Good

Some people may begin to have IBS symptoms in the wake of an intestinal infection such as Salmonella. It's not that the infection causes the IBS, but "somehow that seems to affect the normal motility of their small intestine and their colon," Schoenfeld says.

It's possible that an infection changes the types and amounts of bacteria normally present in your intestines, upsetting digestion. Probiotics are natural supplements that promote the growth of healthy bacteria that aid digestion. "Instead of killing bacteria, you're putting something in that will allow healthy bacteria to flourish," Frissora says.

Taking probiotics may help IBS sufferers who can pinpoint the start of their problems on a recent case of food poisoning or gastroenteritis. "That may be where the probiotics are more effective," she says.

Two examples of probiotics are Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus acidophilus. S. boulardii is a yeast culture, sold in capsules by the brand name Florastor. L. acidophilus is a bacterium that can be found in yogurt, and is also available as a supplement in pill or powder form. These probiotics have been widely studied as treatments for various digestive problems, but there have been few studies done specifically for IBS.

Acupuncture

Several studies have looked at the use of acupuncture as an alternative way to ease IBS symptoms, and the results have been generally promising. Although it's still not a proven treatment, Frissora says she thinks it is worth trying when all else fails.