Nutrition for Irritable Bowel Syndrome
That bloated feeling
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is now so common that it affects a third of the UK population at one time or another. IBS is an umbrella term for a wide range of symptoms that affect the entire digestive system. Sufferers commonly report symptoms such as alternating constipation and diarrhoea, painful cramps and spasms, abdominal bloating, nausea, acidity, heartburn or a sensation of fullness very soon after eating even a small meal. There may be poor sleep patterns and fatigue and a general sense of not feeling right. Getting to the cause of the problem depends on each individual case.
Low stomach acid
Good digestive function is key to avoiding IBS. A vital early stage of digestion takes place in the stomach where hydrochloric acid (HCl) is produced. HCl stimulates the production of protein digesting enzymes and it triggers the pancreas and gall bladder to produce more digestive enzymes for the digestion of fat and carbohydrates. Low stomach acid can result in incompletely digested food particles in the intestines irritating the delicate lining of the bowel wall. As well as being a digestive aid, stomach acid acts as a disinfectant against bugs. So another consequence of low stomach acid is the likelihood of more frequent infections. Stomach acid levels can be measured with a simple home string test or a live blood microscopy can detect low levels.
The lining of a healthy gut wall is designed to allow through tiny molecules of food which are used for energy, stored or made into, for example, hormones or muscle. However, if the gut becomes damaged or inflamed and “leaky”, larger than usual food molecules are able to pass through its lining. When these food particles come into contact with the blood they can provoke an immune reaction. Conditions linked with leaky gut include food allergies, IBS symptoms, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema and psoriasis. The gut may become damaged in the first place because of food allergies, incompletely broken down food particles, medication and the overgrowth of the wrong gut bacteria.
Imbalanced gut flora (dysbiosis)
Scientific research is backing up what natural health practitioners have known for years, that the composition of the intestinal bacteria is vitally important to health. The average gut contains around 3lb of micro organisms, some beneficial and some disease causing. In a healthy gut, the “friendly” bacteria predominate and they have important digestive and immune functions.
An excess of the less desirable bacteria is almost always a factor in IBS. Negative influences on the balance of good bacteria include stress, smoking, poor diet and medication, particularly antibiotics, steroids and the contraceptive pill. Once the flora is out of balance, undesirable organisms including yeasts and parasites may start to multiply and crowd out the “friendly” bacteria even further. A pool of toxins is created in the gut which literally lead to a type of self poisoning. Bacterial balance can be positively influenced by the right foods and supplements.
A normal bowel will contain some yeasts but for some people, yeast becomes problematic as it develops into a form which can spread through the gut and elsewhere in the body. Candida Albicans is one such yeast and its presence can contribute to a range of physical and mental symptoms including bloating, gas and many other symptoms attributed to IBS. The presence of candida can be assessed by symptoms or a live blood microscopy. Candida responds to a course of treatment involving natural anti-fungal herbs and nutrients and dietary adjustments.
If you suffer from IBS symptoms, in particular persistent diarrhoea, or if you have felt unwell since a trip abroad, parasite infection could be a factor in your symptoms. More sophisticated than the NHS test for parasites is a test called the CDSA (Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis). Due to more sensitive laboratory techniques, this test can detect hard to find parasites such as giardia when other tests may have come back clear. In addition, one particular parasite, blastocystis hominis is not recognised as a pathogenic (symptom causing) organism by mainstream medicine, yet it has been detected in a large proportion of people with IBS type symptoms. When this parasite is treated, some people experience recovery.
A stool test can be useful to detect the presence of candida, parasites and incorrect bacterial balance.
The presence of food intolerances can be a factor in IBS. Food intolerances or sensitivities have been so named to distinguish them from food allergies. The main difference is that the latter involve severe symptoms which appear almost immediately after eating the offending food. A good example is peanut allergy which can even cause death in some cases.
Food intolerances on the other hand result in uncomfortable symptoms which can occur up to 72 hours after eating a food. Food intolerances can be detected by following an elimination diet, testing for IgG antibodies or using a test known as a FACT which measures the production of blood chemicals called leukotrienes. These substances are associated with the allergic response.
The link between emotional states and physical symptoms is well documented and this is particularly apparent with gut problems. There are a multitude of nerve endings in the gut and it is often called the second brain for this reason. Emotional stress, particularly if prolonged, will impact on the gut. But equally, the presence of IBS symptoms is likely to cause stress, depression or anxiety so it is a chicken and egg situation. Following a supportive diet will help physically and Australian bush flower essences (Archturus 01592 620 865) can be very effective at helping resolve emotional blocks. Bottlebrush is a good essence for IBS when there are issues around letting go and moving on. Combine it with Boab to release longstanding, unhelpful emotional patterns. Paw paw is the essence for loose bowels and poor absorption. Green Essence helps in the removal of yeasts and parasites.
Therapies such as Shiatsu, Reflexology and Energy Field Healing work by releasing muscular and nervous tension and by optimising the flow of subtle energy around the body. This reduces stress and induces a state of deep relaxation which allows the digestive system to work better.
The whole picture
A nutritional therapist is specially trained to identify the root cause of IBS symptoms and implement a naturopathic based treatment programme for maximum health and wellbeing.
How to eat
With problems such as bloating, gas and altered bowel movements, how you eat is as important as what you eat in order to provide your body with the right conditions for digestion. If you are stressed when you eat, digestive function slows down as the body goes into “fight or flight” mode as if it were preparing for an emergency. Taking time over meals can be a real challenge in our 24 hour society but it is really important. Here are some tips:
- Being around the food for a few minutes before tucking in stimulates the production of your digestive enzymes.
- Always sit at a table to eat.
- Focus fully on the taste of the food.
- Chew thoroughly. Try putting your knife and fork down after each mouthful and don’t pick them up again until full chewing has taken place.
- Don’t overeat. Aim to stop before you feel full.
- Leave around three hours between meals so that food has been fully digested before you start again.
Copyright © Penny Crowther (London Nutritionist)
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