Irritable bowel syndrome is a debilitating disorder that affects the digestive system. It is very common, impacting around 15% of the UK population. Symptoms vary from person to person but generally include:
- Stomach Cramps
Despite its prevalence, it is not known exactly what causes IBS, though it has been linked with oversensitive nerves in the gut, stress, and gut motility issues.
Many Doctors consider IBS to be incurable – often prescribing medication to control the symptoms – and although this may be the case for some individuals, we firmly believe that IBS can be improved and even cured by making some key dietary and lifestyle changes. Below, we outline 5 simple steps to cure IBS naturally and permanently.
5 Steps to Cure IBS Permanently
1. Keep a Food Diary to Identify IBS Triggers
If you’re reading this article, chances are you know your main IBS triggers. Whether it’s fatty foods, or excessive alcohol consumption, there are certain things that will trigger symptoms without fail. What are more difficult to pin down are the less-obvious triggers – foodstuffs that may have crept into your life unnoticed. Is the tuna sandwich you eat every day for lunch actually flaring up your symptoms? Or perhaps it’s the splash of milk in your coffee? In either case, the only way to know for sure is to keep a food diary of everything you put in your mouth and record symptoms as they emerge. This might sound laborious, but by firmly identifying your trigger foods and limiting or removing them from your diet you will have made a crucial first step in curing your IBS for good.
Tip: Certain foods can cause a delayed reaction making it difficult to know what caused the flare-up, so be sure to record your symptoms throughout the day and keep an eye out for patterns as they emerge.
2. Start a Low-FODMAP Diet
There are many diets designed to improve IBS symptoms, but when it comes to evidence-backed results, the low FODMAP diet is king. In a recent review summarising the published clinical studies concerning the management of IBS, a team from the University of Otago, New Zealand concluded that up to 86% of patients found significant improvement in symptoms following a low FODMAP diet. (1)
So what is a FODMAP?
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates that the small intestine has trouble absorbing. It is thought that some of these molecules are responsible for many common IBS symptoms including bloating, gas and diarrhoea.
The aim of a low FODMAP diet is to effectively eliminate all FODMAPS from your diet for a short period of time (around 2-6 weeks), and then gradually reintroduce them to determine which ones cause symptoms. Common high-FODMAP foods include:
- Dairy-based products such as milk, ice cream and soft cheese
- Wheat-based products such as cereal, bread and pasta
- Legumes including baked beans, chickpeas and lentils
- Some vegetables, including artichokes, asparagus, onions and garlic
- Some fruits, including apples, cherries, pears and mango
(Full-lists of low and high FODMAP foods are readily available online.)
Although the diet is very restrictive in the short term, the good news is that most people only need to reduce or eliminate a small number of FODMAPs from their diet to see lasting results.
Important note: A low FODMAP diet is very restrictive and shouldn’t be undertaken for more than 6 weeks at a time. If you are underweight or have any pre-existing health conditions, you should speak to your doctor before commencing the diet.
3. Heal the gut with L-Glutamine
Although the precise mechanisms that cause IBS are largely unknown, studies suggest that inflammation in the gut plays a major role. (2) Certainly with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) – a condition that is closely linked with IBS – chronic inflammation in the gut can lead to damage of the Gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
With this in mind, any attempt to improve or cure IBS should not be undertaken without first healing the GI tract and attempting to reduce inflammation. Fortunately there is one miraculous compound that can do both: L-Glutamine.
L-Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid that is produced in the body but is also found in food. Not only is it a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, but a number of clinical studies have demonstrated its importance in maintaining GI mucosal barrier function. (3) In other words, the intestinal lining uses L-glutamine as fuel to create a strong surface for digestion and absorption.
If this wasn’t enough to convince you of its value, a number of studies have indicated that L-Glutamine also exhibits analgesic (painkilling) activity in the gut. (4) This may be another reason it seems to be so effective in treating IBS and IBD.
Tip: Supplement with 1,000mg – 5,000mg of L-Glutamine per day to help repair the gut and reduce inflammation in the GI tract.
4. Manage stress with lifestyle changes
To put it simply – stress can wreak havoc on your gut. To understand why, we need to understand the Sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is part of the autonomic nervous system – a crucial network that acts without conscious direction to regulate functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, sweating and digestion.
Often called the ‘fight or flight’ response, the SNS acts to direct the body’s reaction to dangerous or stressful situations. It does this by releasing a flood of hormones into the body to improve alertness, increase heartrate and pump extra blood to the muscles. It’s a hugely important system and vital for survival but it does have one notable side-effect – it dramatically inhibits digestion. (5)
This is not necessarily a problem if the SNS is only activated occasionally. In theory, as soon as the dangerous situation has passed, another system called the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) takes over and encourages the body to ‘rest and digest’. The problem arises when stress and anxiety become an almost constant part of daily life. Although you may not physically be facing a Tiger at the office every day, when you’re overly stressed or anxious, your body thinks you are. It reacts by engaging the SNS and effectively shuts down digestion.
Aside from the benefits to your mental health and wellbeing, this is why it’s absolutely crucial to learn how to manage stress effectively. Here’s a few simple tips that we have found to be really helpful:
- Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a simple concept that involves being intensely aware of what you are experiencing in the moment. Many of us spend far too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming or thinking negative thoughts – mindfulness is designed to snap you out of this pattern and allow you to be fully present in the moment. A simple mindfulness exercise might involve closing your eyes and focusing on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Focus only on this, do not allow negative thoughts or worries to enter you mind. Even just a few minutes of mindfulness per day can make a major difference to your stress levels.
- Exercise regularly
Aside from its myriad of other health benefits, regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to relieve stress. Not only can exercise help to relieve stressful emotions as they occur, but there is growing evidence that regular exercise is associated with increased emotional resilience to stress. A study conducted by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience at The University of Chicago concluded that “that regular exercisers are more resistant to the emotional effects of acute stress, which in turn, may protect them against diseases related to chronic stress burden”. (6) In other words, if you exercise regularly, you are less likely to become emotionally stressed in the first place.
Tip: Aim for 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorously intense aerobic exercise per week. If time is a limiting factor, several short bursts of exercise (10 – 15 mins in length) spaced throughout the day can be a great way to help combat stress and stay positive.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine
Although alcohol might seem like a potent stress-reliever in the moment (and there’s no denying that it can temporarily take your mind off your troubles) as soon as Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) starts to drop, you may experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is partly because alcohol changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, with the net result being that you often end up feeling more stressed and anxious than before you started.
Caffeine is also something that should be used in moderation, particularly if you are prone to stress and anxiety. Adding caffeine to an anxious mind is like throwing fuel on a fire, with research showing that it can even trigger anxiety attacks. (7) It can also increase blood pressure and stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System – which, as we established, is bad for digestion. Despite this, caffeine does have a wide range of health and mood-boosting properties so it’s certainly not something that needs to be completely eliminated. The key is to be aware of the effects that caffeine has on your body and to avoid it when you are already feeling stressed or anxious.
5. Address gut imbalance with diet and probiotics
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria. Collectively, this complex ecosystem is known as the microbiome and it’s responsible for a range of vital functions in the body from the obvious (digestion) to the less obvious (regulating the entire immune system). Among the trillions of bacteria, there are hundreds of competing and co-existing species, some of which are more beneficial than others, hence the widely used term ‘friendly bacteria’.
Research has shown that many individuals suffering with IBS symptoms may have an imbalance in their gut bacterial communities. (8) It is not entirely sure why this is, but it thought that the dysbiosis may activate the gut immune system, causing a chain reaction of IBS symptoms.
So how do we address the imbalance?
The most effective way is to improve the quality of your diet. Specifically, by reducing or eliminating highly processed foods and incorporating a wide range of fibre-rich fruits and vegetables. Another option is to incorporate a quality probiotic supplement into your daily routine; effectively introducing billions of ‘friendly’ bacteria to your microbiome and hopefully readdressing the balance. There are many probiotic strains to choose from but our favourites for IBS management are Bifidobacterium Bifidum and Lactobacillus Acidophilus.
Tip: Aim for a probiotic supplement that has at least 10 billion CFU’s (colony forming units) per serving and be wary of anything that claims to have ‘live’ bacteria as these are often killed by stomach acid before they make their way to the gut.
IBS is a debilitating condition that many doctors claim is incurable. This is largely because of its complex and multifaceted nature meaning that no single treatment is likely to be 100% effective. Despite this, there are several research-proven steps that you can take to improve (and even eliminate) IBS symptoms – from diet plans, to stress management, and probiotic supplementation. The key thing to note, is that tacking IBS is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ endeavour, and that in following the steps outlined above it’s important to listen to your body every step of the way and find out what works for you.