If you or someone close to you suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS), then you likely also know how much it can impact an individual’s quality of life. A functional disorder of the intestines that results in altered bowel movements and chronic abdominal pain, IBS affects 10-15 percent of the globe.
In fact, IBS is the world’s most common digestive disorder, according to the International Foundation For Gastrointestinal Disorders. In America alone, IBS is the cause of approximately 3 million physician visits annually. Even more surprising? The majority of diagnosed IBS sufferers are women.
The good news: More holistic remedies can effectively treat IBS symptoms, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine or your diet! Below, we discuss the causes of IBS, how you can improve it naturally, and how things such as acupuncture and diet can help.
What Causes IBS?
While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, the Mayo Clinic defines the following factors as playing a role in flare-ups:
- Stronger, weaker, or longer-lasting muscle contractions in the intestine
- Nervous system abnormalities
- Severe infection caused by a virus or bacterial overgrowth
- Early-life stress
- Changes in gut microbes
“Diagnosing IBS can be complex and often times confusing,” says Dr. Alexandra Kreps, a primary care internist at HealthQuarters. This is because there are various types of IBS variants, ranging from IBS-D (where diarrhea and bloating are the primary symptoms) to IBS-C (in which constipation accompanies abdominal discomfort) to IBS-M (when sufferers experience a mix of diarrhea and constipation) or even unclassified IBS. “It is separate from Irritable Bowel Disease conditions such as Crohns and Ulcerative Colitis,” says Alexandra.
Typically, symptoms include bloating, gas, abdominal pain, cramping and, as mentioned above, either constipation or diarrhea. “When diagnosing, we look for at least two other features aside from just pain, including changes in the look of the stool, some relief of pain after a bowel movement, and/or a change in how often you have a bowel movement,” says Alexandra. Among women, symptoms can increase in severity during menstruation and pregnancy. Most often, however, IBS is exacerbated by two main factors: stress and certain foods.
How Can I Manage IBS Naturally?
Despite being the most commonly diagnosed condition in America, sufferers do not have to be defined by their IBS. Fortunately, there is natural relief for this growing epidemic! A holistic approach to overall health and wellness, TCM offers multiple ways to help you prevent IBS flare-ups and alleviate your pain or discomfort.
“In the modern world of busy schedules and not enough downtime, we’re constantly stimulated without relief – which keeps us in our sympathetic nervous system or ‘fight or flight’ response,” explains WTHN co-founder Dr. Shari Auth. “This sends blood to our brain and muscles instead of the stomach, resulting in us feeling bloated and gassy.” That’s where acupuncture, a centuries-old practice within TCM, comes in!
A large meta analysis of current scientific studies published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology concluded that acupuncture is an effective remedy for IBS. For starters, acu helps optimize digestion to curb gas, bloating, and loose stools while also increasing circulation and gastric motility to help with abdominal pain and constipation – all of which are among the myriad of symptoms IBS often creates.
“Acu shifts us into the parasympathetic, or the ‘rest and digest’ response, sending blood to the stomach to help optimize and heal your body’s digestion,” says Shari. Studies also show that acu not only stimulates peristalsis in the colon for regular and healthy bowel movements, but is also a natural anti-inflammatory that helps soothe an irritated stomach.
Additionally, IBS is commonly stress-mediated, and acupuncture is scientifically proven to prevent and manage stress. During a 30-minute acu treatment, a practitioner inserts hair-thin needles at various strategic pressure points on your skin to send messages to the brain that alter brain chemistry. Doing so decreases cortisol, your primary stress hormone, and increases serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine, your wellbeing hormones that help your body relax.
In TCM, herbs are often used alongside acupuncture to help restore balance to the body, support wellness, and help relieve stress for best results. “Through a TCM lens, IBS can have a couple of different diagnoses depending on the precise symptomatology,” says WTHN Healer Wendi Matson.
For daily stress management (a common IBS trigger), we recommend our adaptogenic stress blend, Daily Calm. Taken daily, it helps balance hormones, promote relaxation, and reduce irritability to keep your digestion and emotions running smoothly.
Meanwhile, our herbal blend Daily Digestion is a great go-to for improving gut health. Made with 100% organic codonopsis, fennel, and wild yam, it helps increase digestive enzymes to boost metabolism and reduce gas and bloating caused by IBS. We recommend taking it before meals to eliminate digestive drama.
A Healthy Diet
“When I work with clients who are struggling with IBS symptoms, one of the main things we work on is stress management in general,” says Marissa Meshulam, a registered dietitian nutritionist at HealthQuarters. “Our gut is our second brain, and research shows that chronic stress can actually wreak havoc on our guts and create dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bacteria), leading to IBS symptoms.”
That being said – considering IBS is rooted in gut problems, your eating behaviors can also greatly impact the severity of your symptoms. For example, consuming meals too quickly is a common cause of cramping and bloating. But taking the time to slow down your eating and actually chew your food can improve digestion and enzyme release – which in turn can help prevent IBS symptoms.
When it comes to IBS management, the quality of food you consume is equally as important as your eating behaviors. A diet high in processed foods can promote the growth of bad gut bacteria, says Marissa. Turning to a TCM diet, which consists of eating mostly whole, plant-forward foods, can promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria and overall gut health.
“The tough part about IBS and food is that it is often very individual – meaning what works for one person may not work for another person,” says Marissa. “Lots of times, those of us struggling with IBS may experience many food sensitivities. This is where working with a practitioner one:one to help figure out what foods work (and don’t work) for your body can be very helpful.”
IBS symptoms are less than ideal – and can be as uncomfortable to talk about as they are to deal with. The silver lining? A holistic approach combining primary care and TCM, dietary modifications, stress management and lifestyle modifications can help manage your IBS. By combining a healthy diet with herbal supplements and acupuncture treatments, you can be well on your way to a better quality of life!
This is not medical advice, contact your doctor for a medical diagnosis or treatment.