About 60 million people — that’s 20 percent of Americans — have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). These people struggle with miserable, often disabling symptoms like bloating, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and pain.
Numerous culprits contribute to IBS. Your gut lining can break down from stress; too many antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or Advil; steroids; intestinal infections; a low-fiber, high-sugar diet; alcohol and even C-sections (which we have seen a dramatic increase in recent years).
These and other things trigger and activate an immune response, sparking food allergies and aggravating your second brain (the enteric nervous system), creating havoc that leads to IBS. It isn’t just your bowel that can become affected; so can your mood, your energy levels, and a host of other problems.
In medical school, professors told us IBS was a psychological condition. Science proves that’s completely wrong. Unfortunately, conventional doctors often tell patients there is no cure, it’s all in their head, or they prescribe them with antidepressants, sedatives, and other drugs that could potentially make the problem worse.
This is not the answer. To treat IBS, you need to address the underlying causes of why your digestion is not working. That’s where Functional Medicine comes in.
In Functional Medicine, we know one disease can have many causes (or that one cause can create many diseases, such as with gluten). If you have five people with IBS, the causes may be quite different for each person, so for each individual we focus on getting to the root cause of disease.
Research tells us that two of the biggest causes of irritable bowel are food allergies and overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. There may be others, including a lack of digestive enzymes, parasites living in the gut, zinc or magnesium deficiency, and heavy metal toxicity.
That’s why it becomes so critically important to personalize treatment based on the unique circumstances that exist for each person who suffers from IBS. The solution is most certainly not one-size-fits-all, but solutions can be found if we look carefully at the underlying causes and treat them.
Let’s briefly look at the two primary causes of IBS and then discuss how to treat them.
Food allergens or sensitivities
A landmark paper, published in the prestigious British medical journal Gut, found that eliminating foods which were identified through delayed food allergy testing (IgG antibodies) resulted in dramatic improvements in IBS symptoms. Another article, an editorial in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, stated clearly that we must respect and recognize the role of food allergies and inflammation in IBS.
What these and other studies clearly reveal is that certain foods can irritate your bowel and digestive system. These food sensitivities aren’t a true allergy, like a peanut allergy or shellfish allergy, but rather a more mild food sensitivity that can cause terrible symptoms.
Of the many common food sensitivities, gluten perhaps is most prevalent. Even if your doctor tells you that your tests for gluten antibodies or celiac are normal, you can still have a severe reaction.
Dairy, which contains proteins like casein and whey that can irritate and inflame your gut, is another common culprit.
There are others, including soy, corn, and eggs. Reactions to these foods can cause more than just gut problems. They can also create obesity, depression, and acne.
Your Functional Medicine doctor can run tests to assess food sensitivities and gluten reactions. Or you could do my Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, which along with sugary and junky foods, eliminates the most common food sensitivities.
The surface area of your small intestine, where food is absorbed, is about the size of a tennis court. That area also houses about 60 percent of your immune system.
This sophisticated gut-immune system is just one cell layer away from a toxic sewer: All of the bacteria and undigested food particles in your gut.
If that lining breaks down, your immune system will be exposed to foreign particles from food, bacteria, and other microbes.
Simply put, your gut microbial ecosystem must be healthy for you to be healthy. When your gut bacteria are out of balance — when you have too many pathogenic bacteria and not enough healthy bacteria —you get sick.
Stop and think about this for a minute: You’ve got about three pounds of bacteria — 500 species — in your gut. In fact, there is more bacterial DNA in your body than there is human DNA! Among all that gut bacteria, there are good guys, bad guys, and VERY bad guys.
If the bad guys take over, or if they move into areas that they shouldn’t be (like the small intestine which is normally sterile), they can start fermenting the food you digest, particularly sugary or starchy foods.
Imbalances in your gut ecosystem that can trigger or exacerbate IBS include leaky gut, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and yeast overgrowth. While approaches to fixing these and other gut issues usually becomes issue-specific, the key to reversing them all becomes rebooting your gut by getting rid of the bad stuff and putting in the good stuff.
The Biggest Change You Can Make to Treat IBS
If you suffer from IBS, you understandably want relief fast. The biggest change you can make to get impressive, almost-immediate results involves changing your diet.
To do that, you’ll want to go on an ultra-simple, anti-inflammatory diet low in allergens, refined carbohydrates, sugars, and processed foods. Keep it really simple and keep a journal to record how you feel after each meal. You might also want to consider removing foods that are difficult on the gut, such as grains and beans.
10 Strategies to Eliminate IBS
Because numerous underlying issues can contribute to IBS, testing and working with a Functional Medicine practitioner probably becomes your most effective option. That said, simply applying the following dietary tools and other strategies can help reverse or prevent IBS and create good gut health.
- Eat protein. To avoid the blood sugar imbalances that feed bad gut bacteria, eat protein with every meal, even at breakfast. This will help you to avoid sudden increases in your blood sugar. Have a good protein-based breakfast every day.I’ve provided some delicious recipes here. Eat clean and sustainably raised animal protein, like fish, turkey, chicken, and lean cuts of lamb, and plenty of vegetable protein such as nuts, beans, seeds, and tofu.
- Eat high-fiber foods. Whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit all contain beneficial fiber.
- Don’t be afraid of healthy fat. Increase omega-3 fatty acids by eating cold-water wild salmon, sardines, herring, flaxseeds, and even seaweed. Use more grass-fed or organic animal products. Eliminate all hydrogenated fat, found in margarine, shortening, and processed oils, as well as many baked goods and processed foods. Instead use healthy oils, such as coconut oil, olive (especially extra virgin olive oil), cold pressed sesame, and other nut oils.
- Eat at least 8 to 10 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables a day, which contain disease fighting vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory molecules.
- Avoid all processed junk food, including sodas, juices, and diet drinks, which impact sugar and lipid metabolism. Liquid sugar calories are the biggest contributor to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
- Add in the good stuff.Eliminating IBS demands that you get rid of the bad stuff, but also replace it with good stuff. Zinc, vitamin A, glutamine, omega-3 fats (fish oil), and evening primrose oil are among the nutrients that help repair the gut lining. We also use herbs like quercetin and turmeric to reduce inflammation and heal a leaky gut. You can find these and other nutrients in my store.
- Reduce stress. Meditation, deep breathing, and yoga are all great ways to reduce stress. You might also consider trying my relaxing UltraCalm CD.
- Sleep deprivation makes you fat and leads to depression, pain, heart disease, diabetes, and so many otherproblems. Check out this blog to get 19 tips for a better night’s sleep.
- Exercise regularly. Even 30 minutes of vigorous walking can help, and if you want something more intense, try high-intensity interval training or weight resistance. Regardless of your current condition, I’ve provided a simple but comprehensive exercise plan here.
- Repopulate your digestive tract with good bacteria.Take very high-potency probiotics (look for at least 25 billion live CFU’s from diversified strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces boulardii), twice a day for one to two months. Start slowly and observe how the probiotics affect your gut. In some cases, certain individuals may need to delay probiotics until their gut is more intact. Eating fermented foods like kimchi are also great ways to repopulate healthy gut flora.
If you’ve ever struggled with IBS or other gut issues, did you take a conventional approach to remedy it or did you undertake a more functional approach? Share your story below or on my Facebook page.
Because I want you to have a large arsenal of tools to tackle this issue, I want to offer you my free e-book on IBS, which provides additional dietary and other strategies to eliminate symptoms and heal your gut. You can get your free e-book here.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD