You’re only minutes away from your business presentation and your nervous butterflies have changed into those horribly familiar cramping pains in your abdomen. Hurriedly making your excuses, you race to the bathroom to wait for the attack of diarrhea. For almost one out of five Canadians, this scenario is anything but fiction.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a collection of widely varying symptoms. You might experience only minor annoyance or be wracked with intense spasms described as “a Charlie-horse in the gut.” Many are afflicted with alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation, accompanied with a feeling of incomplete evacuation, mucus in stools, bloating or abdominal distention. Absorption of nutrients is usually poor, as food is often raced through the gut by spastic bowel muscle movements.
According to studies, sufferers are often more sensitive to abdominal pain. A heightened stress response is common, and stress provides the triggers for about half of all IBS episodes. Women outnumber men in this area, two to one.
An interesting fact: activity in our digestive tracts is uniquely tied to our brains. According to Dr Marvin Schuster, Chief of Gastroenterology, John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, every neurotransmitter in the brain also occurs in the gut. That might explain why many with IBS obtain relief with such treatments as hypnosis, psychotherapy, biofeedback, herbs, acupuncture and acupressure.
Approaching the problem through the mind and the nerves has yielded more obvious control and relief from symptoms than conventional pharmaceutical therapies. Controlling IBS is greatly improved with gaining mastery in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and visualization.
For many with irritable bowel syndrome, some foods are problematic. Typical offenders are the cabbage family (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale), beans, fructose, sorbitol, glutens, caffeine, carbonated drinks and fatty foods. While essential fatty acids are, as the name implies, essential to the health of your brain and nervous system, bad fats are definitely harmful. These fats are oils that are processed with chemicals as well as those oils that are hydrogenated, such as margarine and shortening. Watch the labels! Fried foods also qualify as bad fats.
Gradually increasing your fibre intake can help tremendously. Spasms lessen when the bowel wall is gently stretched through greater amounts of fibre moving through. Consider this for a moment. When the bowel is underfilled, all muscle movements to push food through may have to be greatly exaggerated to have an effect on a skimpy amount of fibre-less food. Bulking up your diet may relieve the tension needed to move that food along.
Exercise is another potential goldmine to this process. Walking, biking and swimming are wonderfully beneficial to toning abdominal muscles and providing stimulus to gently move things along.
There are a lot of herbs that can be taken to excellent effect. Any herb that tones the nervous system will benefit the bowels as well. Valerian tea is first on the list. Take a cup whenever you feel your stress response building. It’s also good to take at night as this tea promotes sleepiness. Hops is another herb to consider. Again, this one will also assist in obtaining a good night’s sleep. For more direct toning effects on your nerves, camomile, ladyslipper, St John’s wort, scullcap and gotu kola are terrific. If taken as a tea, any herb, whether solo or in combination, should be used in this proportion: one teaspoon of dried herb(s) to one cup of boiled water. All of these should be steeped (not boiled) for five to seven minutes.
Good effects for any bowel disorder can also be reached by taking a series of colonics over six to eight weeks. Each one of these sessions should be followed with a three days on, four days off series of hot packs using cold-pressed castor oil. If colonics aren’t for you, then seriously consider committing yourself to a digestive cleanse. Preferably this will be of a one to two month duration, so that the digestive tract can be gently and thoroughly scrubbed of fecal build-up. Ideally, a digestive cleanse will bulk up the number of bowel movements, while reducing the chances of diarrhea or constipation. A cleanse of this duration should be undertaken annually, with smaller detoxification efforts made throughout the year.
Papaya fruit or juice will soothe irritated digestive membranes and ease bowel movements. Adding fennel, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, anise, lovage or dill to your meals or teas will reduce cramping. Charcoal, barley malt extract and enteric-coated peppermint have also provided comfort to IBS sufferers. Peppermint is such a powerful digestive relaxant that if taken as a tea on a regular basis, it can relax the stomach’s esophageal sphincter, causing acid reflux. Enteric-coated tablets avoids this possibility altogether.
There’s now a wealth of information available on IBS. Join a support group if you can find one. You may not meet anyone whose symptoms match your own, but you will gain invaluable insights.