Natural IBS Treatment: It’s More Than Just Diet
There ARE natural IBS treatments beyond just diet. While diet is a great place to start your IBS healing journey, anyone who has been down this path will know that diet alone is not generally enough to achieve the lasting healing you deserve. Yes, diet is exceptionally important for short-term symptom management, but a more comprehensive protocol that also covers lifestyle factors and targeted supplementation is where the big gains are made. So in this post, we are going to focus on my go-to natural IBS treatment options and how they will enhance your healing and support you with overcoming the five most common root causes of IBS.
Here is a summary of what we are going to cover:
> The three lifestyle factors that can ‘make-or-break’ your IBS healing
> Why natural supplementation is a must, especially with compromised gut function
> The foundational supplements you need to consider for natural IBS treatment
> The importance of addressing ALL of the root causes of your IBS and why relapse is so common
Last week we talked about eating for IBS and how to choose the best gut-healing diet for you. We talked about the five principles of an effective gut-healing diet and why ‘bio-individuality’ is absolutely key. We then covered off the six gut-healing diets I commonly use and the complexity of layering food sensitivities over these. Diet is step one for figuring out an effective treatment plan, so once we dial this in for you, we need to move onto other lifestyle factors that play a massive role in IBS healing.
Three lifestyle factors that can ‘make or break’ your healing
I know from experience that when you get to a place where your symptoms control your life, it becomes very clear that healing is going to need to incorporate more than just diet. It’s going to require changes to your whole lifestyle to give your body more time for rest, the right exercise for you and targeted stress reduction. Here is a little more information about each of these:
#1 Prioritising sleep.
How many hours are you aiming for each night? What if I told you that 7-8 hours is key, and that you need to be aiming for closed eyes by 10pm. Why? Because the most regenerative form of sleep and physical repair of the body happens from around 10pm to 2am. Strategies for you to try in working towards prioritising sleep include:
> Set up a sleep schedule - 10pm to 6am each night is a great place to start
> Create a bedtime ritual that helps you relax, clear your mind and get to sleep. It might be reading a book, listening to music, journaling or meditation. I really like using the app Headspace. You can check it out HERE
> Limit blue-light exposure from screen time at night. But if you really need to use your laptop or phone, turn on ‘Night-shift’ for your iphone and use f.lux on your laptop. You can check out f.lux HERE
> Get really comfortable and make sure your bedroom is cool, dark and quiet. Wear comfortable, loose fitting and lightweight pyjamas (or none at all, as science recommends…), cover up any lights from the alarm clock or tv and for those that are sensitive to EMF, consider turning off the wifi and not sleeping next to your phone.
#2 The right exercise for you.
Exercise is a tricky one so I’ve written a whole blog post about the effects of exercise on gut healing here. In a nutshell, if you are trying to heal a damaged gut, exercise ONLY works if it is not an added stressor. It needs to make you feel energised, not exhausted. And for most of my clients, that means I recommend moderate exercise - the stuff that has been proven by science to improve gut-barrier function (1). Moderate exercise is things like walking, pilates and yoga practices that focus on stretching, breathing and postural control. But overall, my best advice for you is to listen to your body and don’t overdo the exercise. Other tips for exercise include:
> Don’t sit for too long at work. Aim to move every hour.
> Start small and build up if you haven’t incorporated much movement into your life thus far. And exercising with someone else is a great motivator.
#3 Stress reduction strategies.
I like to divide stress reduction into three different categories: physical, mental/emotional, and biochemical stressors. Each type of stressor causes the same stress response (HPA Axis and cortisol dysregulation explained in this blog) in the body, which means they are equally as harmful to your healing. Yep, you heard it right, going through a break-up, injuring your shoulder or having a parasite all cause the same stress response in the body. So what can we do about each?
> Physical stressors: I encourage my clients to address any structural aches, pains or past injuries through stretching, acupuncture, chiropractic, physiotherapy, massage or any other physical healing modality that works for you.
> Mental/emotional stressors: I encourage my clients to address stressors that come with IBS, like worry, low mood and anxiety, by using meditation, breathing, journaling, watching a funny/uplifting movie, listening to music you love or EFT (emotional freedom technique). I also like them to allocate relaxation time each evening to help switch the brain off. This moves the body away from the sympathetic nervous system stress response to the parasympathetic nervous system response, aiming for rest and digest. For more chronic or serious mental/emotional stressors, there are many forms of therapy to choose from, like counselling, psychology and NET (neuro-emotional technique) to name a few.
> Biochemical stressors: This is where I come in! These are the things that we work together to identify and then remove or resolve - the hidden internal stressors of your body (e.g. hormone, immune, digestive, detoxification and mucosal barrier issues). These are generally things like the 5 most common root causes of IBS; SIBO, dysbiosis of the gut microbiome, leaky gut, gut infections (parasites, bacteria, yeast) and food sensitivities.
So now we have the diet and lifestyle factors covered, there is one more element to healing that you need to know about: natural supplementation.
Natural supplementation is a must, especially with compromised gut function
It is almost impossible to absorb all the necessary nutrients in sufficient quantities from our food alone when we have a compromised digestive system. Gut infections, SIBO, dysbiosis, leaky gut and food sensitivities all affect our ability to synthesise and absorb what we need from the food we eat. Luckily for us, natural supplements can provide the missing link between what is necessary for us to achieve optimal health and what we are able to absorb. Supplements are an important part of my natural IBS treatment protocols, but they should never be the first step, which is why I address them last.
Here are the three functions of supplements and why we use them in eradicating and healing the underlying root causes of IBS:
> Substitution: To replace something that is missing in the body or that the body is not producing due to gut damage, such as stomach acid or digestive enzymes.
> Stimulation: To stimulate organs, glands and systems in the body to do their job, such as vitamins and minerals.
> Support: Short-term aid for the body while function is being restored, such as liver and adrenal glandular supplements which help the body respond to toxins and stress.
The foundational natural supplements you need to consider for natural IBS treatment
Let’s get into it! Here is a list of the things you need to consider, depending on the findings of your lab testing. Don’t be overwhelmed, you won’t need to do it all. Remember: each individual's underlying root cause(s) of IBS are unique and a protocol tailored to their specific needs is critical. These are just a few of the potential considerations. And, I normally recommend working on specific things in stages. For those with long-term chronic gut issues and IBS, healing really is a journey and we tend to target your different root causes progressively rather than all at once.
I like my clients to start using digestive enzymes, which help them break down and absorb the nutrition from their food. If they have low stomach acid production (and no contra-indicators such as H.Pylori) then I also like to support this.
We all know that vitamins and more importantly minerals, are essential to building health. However, did you know that when gut function is compromised we can also have difficulty absorbing fats and protein? I like to supplement anti-inflammatory omega-3’s in the form of high quality fish oil or microalgae, and amino acids from protein in the form of gelatin, protein powders or fish protein.
Because the liver is your main detoxification organ, I like to use herbal blends to support the liver with synthesising all of the waste and toxins that come with gut dysfunction. This might be excess hormones, undigested food, toxins and waste from gut infections or SIBO.
For constipation dominant IBS it is really important to keep the bowel clear, so high dosing vitamin C and magnesium works really well for this.
Supporting immune function
Did you know that over 70% of your immune system is in the gut? (2) Sadly, it means that gut dysfunction can cause immune dysfunction and I see this really often with my clients. They have low immunity and catch every infection or virus going around. This is why I like to support immune function using products that contain antioxidants, herbal blends and therapeutic mushroom varieties (e.g. shiitake, reishi and coriolus).
Targeting the underlying root causes
Repairing mucosal barrier function
Your mucosal barrier is your gut lining. It is the part that, when damaged, causes a leaky gut. I’ve written a really comprehensive blog about Leaky Gut here if you want to know more. Damage to the mucosal barrier is both a direct cause of IBS symptoms as well as a comorbidity of other root causes, often resulting in relapses or even autoimmunity if not properly repaired. So, it is really important to support the mucosal barrier as much as we can whilst you are healing. I like to use glutamine, herbal blends, as well as food-based products like bone broth as much as possible.
Rebalancing the microbiome
The gut microbiome is a collection of microorganisms that live in our gut. They help us break down and absorb our food, synthesise vitamins and support our immune system amongst other things. Our microbiome is out of balance when we have IBS which is why we need to support it with pre- and probiotic-rich foods and supplements. Depending on your root cause/s of IBS, you may not tolerate these very well which is why it is very important that you consider the science around specific strains that are going to be helpful for you. The purpose of probiotics is to help fight off a gut infection, re-balance an overgrowth in the small intestine, correct a dysbiosis and help beneficial species such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium build numbers.
This is my favourite part of gut healing; getting rid of the bad bugs like SIBO and gut infections or overgrowths from parasites, bacteria, archaea or yeast. I’ve written about SIBO extensively here so please check out this blog post for everything you need to know about SIBO treatment. I’ve written about gut infections here, but I’d like to repeat some of the content around using natural antimicrobials. You need targeted and specific antimicrobials for each of the different types of infections. I like to use sweet wormwood, artemisinin, black walnut and berberine for parasites; garlic, olive leaf and oregano for bacteria; and Pau D’Arco, rosemary, cinnamon and thyme for yeast/fungus, to name a few. Using blends and alternating products throughout your protocol also tends to increase their effectiveness. It is also important to use a biofilm buster - a product that breaks down the ‘homes’ that pathogens form so they can’t hide when you’re trying to remove them.
So, as you can see, there is a fair bit to consider. But don’t be overwhelmed! It doesn’t all happen at once, or even at all, in some cases.
The importance of addressing ALL root causes of your IBS and why relapse is so common
Sadly, IBS is strongly associated with chronic relapse, largely because identifying and addressing ALL of your root causes can be difficult, especially in the case of SIBO (3). I rarely see a client who doesn’t have dysbiosis, leaky gut and food sensitivities; three of the five most common root causes of IBS. Even more commonly, they have SIBO and/or a gut infection layered on top of this. It just means that if you kill off the gut infection, or remove the SIBO the job is only partially done. You still need to correct the dysbiosis, heal the gut lining and give your body a rest from inflammatory foods.
I want to talk a little more about SIBO, because there can be other root causes which add to the complexity of this condition. These other root causes can be a poorly functioning migrating motor complex (most common), a structural issue like adhesions or an open ileocecal valve, a functional issue like hypochlorhydria, immunodeficiency, altered bile flow or enzyme production. Whatever the root cause, these are a priority for us to identify and address.
The high incidence of relapse also highlights the need to incorporate a maintenance phase after treatment. This might be 3 to 12 months of slowly increasing the foods you eat and really focussing on keeping some of the gut-healing principles carrying forward that you feel help with managing rest, exercise and sleep - the lifestyle factors.
In summarising this IBS series…
As I said in Part 1, IBS is a BS diagnosis. And I really hope you now understand why I said this, and feel like you can use the content of these five blogs to get started with identifying and healing your IBS. We have covered off why there is a root cause, or causes, for your symptoms, the testing options you can start with, IBS diets and how to choose the best one for you, as well as lifestyle and supplementation considerations for treatment. The purpose of this blog series was to educate and empower you to keep searching for the answer to your symptoms.
If you have IBS, I recommend finding a functional practitioner to work with that can identify and treat your specific underlying causes, because there is always a reason for your symptoms. And please, please, don’t settle for a diagnosis of IBS.
If you want to move beyond an IBS diagnosis, please head to the Work With Us page to learn more about how we work online with clients in many countries to test for and treat the various root causes of IBS symptoms and other GI conditions.
Luo B., Xiang D., Nieman D.C., Chen P. (2014). The effects of moderate exercise on chronic stress-induced intestinal barrier dysfunction and antimicrobial defense. Brain Behav Immun, 39, 99-106
Vighi, G., Marcucci, F., Sensi, L., Di Cara, G., & Frati, F. (2008). Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clinical and Experimental Immunology, 153(Suppl 1), 3–6
Bures, J., et al. (2010). Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth syndrome. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG, 16(24), 2978–2990