Relief from Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Relief From Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Julian Whitaker, MD

Abdominal pain, bloating, gas, cramping, diarrhea, constipation: These symptoms are a fact of life for the estimated 20 percent of the US population who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Also known as spastic colon and nervous indigestion, IBS is usually diagnosed only after a doctor has ruled out more serious conditions such as ulcerative colitis or colon cancer. And although IBS is not life-threatening, for many people the symptoms are so severe that they have to plan their outings around bathroom visits!

What Causes IBS?

Despite its prevalence, no one is certain what causes IBS. Emotional distress was once felt to be the culprit, and patients were often told it was “all in their heads.” While it’s true that stress and anxiety worsen the condition, physicians now know the problem is in the gut, not the head. Recent research suggests that the muscles and nerves in the colons of IBS sufferers may be hypersensitive, and as a result they respond strongly to stimuli that would not bother most people.

Not surprisingly, conventional treatment for IBS consists primarily of prescription drugs. These include tranquilizers and antidepressants such as Xanax and Prozac, which can improve IBS symptoms but have a host of other complications including addiction, anxiety, nausea, and even violent behavior. One IBS drug, Lotronex, was pulled from the market only months after it was approved by the FDA because it caused several deaths and numerous serious side effects requiring surgery or hospitalization.

Diet Makes All the Difference

Most digestive difficulties do not require drugs but can be treated with dietary modifications. If you suffer from IBS, the first step toward controlling your symptoms is to eat more fiber from vegetables, beans, peas, and fruits. Fiber is important not only for stool formation, but also for the overall health of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Second, limit your intake of caffeine and sugar. Caffeine is for some people a powerful GI tract irritant, and it can be especially problematic for IBS sufferers. Many sugars are not properly digested and remain in the intestines, feeding the colonies of harmful microbes residing there. These “bad” bacteria and yeast injure your intestinal walls and perpetuate the cycle of poor digestion and IBS symptoms. Beware too of sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xyliotol, which can cause diarrhea.

Eliminate IBS Triggers

If these simple changes don’t dramatically improve your symptoms, your next line of defense is to identify which foods irritate your system and cut them out of your diet. Among the most common IBS offenders are dairy products, wheat, eggs, citrus, corn, and peanuts. Everyone is different, however, and the best way to identify your own triggers is to try an elimination diet.

The idea of an elimination diet is to eat nonallergenic meals for at least one week to clear your system, then add in new foods periodically and observe your reaction to them. A standard elimination diet may consist of chicken, rice, potatoes, bananas, apples, and a variety of vegetables (except corn). Only these foods should be eaten for seven days. As you slowly reintroduce other foods, keep a detailed diary to help you pinpoint which ones produce symptoms.

And don’t forget to check your medicine cabinet. Indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea are common side effects of many prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

The Mind-Body Connection

As I mentioned earlier, stress may not be the primary cause of IBS, but it does exacerbate symptoms. The colon is controlled partly by the nervous system. This mind-body connection is understandable when you consider that in a high-stress, fight-or-flight situation, bowel evacuation is a normal part of the body’s physiological preparation for action. So it’s no surprise that chronic, low-grade stress can dramatically affect everyday bowel health.

Learning to relax can make a huge difference in alleviating IBS symptoms. Last year researchers at State University of New York studied 13 adults with IBS. They were split into two groups, and one group practiced a relaxation technique twice a day for 15 minutes. After six weeks, researchers found that participants in the relaxation group reported significantly reduced symptoms, with particular improvement in diarrhea and bloating.

IBS has also been linked to low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in inhibiting pain, regulating sleep, and reducing anxiety. This is one reason doctors prescribe serotonin-boosting antidepressants (SSRIs such as Prozac) for IBS. Fortunately there are safe, natural substances that raise serotonin, most notably 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). 5-HTP, a first cousin to the amino acid tryptophan, is the direct precursor to serotonin. In addition to its benefits for overall anxiety, 5-HTP is currently being studied as a pain therapy specifically for IBS.

Restore Health to Your Digestive Tract

There are a number of natural products you can take to help with IBS. Many of my patients have reported good success with a fish protein supplement called Seacure. Made from lean white fish that is “predigested” through a unique fermentation process, Seacure is abundant in protein fragments, or peptides, which are directly absorbed via the intestines. It also contains a broad spectrum of amino acids that are beneficial for intestinal health.

Stress, medications, and poor diet can reduce “friendly” bacteria in your intestines, leaving you vulnerable to infections and diseases and worsening symptoms of IBS. The best way to guarantee healthy intestinal flora is to take supplemental probiotics. Probiotics contain colonies of friendly bacteria such as L. acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, and B. bifidum. These organisms help digest food and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi that cause constipation and diarrhea.

Ease Symptoms With Herbal Extracts

A growing body of evidence suggests that artichoke leaf extract is a valuable therapy in the treatment of IBS. After a six-week study, researchers in the United Kingdom reported that IBS patients taking artichoke leaf extract had significant reductions in the severity of their symptoms. Furthermore, 96 percent of the patients rated artichoke leaf extract as “better than or equal to” previous therapies they had tried, with the added bonus that the extract was well tolerated.

Another helpful herb is peppermint (Mentha piperita). It is particularly beneficial for gas and bloating, for this common herb helps relax muscles in the intestines. The preferred form of peppermint is enteric-coated capsules, which break down in the intestines, not in the stomach, where they could cause heartburn.


  • If you would like to talk to one of our Patient Services Representatives to learn how the physicians at the Whitaker Wellness Institute can help you overcome irritable bowel syndrome, call (866) 944-8253.
  • Probiotics, 5-HTP, Seacure, peppermint and other supplements that help with irritable bowel syndrome may be ordered by calling (800) 810-6655.


  • Keefer L et al. The effects of relaxation response meditation on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Behav Res Ther. 2001;39(7):801-11.
  • Sanger GJ et al. 5-HT4 receptor antagonism in human isolated gut and prevention of 5-HT-evoked sensitization of peristalsis and increased defaecation in animal models. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 1998;10(4):271-9 SB-207266.
  • Walker AF et al. Artichoke leaf extract reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in a post-marketing surveillance study. Phytother Res. 2001;15(1):58-61.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.

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