By Elizabeth Marglin
We all have gut feelings — once in a while, something in our stomach intuits an emotional truth that is hard to shake. This link between our emotions and digestion system makes sense: the gut has been called our second brain, and contains more nerve cells than even our spinal cords.
But for the roughly one in five Americans who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, gut feelings are not only a constant, they are a physically painful case of too much information. When you have IBS, says Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist Nicholas Talley, M.D., the nerve endings in the gut are always firing, creating a condition of “visceral hypersensitivity, which means basically that the gut is more sensitive than it should be.”
How can you tell if you have IBS?
Since it’s not linked to structural problems such as cancer, tumors or inflammation, IBS is considered a functional bowel disorder. Besides a heightened sensitivity to sensation in the intestinal tract, IBS shows up as erratic bowel movements that alternate from very loose (diarrhea) to very hard (constipation). Another distinguishing symptom of IBS, says Talley, is “pain or discomfort in the abdomen that’s made better when people actually have a bowel movement.” But it’s not enough to have the occasional tummy trouble. A diagnosis of IBS is based on how chronic a condition it is — normally doctors use a benchmark of three months or longer.
While there is no surefire cure for IBS, there are a number of diet and lifestyle changes you can make that can help reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of the symptoms — and without taking medication. Because it’s a condition linked to the emotions, how you respond to stress plays a big role in how IBS presents itself. A wealth of integrative approaches can help you manage your stress, such as acupuncture, hypnosis and meditation.
As Brent Bauer, M.D., director of Mayo Clinic’s Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program says, “The human being is a complex, pliant, ever-changing organism, subject to the prevailing conditions, not only of the physical body, but of mind, spirit and environment, all interconnecting and acting upon each other.”
Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback — any technique that has a mind-body component — are all necessary allies for taming stress. Relaxation, says Tally, “can really help break the vicious cycle of IBS.”
Manage your IBS through mindful eating
We are not just what we eat, but how we eat. If we eat when we are stressed, tired, multitasking or plain old bored, the energy of our mental state affects how the food gets absorbed. One of the most powerful ways to turn IBS around is to treat food, and the prevailing eating “conditions,” as medicine. To get started, sample our six most important eating tips for managing IBS:
Chew it up
Digestion starts in the mouth, so chewing each mouthful 30 to 40 times—per bite—can make a big difference in how easily you digest your meals.
Make mealtimes count
Talley recommends eating at regular mealtimes to help regulate bowel function. For diarrhea, small, frequent meals may make you feel better. Sitting down to eat, and restraining yourself from multitasking, will minimize the frantic, overdrive feeling that shadows us though so much of our daily lives.
Fill up on fiber
Fiber, says Karen Olsen, a dietician at Mayo Clinic, “helps IBS symptoms by both controlling constipation by making one’s stool softer, and controlling diarrhea because fiber absorbs fluid.” Having consistent fiber in your diet also decreases the pressure on the colon, thus easing gas and bloating issues. Increase the amount of plant-based foods — think fruits, vegetables, whole grains — but try to space out the amount of high-fiber foods you eat throughout the day. Eating a lot of fiber all at once just exacerbates the bloating/gas double whammy.
Drinking more liquids, mostly water, is key to minimizing IBS pain. Since fiber absorbs fluid, you need to be sure to keep well hydrated; otherwise you may make constipation worse. Caffeine and carbonated beverages don’t do your system any favors; the caffeine may over-stimulate your bowels, and the soda contributes to gas and heartburn. The best things to drink, besides water, are herbal teas like peppermint, which soothes the gastrointestinal tract, and chamomile, which reduces intestinal inflammation.
Phase out troublemakers
Tune into the foods that aggravate your symptoms. Fried foods and dairy are the usual suspects, but for some people it might be high-fiber foods such as beans or broccoli.
Power up on probiotics
Probiotics are natural bacterial products that you can supplement your diet with to aid digestion. “There’s a lot of information to suggest that probiotics may have beneficial effects, says Paul Limburg, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist. “They can change the characteristics of the stool and have a positive effect on the lining of the intestines.”
Exercises for IBS relief
In addition to making careful dietary choices, one of the most effective tools for alleviating IBS symptoms is yoga, which focuses on deep breathing, de-stressing and restoring balance to entire body. In Gaiam’s Mayo Clinic Wellness Solutions for IBS DVD, renowned yoga teacher Rodney Yee proves an excellent guide for navigating IBS. Yee suggests keeping the belly elongated and soft during yoga practice, and to try tuning into the natural rhythms of digestion.
A few yoga poses are especially helpful for IBS — we’ve highlighted three of the most therapeutic:
Whether seated or standing, bending forward helps soothe a hyperactive bowel. Breathe into the pose, and focus on relaxing your stomach muscles.
Lying down on your back, with your legs straight out in front of you, fold your right leg into your chest with your hands clasped on the top part of the shin. Hold for several rounds of breath, and then alternate with your other leg. Also known as Wind Relieving Pose, this asana does a great job of stimulating sluggish bowels.
Twists improve digestion and work the abdomen, which is a boon for constipation. Revolved Triangle is an excellent choice, but all twists have that wringing effect on the abdomen that supports elimination.