Natural Remedies for IBS: Similar Symptoms,
Many Possible Causes

There are many natural remedies for IBS because everyone will have a different underlying root cause (s) for their IBS symptoms.    Modifying your diet for relief from symptoms is important, but equally important is finding out what the root cause of your IBS condition is and then using food and nutrition to help heal your body.

IBS symptoms include, bloating, chronic constipation (meaning not having a bowel movement at least once per day) or diarrhea (or alternating between the two), recurring abdominal pain, mucus in stools and stomach cramps (1).  Also, be aware that rosacea, migraine headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, interstitial cystitis and other systemic symptoms and conditions are associated with IBS (1, 2).  Improving your IBS may also help alleviate other seemingly unrelated health issues. 

Although the gastrointestinal symptoms are often similar, there are many possible causes of your IBS condition.   And just as improving your IBS condition may improve other systemic symptoms and illnesses, other systemic symptoms and illnesses may give you a clue to the underlying root cause of your IBS condition.  

Possible underlying causes of your IBS symptoms include:

SIBO: A high percentage (as high as 78%) of people with IBS also have a condition called small intestine bacterial overgrowth or SIBO (3).  SIBO is associated with other seemingly unrelated illnesses (chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, interstitial cystitis, restless legs syndrome, rosacea (2)) and characterized by greasy, frothy, yellow stools, bloating and gas that is often significant and gradually worsens throughout the day, often constipation is reported, but sometimes presents with chronic diarrhea.    A breath test is often used to diagnose SIBO.

Gut infection: An estimated 25% of IBS cases begin with a gastrointestinal infection - foodborne or other pathogens such as, parasites or yeast (1, 3).   Post- infection IBS is usually characterized by diarrhea and not constipation.  Comprehensive stool analysis is often used to detect infections.

Certain food and lifestyle factors are associated with IBS symptoms: 

Food sensitivities are found in many people with IBS and may be accompanied by other seemingly unrelated symptoms such as, asthma or eczema.  Gluten sensitivity or intolerance has been associated with bloating and gas (as well as other systemic symptoms such as joint pain, skin rashes, headaches and depression(1)).  Adverse reactions to milk and milk products can cause digestive symptoms due to lactose intolerance or sensitivity.  Other carbohydrates and sugars may be poorly absorbed and cause gas, pain and bloating – this group of foods that contain easily fermentable simple sugars is termed FODMAP (4).  Caffeine can cause irritable bowel symptoms.  An IBS diet will often exclude many of these possible problematic foods.

Stress is a contributing factor to IBS and digestive dysfunction.  The gut-brain connection is very strong and stress may contribute to altered gut motility.  Eating under stress doesn’t allow for adequate digestion and absorption.  Inadequate chewing, too little stomach acid (from stress, chronic inflammation or use of antacid, acid blocker medications, aging, low protein diet) and/or insufficient digestive enzymes (due to stress, lactose intolerance, certain diseases) may be contributing to your IBS symptoms.   Natural remedies for IBS may include stress management techniques including mindful eating exercises, assessment and management of digestion and/or absorption issues and subsequent nutritional deficiencies. 

Dysbiosis, “leaky gut syndrome” and IBS:

Poor diet, stress, bacterial infections, repeated doses of antibiotics and certain medications are linked with altered gut flora or dysbiosis and may contribute to IBS symptoms (3).  “Leaky gut” or intestinal permeability due to dysbiosis, food sensitivities, poor diet, infections, certain medications or health conditions may be a contributor and underlying cause of your irritable bowel and other systemic symptoms.  Comprehensive digestive stool analysis is often used to assess for dysbiosis as well as digestion and absorption abilities.

Natural remedies for IBS should provide relief and target the underlying factors contributing to your symptoms.

Natural remedies for IBS: Modifying Your Diet for Relief

IBS Diet:

If you have intermittent IBS, mild symptoms: 

Trial a low FODMAP (includes a lactose free diet), anti inflammatory, whole foods based IBS diet.  Many clinicians report  patient relief from IBS symptoms using diets such as, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) or the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet, but the low FODMAP diet has been more rigorously studied (4).   

Although it is mostly thought of for constipation, fiber can be helpful for diarrhea as well. Fiber tends to normalize bowel movements in both constipation and diarrhea (5). Include fiber (at least 30 g/day), especially soluble fiber foods such as, oatmeal/oat bran, cooked or canned fruits as possible.

Incorporate stress management techniques into your day (meditation, yoga), practice mindful eating and add 10 more “chews” with each bite.

If you have chronic IBS, moderate symptoms:

Trial a low FODMAP (includes a lactose free diet), anti inflammatory, whole foods based IBS diet in combination with a comprehensive elimination diet.   As above, also try to include adequate fiber (at least 30 g/day), especially soluble fiber foods such as, oatmeal/oat bran, cooked or canned fruits as possible.

Research suggests that eliminating foods identified using IgG antibody food testing can result in significant symptom improvement in those with IBS (6). Other  preliminary reports of improvement in primarily diarrhea predominant IBS and eliminating foods identified using LEAP Mediator Release Testing (MRT) have been reported, but there is little research backing this type of testing for IBS.   Though, some clinicians report good results by utilizing LEAP MRT and other types of food sensitivity testing.   Be aware that these tests can be expensive and may not be covered by your insurance.   

Incorporate stress management techniques into your day (meditation, yoga), practice mindful eating and add 10 more “chews” with each bite.

Meal plans and recipes for IBS: MyFoodMyHealth is a great resource for someone that is looking to manage IBS with food.  The experts at MyFoodMyHealth have created a diet plan for IBS (enter the promotional code "Vitality1" on the "Sign Up Now" page to receive 15% off your subscription) that will provide you with chef-created, easy to prepare recipes using whole foods (they also have a FODMAPS 14-day diet plan).

Natural Remedies for IBS: Using Food, Nutrition to Heal Your Body

You want to “remove” from your diet what your body doesn’t need or tolerate and “replace” what your body does needs for health and/or healing.  If you have removed foods that have been causing your symptoms (i.e. food sensitivities, FODMAPs) and are finding relief that is a great start.  Once you have uncovered why you are having IBS symptoms and are managing the cause, you will need to “replace” certain nutrients that your body needs to heal.  The goal is to manage the underlying cause, remove and replace what is necessary for healing, gradually re-introduce as many foods as possible and ultimately understand what nutrition your body needs for long-term health and vitality. 

Nutritional supplements and other natural remedies for IBS:

Certain supplements have been associated with IBS symptom improvement (1, 5).  The underlying cause of your IBS condition will ultimately determine what nutrients may be necessary for healing.  Depending on the type of IBS condition you have (diarrhea or constipation predominant) and the underlying cause of your IBS condition, you may consider:

  • A high quality, professional line daily multivitamin with chelated minerals – including methylated folate and B12 – is a good way to establish a “base” and then try one supplement at a time such as,
  • Digestive enzymes before meals
  • For diarrhea predominant IBS, natural remedies for gas pain: Enteric coated peppermint oil has been shown to reduce GI spasms, abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea.  
  • For constipation predominant IBS: Try magnesium citrate or try a fiber supplement such as, psyllium , guar gum, wheat bran (fiber may also help to normalize diarrhea in IBS).  Introduce fiber gradually, drink plenty of water and avoid medications within 2 hours of taking fiber supplements.  Artichoke leaf extract has shown to improve a variety of IBS symptoms abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, flatulence, and constipation as well as “indigestion”.
  • Repopulate your gut with the appropriate dairy free probiotics. VSL#3, Lacteol Fort and Align are brands that have been studied in IBS volunteers.  Look specifically for mixed strains of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus (similar to VSL#3), unless you’ve had testing that indicates different needs, and take at least 10 billion CFU’s daily.
  • Other supplements you might try include, melatonin, Iberogast or German chamomile tea.

If you have severe digestive symptoms, you will need a very specific food plan and possibly certain gut healing, anti-inflammatory nutrients such as: fish oil, GLA (evening primrose oil), zinc L-carnosine, L-glutamine (use caution with bipolar disorder), quercetin, vitamin D or an anti inflammatory, low allergenic medical food with targeted nutrients (medical foods and certain gut healing nutrients are more targeted towards used with inflammatory bowel disease (Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s disease) in combination with an elimination diet).

This is a general guide to natural remedies for IBS and will need to be personalized based on the underlying factors associated with your IBS condition.   Modifying your diet & lifestyle for relief is a good start, but it’s most important to obtain the appropriate testing (comprehensive digestive stool analysis, nutrient status testing, breath testing, food sensitivity testing, etc.) and uncover the root cause (s) of your symptoms and then use food and nutrition to heal your body.

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1. Mullin, G. and Swift, KM. The Inside Tract. Rodale, 2011.

2. Turnbull, LK, Mullin, GE and Weinstock LB. Principles of Integrative Gastroenterology: Systemic Signs of Underlying Digestive Dysfunction and Disease in: Integrative Gastroenterology. Oxford University Press, 2011.

3. Lipski, E. Digestive Wellness, 4th edition. McGraw Hill, 2012.

4. Gibson, PR and Shepherd, SJ. Evidence-based dietary management of functional gastrointestinal symptoms: The FODMAP approach. JGH. 2010, 25: 252–258. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1746.2009.06149.

5. Natural medicines comprehensive database

6. Mullin, GE. et al. Testing for Food Reactions : The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Nutr Clin Prac. 2010 25:192. DOI: 10.1177/0884533610362696.

7. Clinical Nutrition: a functional approach., 2nd edition. The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), 2004.

8. IFM functional nutrition intervention protocols, IBS, 2012



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