So, you’ve been suffering from gut issues for a few years or longer and you finally get along to your GP who may or may not have referred you for some testing or sent you off to see a gastroenterologist. After some poking and prodding, and maybe pooing into a cup so your poo and can be tested for nasty things, you are told that you have a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. Yahoo! You have a diagnosis. But what does this really mean and what can you do about it? You may be prescribed a medication or you may be told that there is not much that can be done for IBS. Either way, often, a path to recovery is not part of the discussion, or most importantly, a chat about WHY the bowel might be irritated in the first place.
Let’s start with a discussion about what a syndrome is. A syndrome (as opposed to disease) is a cluster of symptoms – to be diagnosed with a syndrome, you have to meet the criteria of X number of symptoms from a list of many. What this means is that although a lot of people suffer from this same group of symptoms (and therefore must be recognised medically – or else we are all crazy), there is no one test that can diagnose the issue as there is no one single process in the body that can be considered aberrant. So why then are these symptoms arising? Well, sometimes in human health, there are multiple reasons for symptoms to occur. This means that there might need to be several events happening at the same time for the condition to show up. In addition, your body might be reacting to the environment in a way that the next person’s body does not react, so what may cause IBS in one person may not cause any discernible issues for the next. Essentially what this means is that in order for recovery to occur, each patient needs to be assessed on an individual basis and the underlying cause for them be identified. From here, a healing process can occur.
What can be causing IBS?
There are so many different elements influencing our gut function every day – it is important to consider them all. The first is always the food that we eat as this comes in direct contact with the lining of the gut and is often a source of irritation. Many of the foods that we eat today were just not made for processing by the human gastrointestinal tract, and although some seem to handle them better than others, for the patient with IBS, they need to be considered as part of the problem as a first approach. If I was to put a bunch of lotions on my skin every day and I developed a rash that was red, painful and caused my skin to peel off, it would be silly to disregard the lotions as potential irritants. The same applies to the food that we eat – this is essentially ‘applied’ to the skin of the gastrointestinal tract and therefore must be considered as a potential irritant.
The microbiome (or gut flora) is another area that should always be looked at in IBS cases. The microbiome is a couple of kilograms of bacteria, yeasts, viruses and archaea that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract. These ‘bugs’ should ideally be in balance to support our gastrointestinal health, immune system, brain function and hormones (probably every physiological function really). If they become damaged through the use of antibiotics, pesticides in foods, stress, improper dietary habits or the use of medications, then we get an imbalance and this can lead to the symptoms associated with IBS. Sometimes there are parasites, bacteria or yeasts growing in the gut that just don’t belong there, and sometimes it is bugs that should be part of a healthy ecosystem, but have started to take over and cause problems in the ecosystem. Either way, comprehensive stool testing can uncover these imbalances or infestations and assist your practitioner in guiding you through rebalancing the gut flora and resolving symptoms.
Finally, the nervous system can be a contributing factor in the irritation of IBS and it is recognised that stress and anxiety are often part of the IBS symptomatology. Stress, anxiety and depression can all cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea and bloating. In turn, an imbalance in the microbiome or consumption of the wrong foods can cause neurological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. This is called a bi-directional relationship which means that a gut issue can cause brain symptoms and brain issues can cause gut symptoms. Sometimes it is important to tackle both issues at the same time to get lasting relief for both areas of health.
The good news is that whatever the underlying cause of your symptoms is, they are fixable! A comprehensive stool analysis is a great start to assess your microbiome and figure out imbalances there. Your naturopath can help guide you through foods that might be irritating your gut and support your nervous system too. Healing IBS symptoms is not something that will happen in an instant, but with the right conditions, and a little bit of time, your gut can certainly heal and you can look forward to a symptom-free future.
To chat with a naturopath about how we might be able to help you, please call 07 3367 0337 and book a complimentary 15-minute assessment. We hope to help you soon ☺