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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

The Mystery of IBS

Jun 30, 2019 02:00AM ● By Cheryl Moates
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), classified as a functional disease, is poorly understood despite years of research and advances in treatment options. Forty-five million people in the United States suffer from IBS symptoms, as does 11 percent of the global population. Most people with IBS are under age of 50, and two out of three are women. There is no differentiation among races or ethnic groups.

While IBS affects everyone, including children, most sufferers are diagnosed between ages 20 and 40. Unfortunately, only 10 percent of people with symptoms seek help from a medical provider. Furthermore, these statistics don’t come close to revealing the emotional and psychological burden related to the psychosocial distress that impacts quality of life and interpersonal relationships.

IBS is something of a challenge to diagnose; no laboratory test, imaging scan or diagnostic procedure provides a definitive diagnosis for IBS. Instead, all other ailments are ruled out. Its primary characteristic is chronic intermittent abdominal pain associated with a change in bowel habits, meaning either diarrhea or constipation. People also report bloating, distention, gas and nausea.

It’s All about Gut Flora

For years it was thought that IBS symptoms were the physical manifestations of depression and anxiety. Today, research has established that the IBS population has altered gut flora, which impacts digestive function as well as emotional well-being. The gut flora encompasses the trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that aid in digestion and communicate with our brains and our immune systems. When these microbes are out of balance, illness—and even serious disorders such as autoimmune diseases—can occur.

According to Dr. Robynne Chutkan, founder of the Digestive Center for Wellness, the more accurate diagnosis of IBS symptoms is dysbiosis, or microbial imbalance. Gut bacteria must be addressed in order to combat the gastrointestinal symptoms related to IBS. The bacteria impact gut inflammation and help to maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall. A “leaky gut” develops when beneficial gut microbes are lacking and the intestinal lining develops holes through which food particles and other foreign substances “leak” into the bloodstream. The presence of toxins then stimulates the immune system and initiates a build-up of inflammation. As a result, food allergies and sensitivities develop, creating the multitude of symptoms that are consistent with IBS, including the extra-intestinal complaints of headaches, skin rashes, brain fog, fatigue and joint pain.

Seventy percent of the body’s immune cells make their home in the intestines, so constant, sustained inflammation in that area can impede the immune system’s effectiveness and contribute to disease.

Why Anxiety, Headaches and Fatigue?

So how do we explain the anxiety, headaches and fatigue that are common complaints of IBS sufferers? Again, the cause is the microorganisms in the intestines—but they do not act alone. The lining of the intestinal tract houses a complex network of nerve cells called the enteric nervous system. This intricate framework maintains a continual dialogue among the gut bacteria, nerve cells, hormones and the brain. Furthermore, 90 percent of serotonin production happens in the intestines. This hormone is a chemical messenger that influences mood and social behavior in addition to regulating digestion. Recent research indicates that specific strains of bacteria help to boost serotonin production in the gut.

Why does IBS affect more women than men? Recent research has determined that the microbiome is gender specific. In women, communication between estrogen and gut microbes impacts abdominal pain receptors, gut motility and permeability, and it activates the immune system within the intestinal lining. In contrast, these same gender-specific studies indicate that testosterone plays an opposite role in the perception of pain and even suppresses chronic pain, such as joint pain, headaches and abdominal pain. That would account for the fact that men generally have fewer complaints of persistent pain than women do.

The Role of GMOs

The role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the rise of IBS is highly controversial. The sole purpose of many GMOs, which are the products of agricultural biotechnology, is to produce a higher-yield crop and increase plant resistance to herbicides and insects. The herbicide glyphosate, for example, is used extensively in crop production and is processed into many different food products that are sold all over the globe. Bt toxin is a popular genetic mutation that is added to seeds as a pesticide. When tiny insects eat the plant, Bt toxin creates holes in their gut lining, enters their blood stream and kills them. Does this sound like leaky gut syndrome?

Does this mean that glyphosate and Bt toxin cause IBS? No, but low levels of glyphosate are found in our soil and water, and studies have verified that glyphosate decreases beneficial gut bacteria and destroys the gut lining. A study in Canada confirmed that Bt toxin was found in 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of fetal umbilical cords—certainly food for thought.


Despite the enlightening research, treatment for IBS is most often directed toward symptom relief rather than the underlying cause. Many pharmaceuticals are not effective and have serious side effects. Most people with IBS report some symptom relief with dietary changes. Eating a gluten-free diet is beneficial for many. A recent study conducted in Australia recommends that IBS sufferers try the FODMAP diet, which eliminates hard-to-digest foods that are high in simple sugars and cause gas and bloating. It is a type of elimination diet designed to identify foods causing pain and discomfort, and it is best performed with the guidance of a licensed dietician.

Another dietary treatment option is to work with a lifestyle, eating and performance (LEAP) dietician who performs a food-sensitivity blood test to identify foods that cause discomfort, and then develops an optimal treatment plan based upon that.

Restoring a healthy microbial ecosystem in the gut is the most effective treatment for IBS. Probiotics are definitely a plus. They reduce inflammation, stimulate the immune system and destroy toxins. Prebiotics, which are present in fiber-rich foods, are essential to creating an environment in which the beneficial bacteria can grow and flourish. Psyllium fiber is one form of prebiotic. It nourishes gut flora and reduces diarrhea and constipation. The best prebiotics are leafy green veggies, cruciferous vegetables and fresh fruits. These nourish your gut bugs.

Alternative Treatments

Studies have demonstrated that adding ginseng and peppermint to the diet decreases abdominal pain. Peppermint also decreases gas production and produces anti-infective and anti-inflammatory effects. Another interesting new development is cannabis research. Cannabis tinctures have been found to relieve abdominal pain and normalize gut motility.

Last, but certainly not least, stress reduction and maintaining a positive attitude are essential to holistic healing of the mind, body and soul. Bringing balance and harmony to all three aspects of self is best achieved through yoga and meditation. Yoga promotes strength and flexibility, relieves stress and increases self-esteem. Meditation, with a focus on the breath, calms the restless disquiet of the mind and encourages the soul to live an authentic life.

Essential oils are a complimentary addition to the practice of yoga and meditation. Oils promote homeostasis within without producing unwanted side effects. They, of course, have been used for their medicinal properties for centuries. Numerous oils are available, each with its own beneficial and healing effect.

Daily Smoothie

Chutkan recommends drinking this green smoothie every day:

2 handfuls of greens (spinach, collards, kale or  swiss chard) 1 rib of celery ½ handful of parsley Juice of ½ to 1 lemon 1-inch section of fresh ginger, peeled Fruit of choice — apple, orange, pineapple, strawberries. Don’t use bananas. They will make it too thick. Water or coconut water can be added for desired consistency

Here’s to your health! ❧

Cheryl Moates, R.N, M.S.N. is the author of You Can Heal Your Gut: Correct Irritable Bowel Syndrome the All-natural way. She has been a registered nurse for over 30 years. Contact her at [email protected].

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