According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, more than 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders every year. Those of you who are affected know how devastating this can be on your personal and professional life. However, because few people speak openly about their digestive symptoms, the magnitude of the problem is underestimated. 
Canada has one of the highest rates of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in the world with 5 million Canadians currently suffering from it and 120,000 new cases being diagnosed each year. These are significant statistics but there is hope. April is recognized as National IBS Awareness Month so the focus of this article will be on Irritable Bowel Syndrome strategies to deal with it.
The symptoms of IBS include cramping, spasms, altered bowel function and irritation of the intestinal tract. In some people it is mild, while others have chronic symptoms that can be disabling. People with IBS may also have upper abdominal symptoms such as heartburn, nausea, bloating and abdominal pain.
IBS is a ‘functional disorder’ which means that there is no physical evidence of disease such as ulcers or inflammation. It is also a diagnosis of exclusion, so if a practitioner cannot determine a cause for symptoms (i.e. Crohn's disease or colitis) a diagnosis of IBS is likely to be made. However, other conditions should be ruled out before a diagnosis of IBS is made. These include: parasites, candida, infectious diarrhea, and lactose intolerance.
The symptoms of IBS can vary from person to person and may include:
- Abdominal pain or spasms
- Diarrhea and / or constipation
- Bowel urgency
- Abdominal pain relieved by defecation
- Mucus in stool
- The sensation of the bowel not emptying completely
IBS can be managed by diet and lifestyle changes along with natural supplementation.
Here are some steps you can take to cope with IBS:
Rule out possible underlying causes and treat them if they exist (i.e. candida, parasites, lactose intolerance and infectious diarrhea).
- Determine “trigger” foods and avoid them (fats, dairy, wheat, insoluble fibre and red meat tend to be big triggers). Following an elimination diet to determine trigger foods is done by removing the suspected foods and reintroducing them one at a time. If symptoms occur when you eat it you can conclude that the food is a trigger and avoid it.
- Make soluble fibre foods the largest part of your meals and snacks and always eat them first. Soluble fibre foods include: oatmeal, rice and rice cereals, pasta and noodles, barley, quinoa, soy (organic), veggies such as potatoes, yams/sweet potatoes, beets, squash, pumpkins, avocados and fruits like bananas, mangoes, papaya and applesauce. Experiment with recipes for variety.
- Be careful about the intake of insoluble fibre (such as bran and fibre in raw fruits and vegetables). High fibre foods should not be eaten alone or on an empty stomach as they can trigger IBS symptoms. The best option is to peel, skin, chop, mash, cook and puree fruits and vegetables to blend into smoothies, soups, sauces or stews. Make sure you also finely chop nuts, fresh herbs, and dried fruits.
- Eat 5-6 smaller meals per day, rather than 2-3 large meals. This is easier on the digestive system.
- Chew your food slowly and thoroughly into small digestible pieces.
- Drink plenty of purified water but limit the amount of water or other fluids you drink with your meals, as this can inhibit digestion. Be careful with ice-cold liquids as they can make your stomach muscles contract, triggering an attack.
- Avoid eating foods you are unsure of. If you want to test something, try it in very small amounts to determine whether you will have a reaction.
- One of the most important things that you can do is replenish the good bacteria in your intestinal tract with probiotics like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Several studies comparing the effects of probiotics versus placebo have indicated improving IBS symptoms and reducing the risk of persistent IBS symptoms with probiotics. You don’t get enough from yogurt so supplementing is best. Look for a probiotic supplement with the following characteristics:
- High Culture Count
- Multiple Strains
- Delayed Release
- Potency at Time of Expiration
- Take digestive enzymes with your meals to help break down your food so there is little left over to cause gas and bloating.
- To ease the symptoms of cramping and spasms, use anti-spasmodic herbs such as ginger root, goldenseal and turmeric. You can use ginger and turmeric in cooking or you can find specific IBS herbal combinations at your local health food store.
- Peppermint tea is antispasmodic and relaxing so drinking it can be very helpful in the reduction of spasms.
- Repair and rebuild the intestinal tract with amino acids such as L-Glutamine & N-Acetyl D-Glucosamine. There are products you can get at your local health food store that are specifically designed to help heal and repair the intestinal tract.
Deal with stress
Stress and stomachs are inextricably linked. Incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily life to keep your stress manageable.
- Participate in stress reduction and relaxation therapies such as meditation and deep breathing.
- Incorporate regular exercise such as walking or yoga.
- Minimize stressful life situations as much as possible.
- Get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
- Seek out counseling and support.
- Hypnotherapy has been proven to be successful as well. Sessions in which descriptions of what happens to the intestines when we're uptight are given along with methods of coping. A British clinical hypnotherapist, Michael Mahoney, has developed an IBS-specific self-hypnosis method called the "IBS Audio Program 100", (http://www.ibsaudioprogram.com/ ) that can be practiced by IBS patients in their own time, at home.
By following the preventative steps above, and using a combination of anti-spasmodic herbs during acute flair ups, IBS symptoms can be brought under control, thereby regaining the quality of life for IBS sufferers.
A healthy gut can impact your life; from helping to lower stress to improving energy, sleep and memory and even impacting your happiness.
 Canadian Digestive Health Foundation. (2012). Digestive Disorder Statistics. Available: http://www.cdhf.ca/digestive-disorders/statistics.shtml. Last accessed 01 April 2013.
3 Ringel Y., Ringel-Kulka T.. (2011). The Rationale and Clinical Effectiveness of Probiotics in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.. Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21992954. Last accessed 01 April 2013.