With Thanksgiving just a few days away, many of us are anticipating a long weekend of delicious indulgences, kicking off the holiday season with a smorgasbord of rich comfort foods and sugary delights. Most of us have a lot to think about in preparation for the festivities. But for anyone who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), this anticipation triggers a unique concern: how to enjoy the party (or any meal for that matter) without the impending digestive discomfort.
What Is IBS?
IBS is a fairly common gastrointestinal problem; but because of its vague set of symptoms, it can be a frustrating issue to address for patients and physicians. IBS is less a distinct condition than a collection of sometimes contradictory symptoms — such as diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain and cramping — without evidence of a more serious diagnosis such as Crohn’s disease or leaky gut. The one common factor among all IBS patients is irregular bowel movements that can be caused by any number of things. So finding a direct treatment path can sometimes require an indirect process of elimination, of trial and error so to speak.
However, in integrative medicine we rely on a holistic approach to address this vague set of symptoms. In other words, we focus our therapeutic strategy on overall gastrointestinal health, often with significant success.
Eliminate Potential Causes
Before we discuss what we should add to our health program for IBS, let’s talk about something we would do well to subtract: gluten. IBS shares a number of symptoms with gluten sensitivity, so it only makes sense to experiment with a gluten-free diet. In many cases, this may solve the problem rapidly; at the very least, it can rule out gluten as the cause.
Stress is another huge problem that aggravates IBS. We’ve all heard the term “nervous stomach,” so it’s no surprise that anxiety can have a serious impact on the gastrointestinal tract. There are a variety of ways to reduce stress: Meditation and mind-body exercises top the list. Mind-body therapies that simultaneously relax and support core health include yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, mindful meditation and deep breathing.
Keys To Digestive Health
Promote natural movement: Proper digestion relies on a process called peristalsis, the muscular contractions in the digestive system that move food along and assist nutrient absorption. If the process breaks down (moving too fast or too slow), food is not digested properly and bowel movements suffer. One important way to support this natural movement is with minerals: magnesium, calcium and potassium in particular. Remember these minerals need to be kept in balance. Too much magnesium and potassium without enough calcium can lead to soft stools.
Support digestive flora: Another potential issue in IBS is an imbalance of digestive flora, the wide array of bacteria that play such a crucial role in digestion and overall health. A diet rich in probiotics (beneficial bacteria) and prebiotics (specific ingredients that nourish beneficial bacteria) can greatly relieve bowel issues. Recent research has also found a link between healthy levels of beneficial bacteria and stress reduction.
The importance of enzymes: In people with IBS, digestive enzymes might not be working at peak efficiency. Supplementing with natural digestive enzymes such as amylase, protease, lipase and others can help. You also need to make sure you have enough hydrochloric acid (HCl) with the enzymes; sometimes, an extra HCl supplement is taken with enzyme supplements. For this reason, it’s important to avoid drinking water or other fluids while eating; fluids can dilute enzymes and stomach acid needed for proper digestion. Drink 10 or 15 minutes before a meal so the liquid is fully absorbed. Also, slow down, chew slowly and thoroughly, and be a mindful eater. This also helps bolster overall digestive function by taking some of the burden off of your stomach enzymes.
Eat more fiber: Increased fiber consumption often has an excellent impact on IBS. This may seem counterintuitive to those suffering from diarrhea, as fiber is commonly thought to speed digestion along. However, fiber actually acts as a modulator for digestion and can improve both constipation and diarrhea.
Supplement wisely: There are a number of herbs and botanicals that promote digestive health. In my clinical practice, I recommend a formula which contains the following ingredients:
- Pomegranate seed: strengthens digestive activity by supporting intestinal movement and gastric secretions and providing antioxidants.
- Pepper fruit: promotes circulation, including digestive circulation. The active ingredient piperine may also enhance nutrient absorption and aid in fat metabolism.
- Cassia bark and Chinese cardamom fruit: warming herbs that support numerous aspects of digestion.
- Tangerine fruit: alleviates occasional cramping and gas.
- Ginger root: traditionally used as an anti-flatulent, laxative and antacid. Research shows ginger root supports intestinal movement and combats nausea.
- Sacred lotus seed: has been used in Asia for thousands of years, primarily for occasional abdominal cramps, loose stools and other gastrointestinal issues.
IBS is an indistinct condition, so treatment may require several combined approaches. With the possible exception of gluten sensitivity, often more than one issue causes the condition, so it may take more than one tactic to solve it. The good news is that the natural solutions recommended here can address multiple aspects of digestive, as well as overall health. With a bit of mindfulness, IBS can be alleviated using simple solutions that can offer long lasting relief and support core vitality and wellness in the process throughout the holidays and beyond.
Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!