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Herbal remedy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Updated on October 30, 2009

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS for short is a very common disorder of the digestive system. Western medicine has no known cause for this disease at the moment and most often cites stress as the major cause of IBS. The disease itself can vary from mild to severe and symptoms can be anything from simple abdominal pain through to bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and general unease in the stomach and gut. It's a peculiar disease because diarrhoea and constipation are essentially opposites, and yet they are both symptoms of irritable bowel syndrom. Generally it is a chronic problem (i.e. it is long term rather than short and sharp such as, for example food poisening). Symptoms come and go, making it even more difficult to treat. Some people also know IBS by other names, for example spastic colon, spastic colitis, mucous colitis, nervous colon or diarrheoea or nervous bowel. There are no known cures in Western medicine. However alternative and complementary therapy has many potential cures for IBS. Many people find things like acupuncture or shiatsu very helpful, others have reported that reiki and reflexology work wonders for the disease. Indeed most of these treatments can and do help, and not just because they alleviate stress, but because they actually adress the body as a whole, bringing about balance and harmony to the body and so erradicating disease. Herbal remedies are very powerful for IBS and I'm going to focus on a few of these.

Who gets irritable bowel syndrome

There is no consistent patient profile for people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and there is also no problem with or abnormality in the structure of the intestines in IBS. About 1 in 5 people suffer from IBS and it is twice as common in woment than men. Usually it develops first when you are a teenager or young adult and goes on to haunt you through adulthood.

How is irritable bowel syndrom diagnosed

There are no tests that can confirm IBS or spastic colon so the disease is usally diagnosed from the described symptoms. Often, blood samples are taken from people who suffer from the symptoms to rule out any other diseases such as colitis, coeliac disease and ulcers because sometimes the symptoms of these diseases are fairly similar to IBS. Lets recap on the symptoms:

  • Pain or discomfort in the abdomen and gut. Often the pain comes in waves and is sometimes described by sufferers as spasms. Severity is anywhere on the scale of mild to severe varying from person to person and even varying in the same person. Ocassionally, passing stools or wind can alleviate the pain.
  • Bloating or swelling of the abdomen. Again this is variable in both severity and time of attack.
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Alternate Diarrhea and Constipation
  • Stools can vary and are sometimes mixed with mucus or perhaps pellet like and small.
  • Urgent need to defecate early in the morning
  • Multiple other symptoms such as headache, belching, poor appetite, tiredness, nausea and heartburn are common

What are the causes

The causes of nervous colon or IBS are not well understood. Sometimes IBS occurs after a bout of gastroenteritis, though infection is not a direct cause it is considered a trigger. Antibiotics can also trigger a bout of IBS because they will kill off a certain amount of "good" bacteria in the gut which will affect the balance of the bowels. Intolerance to foods may be a cause - common foodstuffs that are thought to play a part are wheat and dairy. Stress or emotional upset is a possible cause and about half the people who suffer from the disease say it is worse when they are stressed or that they get a bout of IBS when stressed.

Conventional treatments

Obviously, not being stressed is a big part of not getting IBS. Easier said than done. Perhaps trying something like having a massage or holistic treatment like acupuncture, reiki or yoga can help alleviate stress. High fibre diets are often not recommended for IBS sufferers, however results of studies on this have been confusing to say the least. Some postulation exists that the type of fibre eaten plays a role, with soluble fibre being preferable. These are things like oats, nuts, seeds, psyllium. Avoid insoluble fibre found in maize and bran. Ensuring a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and rest is a given, but other advice is also helpful like keeping regular meal times and not working while you eat. Restrict coffee and tea and substitute with herbal teas and non-caffeinated drinks. Keeping alcohol consumption down. There is some evidence to suggest that probiotics can be helpful in cases of IBS. Probiotics are supplements that have good bacteria in them.

Antispasmodic medication can be taken to relax the muscles in the wall of the gut which might be prescribed by your doctor to treat the symptoms of IBS. There are several differnt types of antispasmodic that work in different ways so you might have to try a few to get the right one. Antidiarrhoea medication is also sometimes prescribed for people who exhibit diarrhoea as a symptom. Of course because having IBS can be fairly anxiety forming, some sufferers do end up on antidepressants - these seem to work best if the symptoms of IBS are diarrhoea and pain. Psychoanalysis has also been known to help some sufferers.

Herbal and Alternative remedies

It is obviously important, if you are suffering from any of the above symptoms, to visit your doctor and have a proper diagnosis. Having said that, many people who suffer from IBS have found relief by using herbal remedies. Discuss these with your doctor as well since they may be able to advise you further on which herbal remedies would be most suitable for your symptoms.

Roots, leaves, flowers, stems, berries and bark have been used for centuries as medicine. In fact, herbal remedies would have to be considered the first type of drug administered medicine and certainly our ancestors would have used their knowledge of local flora and fauna to help heal themselves. The animal kingdom still uses an inate knowledge of these things - for example, cats will eat grass when they have an upset stomach as it can help them to regurgitate and thus remove the bug from their system.

For Irritable bowel syndrome, there are many different herbal remedies available, as well as some patent formulas, but these make a good starting point and are all readily available.

Peppermint is an all round digestive aid and is also a pain killer. It is anti-bacterial and can help relieve nausea, diarrhea and vomiting as well as cramps and spasms in the gut. It helps to relax and sooth the muscles in the intestines. Try it as an infusion before you eat.

You will know when you taste aniseed because of its strong resemblance to liquorice. It is mildly antiparasitic and can help relieve cramps as well as settle the stomach and reduce gas or bloating.

Another digestive aid, ginger is anti-inflamatory as well as anti-bacterial. Ginger also contains compounds that can reduce diarrhea and it is effective in reducing nausea.

Very calming, chamomile is better known for calming the emotions and for its sedative nature, but it can also relieve gas and spasms. It's calming nature means that it will also help relax the intestines and help target stress related IBS. Again, Chamomile is ideal as an infusion.

This is great at alleviating pain in the gut and stomach as well as relieving spams and cramps.

These are good starting points for anyone looking for a herbal remedy for irritable bowel syndrome. Other options include probiotics - often these come in the form of a yoghurt or milk based drink and you should be able to find some of these in your local supermarket. There are also some effecive Chinese Herbal medicines, but these are best left to a qualified acupuncturist to prescribe.


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