WHAT IS IBS?
IBS and IBD often get lumped into the same category and the difference is often not well understood. First of all, both are digestive disorders. IBS is Irritable Bowel Syndrome and IBD is Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Both have many of the same underlying causes and IBS can turn into IBD if not addressed. IBD is an umbrella term for Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease which unlike IBS, have changes to the gut tissue and increased risk for some cancers. IBS is the most common GI disorder affecting about 11% of the population worldwide.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a group of common symptoms of abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits. These changes include constipation, diarrhea, gas and bloating. There are subcategories used for diagnosis and treatment which are IBS with constipation (IBS-C) and IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D) and IBS with both or mixed (IBS-M). Frankly, there is nothing magical about these diagnosis. Having this label does not change anything, it simply gives your insurance company a code for reimbursement to the doctor. When someone walks into our clinic with an IBS diagnosis, our first reaction is “so what.” That may seem harsh, but in reality, an IBS diagnosis doesn’t help us at all. Determining the source of the inflammation causing each of the symptoms is where it gets interesting and healing can begin.
More About IBS
IBS is more common in women than men and often triggered and/or exacerbated by stress. IBS and mental health are closely linked since those with diagnosed mental health disorders have higher rates of IBS and vice versa. This is due to the gut/brain connection via the vagus nerve which sense chemical messages from the brain to the GI tract. This is why the GI tract is called the “second brain.” Because of this strong link between the gut and the brain, addressing mental health issues by healing the GI tract can not only for many people eliminate the need for mental health medications, but can also resolve IBS symptoms. Because of its close association with mood disorders and stress, we like to think of IBS as a lifestyle disorder. In fact, studies estimate that 38-96 million Americans suffer from IBS, although only 5 to 7% have been diagnosed. A person’s lifestyle is the main driver behind the symptoms labeled as IBS. Because of that, IBS can be treated relatively easily when lifestyle modifications are implemented. Conventional medicine tends to consider IBS a chronic condition that will need to be managed long term, and we beg to differ. We believe IBS can be healed by addressing the 4 Quadrants of GI Health. It may take longer than some, but constipation, abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas and bloating are treatable.
SYMPTOMS OF IBS
If you suffer from any of these, you would benefit from a personalized gut healing protocol:
Diarrhea– frequent, urgent, loose or watery stools
Constipation– fewer than three bowel movements in a week, difficult to pass, low volume of stool that is usually dark in color, shaped in hard balls rather than smooth, formed stool
Gas/bloating– foul smelling gas, or excessive gas, abdominal distention associated with bloating and pain
Abdominal pain– upper or lower quadrant
WHAT CAUSES IBS?
Some conventional theories may suggest stress is the cause of IBS, or that there is no cause at all, it just happens to some people. There is always a reason diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating and abdominal pain are occurring. Common causes of IBS or GI tract inflammation/irritation are:
- Food sensitivities and leaky gut
- High stress levels
- Hormone imbalances
COMPLICATIONS ASSOCIATED WITH IBS
Since IBS is rooted in inflammation of the GI tract, it is often a first sign that something has gone awry When not addressed these symptoms generally get worse and lead to other issues. In the case of constipation, stool is staying in the colon too long and when this occurs, toxins can be reabsorbed back into the bloodstream which contributes further to leaky gut, anxiety, depression and more. Diarrhea causes stool to move too quickly through the GI tract which can result in poor nutrient absorption. Ongoing diarrhea can leave someone depleted of necessary nutrients as well as dehydrated. All of the symptoms associated with IBS are often worse after eating, therefore it can make the desire for food low or limit the variety of foods eaten which also depletes the body of nutrients. In most situations IBS symptoms are not debilitating, but simply inconvenient. Because of this many people ignore or disregard the abnormal bowel habits and and wait too long to address symptoms of IBS. Many of the people in our clinic suffering from Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s, GI cancers, and autoimmune diseases ignored IBS symptoms early on which led to much more serious conditions.
LAB TESTS FOR IBS
When considering lab data for IBS, there is not one test that definitively diagnosis IBS because it is a cluster of symptoms each of which could be caused by different issues or sources of inflammation. Conventional medicine will sometimes do labs to rule out more serious conditions. These labs may include a stool test to assess for parasites, problematic bacteria/infection in the gut. Especially if there is blood in the stool, a colonoscopy may be ordered to rule out more serious issues.
Lab tests can be very helpful in determining the level of inflammation in the body and detecting hidden sources of inflammation. Some or all of these labs would be considered in determining the specific gut healing you need:
- hs-CRP to determine inflammation levels in the body
- Zonulin level to confirm leaky gut
- Food sensitivities (including gluten) to provide a road map for avoiding foods that are contributing to gut inflammation or may very well be the source of it
- Comprehensive stool analysis to find and correct infections, parasites, and gut bacteria imbalances
- Lactulose breath test to rule out SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
There really is not a conventional treatment for IBS beyond ruling out more serious conditions and decreasing stress. Standard treatment protocols say that IBS is a condition you just learn to manage long term. This is because IBS is considered a “functional disorder” meaning since you can still function with this disorder, we aren’t going to do much for you. This is a common approach in allopathic medicine because most doctors are trained for emergencies or when full blown diseases have set in. They are the ones you want in the ER for a broken bone or when surgery is truly needed. However they are not as well trained for “heading it off at the pass”, so to speak, to prevent the development of more severe diseases.
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE TREATMENT
The functional medicine approach is to find and correct the GI tract imbalances based on a personalized plan for what your body needs. There is no “one size fits all” treatment. Your health should not just be “functional,” it should be optimal. You deserve the health you need for the life you want. Although functional medicine treatment is highly individualized there are basic principles of healing and repairing the GI tract. Healing the gut is always personalized to you but these elements generally benefit most people:
- Quality food choices that eliminate food allergens, increase fermented foods, quality fats, decrease sugar, and increase vegetable intake choosing organic when possible.
- Reducing stress through mindfulness, play, creativity, meditation, exercise, and dealing with toxic relationships
- Targeted supplementation like Ultra GI Replenish, probiotics, and healing amino acids, digestive enzymes and bioavailable vitamins and minerals.
Functional medicine treatment for IBS is a lifestyle approach to a lifestyle driven condition. IBS doesn’t just occur out of nowhere. It occurs because the person’s lifestyle does not support a healthy GI tract. That means we do not ignore how food, sleep, stress, and relationships affect gut health.
If we had it our way, IBS wouldn’t even be a “thing.” Having this diagnosis doesn’t accomplish anything towards your healing. The underlying “WHY” still needs to be determined to actually get you well. What if when someone went to the doctor with traditional symptoms of IBS the doctor began an non-invasive, effective gut healing protocol to actually correct the underlying causes of the symptoms labeled IBS?
What if the practitioner didn’t stop finding solutions for healing the actual source of the symptoms until the person was experiencing normal digestion? What if IBS wasn’t a diagnosis that has no real treatment, but it was the indicator to the patient and their doctor that something has gone awry in the digestion process and we better not stop until we fix it?
Digging deeper is our job and frankly the responsible way to look at IBS. If the paradigm doesn’t shift around IBS, the likelihood of more severe GI disorders, mood disorders, and nutrient deficiencies are on the horizon. We believe it is important to take issues like diarrhea, constipation and bloating seriously before they are infringing on daily life in order to correct the imbalances, and prevent more issues down the road. IBS symptoms are signals from your body that it needs to be cared for in some way and we want to help you honor and respond to what your body is trying to communicate.
We hope this information encourages you to be proactive in your health, don’t settle for a label and pursue the “why.” Remember, there IS treatment for IBS symptoms and it is NOT something you have to manage long term. Get the health you need for the life you want.