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There are many different labels that we use to describe disorders of imbalance (such as cancer and depression) a common one being Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
IBS isn’t technically a disease—it would more accurately be described as a set of symptoms that indicate a bigger problem. This is not to say that people are not suffering—some estimates report that 10-15 percent of the world’s population may be afflicted with IBS. Many people do not report their symptoms, either, because of either the associated social stigma or because they think it’s “normal.”
IBS is characterized by symptoms including bloating, abdominal pain, excessive gas, constipation and diarrhea. Being diagnosed with IBS means that our digestive system hasn’t been working so well for an extended period of time. IBS may be caused by exposure to toxins or allergens, which can disrupt the digestive system and cause inflammation. Overgrowth of “bad bacteria” in the small intestine, known as SIBO, may also be an underlying cause of IBS.
Stress can also play a role in IBS. Before discovering yoga and changing my lifestyle, I was dealing with chronic stress in my work environment. This, along with pummelling my body with sugar and other inflammatory agents, caused my digestion to become out of whack.
Natural treatments for IBS include managing stress, supporting our friendly bacteria with probiotics and eliminating food additives such as preservatives from our diet. There is no instant fix for IBS, and pharmacological treatments—such as antibiotics—can actually exacerbate the problem.
By creating an environment for ourselves that supports our health physically, emotionally and mentally, we can easily find relief from IBS. Healing starts with recognizing that the symptoms of IBS are just that—symptoms.
Possible Underlying Causes of IBS
So we know that IBS means that we’re having some issues with our digestive system––and for some people this can be incredibly painful—but what is causing this in the first place?
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
One likely cause is what is known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Our small intestine, where we absorb the majority of the nutrients from our food, is filled with trillions of bacteria. Think of the gut like a massive community of tiny microbes. These microbes can be placed into two broad categories being “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria.” 
When we talk about SIBO we’re really talking about an overgrowth of the bad bacteria. The bacteria in our guts need food just like we do, and one major factor determining which kinds of bacteria we have populating our gut is the food that we eat. Bad bacteria tend to feed on sugar and carbohydrates.
Bacteria produce waste products just like humans, and these waste products can be harmful to our bodies. Symptoms of IBS such as gas, bloating or abdominal cramps can be caused by the overproduction of toxic waste products from the cultures of bad bacteria populating our gut, and reducing these cultures has been shown to treat IBS. 
Good bacteria support our health by helping us to digest food, absorb nutrients and can even assist our immune system in fighting off pathogenic bacteria and viruses. We can support the growth of good bacteria in a number of different ways. In terms of the food we’re eating, good bacteria feed on indigestible fibers, which can be found most abundantly in non-starchy vegetables. Other great sources of natural fibers include ground flax seeds and psyllium seed husks, both of which make a great addition to a smoothie.
We can also support our friendly bacteria by consuming cultured foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and raw (unpasturized) dairy products like yogurt.  We can also take probiotic supplements—studies have shown that these can improve symptoms of IBS and reduce inflammation. Probiotics are cultures of bacteria usually coming in the form of a capsule or a powder. When buying probiotics, we want to look for bifidobacterium and lactobacillus on the label. 
Inflammation caused by toxins and potential allergens in our food.
Whenever there is disease in the body, there is usually inflammation, which is another symptom of IBS. Many factors can cause inflammation in the gut––including toxins in our food. “Toxin” can be a scary word and the average person would probably not consider some of the following substances to be “toxic,” but they have been linked to inflammation and other imbalances.
Manmade preservatives can be found in almost all packaged foods and simply eliminating them from the diet may relieve IBS like symptoms for certain people. There are all sorts of manmade chemicals added to packaged foods, usually for the purpose of making food look better, taste better, last longer on a shelf or transport better. When we look at a label and see words we don’t recognize, this is a good indication that we’re looking at a food additive.
Common food allergens may also contribute to inflammation in the gut. Gluten is an example of a common allergen. A protein in gluten called gliadin has been shown to break apart “tight junctions” in the small intestines of some people. These tight junctions are the barrier between the gut and the bloodstream. Usually these tight junctions open and close intelligently, letting in nutrients and working to keep out inflammatory substances from the bloodstream.  
When these tight junctions break apart, we have what is called a “leaky gut” and symptoms of leaky gut are are very similar to IBS. The inflammation created by such a leaky gut has been linked to symptoms of IBS. Other common allergens which may contribute to inflammation for some people include soy, processed dairy and corn. 
Characteristics of a Healthy Digestive System
People experiencing symptoms of IBS essentially have an improperly functioning digestive system. An improperly functioning gut can be considered the root of an incredibly wide range of conditions.
So what are some characteristics of a healthy gut?
Frequent and well-formed bowel movements.
This can be an uncomfortable topic for some people, but our stool is actually one of the best indications of our overall health. It is one of the only direct indications we have for what is going on inside of our bodies. A healthy stool has a number of key traits. It should be relatively thick and not the size of a pencil. It should be smooth or have a minimal amount of “cracks” in it and it should be a medium brown, something like the color of cardboard. It should also come out fairly easily.
Infrequent non-smelly gas.
Excessive stinky gas is one common symptom of IBS. This can be formed from an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut. It can also be caused by slow elimination. When food is sitting in our intestines for too long it can begin to ferment, which leads to offensive smells. Gas is normal, however it should be relatively odorless and mostly made up of air if our digestive system is working the way that it should.
Not feeling bloated.
Bloating can happen after eating meals high in sugar and carbs, since they can promote bad bacteria growth. As the bad bacteria feed on their favorite food, sugar, the waste products they produce can create the feeling of bloating.
Bloating can also be caused by poor food combining. For instance, according to Ayurveda, combining fruit with other foods can cause bloating because fruit is meant to pass through the stomach in about 30 minutes, but when combined with other foods that need a longer digestion time, the fruit can start fermenting. Likewise when starchy foods are combined with protein-based foods such as meat.
Different foods require different digestive processes and especially for someone with a weak digestive system (anyone with IBS) proper food combining should be practiced to promote recovery. Check out this article for more information and some practical tips on food combining. This doesn’t need to be practiced religiously, but trying it out should yield at least some level of results for sufferers of IBS. 
What We Should be Focused on Instead of Treating Symptoms
Our health is directly correlated with our environment—by “environment,” I mean everything that we are exposed to daily—our food, water, air, plus all of the products we put on our skin. These things constitute the physical environment, however our environment expands beyond the physical and includes our emotions and our thoughts as well.
Stress potentially created by persistent negative thought patterns, a taxing relationship or a draining work environment may contribute to IBS and in fact “chronic life stress” has been proven to be an accurate predictor of symptom intensity for patients with IBS. Stress has also been linked to increasing incidences of IBS symptoms and one study suggests that people suffering from IBS may react more strongly to stress.  
In order to heal from IBS or any disease, we need to change our environments, making sure that we are in situations that supports good health. In this case, promoting our healthy bacteria, reducing our intake of inflammation promoting toxins and providing our bodies with all of the essential minerals and vitamins that it needs. From a mental and emotional perspective, it means surrounding ourselves with healthy relationships and taking time to reduce stress in our life through practices such as yoga or meditation.
By treating the underlying causes of IBS, we can then heal and enjoy long lasting health and vitality.
- SIBO May Cause IBS
- Eliminating SIBO May Treat IBS
- Local Sources for Raw and Grass-fed Dairy
- Probiotics Shown to Treat IBS
- Inflammation Created by leaky Gut Linked to IBS
- Eliminating Food Allergens May Treat IBS
- This is Your Gut On Gluten
- More Information on Food Combining
- Chronic Life Stress Contributes to IBS
- People With IBS May Have Stronger Reactions to Stress
Author: John Miller
Editor: Renée Picard