Managing IBS: a holistic approach

If you’ve been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) you’ll know how uncomfortable this condition can be.

In fact, IBS is the name given to a longstanding illness consisting of frequent abdominal discomfort and bowel symptoms that can’t be explained by any other disease.

IBS has no specific cause, and is more common in women than men. Symptoms vary from person to person and include abdominal cramps, bloating, wind, diarrhoea, constipation, and the need to go to the toilet but not being able to.

How is IBS diagnosed?

Since IBS is what’s known as a functional disorder, an X-ray of the gut might not show any obvious problem – it’s thought that the gut is more sensitive in people with IBS. It’s been suggested that it could be triggered by an infection such as gastroenteritis, or an overuse of antibiotics, and it can also be brought on by life changes or stress.

It’s important to get a proper diagnosis – doctors will carry out tests to rule out colitis, Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease, bowel cancer and, in women, gynaecological cancers, before diagnosing IBS.

Functional gastrointestinal disorders are diagnosed using what’s known as Rome IV criteria. They are important because they provide a standard definition of IBS for medical professionals to follow.

The latest Rome IV criteria for diagnosing IBS are:

Recurrent abdominal pain, on average, at least one day per week in the last three months, associated with two or more of the following:

  • Related to defecation
  • Associated with a change in frequency of stool
  • Associated with a change in form (appearance) of stool

Approaching IBS as a natural health practitioner

To be frank, I have a hard time with some of the ‘labels’ given to health-related conditions and IBS is one of them. I can understand why the medical profession has used the term ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ because it is a collection of symptoms of no known cause irritating the bowel.

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However, this description is given to millions of people who are all wonderfully unique in many ways. They share similar symptoms, so they are all categorised as ‘IBS sufferers’ – with no accounting for individuality.  As a naturopath trained to look at disease and health imbalances from a holistic and wholistic viewpoint, I focus on the person I am treating and not on a generic label that has been ascribed to their set of symptoms.

Since I set up my colonic clinic in 2006, I have treated many thousands of patients suffering from IBS. Over the years, my experience with IBS patients has shown me time and again that it is a condition with many ‘layers’ that requires a comprehensive diagnosis. I follow guidelines to check the medical symptoms, and I refer if I pick up any ‘red flags’ such as sudden abdominal bloating, blood in stool, change in stool regularity, rapid unexplained weight loss or unexplained fatigue. But I also dig a lot deeper.

When presented with a case of IBS, I look for symptoms of bloating, abdominal pain, irregular bowel movements and secondary symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, skin problems and low mood. These can be an indication of gut dysbiosis (a microbial imbalance) and low-grade gut inflammation affecting the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), potentially increasing the risk of auto-immune diseases.

How I help my patients manage their IBS

As a natural health practitioner, I aim to address the root cause, and work with my patients to systematically treat their digestion with a natural approach based on how their individual condition responds and improves.

Managing IBS is about understanding it. Self-management, and learning how lifestyle and diet can affect symptoms is key. While IBS is by no means a life-threatening illness, it can certainly be life-limiting with the negative impact it has on quality of life. People with IBS often experience psychological distress and feelings of anxiety and depression. In many cases, they lose all confidence about going out, for fear of not being able to find a toilet if they need to.

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Just how deep do I dig?

In my practice, I take a comprehensive medical history, including questions that ask if the patient was born via cesarean or normal delivery, breast-fed or bottle-fed, was hospitalised as a child, had IV antibiotics in hospital or a long-term course of oral antibiotics, a long-term use of antacids, steroids or painkillers, or experienced gut infections such as food poisoning. I also examine lifestyle factors – does the patient eat a lot of processed food or junk food; are they prone to excessive, prolonged stress and genetic factors, history?

I always get my client on the couch and carry out a manual examination of the abdomen, using varying degrees of pressure to determine tonicity, volumes of gas and solid wastes in the bowel, as well as checking the tone and size of the liver.

I carry out manual abdominal treatment (MAT), a specific massage that helps me assess the various parts and condition of the intestines, and treat them accordingly. MAT increases circulation to the intestines, bringing nutrients and promoting the elimination of waste products. It is also an effective diagnostic tool.

The abdomen becomes measurably tauter, the diaphragm drops and the contents of the colon are released. When I give the patient a colonic treatment, I see what is coming down the colonic tubing, which will indicate the general state of a person’s intestine, and not just the large intestine. It also gives an indication of the amount of fluids, fibre and animal protein consumed, and if food is chewed sufficiently.

What kind of treatment plan do I recommend for IBS?

There is no standardised ‘cure’ for IBS, but I can categorically say that IBS can be dramatically improved, dare I say even eliminated, as I’ve observed with my own clinic patients.

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I advise on dietary and lifestyle changes, as well as putting together a supplement protocol, which includes live bacteria probiotics, digestive enzymes and omega 3 to begin with. When they return for another consultation and colonic treatment a month later, there is usually a considerable reduction in symptoms, and on occasion, they are completely symptom-free.

What makes this treatment plan effective?

The colonic treatment de-pressurises the intestines, voiding excess pockets of trapped painful gas and trapped, solid wastes, and the supplements help replenish/recolonise the gut, supporting effective digestion and absorption, and reducing inflammation.

There is always low-grade inflammation of the intestines with IBS, especially the small intestine, as borne out by MAT. It’s this inflammation, and not just gas, that causes hyper-sensitivity in the intestinal walls and bloating.

I have observed time and time again in my own clinic patients that colon hydrotherapy, plus a simple supplement protocol, combined with sensible lifestyle advice such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, doing some exercise and having some fun, gets excellent results. If, at any time, I feel that my patients need further nutritional support with meal plans, then I will refer them on to a nutritional therapist or medical herbalist.

There are hundreds of natural health practitioners out there, trained and willing to help resolve IBS. You can find information on qualified, registered and regulated therapists at the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT), the Association of Registered Colon Hydrotherapists and the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. 

The diagnosis of IBS needn’t be a life sentence and something to dread. There are ways to combat it and start enjoying life to the full again… 

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