Irritable bowel syndrome, better known as IBS, is a synonym for misery. Those suffering from IBS experience both an inability to have a bowel movement, and the inability to make them stop. The seemingly contradictory nature of the illness is part of what makes it so hard to deal with for both those suffering from IBS and medical professionals. The best foods for IBS are those that don’t trigger a bout of irritation and the resulting issues. These can vary and be hard to identify.

In this excerpt from the book The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods by James A. Duke and Bill Gottlieb, CHC the authors talk about some of the best foods for IBS and offer some suggestions for foods to avoid.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a rather elusive disease that affects between 10 to 25 percent of adults in the United States. Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes it, but they do have some good ideas about what makes it worse and how to control it.

Basically, IBS consists of waves of intestinal distress. A person with IBS can experience intermittent bouts of constipation, diarrhea, cramping, and gas on and off for weeks at a time. These flare-ups have been found to be closely linked to trigger foods, which vary from person to person. The key to controlling IBS and preventing its flare-ups, doctors believe, is a healthy, closely managed diet.

Fat vs. Fiber

IBS flare-ups are commonly caused by your bowel working overtime to digest fat, something Americans eat plenty of. When you eat high-fat foods, your bowel contracts, and for people with IBS this means lots of pain and discomfort. Eating less fat can help you prevent a flare-up. Additionally, high-fat foods tend to have very little fiber, and when it comes to controlling IBS, fiber is the key.

Here’s why fiber is so great for people with IBS. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber forms a sticky gel that acts like a protective coating inside your digestive tract, preventing irritants from causing problems such as cramping and gas in your already upset intestine. Insoluble fiber soaks up water as it passes through your intestines, helping to bulk up, weigh down, and soften your stools. Both kinds of fiber are important because together they help sweep things along, from your stomach to your intestines to your stools—on out.

However, if you have IBS and want to start eating more fiber, do so gradually. Eating more fiber when your body isn’t used to it can bring on even more digestive problems. You need to ease your system into it. Start slowly by adding more fiber-rich foods to your diet a few at a time over the course of several weeks or months. And be sure to drink lots of water, which fiber needs to work well.

Healing Foods for IBS

Because IBS is famous for causing a host of miserable intestinal problems, let’s look at foods that can help to calm and soothe the most common symptoms of IBS—constipation, diarrhea, cramping, and gas. From these suggestions, you can pick and choose which healing foods you might like to try based on what tends to trouble you the most. Because everyone with IBS reacts to foods differently, finding natural remedies that work for you can take a bit of trial and error.

Constipation: Keeping Things Moving

Apples. Apples are an amphoteric food, which means they can work in either direc tion, plugging you up if your bowels are loose or loosening you up if you’re constipated. Because they contain lots of both soluble and insoluble fiber, apples are an excellent choice if you’re constipated.

Berries. Berries contain large amounts of fiber, helping your stools absorb lots of water to become heavier and travel through your intestines faster. Elderberries top the list with five grams of fiber in a 1⁄2 cup serving. Raspberries are next at four grams of fiber per serving, with blackberries coming in third with three grams. Blueberries and strawberries are good, too. When it comes to berry juice, mulberries and boysenberries make for gentle laxatives.

Dark leafy greens. A salad tossed with various dark leafy greens is a good choice to combat constipation. These greens provide some omega-3 fatty acids, a “good” kind of fat, that help keep your bowels moving. Deep-colored greens offer the best benefit. Dandelion greens, in particular, are an effective natural laxative. Dandelion increases bile flow into your large intestine, which helps prevent constipation. Dandelion greens can be found in popular “spring mix” salad combinations in many restaurants and produce sections. And while not recently sold in my local supermarket, I know they grow outside it. Dandelions are pushing through my new $12,000 asphalt hard top. They shall inherit the earth. But tough plants make good sources of fiber.

Flaxseed. Also known as linseed, flaxseed is very high in fiber and rich in omega-3’s, both helpful for constipation. Three tablespoons of flaxseed has about three grams of fiber. Flaxseed has a sweet, nutty taste and can be added to almost anything. It’s great in salads, cereals, casseroles, and breads. However, whole flaxseed provides little benefit because your digestive tract cannot crack open the hard shell that surrounds the seed (which is where all the benefits are). Go for ground or crushed flaxseed because it’s easier to digest. Also, don’t fall for common claims that flaxseed oil is just as good for you. While flaxseed oil has some nutritional benefits, it doesn’t retain the fiber that helps with constipation. If you try flaxseed, be sure to drink plenty of water to keep all that bulk moving through. And, as I’ve pointed out in other chapters, there’s also the seed of chia, chiso, hemp, Inca peanut, and walnut as sources of alpha-linolenic acid, one “vegetarian” omega-3.

Ginger. Long known for its many healing properties, ginger is a tasty way to deal with constipation. Ginger contains certain chemicals that stimulate your digestive system by increasing the wavelike muscle contractions (peristalsis) that move food through your intestines, which is especially helpful for IBS. Fresh ginger offers the most medicinal benefit. Pickled ginger, often found in Asian restaurants and served alongside sushi, is thought to be as beneficial as fresh ginger.

Prunes, raisins, and figs. Well known as effective food remedies for constipation, prunes contain three active ingredients. First, they’re very high in fiber, with three grams in just three prunes. Second, they have a compound called dihydroxyphenylisatin, which stimulates the contractions in your intestines that are needed for regular bowel movements. Third, prunes contain a natural sugar called sorbitol, which, like fiber, soaks up large amounts of water in your digestive tract to keep things moving on through. Most fruits generally contain less than one percent sorbitol. Prunes, however, have about 15 percent sorbitol, which is why they’re one of the best natural remedies for constipation.


Although people with IBS react to foods differently, there are some common food triggers that IBS sufferers seem to share…

Beans. It’s no surprise that beans often don’t agree with people who have IBS— they’re quite the gas producers. You might find that certain beans are more tol erable than others, or that you need to avoid them altogether. To help reduce gas, flavor your beans with fresh or ground ginger (a natural laxative). In fact, any herb that soothes your digestive tract (a carminative) might help.

Coffee. Both regular and decaf coffee can make your bowels more sensitive. If coffee seems to aggravate your IBS but you can’t give it up entirely, you might try cutting back to only a cup or two a day.

Corn. Corn and foods that contain corn, such as corn cereals, can cause problems. Corn tends to irritate 20 percent of people with IBS.

Milk and dairy products. Although these foods have a reputation for binding you up, dairy products can also cause diarrhea because they contain a natural sugar called lactose, which some people with IBS can’t digest (lactose intolerance). However, yogurt is lower in lactose than other dairy foods, so you might find it easier to digest. It’s also a probiotic, a food that contains “good” living bacteria to fight “bad” bacteria in your intestines that can cause gastrointestinal distress.

Sweets. Foods high in natural sugar (fructose) often aren’t the best choice if you have IBS. Fruit juices and honey, for example, can move into the large intestine undigested, causing gas and diarrhea. Artificial sweeteners found in sugarless gums and candies can also be hard to digest.

Rhubarb. Eating the stalks of rhubarb (not the leaves) has long been used in folk medicine to relieve constipation. Rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family, which makes it a good source of fiber. It’s important to know that you should eat only rhubarb stalks because rhubarb leaves contain very high levels of toxins called oxalates that can irritate your stomach.

Squash. The fiber found in dark yellow and orange winter squash, such as acorn, butternut, and Hubbard squash, can be particularly helpful with constipation. Pale summer squash, on the other hand, is lower in fiber and not as beneficial.

Diarrhea: Slowing Things Down

Apples. Handy for treating diarrhea, apples contain both pectin and tannins. These two substances work together to bind up your stools and soothe your digestive tract. Both the skin and the pulp of apples are beneficial, which is why whole apples as well as applesauce (good for babies) are common food remedies for diarrhea.

Tea. One of the most astringent natural remedies for diarrhea is conventional tea in traditional tea bags—just plain, without any other herbs or spices added. Tea is rich in tannins, which help bind stools and hold back bowel movements.

Bilberries and blueberries. These berries are particularly effective against diarrhea because they, too, are rich in both pectin and tannins. Dried, not fresh, bilberries and blueberries are best.

Carrots. Cooked carrots seem to soothe the digestive tract and control diarrhea. They also provide nutrients that are lost during an attack. Interestingly, the Appalachians cook their beans with a small, whole carrot to reduce their gas-producing ability.

Garlic, onion, and leek. Eating foods known as prebiotics—non-digestible food elements that stimulate the growth of “good” bacteria in the digestive tract—can be helpful in preventing diarrhea. Natural sources of prebiotics include garlic, onion, and leek. Eating lots of these flavorful foods can boost your immune system and ward off diarrhea-causing bacteria. According to studies in India, garlic’s link to good bacteria in the intestine also improves digestion and enhances absorption of minerals, a helpful bonus during and after a bout of diarrhea.

Pomegranate. This biblical fruit is often used to treat diarrhea. Pomegranate’s seeds can be astringent, helping to bind and dry up your bowels. Sipping pomegranate juice is a good option. Some of the rind of the fruit, even richer in binding tannins, is often incorporated in commercial pomegranate juice.

Gas and Cramps: Calming the Storm

Any herb that soothes the digestive tract and minimizes gas is called a carminative. Dozens of herbs fall into this category, and naming them all would be exhausting. Here are a few of the best…

Ginger. Ginger is a particularly helpful digestive aid because it helps to relieve gas, bloating, and cramps. It settles the intestine and removes gas from the digestive tract. Try a nice cup of ginger tea by adding 1⁄2 teaspoon of ground or freshly grated ginger to one cup of hot water.

Peppermint. Peppermint has been used for centuries to treat a wide range of digestive ailments. Its gas-relieving chemicals make it an age-old remedy for flatulence and abdominal cramps. It’s also quite helpful in relieving heartburn.

Other assorted herbs. Here are just a few more carminative herbs that can help tame the effects of IBS…

  • Allspice
  • Cloves
  • Caraway
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Coriander
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Nutmeg
  • Peppermint
  • Sage
  • Thyme

From the Herbal Medicine Chest

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Licorice contains several compounds that help protect the lining of the stomach and intestine. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is a processed form of the herb and the preferred type to treat a handful of digestive ailments. DGL has been shown to promote the release of certain compounds in saliva that may stimulate the heal ing of stomach and intestinal cells. To soothe your digestive tract, try adding 1⁄2 teaspoon of DGL powder to your favorite herbal tea.

Psyllium (Plantago ovata). Tiny psyllium seeds are very high in fiber and are a common ingredient in many over-the-counter laxatives. They contain a specific fiber called muci lage, which absorbs a great deal of fluid in your gut. This makes the seeds swell, adding bulk to your stools to help with the constipation of IBS. Psyllium seeds need lots of water to work well, so be sure to drink plenty if you try them. If you have allergies or asthma, don’t use this herb. Some people have had allergic reactions to psyllium, including a few reports of serious asthma attacks from inhaled psyllium seed dust.

For additional advice on proven natural remedies for common health conditions, purchase The Green Pharmacy from

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