Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition of the lower gastrointestinal tract. It’s the most common diagnosis made by general practice gastroenterologists. Approximately 15 percent of adults worldwide have IBS symptoms, which include abdominal pain, distention, gas, indigestion, and stool variation including diarrhea and constipation.

IBS is considered a neurologic disorder because it’s the function of the bowel—controlled by the nervous system—that is disordered. The actual bowel tissue of patients with IBS is completely normal. Having IBS does not increase your risk for bowel cancer or for the development of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. IBS does not shorten life span, but it is considered a chronic condition because the symptoms often last for decades.

Only recently have researchers begun to seriously explore the links between the nervous system, the brain and bowel function. In that exploration, they’ve discovered that the primary cause of IBS is dysregulated messaging from the brain and nervous system to the bowel.

This does not mean that IBS is all in your head. What is does mean is if you’ve got IBS, you’ve got to look beyond bowel function to find successful treatment.

Finding answers

Before you spend a lot of money on specialists, testing, or medications like pain relievers, digestive aids or gas reducers, start by checking in with several of your nervous system parameters. How is your sleep? Your mood? Your vitality and physical mobility? Ill or unbalanced health in any one of these areas could cause a nervous system disruption that affects bowel function. When we are stressed, tired, angry, depressed or physically inactive, our digestive system does not work well. I’ve seen many patients recover from IBS by way of improved sleep, stress reduction, counseling or gentle exercise like yoga or walking.

Consider using nervine herbs. These are plant medicines that specifically treat the nervous system. Most nervine herbs also treat gastrointestinal symptoms common to IBS. Among the best nervines for IBS: chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm, and catnip. Use them in tea form. Choose a single herb or combine several. Cover 2 teaspoons of dried herb or mixed herbs with 8 ounces of boiling water. Cover the pot and steep for 5 minutes. Drink 3 cups daily, away from food, until your symptoms improve. Add a pinch of lavender flowers or dried orange peel to enhance the relaxing effect of your tea. The scents of the volatile oils in flowers and citrus peels have a calming effect on the nervous system.

Note: if you have thyroid disease, avoid the regular use of lemon balm.

Apply topical castor oil packs to reduce pain and promote relaxation. Saturate a soft cotton cloth with organic castor oil and lay it over your lower abdomen. Cover it with a dry towel and a heating pad or hot water bottle. Leave it in place for 20 to 60 minutes, and then remove the  cloth. Massage your abdomen in a clockwise fashion—determined by imagining a clock placed at your navel, facing outward. Topical castor oil promotes blood flow to the area where it’s applied. Apply castor oil packs as needed to reduce spasm, pain, and distention. Applying  them at bedtime can also promote a good night’s sleep.

Disordered bowel flora can aggravate IBS symptoms. That’s because the hundreds of microorganisms in the gut actually communicate with the cells of our digestive tract wall as they work to help—or hinder—immune and digestive activities in the bowel. While simply supplementing with a probiotic is rarely a cure for IBS, it is essential to do all you can to make sure your digestive tract is loaded up with lots of healthy microorganisms, beneficial bacteria that promote good gut health. Do this by eating fresh foods, especially fruit and vegetables, and foods naturally rich in enzymes and good bacteria—things like yogurt, kefir, miso, tempe, and sauerkraut. Avoid excess sugar, as it can promote the growth of irritating microorganisms in your bowel, and consider supplementing with a probiotic supplement daily. Most IBS sufferers don’t need a big dose. I typically prescribe 5 to 10 billion colony-forming units daily for my IBS patients.

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