An Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Primer

Have you heard people talk about Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and thought to yourself, what is IBS? Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with IBS by a medical professional, or self diagnosed, and wanted to know how it will affect you?

We regularly ask our clients their main reason for seeking help from a Naturopath. Digestive health and improvement of digestive function are often listed as top reasons. Although clients may not know exactly what is wrong, they do know things aren’t working optimally with their digestion.

Statistics have suggested IBS accounts for 50% of gastroenterologist appointments. (1)

What is IBS?

Typically IBS sufferers have a variety of the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort and bloating,
  • frequent bouts of diarrhoea and constipation,
  • urgency associated with bowel movements, or feelings of incomplete evacuation.

It is worth noting that in many clients we see there is no formal diagnosis of IBS; rather, many people self diagnose. While it is true that medically IBS is a diagnosis of exhaustion, it is important to speak with a professional to rule out more serious bowel complications such as:

  • inflammatory bowel disease,
  • celiac disease, and
  • parasitic infection.

While not as serious as the above, IBS can also sometimes mask an underlying lactose or other food intolerance.

Who gets IBS?

Most frequently IBS is diagnosed during adulthood with 50% of patients experiencing the onset of IBS before the age of 35.

IBS is more prevalent in women than in men. It affects 14% to 24% of women and 5% to 19% of men.

Treatment for IBS

Like many digestive issues, IBS responds incredibly well to natural medicine and dietary intervention. This makes Naturopathic medicine a must for anyone affected by IBS.

Diets for IBS

The good news for those affected by IBS is that simple dietary changes can provide enormous results in IBS symptoms. Studies, as far back as 1989 have shown almost 50% of people reporting improvements in symptoms (1).

The most common trigger foods associated with IBS symptoms are:

  • Cow’s based dairy products,
  • Gluten containing grain products including wheat, barley, and oats.

In our clinic, we utilise a variation of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). This diet removes all grains, uncultured diary, soy and sugar from the diet. By sticking strictly to this diet we have seen improvements in the symptoms of IBS in as little as 4-6 weeks. Many clients have reported that re-introducing these foods may not cause problems immediately, but after continued use symptoms return.

While the initial adaption period to a gluten free, dairy free lifestyle can be difficult the results are well worth it. Even clients without the added complications of IBS frequently report improvements in:

  • mental clarity,
  • digestion,
  • post meal alertness.

For support with transitioning from a standard Australian diet to a gluten free, dairy free diet make an appointment to see our Naturopathic team today.

Probiotics and IBS

Knowledge and research about the importance of good bacteria for our overall health and wellbeing has exploded in recent years. The role of good bacteria (probiotics) in managing the symptoms of IBS is no exception.

Studies have shown that over 60% of diagnosed IBS patients are also affected by some form of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or dysbiosis (2). As expected the constant bouts of constipation or diarrhoea tend to make the bowel a rather uninhabitable place. The medical studies on probiotic supplementation are controversial; some studies show improvements and others none. Much of this controversy is owed to the condition that most IBS suffers’ bowel is in.

In our clinic, we believe the bowel and gut is the key to not just digestive health, but also overall wellbeing. In patients affected by IBS, we have found supplementation with the probiotioc Lactobacillus plantarum to be a very affective form of treatment.

We have found the success of probiotic supplementation hinges on the ability to improve bowel function. Probiotic supplementation alone, will not be as beneficial. By addressing the constipation or diarrhoea, while reestablishing colonies of good bacteria, we have seen reduction of symptoms in as little as two weeks of treatment.

Herbal Medicine for IBS

While we find most cases of IBS are resolved through correcting dietary habits and re-colonising intestinal flora, sometimes it is necessary to look at herbal medicine for some additional fire power. We really view IBS as an indicator that something is wrong with the bowel or diet, so tend to use herbal medicines as a form of symptomatic care.

Herbs commonly used for IBS treatment fall into three major categories, those that:

  1. help to improve motility of the colon by reducing cramping and relaxing the smooth muscle,
  2. are considered prebiotics and useful in establishing good colon bacterial balance,
  3. restore and rebuild the mucous membranes and tissues that form the colon.

While there are many herbs that can be used, we generally use a combination of ginger and slippery elm. Ginger, has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine as an all round digestive tonic and has also been shown to improve the motility of the bowel (3). We combine this with slippery elm, an herb known for it’s ability to repair and rebuild mucous membranes.

The Importance of Seeing a Naturopath

Don’t let IBS and digestive disorders control your life. If you’re affected by IBS, or experience discomfort, pain, or bloating, after eating call us today to make an appointment to see our Naturopaths. Natural Medicine can provide the answers you are looking for.


[1] Nanda, James, Smith, Dudley, and Jewell. Food intolerance and the irritable bowel syndrome..Gut,1989

[2] Nucera, Gabrielli, Lupascu, Lauritano, Santoliquido, Cremonini, Cammarota, Tondi, Pola, Gasbarrini, and Gasbarrini. Abnormal breath tests to lactose, fructose and sorbitol in irritable bowel syndrome may be explained by small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics,2005

[3] Hadley and Gaarder. Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome.Am Fam Physician,2005