Do you recognize this feeling?
You wake up in the morning with a knot in your stomach, anticipating the discomfort and pain that will accompany you throughout the day.
You start your day by carefully selecting your outfit, avoiding anything that could aggravate your sensitive digestive system. You opt for loose clothing that won’t put pressure on your bloated belly.
As you make your way to work or school, you start feeling the first signs of distress – cramping, bloating, and the urge to use the bathroom.
You try to push through, but it’s hard to concentrate when your gut is screaming for relief. You feel like you can’t escape the discomfort, and you’re constantly worried about the possibility of an embarrassing accident.
You know where the closest bathroom is at all times.
You start feeling isolated and alone, like nobody else understands what you’re going through. You feel like you can’t make plans or commit to anything because you never know when your symptoms will flare up.
You try to be proactive and track your diet and lifestyle, but it’s hard to pinpoint what triggers your symptoms. You start feeling frustrated and defeated, like you’ll never find relief from this chronic condition.
But you’re not alone, I promise. Millions of people around the world experience the daily struggles of living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). And there are resources and treatments available to help manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
What is IBS?
IBS, also known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is a complex and often misunderstood disorder that affects millions of people worldwide.
Unlike other gastrointestinal disorders, IBS is not a single disease with a single cause. Instead, it is a constellation of symptoms that can vary in severity and frequency from person to person.
These symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain
They can come and go seemingly at random, making it difficult to predict or manage.
IBS is not officially classified as an autoimmune disease, but it shares many risk factors with autoimmune disorders. These include leaky gut, dietary factors, infections, inflammation, toxins, and stress.
Despite its prevalence, IBS often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, leaving sufferers feeling frustrated and isolated.
Keep in mind, IBS is really just a diagnosis of symptoms — not the root cause. But don’t let that discourage you! It just means there is more investigating to do. You can absolutely heal when you figure it out and address it with the right protocol.
Root Causes of IBS
As mentioned above, IBS often doesn’t have one root cause, but rather many contributing factors that lead to the constellation of symptoms.
Common root causes of IBS include:
- Gut microbiome imbalances
- Food sensitivities / intolerances
- Stress & anxiety
- Hormonal imbalances
Gut Microbiome Imbalances
The gut microbiome is a complex community of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, that live in the digestive tract. These microorganisms play an essential role in maintaining digestive health by aiding in the breakdown of food and the absorption of nutrients, as well as helping to protect against harmful pathogens.
When there is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, meaning there are too many harmful microorganisms or too few beneficial ones, this can lead to various digestive issues, including IBS.
A disrupted microbiome can cause a variety of issues for those with IBS, such as:
- Inflammation: An imbalance in gut bacteria can trigger inflammation in the gut, which can cause symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
- Altered gut motility: The gut microbiome can also affect the movement of food through the digestive tract. An imbalance in gut bacteria can slow down or speed up the digestive process, leading to symptoms such as constipation or diarrhea.
- Increased sensitivity to food: Changes in gut bacteria can increase sensitivity to certain foods, leading to symptoms such as bloating, gas, and abdominal pain.
- Impaired immune function: The gut microbiome plays a critical role in supporting immune function. When the gut microbiome is disrupted, this can impair the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens, leading to increased susceptibility to infection and inflammation.
Food Sensitivities and Intolerances
Food sensitivities occur when the body’s immune system reacts negatively to certain foods, resulting in inflammation and other symptoms. The most common food sensitivities associated with IBS include gluten, lactose, and FODMAPs.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and is a known trigger for IBS symptoms in some people. Gluten sensitivity can cause damage to the lining of the small intestine, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
Lactose intolerance is another common food sensitivity that can cause IBS symptoms. Lactose is a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. People who are lactose intolerant do not have enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down lactose in the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates found in certain foods, including garlic, onions, beans, and some fruits. FODMAPs can be difficult to digest and can cause symptoms such as bloating, gas, and abdominal pain in people with IBS.
If you suspect that food sensitivities are contributing to your IBS symptoms, it’s important to talk to your practitioner to determine which foods may be triggering your symptoms. They may recommend some lab testing, an elimination diet, or other dietary changes to help you identify and manage your food sensitivities.
Stress and Anxiety
Anxiety is a common psychological condition that can have physical manifestations, including digestive issues such as IBS.
The gut-brain axis is a complex bi-directional communication network that connects the gut and the brain. It plays a significant role in regulating many bodily functions, including digestion, immune function, and emotional regulation.
Stress triggers changes in the gut-brain axis, activating the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to the release of catecholamines, including adrenaline and noradrenaline, which can cause the muscles in the digestive tract to contract, leading to changes in gut motility. At the same time, activation of the HPA axis leads to the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that can impact immune function and cause inflammation in the gut.
Inflammation can damage the lining of the gut, leading to increased gut permeability or “leaky gut.” This can allow harmful substances such as bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream, triggering an immune response and leading to inflammation.
Additionally, stress can alter the composition of the gut microbiome, leading to imbalances in gut bacteria. This can impact digestion and immune function, as well as contribute to the development of gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS.
The interaction between stress and the gut is complex, and the exact mechanisms by which stress impacts gut health are still being studied. However, it is clear that stress can have a significant negative impact on digestive health, leading to a range of symptoms and potential health issues.
Hormonal imbalances, particularly fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels, have been linked to IBS in some people. Hormones play a crucial role in regulating many bodily functions, including digestion and gut motility.
Here are some ways hormonal imbalances can lead to IBS symptoms:
- Changes in gut motility: Estrogen and progesterone levels can impact the speed and strength of the contractions in the digestive tract. Fluctuations in these hormones can cause the muscles in the digestive tract to contract too strongly or too weakly, leading to changes in gut motility. This can result in symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation.
- Increased gut sensitivity: Hormonal changes can cause the gut to become more sensitive to certain foods or triggers, leading to symptoms such as bloating, gas, and abdominal pain.
- Alterations in gut microbiome: Hormonal imbalances can also impact the composition of the gut microbiome, which can impact digestion and immune function.
- Inflammation: Hormonal imbalances can trigger the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, leading to inflammation in the gut. This can cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
It’s worth noting that hormonal imbalances are not the sole cause of IBS, and not everyone with hormonal imbalances will develop IBS symptoms. However, for some people, hormonal fluctuations can trigger, exacerbate, or contribute to IBS symptoms.
Since there are various factors that can contribute to IBS, there is no single treatment that works for everyone. Each person is unique and may have different underlying causes of their IBS, so it’s important to work with a skilled practitioner and approach the problem from multiple angles to identify the root cause(s).
Here are a few potential strategies to consider:
Identify trigger foods: Keep a food diary to identify trigger foods that worsen your symptoms. Then, try to avoid or limit these foods in your diet.
Eat slowly and mindfully: Eating too quickly can contribute to digestive symptoms. Take your time when eating and be sure to chew your food thoroughly!
Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water to prevent constipation and help flush out toxins. It’s recommended that individuals with IBS aim to drink at least eight cups of water per day.
Get enough fiber: Fiber can help regulate bowel movements, but some types of fiber can be difficult to digest and worsen symptoms in some people. Choose low-FODMAP sources of fiber.
Manage stress: Stress can trigger symptoms of IBS. Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing.
Eat prebiotic foods: Prebiotics are a type of fiber that feed beneficial gut bacteria. They can be found in foods such as onions, garlic, and bananas.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals: Eating smaller, more frequent meals can help regulate digestion and prevent overloading the digestive system.
Limit processed foods: Processed foods can contain additives and preservatives that can trigger digestive symptoms. Unfortunately, this means limiting fast food, frozen dinners and sugary drinks!
Avoid caffeine / alcohol: Both caffeine and alcohol can trigger digestive symptoms. Additionally, alcohol can disrupt the natural balance of gut bacteria, causing further inflammation in the gut.
Exercise regularly: Regular exercise can help improve gut motility and reduce symptoms of constipation. If your symptoms are particularly bad, even going for a slow walk can help.
Get enough sleep: Establishing a regular sleep routine can be helpful for people with IBS, as it can help regulate bowel movements and reduce stress levels.
Collaborate with a Functional Nutrtion/Medicine provider: By working closely with a practitioner, you can undergo targeted testing to identify the underlying causes of your symptoms and create a personalized treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.
And last of all, don’t settle. Don’t lose hope. Don’t accept this as your forever normal. There are so many natural health practitioners and functional med docs who can help you restore your body to optimal health.
—> Want to chat about it? Apply to work with me here!