Medical herbalist Nicola Parker has some easy remedies to take the aggro out of IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome is a common condition affecting up to one in five people, according to the NHS.
Symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation and bloating.
While everyone may experience these symptoms from time to time, they can become debilitating, affecting everyday life. Your doctor can rule out other causes of these symptoms, but the causes of irritable bowel are poorly understood, making it a difficult condition to treat.
Whether you have an IBS diagnosis or you suffer with similar symptoms, there are various ways that you can help yourself. Diet, lifestyle and natural remedies can all have a role in alleviating the discomfort of diarrhoea, constipation and the associated wind and bloating.
I run a free bowel clinic as part of my practice, providing dietary advice to people with all manner of digestive discomforts. Here, I share some of the most common problems I encounter and my most successful management techniques.
Irritable Bowel and Diarrhoea
When not caused by a tummy bug, loose stools can be a sign of inflammation in the walls of the gut. If you are regularly loose, eat a low sugar diet avoiding sweet foods, alcohol and natural sugars such as excessive fruit or fruit juices.
Sugar is pro-inflammatory and can aggravate inflammatory conditions. Instead fill your diet with spongy fibres that absorb water, helping to slow movement of food through the gut. Spongy fibres include cooked vegetables, porridge oats, beans, pulses and ground flaxseed. Choose easily digestible foods for a while like soups and casseroles over raw foods or salad veg.
My main herb for diarrhoea is Tormentil, chosen for the high tannin content in its roots.
Tannins reduce inflammation in the gut and can be an effective alternative to medicines like Imodium that slow down the movement of stools without addressing the irritation. Back in my training years I memorised “Tormentil for tormented bowels”, and that little phrase still rings in my head today. Traditionally, Tormentil roots would have been boiled up, releasing the tannins into the water to create a foul tasting brew that I have no desire to try or pass on to my patients! Luckily, herbal medicine has come a little further since then and it is now available in a concentrated liquid that I recommend in high doses to provide swift relief.
Irritable Bowel with Constipation
A dehydrated bowel causes hard, dry stools and can be greatly improved by the addition of water and the right kinds of fibre. Aim for six cups of water per day and eat plenty of soluble fibre such as oats, root vegetables, beans and lentils.
Fibre and water work together, so adequate intake of each is essential. If you struggle to add extra fibre to your diet, try taking a fibre powder before bed like psyllium, FOS or slippery elm. If you are unsure which powder is suitable, ask a herbalist. In our bowel clinic I provide a number of personalised Fibre Blends, providing a cheap, effective means of supporting regular bowel health.
If your stools are soft, but you are not getting the urge to go, then your constipation may be caused by weakened peristalsis. Peristalsis refers to the muscle action in your bowel and if it is not strong enough then you won’t be fully emptying on your trips to the loo. You will feel bloated, windy and more tired than you should if your bowel isn’t emptying, so it is important to remember that constipation isn’t just about hard, painful stools.
Cola, tea, coffee and high salt intake may contribute to weak peristalsis by depleting magnesium. Many laxatives stimulate peristalsis to work quicker, which is why they will have you running to the loo if you take too much. It is far better to retrain your bowel to work properly than to rely on laxatives. Try supplementing with magnesium for a short time in combination with a fibre powder and dietary changes.
Daily bowel movements are an important part of staying healthy and less bloated. Remember, monitoring what you put in can be the key to regulating what’s coming out!
For more information on this topic, or to book an appointment with Nicola, contact her clinic on 01524 413733.