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The symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can be uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing, however there are natural ways to get some relief.

The syndrome presents differently in different sufferers, and for that reason it is divided into three categories, of IBS-C (constipation dominant IBS), IBS-D (diarrhoea dominant IBS) and IBS-M (alternating constipation and diarrhoea).

Within my own nutrition clinic I have seen dozens of sufferers, and their pattern of symptoms and triggers, whilst bearing similarities to others, is always unique to them. With that in mind, what works therapeutically for one client, does not necessarily work for another, so there is always an element of trial and error when managing IBS, and its complex symptoms. I urge my clients not to be disheartened if someone else’s 'panacea' does not turn out to be their own.

Before different 'therapeutic foods' are added to the diet, it is important that an IBS sufferer works out which foods aggravate their symptoms, or bring on a ‘flare-up’. Common trigger foods are: wheat, dairy, gluten and soya, however no foods can be ruled out. Following a basic 12 week elimination diet is helpful in identifying your triggers, as is keeping a food diary, and looking out for patterns in symptom severity following on from consumption of each food. It is a process of really getting to know your body, and learning how to avoid problematic foods, whilst focussing your attention on foods that nourish and soothe.

Below are some foods that I have found useful in the management of IBS within my own clinical practice. Sufferers may wish to try them, and see which work best for them. They should be introduced one at a time, so that their individual effects can be monitored.

1. Chia seeds

Chia seeds were once a staple food of Native Americas, and the name 'Chia' is the Mayan word for ‘strength’. They are a ‘powerhouse’ of nutrients, and are: an excellent source of essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6), high in soluble fibre, high in antioxidants (which give them a long shelf-life and protect the delicate oils against rancidity) and a good source of minerals (especially: iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc).

chia seeds
Chia seeds are an excellent source of essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6)

They also contain an excellent balance of macro-nutrients, being a source of protein, carbohydrate, fibre and fat. It is thought that due to this excellent macro- and micro-nutrient profile, a person can live off just 1 tbsp of the seeds for 24 hours!

The seeds can be eaten either whole or milled, however I prefer to soak them for 2-3 hours (or overnight) before either adding them to smoothies, or just eating the resulting ‘gel’ with a spoon.

Eating water-soaked chia seeds is also known to cleanse the digestive system by eliminating accumulated waste from the intestines. It also helps you get rid of toxins in the digestive tract.

Another advantage of consuming chia seeds is that they are easily digestible due to their soluble fibre content and many people find that they become more regular once they eat chia on a daily basis.

Chia seeds absorb a lot of water and hence after consumption they help a person keep well hydrated for longer by retaining the electrolytes present in the body fluids. For this same reason they help to hydrate the colon, aiding defecation.

Chia pudding

To prepare a simple chia ‘’pudding’’ (or gel) add 1/3 cup chia to 2 cups water (or apple juice, or almond milk). Mix/whisk well to prevent clumps from forming. After 10 minutes the seeds will have absorbed enough liquid to turn in to a gel. This can either be eaten straight from a spoon, or added to smoothies. It can be kept in a sealed jar in the fridge, for up to 3 weeks.

If desired fruit or vanilla extract can be added to the mix, to add a touch of sweetness/flavour, as the basic gel only has a very mild ‘’nutty’’ taste.

2. Ginger

Ginger has been used for centuries for a variety of gastro-intestinal disorders and is equally beneficial as an antidiarrhoeal, as well as a laxative agent. Ayurveda credits it with being a virtual ‘medicine chest’ on its own, and it is a true friend to people with IBS. The anti-inflammatory gingerols in raw ginger root soothe the GI mucosa and help to alleviate uncomfortable gas and cramping that plagues many IBS sufferers. It stimulates the production of digestive ‘juices’, and therefore improves digestion, and assimilation and absorption of nutrients. Recent research has also shown that ginger normalises the contractions in the small intestine, resulting in enhanced functioning of the intestinal system.

Incorporating ginger into your diet is easy as it can be mixed into hot drinks (such as herbal teas), used in juice recipes and added as a flavouring in almost any dish.

Try adding an inch of fresh ginger to freshly juiced carrot and apple juice. The apples provide soluble fibre to help remove toxins from the gut, and the carrots provide carotenoids which ease inflammation. (If citrus fruits do not aggravate your IBS, then you can add the juice of ¼ lemon for added flavour and cleansing properties.)

3. Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar has been used as a general health tonic for centuries in the UK, however it has recently enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in popularity.

When choosing a cider vinegar however, it is important that you select a ‘raw’ or unpasteurised one, as the high temperatures involved in pasteurisation denature many of the beneficial enzymes in the vinegar. An unpasteurised product will look cloudy, and have what is known as ‘the mother’ floating in it. Please ensure that the product you choose says that it contains ‘the mother’! Its health benefits are wide-reaching, however with regard specifically to IBS, it can be very helpful in reducing gas and bloating, and soothing painful intestinal spasms. Just take a tablespoon of ACV diluted in water or cooled herbal tea before a meal (do be sure always to dilute it though, as the low pH would be damaging to tooth enamel and delicate mucous membranes in the oesophagus, if consumed neat.)

Apple cider vinegar can be very helpful in reducing gas and bloating, and soothing painful intestinal spasms.

If taking it as a drink, sounds unappealing, try making a simple salad dressing, by adding it to your healthy oil of choice (I like either flaxseed oil or hemp oil)….season with any fresh herbs you prefer, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and season to taste.

4. Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera is said to contain almost 200 active components, including 20 minerals, 12 vitamins (including being one of the few plant sources of Vitamin B12), 18 amino acids, and various other glyconutrients.

Polysaccharides in aloe vera gel have curative effects on numerous digestive disorders.

It is also a potent antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal agent, helping to maintain healthy gut flora.

It contains 12 substances (including B-sisterole) that exert anti-inflammatory effects both systemically and also locally in the digestive tract.

There are many aloe vera products on the market today, to ensure the quality of the product you select, I would recommend looking for the IASC (International Aloe Science Council) logo, and checking on the IASC website.

aloe vera

Or, of course, you can grow your own aloe plants, which is the best way to ensure freshness and quality. Just snip off a leaf and cut through the tough outer layer, to reveal the gel inside, which can then be blended with any soft fruit of your choice, or added to smoothies and juices.

Aloe Vera Smoothie recipe:

  • 1 large fresh, raw aloe vera leaf gel (or low-temperature dried aloe vera gel powder if you don't have fresh plants)
  • 2 cups fresh berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or a combination)
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk (or whatever ‘non-dairy’ milk you drink)
  • 1/2 teaspoon stevia or 2 tablespoons agave nectar
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa or millet (this is optional – and adds protein and fibre to the drink)
  • 1-2 cups of water

Blend well in a blender, and enjoy.

5. Miso

Miso is a traditional Japanese staple food, made by fermenting soybeans and either barley or rice, with aspergillus oryzae culture. Treasured for centuries as a remedy for digestive ailments, and even reputed to limit radiation sickness after exposure to radiation. It is rich in B-complex vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium and contains over 100 strains of anaerobic and lactic-acid producing bacteria.

The unique lactobacillus fermentation process by which miso is traditionally made produces significant amounts of isoflavones and increases the availability and digestibility of nutrients, while promoting a healthy pH in the digestive system. As with most live probiotic foods, unpasteurized misos are best added to recipes just before cooking is complete, to guarantee that the delicate enzymes are not damaged in the cooking process.

Miso is an amazing wholefood containing probiotics. It is a great source of B vitamins, calcium and iron, and is high in antioxidants and helps strengthen the immune system.

The same enzymes that help with fermentation during the making of miso can also help with digestion of a meal. Miso acts like a digestive tonic, and once the live probiotic bacteria are established in the intestine, they promote health and stamina through a variety of different mechanisms, including their ability to synthesise certain B-vitamins and short-chain fatty acids.

Beneficial bacteria found in the small intestine are effective in fighting conditions such as constipation, yeast infections (candidiasis), and lactose intolerance, which are often a factor in cases of IBS.

miso soup image

Miso can be stirred in to soups and stews at the end of cooking, to add a deep rich flavour. It also makes a wonderful marinade for tofu or chicken.

Miso marinade

Simply mix:

  • 1 clove finely chopped garlic
  • 1 inch freshly grated ginger root
  • 1heaped tablespoon dark miso paste
  • 1tbsp toasted sesame oil and
  • 1tbsp tamari….

In addition to eliminating any trigger foods, and focusing on use of therapeutic foods to ease symptoms, it is also important to consider your emotional well-being, as our emotions greatly affect our digestive health. When we are stressed or anxious the sympathetic nervous system dominates, over the parasympathetic system. This means that we operate in ‘’fight or flight’’ mode, and all systems of our body gear up as though we were about to take part in intense physical activity. One of the mechanisms of the fight or flight response is to redirect the flow of blood away from the digestive system, to the large skeletal muscles. In this way digestion is severely compromised when we are stressed, and we need to steady and calm ourselves before attempting to digest a meal.

If anxiety is a factor in your IBS, then relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga or tai chi may help you greatly. Good quality sleep is also important, so take measures to ensure that you get sufficient sleep. The room you are sleeping in should be as dark as possible, as sleep-wake cycles are regulated by the effect of light on hormone production.

Supplements may also be helpful in the treatment of IBS symptoms, and there are many that I would consider when seeing a new client. Any one over the age of 35 should consider talking supplemental digestive enzymes (healthcare practitioners can follow the link to read more), as our own production of pancreatic enzymes diminishes with age. They are essential for the proper break down of food, and the subsequent assimilation and absorption of nutrients.

Probiotics also play an important role in the recovery of digestive health. They produce over 200 different enzymes that help in the breakdown of food, they break down bacterial toxins in the gut, help regulate peristalsis and manufacture short-chain-fatty-acids which directly feed the cells of the colon.

For further reading see the FAQ, Which probiotics are for IBS?

By addressing the diet both through food and targeted nutritional supplements, and tackling any lifestyle factors such as stress management and the cessation of smoking, IBS can be greatly ameliorated and the frequency of flare-ups significantly diminished. Let us know what you think of my tips, by commenting below!

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  • Love this article - I have IBS and for the past year have aloe vera juice every morning with an acidophilus capsule and clean greens powder and the difference is life changing. I doubt I will ever be fully cured but in the last year I have had 3 attacks whereas before it was every month plus.

  • Thank you. I feel encouraged after reading your article.

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