We are two months past IBS awareness month, but I would still like to draw your attention to it. For those who are unfamiliar, IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or a mixture of both, and excessive gas. Symptoms can be chronic intermittent or continuous. It is called a syndrome because it is a functional disorder. Diagnosis requires excluding all other potential causes of symptoms. Often clients come to me without a clear IBS diagnosis, even though the word was thrown around. But this article is not just about IBS. It’s about all distressing gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, including IBS, and the suffering people go through. It is also about hope and celebration, because research is advancing and anecdotal accounts are mounting regarding the power of nutrition.

When you think of GI symptoms, do you think of them as something annoying, but not really anything to worry about? This is usually not the experience of IBS sufferers. Symptoms range between mildly annoying to debilitating. Often quality of life is reduced, sometimes drastically. Having chronic IBS-type symptoms can affect one’s professional or educational life (and therefore economic health), social life, and emotional well-being. These are all essential to living a contented existence.

To understand more how this might be, imagine the following scenarios: You cannot leave your home because you don’t want to be caught in a lurch if you have to go and there is no bathroom in sight. Or you cannot move your bowels for days (or weeks) without supplementation or “interventions” at home. Imagine having to restrict your favorite foods because they cause horrible gas. Or you get so bloated by the end of the day that you look six months pregnant and have to unbutton your pants (or you cannot wear regular pants at all) and you get asked if you are pregnant. Imagine postponing starting a family because your belly is already so swollen you cannot fathom how a baby could ever fit in there. Most people take normal GI functioning for granted, just as we do our hearts beating and our lungs breathing. Those with IBS do not have the luxury.

Thankfully, times are changing and those with difficult digestive systems are not always told to drink more water, eat more fiber, and get more physical activity. They are no longer being told that diet has nothing to do with their symptoms, or that stress was causing them and they should try to relax more.

The truth is that diet has an effect on every human being, whether you are currently healthy or not. What we put into our bodies affects our health, period. For those with digestive woes, the types of foods and supplements they consume can have a profound effect on their health and how they feel. They often have visceral hypersensitivity, meaning they feel more of what is going on in their digestive tracts, leading to either discomfort or pain. FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols) are a prime example of this. (See my previous articles on FODMAPs for an explanation.) While many can eat them without ill effects, those with IBS-type symptoms often have a negative reaction (bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc.). Eliminating high-FODMAPs foods for a period can resolve symptoms in as little as one to two weeks. (A careful reintroduction is then recommended in order to incorporate as many of these healthy foods back into the diet as possible.) However, FODMAPs are not the only solution to IBS. Interestingly, according to one meta-analysis, SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) is now considered to be the cause of IBS in 38 percent of patients. Once the SIBO is addressed, IBS symptoms often disappear. Other approaches include meal spacing and timing, using different types of fiber in foods to your advantage, newer supplemental fibers, taking out gut irritants in foods and supplements, and much more.

A look at IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis) reveals that dietary changes such as anti-inflammatory diets, low-starch diets such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), and the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet have anecdotally (and in some studies) shown to be very helpful. IBD is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own cells in the GI tract (often the intestines), causing harmful inflammation, GI symptoms, and pain. All three diets vary, but they eliminate common inflammatory foods such as alcohol, sugar, processed carbohydrates (sugary or starchy “junk foods”), refined seed oils, grains, and some or all dairy, while encouraging the consumption of nutrient-dense and healing foods. The most restrictive diets also remove legumes, nuts/seeds, and eggs for a period of time. One recent small but encouraging study on 15 people with IBD revealed that a full AIP diet for five weeks led to complete remission in 73 percent of participants. This rivals many drug therapies for IBD. Anecdotally, the SCD has worked for many suffering from IBD, both by reducing symptoms and in some cases even eliminating the need for medication. Last, exclusive enteral nutrition (EEN) (liquid feeds either orally or via feeding tube for one to three months) has been shown to induce complete remission in pediatric IBD patients.

While IBS and IBD are prime examples of ailments for which food can have a profound effect, this is by no means a complete list. Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, other autoimmune diseases, blood sugar dysregulation, GERD/reflux, heart disease, osteoporosis, and so many more are conditions where food can play a major role. In articles like these, I hope to reduce the embarrassment and taboo surrounding GI distress so that fewer people have to suffer in silence. If you have gotten this far, I hope this article has helped you appreciate the life distress that GI symptoms can cause, as well as recognize the value and power of food and nutrition.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.