Irritable Bowel Syndrome

A holistic approach to Irritable Bowel Syndrome based on good nutrition, natural remedies and a healthy lifestyle.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the digestive system which affects millions of people throughout the world. The range and severity of symptoms can vary hugely from one person to another and each individual may experience a lessening or worsening of the condition from time to time depending on circumstances. There is much that the sufferer can do to take control of the condition himself/herself. There are a number of avenues which can be explored and which may partially or even totally alleviate the symptoms without the side effects incurred by medication.


Syndrome is simply the medical term for a collection of symptoms that tend to occur together. The main symptoms include recurrent colicky stomach pain which is often relieved by passing wind or stools, a bloated, colicky feeling, sometimes with accompanying rumbling noise, diarrhoea, (especially first thing in the morning), constipation, alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, small, hard, pellet-like stools which may be covered in mucus and indeed it is quite common to pass just mucus.

Normally the bowel smoothly digests the food we eat. Food is moved through the various sections of the digestive system by movements of muscle in the walls of the bowel (peristalsis). The rate of digestion varies from person to person but generally the stomach is empty about two or three hours after a meal and waste products are usually evacuated about 24 hours after we have finished eating. The digestion of food in the stomach and the small intestine also leads to the production of gas or wind. In I.B.S. sufferers something goes wrong with this complex and normally well-ordered system. As the name implies, the bowel becomes irritated which manifests itself as tension and this results in the colicky cramp-like pain felt by sufferers. These painful spasms lend another name to I.B.S. – spastic colitis.

Causes of IBS

Stress is the most important factor associated with I.B.S.. Anxiety, depression, hurried meals, smoking, lack of sleep or irregular habits, can certainly aggravate the condition. A refined diet of packeted and processed food can be a factor in some cases, as lack of fibre may predispose to chronic constipation. Linked with this is the all too common abuse of laxatives which further irritates the bowel. Dietary fat may be a trigger for some I.B.S. sufferers by causing the over-stimulation of the bowel.

Food intolerance can also affect I.B.S. by a direct effect of chemicals found in food such as caffeine, tyramine and histamine (both found in cheese) and also food additives. Allergies can also be a factor, particularly dairy or gluten intolerance (notably wheat). Imbalance of healthy bacteria in the gut has also been found in I.B.S. sufferers, particularly following repeated use of antibiotics, high consumption of sugar-containing foods and drinks, coffee and tea.

Help is at hand

Too often it is said that I.B.S. is “all in the mind”, but it is a very real physical condition which can be usefully tackled on three fronts:

  1. Balanced diet.
  2. Exercise and relaxation to combat stress.
  3. Assisting the digestive system by natural means.

1. Diet

A high fibre diet is the best prevention and cure. However in the early stages, a low fibre diet may be necessary to calm the bowel. In this case it is a good plan to start off with a short liquid fast, then introducing vegetable juices initially and thick soups, progressing slowly in stages to the desired high fibre diet.

  • The diet should be rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, especially brown rice and millet (which are easy to digest).
  • Raw vegetables in the form of salads, and fruits should be eaten before the meal, not after, as this will be easier on the digestive system.
  • Food should be chewed slowly and thoroughly to facilitate the digestive system. Not only salads, but vegetable or fruit juices should also be chewed in order to combine the food with saliva which aids the digestion. – – Meals would be taken at regular times and should always be eaten in a relaxed, unhurried atmosphere.
  • Eliminate snacking and bingeing and stop eating when you feel full.
  • Avoid tea and coffee as caffeine stimulates bowel action and is not helpful to sufferers of I.B.S.. Herbal teas such as camomile, peppermint or fennel are ideal and have a relaxing effect on the bowel.
  • Avoid processed food and eat organic when possible.
  • Avoidance of sugar and white flour in any shape or form is one of the basics for digestive disorders. Even those foods that contain only a little sugar can cause discomfort such as bloating and flatulence.
  • It is best to avoid the common allergenic foods such as dairy products and wheat for a period, but take advice on this as many sufferers of I.B.S. eliminate so many foods that their diet becomes unbalanced and deficient in nutrients.
  • Elimination of any foods should be gradual and systematic and the effects should be observed closely for clues as to the offending foods. If you suffer from constipation, choose food that will increase the amount of fibre in your diet. One tablespoonful of linseed taken daily with two full glasses of liquid can be a help. Linseed may be crushed if symptoms are severe. Bran (i.e. wheat bran) and bran-containing foods (high fibre cereals and breads) should be avoided at all costs. Bran is a scouring food and therefore can greatly worsen the symptoms of I.B.S. by irritating the gut.
  • A reduction in fat intake may be of benefit if you suffer pain after meals. but in any case strict avoidance of fried foods should be observed.
  • Your local IAHS store would be happy to give you any further advice on diet that you may require.

2. Exercise and relaxation

Aside from eliminating excessive stress from your lifestyle, exercise and relaxation can help to reduce stress levels. Simple exercise such as walking, cycling and swimming will relieve tension and give a feeling of well-being. Breathing exercises and yoga movements are an excellent way to relax.

The role of relaxation in resolving I.B.S. cannot be over-stressed. It is the single most important factor involved in the condition. When stress levels are reduced, other remedial action usually proves quicker to take effect and more enduring. Bach flower herbal remedies can be immensely useful by work ing on the state of mind of the sufferer. These come in dropper bottles, are easy to administer and good value. Ask in an IAHS store for more information.

3. Assisting the digestive system

With an improved diet, exercise and relaxation the digestive system will balance itself. This process can be assisted by some dietary supplements and natural remedies. It should be emphasised that they are not a substitute for a wholesome diet, adequate rest, relaxation and exercise. Since each person is different, the same remedy will not be the most effective for everybody. The following are some possibilities that have been found helpful by sufferers:

  • Vitamin A: Important where the mucous lining of the digestive tract is damaged.
  • The B vitamins: Useful for those who are under stress. These are best taken in a single dose.
  • Magnesium: Has been found to relieve muscle cramps. Acidophilus: Provides a balance of healthy bacteria in the gut lacking in some I.B.S. sufferers. Only use a dairy-free acidophilus if on a dairy-free diet.
  • Peppermint: Can improve the digestive system in general and relieve pain by reducing the severity and incidence of cramps. Peppermint in tablet form has been found to be helpful in clinical trials.
  • Chamomile: A useful anti-inflammatory herb. A cup of mixed peppermint and chamomile tea taken first thing in the morning can be of great assistance.
  • Tormentil: A soothing herb and can be used for the care, support and comfort of the bowel. Particularly useful in cases of diarrhoea.
  • Aloe vera: Very cooling and soothing to the digestive tract. Particularly useful in cases of constipation. Linseed oil; Rich in linoleic acid which is needed for proper hormonal function, but also for abdominal comfort. Evening primrose oil: Clinical trials have found it to be helpful in reducing inflammation.


Homeopathic remedies can be very helpful and are best chosen according to the exact symptoms and the characteristics of the individual person. These are best selected by a professional homeopath. IAHS stores should be able to refer you to a list of registered homeopaths.

Essential oils

Homeopathic remedies can be very helpful and are best chosen according to the exact symptoms and the characteristics of the individual person. These are best selected by a professional homeopath. IAHS stores should be able to refer you to a list of registered homeopaths.


Irritable Bowel Syndrome is becoming an increasingly common condition, with one in six people in the Western world suffering from it at some time or another. Living life in the fast lane with all the stress which that entails is the single biggest factor contributing to this condition. Attempting to reduce stress levels and paying attention to dietary factors can reduce the symptoms of I.B.S. considerably and may in the long-run bring the condition totally under control.

Useful reading

  • Stomach and Bowel Disorders by Jan de Vries
  • >Irritable Bowel Syndrome by Nigel Howard
  • Recipes for I.B.S by Ann Page
  • Practical Aromatherapy by Shirley Price

This fact sheet is for information only and is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a healthcare professional.

Partners of Health Stores Ireland
  • .