Irritable Bowel Syndrome - Naturopathic Treatment


What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS for short) is a functional gastroenterological disorder which has unfortunately become a frequent diagnosis. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning all other obvious causes were ruled out by the physician, leaving only IBS as the possible diagnosis.

Because an exact cause is not generally found by conventional medical providers, it can be difficult to manage the condition with pharmaceuticals and digestive aids.

As naturopathic physicians, we find that IBS treatment is much more successful when we can find the cause and treat it naturally. We have additional functional evaluations and diagnostic tests available to us which help in identifying the possible causes and help in removing these obstacles, creating better digestive function and fewer IBS symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of IBS?

IBS common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Frequently feeling cramping and bloating

  • Bowel movements which frequently alternate between diarrhea and constipation; and

  • changes in how often one experiences a bowel movement (often skipping days or going multiple times in a day).

This is not normal.

Digestion should be smooth and easy, barely being noticed by the person without any pain or excessive gas. Bowel movements should be 1-3x daily, and be smooth and easy to pass without being so soft it is messy and difficult to clean oneself. A normal stool should have the appearance of a "brown sausage or snake" (type 4 on the chart).

Diagnosis is made based on the following criteria:

The patient has had recurrent abdominal pain/discomfort at least 3 days per month during the past 3 months, and experienced at least two of the below:

  • Symptoms improve with defecation

  • Onset is associated with a change in stool frequency

  • Onset is associated with a change in stool form or appearance

  • Mucorrhea (mucous with bowel movements)

  • Abdominal bloating and gas

Common gastroenterology tests done include testing for Celiac disease, endoscopy and/or colonoscopy, stool testing for parasites abdominal ultrasound, or CT scan. These will all be normal in someone with IBS.

What Causes IBS?

Because IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, as naturopathic physicians we look to optimizing GI function and removing any obstacles preventing normal function from taking place.

These are the typical causes we see associated with IBS and naturopathic treatment will look at addressing any or all of these potential contributors:

  1. Ingestion of individual food intolerances Common food intolerances include dairy, eggs, potatoes, certain fruits, and refined sugars. If we continually eat foods that our digestive systems cannot fully breakdown, this triggers inflammation and bacterial imbalance in the digestive system. Sometimes removing these foods from the diet is all that is needed to get the digestive system functioning better.

  2. Low stomach acid or digestive enzyme production Stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes, and bile from the liver and gallbladder are essential to the healthy break down, absorption, and metabolism of our foods and their nutrients. Eating one's food intolerances or a genetic weakness in the production of these needed acids and enzymes can severely impact digestive function and create IBS symptoms.

  3. Stress and abnormal adrenal function Stress hormones such as cortisol have a tremendous impact on our digestive system. Excess cortisol thins the protective mucous lining of the GI tract, making us more susceptible to digestive ulcers and gastritis. Stress also causes the body to shunt the blood supply away from the digestive tract in favor of the heart, muscles, and lungs so we can "fight or flight" if needed. That loss of circulation from the digestive bed can severely compromise normal digestive function and nutrient absorption.

  4. Intestinal yeast overgrowth Intestinal yeast, or candida, overgrowth can create IBS symptoms. This condition occurs when the environment of the gastrointestinal system favors the growth of yeast instead of beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains, among others. Treatment involves addressing the environment of the GI so it favors the growth of beneficial bacteria which will help keep the growth of yeast in check. Dietary changes, supportive nutrients, and natural herbal medicines as well as sometimes antifungal treatment can help resolve this issue. It is usually diagnosed with a comprehensive stool analysis.

Can You Treat IBS Naturally?

Yes! Natural treatment of IBS is very possible!

It involves a comprehensive look at digestive function and ruling out other causes such as autoimmune, adrenal, or thyroid disorders which could be affecting digestion as well.

Dietary changes are almost always needed, and sometimes are the only treatment needed!

Natural herbal medicines, homeopathic medicines, and nutrients as well as acupuncture and hydrotherapy treatment can also help improve function while the causes are being addressed.

What Herbs are Helpful for IBS?

Many herbal medicines which help address digestive function can help, but most important is that the cause or the obstacles preventing normal digestive function are also addressed.

Natural herbal medicines we commonly prescribed include:

  • Gentiana lutea: A bitter herb that helps increase stomach acid and enzyme production.

  • Scutellaria lateriflora: A nervine herb which helps improve movement of the GI tract and reduces anxiety which can contribute to decreased circulation of the digestive tract.

  • Chelidonium majus: A cholagogue and liver supportive herb which helps improve bile flow and function from the liver and gallbladder.

  • Matricaria recruititia: Also known as chamomile, this herb is very helpful for reducing gas and bloating

  • Mentha piperita: Or peppermint, is anti-spasmodic to the GI tract, helping to reduce abdominal cramping, gas, and bloating.

  • Hydrastis Canadensis: This is an antimicrobial herb and liver support to help improve the beneficial bacterial balance in the GI tract if there is overgrowth of yeast.

  • Zingiber officinale root: Commonly known as Ginger also helps reduce gas, bloating, cramping, and even nausea.

***Please consult your physician before trying herbs for medicinal purposes.

Are Probiotics a Naturopathic Treatment For IBS?

Yes! Probiotics can be very helpful as they seem to help improve the growth and maintenance of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract.


However, probiotics are not a long-term solution! A better solution is to correct the diet and internal environment of the digestive system so beneficial bacterial naturally want to grow there.