Irritable bowel syndrome might not be the sexiest of topics, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Considering it affects up to 45 million people in the United States alone and two out of three of those people are women, we thought it was time to shed some light on the all-too-common condition.
What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal disorder that results in discomfort around the abdomen. Sufferers commonly experience frequent cramping, bloating, gas pains, and diarrhea.
In an effort to learn more about this gastrointestinal health issue that predominantly affects women, we reached out to Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, and Roshini Raj, MD, for a full briefing on IBS and how to manage its symptoms sans medicine. It's not a one-off issue caused by an increase in fast food or too much coffee. Instead, Rosenberg says IBS affects your day-to-day life, and his clients are looking for a daily treatment. If that just so happens to be the case for you, Rosenberg encourages seeking out a doctor for a diagnosis; however, in the meantime, we have compiled eight natural ways in which to help alleviate IBS symptoms. And, while they may not be cure-alls, they are all gastroenterologist-approved.
Meet the Expert
- Roshini Raj, MD, is a New York City–based board-certified gastroenterologist at New York University Langone.
- Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, is a board-certified gastroenterologist based in Illinois.
For the ways in which you can control symptoms of IBS without taking medicine, keep on reading.
Exercise works to help IBS in two ways. First, Raj points out that moving your body moves your colon and, as a result, helps alleviate abdominal discomfort. And second, Rosenberg says that exercise has been proven to reduce stress, which he says can help with perceived discomfort. So, if you have IBS, it's likely that a workout plan of sorts is beneficial.
The type of exercise you do can, of course, depend on your preferences, but something low-impact like yoga, swimming, or walking can be great for both digestion and stress relief. Just be sure not to overdo it. That may have adverse effects.
Avoid Hard-to-Digest Foods
As a means to help the body manage the digestive process, Raj recommends staying away from foods that cause bloating, like lactose, sorbitol (a sugar alcohol), and cruciferous veggies like kale, cauliflower, and broccoli. Rosenberg adds that you should avoid hard-to-digest foods, such as those high in sugars and fats.
So just what can you eat if you have IBS? While there is no cure-all food plan for IBS, the low FODMAP diet, which Rosenberg says reduces certain sugars and proteins that might “over-ferment” and lead to uncomfortable symptoms, is commonly practiced by many people with irritable bowel syndrome. And, while Rosenberg insists that the diet is safe and sometimes effective, he adds that it is rather restrictive and recommends seeing a nutritionist if you plan to adopt it.
Drink Water Before and After Meals (and Throughout the Day, Too)
To keep the digestive process moving, Raj recommends drinking water before and after a meal, as the liquid helps to break down food and aids in the digestion process. Staying hydrated is important for everyone, but it can be especially essential around mealtimes for IBS sufferers. You can even add some fresh lemon slices to make your water more exciting, as citrus fruits are lower in sugar and should not aggravate your symptoms.
Take Probiotics (or Eat Foods with Plenty of Them)
Raj recommends eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kefir, as she says rebalancing your gut flora helps to alleviate uncomfortable bloating associated with IBS. Probiotic pills are another way to get probiotics into your diet, but be sure to check with your doctor before you introduce new supplements.
Rosenberg agrees that probiotics work for some IBS patients; however, he says there is little convincing evidence to support these claims. With that said, he does not discourage their usage and promotes adding probiotic-rich foods to your diet as well.
Need quick relief? Apply a heating pad to the abdominal area during a flare-up. It may ease discomfort. A heating pad is not likely to have long-lasting effects, but it may do well in a pinch. According to Harvard Medical School, "For people who experience IBS intermittently, a home heating pad can be a simple and inexpensive way of soothing abdominal pain. Heat can help relax cramping muscles."
As Verywell Health suggests, a heating pad can be swapped out for a hot water bottle if you want to keep the warmth on you while you sleep. (Don't try this with a heating pad, as they are powered by electricity and therefore unsafe to leave unattended.)
Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Rosenberg says that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to reduce the symptoms of IBS. While behavioral therapy alone is unlikely to cure all IBS symptoms, it has been found to reduce the common effects of IBS when paired with medical treatment. There are a number of CBT techniques you can practice on your own or with the help of a therapist.
Develop a Meditation Practice
Like exercise and therapy, meditation is a wonderful way to decrease stress and anxiety, both of which may exacerbate gastrointestinal discomfort. According to a 2011 study, mindfulness training and sustained meditation practice can help ease IBS symptoms, especially stomach pain and bloating. If you already see a therapist, ask them to give you a few meditation techniques for you to try at home between visits.
Apps such as Headspace, which costs $12.99 per month and is available for both iOS and Android, allow you to customize your meditation experience depending on your needs.
Experiment Until You Find What Works
If there's one thing experts agree on, it's that IBS treatment is not one-size-fits-all. You'll likely have to try a combination of these tips—and consult with your physician—before you find the routine and techniques that work for you.
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Facts about IBS.
Harvard Health Publishing. Using alternative and complementary treatments to manage IBS. Updated July, 2015.
Lackner JM, Jaccard J, Keefer L, et al. Improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms after cognitive behavior therapy for refractory irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterology. 2018;155(1):47-57. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2018.03.063
Gaylord SA, Palsson OS, Garland EL, et al. Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Am J Gastroenterol. 2011;106(9):1678-1688. doi:10.1038/ajg.2011.184