There are a number of conventional treatments offered for people with IBS. Perhaps the most popular include fiber (bulking agents), antispasmodics, and antidepressants. But a Cochrane database review analyzed results from 56 randomized controlled trials comparing these three treatments with a placebo in patients diagnosed with IBS, and results showed no beneficial effect of bulking agents, (whether soluble or insoluble fiber). A small benefit was shown for antispasmodics (cimteropium/ dicyclomine, peppermint oil, pinaverium and trimebutine) in terms of reduced pain, but that benefit registered only about 12% better than placebo. Some pain reduction was also observed for patients who used antidepressants (20% over placebo). But when applied to children and adolescents with IBS, antidepressants showed no benefit.
These above treatments, fiber, antispasmodics and antidepressants, are clearly Magic Bullet style treatments. Simply examining the variable effects of fiber can demonstrate the complexity involved in IBS.
Fiber can be helpful for some but not for others
Fiber can be helpful for some but not helpful for others. The reasons underlying fiber’s variable effectiveness depends on a multitude of individual differences in terms of what is actually going on in the gut of any individual with IBS. In some cases, the person with IBS is so constipated that adding additional fiber is more harmful than helpful.
So adding more fiber is not only not always a useful approach for healing, but it can sometimes do more harm than good. Those Magic Bullets are not so magic after all.
Conventional treatments manage symptoms, not causes
The conventional, allopathic treatment of IBS in much of our world manages symptoms, not causes. Pain is a great example of a symptom and not a cause. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. Ignoring pain is like ignoring a traffic light by just closing your eyes and going straight on through! Yes, pain needs to be addressed, but it is the bowel function that needs to be restored. For this restoration, the bowel itself needs some healing.
An alternative approach to healing IBS may be found in the modality called Functional Medicine, an approach that focuses on treating and resolving underlying problems rather than merely relieving symptoms. The functional medicine approach to irritable bowel syndrome would be restoring proper bowel function rather than merely giving antidepressants or other medications to relieve pain. There are several ways to tackle improving bowel function, including restoring levels of helpful gut bacteria (probiotics), healing the stomach lining, and reducing psychological distress.
Probiotic pills (capsules that contain millions of helpful gut-directed bacteria) can help restore gut bacteria to higher levels of functioning, as long as dietary choices don’t counteract their effects. Research finds that probiotic treatment significantly improves abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, and quality of life. Probiotic use in one study decreased the number of symptomatic days after only 1 month of treatment. Both adults and children with IBS showed these benefits from probiotics. When you consider purchasing probiotic supplements, select ones that contain both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium cultures, and choose ones with a variety of strains. Remember that simply taking probiotics is likely not a strong enough intervention so be sure to include a variety of fermented foods in your diet, too.
Psychotherapy and relaxation therapy
A number of studies also showed psychotherapy or relaxation therapy to be helpful for improving IBS. In order to achieve maximum benefit from psychotherapy, it is my recommendation that you do it while also working on improving sleep, exercise and diet.
Finally, there are a few other treatments that are worth a look. Capsaicin (found in spicy peppers and to a significantly lesser amount in bell peppers as well as in cumin and turmeric) is often helpful in treating pain and inflammation. One study found that capsaicin helped decrease abdominal pain and bloating in patients with IBS. Artichoke leaf extract also shows promise as a substance to help reduce IBS symptoms. The use of peppermint is relatively well known as way of relaxing the gastrointestinal tract, decreasing pain, and adjusting immune system reactions. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation throughout the body as well as in the gut, and finally, L-glutamine is an amino acid that can reverse leaky gut problems through its effects on gut tissue regeneration.
Work to heal your gut lining rather than concentrate solely on managing symptoms. Change the materials your bowel is working with by eliminating as much processed food as you can. Increase exercise and sleep quality and reduce stress.