Common symptoms affecting your digestive system are burping, bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea. These symptoms typically pass within a day or a few days in most people; however, in those with “irritable bowel syndrome,” or ‘IBS’ these symptoms do not go away. Those with IBS also experience abdominal pain or significant abdominal discomfort, in addition to disrupted overall bowel functions. What is additionally distressing is the frequent or unpredictable trips to the washroom – it can take a toll on you mentally and emotionally. Irritable bowel syndrome affects about 5-15% of the North American population, though many go undiagnosed. April is IBS awareness month and I’ve provided my naturopathic perspectives on the causes and nature-based treatments that may help you with this problem.

Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

There is no universal consensus on the cause of IBS, likely because there are different subtypes of IBS and so there are many factors that can cause it.

• Gut infections, traveler’s diarrhea, food poisoning – many people with IBS say that their symptoms began after an intestinal infection, a form of gastroenteritis.

• Antibiotics, medications – Australian researchers published a study in a 2013 issue of the Internal Medicine Journal finding an association with antibiotics with IBS symptoms.

• Neurotransmitter imbalances – most of the body’s neurotransmitter chemicals are actually produced in the intestine, though the brain has some control over how digestion proceeds. A newer theory of intestinal function looks at the balance of both the brain and the bowel (can we call it the ‘second brain’?). Many with IBS symptoms also have depression and or anxiety which supports this brain-bowel theory.

• Surgery

• Change in diet.

• Malabsorption – many people with IBS symptoms are sensitive to the carbohydrate content of foods since they may not absorb them properly. Burping, bloating and diarrhea are commonly seen as reactions from consuming lactose-containing foods and fructose-containing foods (eg: fruit such as mangos, apples, pears) that are not absorbed by the body, but are instead available to the intestinal microorganisms to convert into gas which can trigger the above symptoms including abdominal discomforts.

Other associated factors that can aggravate this problem are stress and hormonal changes as well as other factors that affect the microbiological environment in the intestinal system leading to intestinal microbial overgrowth.

Herbs and Natural Supplement Options for IBS

• Anti-microbial herbs – these can help address excessive bacteria or yeast that may be involved in IBS. Examples include golden seal, olive leaf, oregano, thyme, etc.

• Anti-spasmodic herbs – these herbs can be taken as teas or diluted essential oils and include peppermint, caraway, chamomile, lemon balm and star anise – they often help with reducing cramping and gas production.

• Mood balancing herbs – St. John’s Wort was found to benefit women with IBS in a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine – the researchers found improvement not only in depression scores but also with digestive functions.

• Fiber supplements – sometimes fiber can help the situation and sometimes it can aggravate it, it’s very individual. Common fiber supplements that may help include ground flax seed and psyllium husks – make sure to drink enough water with the fiber to promote better bowel function.

• Magnesium – this mineral is known to help relax tight or spastic muscles and can be helpful in some people with IBS.

• Probiotics – it’s known that those with IBS have a different combination of microorganisms living in the intestinal tract than those without IBS. Many studies have found improvements in IBS symptoms when probiotic supplements and yogurts are taken.

About the Author

Rahim Habib is a registered naturopathic doctor with over 15 years of experience in general family practice. He has a special interest in helping patients comprehensively detoxifying their bodies for preventative and therapeutic benefit. He also has a special interest in children’s health, assisting kids in their learning and behavioural health with conditions such as ADHD, Autism spectrum, asthma, allergies and childhood obesity. He also helps adults with chronic conditions, such as thyroid disorders, infertility, inflammation, obesity, autoimmunity, dementia and cancer care. He is the director of the Four Seasons Naturopathic Clinic for Detoxification and Healing and can be reached at 905-597-7201 or