What really causes IBS?

‘IBS’ (irritable bowel syndrome) is one of the most common complaints that I see in my clinic. I would estimate that around 80% of my patients suffer from some type of digestive complaint or discomfort. In fact, it is so common, that many people seem to believe that suffering bloating and frequent trips to the bathroom is normal! This should not be the case, and is a sign that your digestive system is crying for help.

IBS can include many different types of digestive symptoms such as bloating or discomfort, abdominal pains, cramping and episodes of diarrhoea and/or constipation.  IBS is not a ‘disease’ in itself, more of a label for a set of symptoms. It is said that IBS affects about 20% of the population. Being diagnosed with IBS can be very frustrating, as the cause is often unknown and there is no real medical treatment. It is often put down to stress or anxiety and while this is the case for some, there are many, many other causes that are often overlooked in the medical world. People seem to think that they just have to put up with it when in fact there is a lot that we can do.

Finding the cause of your IBS symptoms is always our ultimate aim. While for some people there is a direct correlation between times of stress and anxiety and their IBS symptoms, for SO many of my patients this has not been the case. There are many, many causes of IBS symptoms that should be explored to help you overcome IBS. This can include food intolerances or sensitivities, bacterial or parasitic infections, poor liver function, poor gall bladder function, low stomach acid secretions, leaky gut and poor dietary choices. Sometimes we find a combination of these issues could be causing your symptoms. Identifying what causes your symptoms gives you a way of managing your digestive health for the rest of your life WITHOUT the need for medications or supplements. It also means you do not have to put up with the uncomfortable symptoms of IBS!! IBS is something you can control. Once the triggers are identified you can gain firm long-term control over your symptoms. The trick is finding the causes of your IBS.

Here are the most common causes of IBS that I see in my clinic:

Food sensitivities or intolerances

I test all of my IBS patients for food intolerances. Imagine if you could control your symptoms simply by changing a few things in your diet. Common food sensitivities include foods such as wheat, dairy, gluten, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy or yeast but sometimes simple and obscure foods such as almonds, banana or avocado might be the cause. We run a blood-based food intolerance test with our patients and this gives a detailed analysis of the foods that may be causing your irritable bowel symptoms.

Dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance)

A healthy adult digestive system has between 1-3.5kgs of bacteria sitting within the small and large intestines and it is important that the balance of this bacteria is correct. We should have around 20% ‘bad’ or detrimental bacteria and 80% ‘good’ healthy strains. If this balance is upset a whole host of digestive symptoms can occur as the bacteria are essential for the breakdown of food and nutrient absorption. Fermentation occurs if these bacteria are out of balance and gas and bloating with trapped wind and often pain is a common result. Looser bowel movements and diarrhoea are also common. Improving the environment of your digestive tract to optimise the growth of healthy strains of flora can have a big impact on reducing IBS symptoms.

Poor liver &/or gall bladder function

Our liver is responsible for producing bile, a substance that breaks down fats and alcohol (among other functions). The gallbladder stores this bile and releases it after meals to break down and digest fats. Bloating will occur if bile is not at adequate levels or is a little sluggish. Our digestive system also uses bile as a natural laxative to clear food remnants through the digestive tract. Therefore, low levels can lead to constipation and irregular bowel movements.

Low stomach acids

Our stomach acids need to be at adequate levels at meal times in order to ensure the first stage of digestion takes places- breaking down our food into small molecules for absorption further down the digestive tract. Our stomach acids are also very important for protein breakdown. If protein is not properly digested, it will lead to fermentation which causes gas, bloating and discomfort. This may also affect appetite and upper digestive symptoms such as reflux, heartburn or indigestion. We can address this in a very easy and effective way using herbal and nutritional medicines.

Leaky gut

Leaky gut is a condition that refers to the inflammation and breakdown of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract. Our whole digestive tract is covered in a layer of mucous that is a protective barrier. It is also on the mucous membrane that our gut bacteria live. When this lining becomes irritated or inflamed, a host of symptoms can occur. These can be digestive- bloating, gas, soreness, distention, discomfort or bowel changes are common. Unfortunately, this can also lead to other systemic symptoms as the gut lining becomes ‘leaky’ or more permeable, and waste products or poorly digested food remnants can be absorbed into the bloodstream. This can affect liver function, immune balance, inflammatory levels, allergies and mood.

Parasitic infection

This is something else that I check for in many of my patients, as often bowel changes, pains and bloating can be due to a little parasite that finds its way into your digestive system. There are many different types of parasites, and finding the exact type is important as this determines the treatment protocol. While once it was assumed that parasites were something caught overseas while travelling, I am finding more and more cases of persistent parasite infections that are leading to IBS type symptoms. Testing is essential (via a lovely poo sample) as we are then able to accurately diagnose and treat whatever parasite is lurking in your gut.

Poor diet

A high gluten, high dairy, high processed foods, high sugar diet will all cause digestive symptoms and upsets. A diet low in fruits, vegetables or fibre may also be the cause. A full dietary assessment is always included as part of IBS assessment with my patients and dietary changes can make a dramatic impact on your gut health.

We hope this article has given you some insight into your own digestive health.

We encourage you to come in and visit Hayley if your bowel habits need a healthy helping hand.

Contact Hayley (hayley@betterhealthpractice.com.au)  if you have any questions or would like to book your appointment for a digestive health review.

Hayley Stockbridge

Hayley Stockbridge