Some people think having Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other stomach problems is part of life.
It is NOT!
Doctors have a hard time diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome, because the digestive problem does not show obvious physical changes or symptoms.
If you’re experiencing chronic diarrhea, constipation, bloating, sharp, gas-like stomach pains and other abdominal discomforts, then you could be suffering from a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Many women suffer from IBS their whole lives. But studies have shown that the condition worsens during the perimenopausal transition. This phase is a time when menopausal symptoms are at their worst – hot flashes, mood swings and stomach problems have all been reported.
While there are certainly women who have a pleasant menopause journey, there are also those who struggle. Now imagine dealing with menopause and IBS at the same time. Overwhelming, right? IBS is not really a glamorous disorder and most women are embarrassed to talk about their symptoms.
Before you go through a whole lot of trial and error with medications or submit yourself to conventional and invasive treatments, it’s best to try natural remedies first. Heal your digestive system naturally and calm your menopause symptoms at the same time – without the need for expensive medications and potential side effects.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome and its Symptoms
IBS is a highly misunderstood disorder. Many people think it is caused by simple stress and neurotic personality. While stress can certainly cause the disease, the problem isn’t that simple.
IBS is a chronic, digestive disorder which is marked by unpredictable and intermittent symptoms. The cause of IBS is unknown, but studies have showed that it somehow relates to a faulty brain-gut connection.
According to the Epidemiology of Irritable Bowel Syndrome by NCBI, the condition affects 11% of the global population. One in five Americans suffer from IBS. It also affects women twice as often as men. The reason for this are our female hormones estrogen and progesterone. If you’ve noticed, stomach flare-ups are very common as your menstruation approaches.
There are three types of IBS:
IBS with diarrhea – intestines function too much causing diarrhea; often triggered by infective microbes and allergies
IBS with constipation – intestines don’t function enough causing constipation; triggered by poor fluid and fiber consumption
IBS mixed – alternating diarrhea and constipation with accompanying symptoms such as bloating, distension, stomach pain, urgency, feeling of incomplete emptying, low back pain and fatigue
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a debilitating condition that can interfere with your work and social life. Those who have IBS are often ashamed to discuss symptoms even with family and close friends. This adds to the challenge of living with the condition.
How Food Moves Through Your Digestive Tract
Digestion is a simple process. It is the movement of food to your gastrointestinal tract. The process starts in your mouth when you chew food. Once broken down, food gets propelled down your esophagus and straight to your stomach. Depending on what you eat, food stays there for two hours or more.
Even with the mere smell of food, your vagal nerve activates your stomach to produce gastric acids like pepsin, renin and hydrochloric acid. It also signals the muscles of your stomach to contract – a process called peristalsis. Food is then grinded in your stomach with the aid of your gastric acids, forming a mixture called chyme.
After two to three hours, 50% of your stomach content will move to the small intestines where absorption will take place. It will take another three hours for the small intestines to empty. The remaining unprocessed content will go to your large intestine also called colon. These remnants are converted into solid stool and our colon will break down the dietary fibers to produce small chains of fatty acids, which can be converted into nutrients.
Any disruption or delay in the normal process of food transit may create adverse effects to the body. A delay can give rise to the growth of bacteria which increases your susceptibility to IBS.
The speed of food transit is also a major factor that affects the occurrence of constipation and diarrhea. When your food moves too slowly, it allows absorption of water in the colon in a much longer time, resulting to constipation.
More often than not, bacterial infection causes diarrhea, but the speed of food transit can also trigger this condition. When your food goes through your colon in a faster pace, you could suffer from diarrhea.
Is there a Relationship between IBS and Menopause?
There is a well-established relationship between IBS and menopause. For many women who have long suffered from IBS, menopause will have a direct effect on their symptoms. But the big question is, will you develop IBS symptoms as you go through the menopausal transition? The answer to this question is a big YES.
As part of the process of menopause, there is a decrease in the levels of the sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen receptors are found throughout the muscles of your digestive tract. The drop in your female hormones can affect three digestive processes:
Estrogen and progesterone are known to control the smooth muscles of the intestine. A decrease in these two hormones during menopause greatly affects the quality of contractions that your smooth muscles produce. This dictates how quickly your food travels through your digestive tract. Low estrogen and progesterone levels can also reduce gastrointestinal muscle tone, slowing transit time and triggering indigestion, nausea, diarrhea or constipation.
Your female hormones can affect abdominal cramps and aches in IBS. Estrogen boosts the production of serotonin, one of your happy/feel-good hormones. A decrease in your estrogen will increase your ouch factor. This is the reason why your belly-aches become intense during menopause.
Estrogen and progesterone have anti-inflammatory properties. Therefore, when your sex hormones decrease during menopause, it can raise the levels of inflammation throughout your body including the stomach. This makes IBS symptoms worse.
There is also another hormone that may cause IBS symptom flare-ups. Cortisol, also known as your stress hormone, has a large influence in colon motility. The hormone is responsible in absorbing water and sodium in the colon and rectum.
Estrogen directly impacts the level of cortisol in our body. When estrogen is high, cortisol is low. In menopause, our estrogen levels decline so our cortisol is high. Meaning, water and sodium in our colon and rectum are absorbed more. This causes IBS with constipation.
Our female hormones also have a calming influence in our body. So when estrogen and progesterone are low, our body feels like there is always imminent danger. To keep our body going, it releases the hormone adrenalin. However, adrenalin has a different effect in our digestive system. It shuts off digestive function and a wide range of digestive problems arises. You have gas build-up which can cause bloating, slow digestion causing delayed food transit and acid break down causing abdominal pain and indigestion.
Menopause is a natural process that can change how your stomach works. Whether or not you have been diagnosed with IBS, you will notice that as you reach a certain age, you’ll have frequent bowel symptoms.
Irregular Bowel Movement
Some people don’t realize the importance of having regular bowel movement. If you allow the food to stay in your digestive tract for a longer period of time, that will encourage the growth and proliferation of bacteria. Bacteria also ferments the sugar which results to more frequent occurrence of abdominal discomforts.
The Underlying Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Various symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome may be triggered by a wide range of causes and we have listed some of them here. Read on to learn what could possibly be causing your abdominal discomforts.
Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO)
As its name implies, SIBO occurs when the number of bacteria in the small intestine goes beyond its normal level. Compared to the colon, our small intestine contains relatively low amount bacteria. When in proper balance, these bacteria contribute to the efficient digestion and absorption of food.
Some digestive issues may begin to occur when this balance is disrupted. When food stays longer in our stomach, the existing gut bugs ferment it, making us experience excessive gas and bloating. On the other hand, when bacteria, especially the bad ones, move up from the colon to the small intestine, it disrupts the existing flora. This causes diarrhea and other abdominal discomforts.
Did you also know that bacteria overgrowth can lead to malnutrition? When there is bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, it may affect the organ’s ability to absorb essential nutrients such as calcium and iron, as well as Vitamins A, B12, E, D and K. WebMD has a very comprehensive article about these vitamins, how can you acquire them and how they benefit the human body. Be sure to check it out!
Leaky gut and IBS are two digestive issues that usually come after the other. In fact, one may actually trigger the onset of the other. In some cases, one may worsen the other. But what is leaky gut?
It is a condition that occurs when there are gaps in the intestinal linings. The occurrence of these gaps enable the metabolic wastes, undigested food and bacteria begin to seep through the bloodstream, which can lead to inflammation. Leaky guts are also linked to inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease.
If you consume too much of sugar, antibiotic, gluten, dairy and GMO foods, it can also lead to a leaky gut. Check out Dr. Doni's article to get in-depth details about leaky gut, how to know if you have it and what you can do about it.
Some cases of chronic constipation are caused by poor choice of diet. When you consume more of low-fiber and animal product diet, small pouches in the weak spots of your colon begin to develop. This condition is called diverticulosis.
If you consume a high-fiber diet, your stool becomes bulky and it moves through your large intestines smoothly. But when you’re having a low-fiber diet, your colon exerts extra force to move the stools. In effect, small pouches occur and when they inflamed, that starts your abdominal pain and infection.
Stress Stresses Out Your Gut!
In many cases, people would usually blame the food they ate a few hours back for whatever abdominal discomforts they are experiencing. Some don't realize that their current emotional state can also be a triggering factor. When you are too stressed or too anxious, you become prone to bloating, altered stool consistency and abdominal pain.
There is a known connection between our stomach and our brain. Serotonin is a type of hormone that affects our mood and overall well-being. Our digestive tract houses around 90% of our serotonin supply. Some people who have depression usually have lower serotonin levels that are caused by changes in their intestinal flora.
When we are under stressful situations, our body releases stress hormones and alters our digestive activities. It sometimes causes indigestion which makes the food stay a little bit longer in our digestive tract. This gives more time for bacteria to ferment the food, which results to gas and other abdominal discomforts.
Look at your bacteria as your employers. Give them the right tools and they will work for and with you!
What You Can Do To Ease the Symptoms of IBS
Abdominal pain, discomforts and other IBS symptoms shouldn’t be part of your daily living, and they shouldn’t prevent you from experiencing a healthy and balanced life.
To be healthy, you have to eat healthy. Regular consumption of unhealthy diet will eventually take its toll on your body. That’s why it is always important to be mindful of what you eat, drink and do every single day. With the right choice of food, you can alleviate, if not eliminate, the symptoms of IBS. In fact, 75% of those who opted to change their diet have experienced better gut health.
Dr. Axe's video below discusses a number of natural treatments for conditions that are associated with menopause including IBS. He mentioned that our choice of food can significantly affect our menopause journey [7:40].
You may have not yet heard of it but FODMAP elimination is making great waves, especially in dealing with some symptoms of IBS.
Some people have difficulties in digesting or absorbing FODMAP-rich foods in the small intestine, so the food moves into the large intestine, where they are fermented by the existing bacteria. This could lead to distention, constipation, stomach pain and excessive gas.
Developed by an Australian research team, FODMAP pertains to fermentable oligosaccharides (onion, garlic, shallot, legumes, chicory, rye, barley and wheat), disaccharides (milk, yogurt and ice cream), monosaccharides (high-fructose corn syrup, pears, apples, mango and honey) and polyols (apricots, cauliflowers and some sweetened products, like gums and confectionaries).
Dr. Axe describes them as short-chained alcohol sugars and carbohydrates, that are not easily absorbed in the gut, so they are fermented by bacteria. Once fermented, it causes the body to experience various types of gastrointestinal problems.
Want to learn more about low-FODMAP diet? We encourage you to watch the video created by Nestlé Health Science. Researchers and dietitians from different parts of the world, gathered to increase women's awareness about low-FODMAP diet and its effectiveness in easing the symptoms of IBS. Be sure to check that out [8:02]!
A research team at Monash University developed a useful app that provides detailed information about the types of FODMAP-rich foods that contribute to the occurrence of IBS. Be sure to check it out on iTunes or on Google Play.
Taking out gluten from your diet is also beneficial. Gluten is a good source of fructan, which is also considered as a type of FODMAP. Rye, barley, spelt and wheat are among the common sources of gluten. Consumption of a gluten-rich diet sometimes causes constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating. A gluten-free diet is particularly beneficial for people diagnosed with Celiac disease.
Watch the video below if you want to be inspired in starting a gluten-free diet. Janet describes how a gluten-free diet has significantly resolved her IBS symptoms and improved her life after just a couple of months [1:28].
Ketogenic and Paleo Diet
A ketogenic diet involves consumption of a high healthy fat, moderate protein and low-carbohydrate food. Our body is fueled by blood sugars which are converted from carbohydrates and proteins. By consuming a ketogenic diet, blood sugar will be in short supply. This, in turn, forces our body to run on fat. Our liver will produce ketones from the healthy fats we consumed. These ketones will now serve as our body's source of energy.
Dr. Mercola explains that by following our ancestors' diet, we are able to avoid certain diseases that stem from consumption of modern diets. This is called paleo diet or caveman diet. It involves consumption of lean meat, seafood, organ meat, non-starchy vegetables and fresh fruits.
Additional Tips on Eating
Have you ever wondered why people in France are usually healthy and thin? Are they on a diet all the time? NO! It’s about eating the French way! What does it mean? Basically, French people don't prefer having snacks min between meals. They also spend quite a lot of time in chewing their food mindfully. By the time they leave their favorite restaurants or pubs, they would have probably digested a large portion of what they eat.
We should also control the frequency and amount of food we eat. There should be a gap of at least four hours between each meal to ensure that the stomach gets empty. Otherwise, food stays longer and will be fermented by bacteria.
Since stress worsens IBS, you should learn to manage, if not keep away from it. Joining meditation and yoga sessions can help you in managing stress. We have an in-depth article about yoga poses and their benefits for menopausal women. Be sure to check it out!
Herbs are very handy and useful to those suffering from IBS. There are a lot of herbs out there with long histories of healing capacities. Flaxseed is just one of them!
Flaxseed has a mucilage component that promotes fast and smooth movement of stool through the intestines. Consumption of flaxseed can also contribute to the efficient absorption of nutrients. Dr. David Williams claims that flaxseed only works in easing constipation if it is crushed or ground. You can add them to your cereals, yogurt and smoothies. However, if you consume flaxseed powder, you need to drink adequate amount of water, otherwise, it worsens your constipation. Flaxseed is also known to contain phytoestrogens that act like estrogen hormones. Phytoestrogens are useful in managing vaginal dryness, hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.
Turmeric also shows promising effects in relieving IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain, flatulence, indigestion, excessive gas and stomach upset due to its curcumin content.
If you want to improve your digestive health, you can also consider using essential oils such as thyme, lavender, cumin and peppermint. Thyme contains high concentrations of thymol which help reduce the growth of pathogens in the digestive tract.
More than its anti-inflammatory and healing benefits, lavender is also useful in restoring gut flora as well as in calming the body which results to reduced stress level. Meanwhile, cumin is useful if you feel bloated or if you are experiencing abdominal pain. We have an in-depth article on essential oils. Be sure to check it out to learn how they can help in controlling your IBS symptom.
Prebiotics or Probiotics?
Probiotics are gut bacteria that help the body absorb nutrients, enhance digestive functions and fight against infections. They play a major role in healing indigestion, inflammatory bowel diseases and leaky gut syndrome. By consuming probiotic products, you are introducing strains of beneficial bacteria to the intestinal linings.
Meanwhile, prebiotics are types of fiber compounds, which our digestive enzyme or gastric acid in the small intestines cannot break down. When they reach the large intestine or colon, they serve as fertilizers to the existing probiotics or microflora.
The most common sources of prebiotics include raw chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, leek, dandelion greens and asparagus. They are also present in onions and unripe bananas, but if you’re experiencing IBS symptoms from consuming soluble fibers, it’s better to avoid these types of food.
Spirulina is a potent prebiotic that helps in easing the symptoms of IBS. It helps in re-balancing our gut flora.
According to WebMD, some patients who consumed probiotics with prebiotics experienced reduced abdominal pain, constipation and bloating. Also, it promotes better digestion and enhanced gut health.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and miso are also excellent sources of probiotics. Probiotics may also be derived from kefir, a fermented milk product derived from cow, goat and sheep.
Other excellent sources of probiotics include fermented soy beans, yogurt, raw cheese, apple cider vinegar, salted gherkin pickles, miso and olives.
There is a wide availability of probiotics products that are available in the market today. Essential Formulas Dr.Ohhira's Probiotics Original Formula promotes better nutrient absorption. It is made from fermented seaweeds, mushrooms, fruits and vegetables.
What More Can You Do?
Want to learn more easy, effective tips to improve your digestive health? Read on!
Exercise Combats Stress
If you are spending long hours sitting in front of your computer, then it could be one of the reasons why you are having a problem with IBS. It is important that you move around a lot as it promotes better bowel movement.
You should also consider having an exercise regimen as physical activities will stimulate your muscles to work efficiently, which is good in speeding up the digestion process.
Increase Magnesium Intake
Magnesium offers a variety of benefits to the human body. According to Dr. Axe, magnesium relaxes our digestive muscles and pushes the stool to move through the intestines. This mineral is relatively good for people who have constipation.
You can acquire magnesium through supplements but there are lots of foods out there that contain a lot of magnesium. They are as follows:
- Almond butter
- Basil (dried)
- Cocoa powder (unsweetened)
- Coriander leaf (dried)
- Pumpkin seeds (dried)
- Seaweed agar (dried)
Amino acids have many wonderful effects to the body, but there's a specific one that can ease the symptoms of IBS and improve gut health – Glutamine. This amino acid is one of the most abundant in the body.
Glutamine is important to produce enterocytes which are cells that can be found in the linings of the intestinal tract. These cells promote better nutrient absorption and prevent undigested protein, toxins and bacteria to seep into the intestinal walls which may irritate the tissues, cause inflammation and result in your IBS symptoms.
Aside from this great health benefit, Glutamine also has a wide range of other uses:
- Improves cognition
- Builds muscles
- Improves athletic performance
- Boosts metabolism
- Reduces food cravings
- Fights cancer cells
- Regulates blood sugar
Foods rich in Glutamine include bone broth, grass-fed beef, spirulina, cabbage, asparagus, salmon and turkey. If you want to read more about Glutamine and see if it's good for you, check out Dr. Axe's article “L-Glutamine Benefits Leaky Gut & Metabolism.”
Enzymes stimulate chemical reactions in the body which are important for survival. Without enzymes, the body will not be able to activate hormones, absorb vitamins, minerals and nutrients or use glucose to feed our cells. All these functions are highly essential in the body.
Digestive enzymes act in the same way. They break down large molecules from food into smaller molecules so they can be absorbed better and faster. As we age, our enzymes gradually decreases so it is helpful if we assist our body by taking in digestive enzyme supplements. Here are two examples
- Organic Enzymes by Axe Organics – if the manufacturer of this natural supplement rings a bell, it's because famous naturopathic doctor, Dr. Josh Axe is behind this product. Made from organic whole foods, packed with natural enzymes and probiotics, this supplement supports overall digestive health.
- Garden of Life Organic Chewable Enzyme Supplement – made from organic fruits and vegetables, this supplement has 13 digestive enzymes which promotes nutrient absorption and easier digestion after meals.
If you want to know more about the functions of enzymes in the body, watch this video by Dr. Berg [8:14]:
There’s a reason why people say, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. According to a study published in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), apple peels have naturally occurring compounds that control inflammation in our colon. Apples also contain many healthy ingredients that have therapeutic effects to the digestive system. You can read more about this in the article, “Apples can suppress IBS”.
You can also listen to Anna Sparre’s interesting podcast together with Dr. Michael Ash about your microbiota, the gut, the brain and the immune system. Be sure to check it out and learn why Dr. Ash recommends stewed apples or apple sauce. Listen carefully, as he explains how apples can fight off inflammation!
Ananda Mahony, naturopath and nutritionist, specifically discussed the healing properties of stewed apples for people with IBS. She shares with us her very own recipe of stewed apples and how you can make it in the comforts of your home.
Increasing your daily water intakes helps in the digestion of soluble fiber, which makes the stool softer. Consumption of lemon water also enhances the production of your bile. Aside from promoting the efficient and smooth flow of food through your digestive tract, water also helps in relieving indigestion and stomach upset.
Keep a Food Journal
You might also consider having a food diary to help you keep track of the food you eat on a daily basis. By monitoring the kinds of food you eat, you are able to identify the possible triggers to your IBS symptom.
Bone broth is also useful for sufferers of IBS, as they are excellent sources of collagen components such as glycine and proline. Collagens are very useful in repairing damaged intestinal walls, thereby resulting in better absorption of nutrients.
If you want to know more about IBS, Mayo Clinic has a comprehensive discussion about it along with its causes and treatment solutions. You can also learn more about gut health and ways to achieve it by visiting Digestive Center for Wellness. You might also want to check Dr. Hyman's video to get more detailed discussion on IBS treatments [9:07].
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is among the common complaints of menopausal women. Some have never been diagnosed with an IBS symptom before, but upon entering this new stage, bowel problems are becoming more frequent. For severe cases of IBS, it is always best to seek for your doctor's help for proper guidance.
Dr. Amy Myers’ book titled, “The Autoimmune Solution, discusses a wide range of effective preventive measures for a wide range of health conditions, linked to menopause including chronic headaches, cardiovascular diseases, fibromyalgia, allergies, asthma, obesity and IBS.
Do you or somebody you know suffer from IBS? What treatments worked well for you? Feel free to leave us your comments below! Let others know the good news about how you can possibly resolve IBS symptoms by sharing this article!