My Natural Solution to IBS-C: How I Healed Myself Holistically.
Updated: Oct 23, 2017
Topics Covered: IBS-C, IBS-D, current medical understanding, current medical treatment plan, my story with IBS, holistic remedies, holistic tips, symptom management, diet and IBS, exercise and IBS, stress management, supplements, minerals and vitamins, essential oils, herbs.
Let’s get things moving (prepare yourself for poop puns)
Welp, here we go. No shame here, this article is all about digestion and defecation.
Three cheers for poop!
Poop, poop, hooray!
Hopefully, that loosened you up (pun intended) and prepared you for an article devoted to discussing Irritable Bowel Syndrome, my experience with it, how I manage (dare I say resolved) my symptoms, and my recommendations for how you can do the same. Even if you have not been formally diagnosed with IBS but encounter gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pains, there is helpful information for you in this article.
It is oh so “American” of us to be ashamed or embarrassed when we talk about our digestive system. Taro Gomi said it right when he wrote “Everyone Poops”, and it’s about time we end the shame in discussing digestive issues and instead become informed through research and sharing our experiences through open dialogue. No one deserves to live in frustration due to digestive issues, so empower yourself with information and take control of your bowels!
So, what is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
IBS is a disorder of the colon that causes symptoms such as pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea (IBS-D), constipation (IBS-C), and cramping. IBS affects women more often than men, and the intensity of symptoms vary between individuals. For some IBS is annoying but bearable, and for others, it is nearly debilitating.
The exact cause of IBS still is not known, which is frustrating for those who aim to resolve this condition holistically
There is evidence that suggests factors such as stress, environmental toxins, food sensitives or allergies, and metabolic abnormalities can make symptoms worse. Although there is a bit of research supporting these factors as contributing to IBS, none of these have become officially accepted and considered during treatment. If you were to go to a doctor to discuss your treatment options, you will most likely be given a slew of prescriptions to manage your symptoms. The most common medications for treatment are diarrhea medications, antispasmodics to slow intestinal contractions for those with IBS-D, laxatives for those with IBS-C, nerve pain medications, and antibiotics.
When I first spoke with a doctor about my symptoms 6 years ago, I was prescribed laxatives, a pain medication, and an acid-blocker. Of course, none of this sat well with me. All I wanted was answers as to the root cause so that I could decide on my own terms how I wanted to address my symptoms, but there was no explanation for what I was experiencing.
After this initial consultation, I spent the following six years visiting specialist after specialist only to be pushed more medications. It has taken me a long time playing around with trial and error to learn about my symptoms and what they respond best to. Finally, after diet modification, stress management, and supplementation, I have finally gotten to a point where I can say that I live relatively symptom-free and am much happier as a result. It is my hope that by sharing my story, I will save you the stress, time, and resources that I personally expended in finding relief from my IBS-C.
My experience with IBS-C
I first noticed that something was just "not right" when I was around 13-14 years old. I noted that I would go days, sometimes even a whole week without having a bowel movement. As you can imagine, this was incredibly uncomfortable and I’m sure it did not lend to me being in a good mood at home or in school. Over the years, school inevitably became more stressful as expectations of achievement grew and talk of preparing for college began to be thrown around. At this point, my symptoms had become increasingly more annoying but were still bearable. I would occasionally have pain in my side, gas, bloating, and constipation, but it was never excruciating. Then disordered eating habits began to take hold of my life (I discuss this is my previous article about eating disorders) and my symptoms became embarrassingly noticeable. Yep, I was the stinky friend. I laughed it off for a while because I didn’t have enough information at the time to realize that my symptoms were signs of my IBS getting worse.
Eventually, it was time for me to head to college where my disordered eating evolved into a full blow disorder characterized by periods of bingeing and purging. To make matters worse, I began abusing laxatives to help with the “purging” aspect which completely exacerbated my IBS symptoms. I remember days when I was physically incapable of going to class because I was in so much pain. I would be bloated to where I looked pregnant, I would have intense stabbing pain in my lower abdomen, and I would be constipated for days. Over the next two years, this cycle continued until eventually, I developed a dependency on laxatives just to be normal. I knew that my body was not happy or healthy, but I didn’t have the resources to try to improve my condition.
Nearly all the information I read addressed lifestyle as one of the main factors that make IBS symptoms worse. In addition to lifestyle modifications, I stumbled upon a new area of research addressing the “gut microbiome” and its vital role in IBS. It’s funny to think that only a few years ago using probiotics to improve the quality of the gut microbiome was viewed as “hippy medicine” with no scientific validity. Now you can’t go anywhere without supplements, food products, or even household cleaners being infused with probiotics, but I digress. After all the research I did, I made a few simple changes to my lifestyle and shortly thereafter my gut health took a serious turn for the better:
I began altering my diet by removing most grains, gluten, dairy, and added sugar.
I started incorporating a regular exercise routine that kept my digestive system on a more regular schedule.
I started prioritizing sleep instead of staying out late with friends
**I started taking a daily probiotic
These new habits helped me tremendously over the remainder of college and it felt like I was finally out of the clear from my frustration with IBS….and then graduate school happened. The master’s program that I was accepted into required that I leave my friends and family and move all the way across the country from Ohio to Arizona. I was in a new state with a completely different culture, but it was exciting and I was motivated to make the best out of every opportunity this new location presented to me.
I was in my second week of living in Arizona and making my daily commute to work when life threw a curve ball. I was rear-ended on one of the busiest highways by an out-of-towner going 50mph, which ended up totaling my cherished ’98 Honda civic. I thought I walked away with just a bit of whiplash, but over the following months, my health deteriorated. After months of bouncing from doctor to doctor trying to figure out what was wrong, I finally discovered that I had Epstein Barr Virus. As a quick introduction, EBV is a nasty virus that lies dormant in every human until it is activated. It can be activated by stress, a weakened immune system, or in my case physical trauma (whiplash). EBV essentially hijacks your body’s immune system and slows down nearly every metabolic process. Because of this, my body became more susceptible to illness and my stress response was on overload.
After a few months of being diagnosed with EBV, I began to feel the creeping sensation of abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation. I started to eliminate a few suspect foods, but this time lifestyle modification did not seem to be enough. I began to develop a strange rash around my eyes, nose, and mouth. I would wake up at 1, 3, and 4 am nearly every night and my sleep quality was absolute trash. It eventually got to the point where I couldn’t eat anything without having insane gas, bloating, and pain that nearly brought me to tears most days. I had what I call “butane breath” which was this strange bad breath odor that was made worse when I ate anything starchy. To top everything off, my face was completely covered in acne. UGH!
So back to the drawing board I went to research my symptoms and holistic methods of alleviating my symptoms.
I began reading about a type of yeast known as Candida Albicans. This strain of yeast is beneficial to have in your digestive tract if it is kept at a normal amount. However, during times of stress or in instances of a suppressed immune system Candida can overgrow and essentially overpower beneficial strains of bacteria that work to maintain digestive harmony.
I also began to read about “leaky gut” and how it can create symptoms that are related to auto-immune reactions such as the rash on my face. Leaky gut is still not widely accepted by the medical community, but there is sound research supporting this condition. Essentially, leaky gut is a situation when the cells that line your intestinal tract lose their structural integrity and become weak or “leaky”. This allows proteins from the food we eat to escape from the digestive tract. At this point, these proteins are tagged by our immune system as invaders and our immune system attacks these molecules. Over time, our immune system continues to react to the foods we are eating and eventually we develop food intolerances and sensitivities. These sensitivities can cause symptoms such as weight gain, insomnia, brain fog, rashes, bloat, gas, and other side effects.
After reading all of this, I decided to completely bypass medical doctors and went straight to a functional medicine doctor instead. Functional medicine practitioners are different from medical doctors in that they evaluate the whole person as a system and try their best to treat the root cause instead of just the symptoms. In working with the FM doctor, I underwent some very interesting tests that included blood markers of inflammation, ALCAT food sensitivity testing, and evaluation for Candida overgrowth. My blood work indicated that my body was in an incredibly inflamed state due to the leaky gut, and the tests for Candida indicated that my gut microbiome was in fact overwhelmed by overgrowth. The ALCAT food sensitivity testing was incredibly informative as this test evaluates your body’s immune reaction to a large variety of foods to identify food sensitivities through IgG antibodies. My results confirmed that I did, in fact, have leaky gut due to the insane amount of foods that I reacted to (see results below).
The Treatment Plan
So, we began a unique treatment protocol that continued for the next three months.
I began by eliminating all of the foods that I was reactive to as indicated by the test results to avoid adding insult to injury. All severe, moderate, and mild foods were completely removed from my diet.
Now I will admit, that this was easier said than done. I love the variety in my diet and the idea of having a very strict list of foods that I could eat from made me pretty frustrated. It took me nearly two months to adhere to this list of foods, but once I did the inflammation in my body decreased almost immediately yielding very noticeable results such as less abdominal and facial bloating and decreased joint pain.
Next, I was put on a round of Ciprofloxacin which is like the atomic bomb of antibiotics on your gut flora. At first, I was extremely against this as I had worked so hard and spent so much money on probiotic supplements to repopulate my gut, but after my functional medicine doctor explained that the candida overgrowth had become too severe to be treated with probiotics alone, I begrudgingly obliged.
After implementing the dietary changes and using the antibiotic I can say that the bloating and pain completely ceased. It even helped to clear up my acne from the Candida overgrowth (see below)!
I implemented a few of my own remedies based on my own research which included:
Oil of oregano to help control bacterial overgrowth
Milk thistle to help with liver detoxification
Dandelion root tea to help with liver detoxification
High potency (50+billion CFU) Probiotic
It’s wild to think that a single component of your gut microbiome can produce so many issues! This strain of yeast will produce toxins when it is stressed that break down the lining of your digestive system and eventually leak into your blood stream causing acne, muscle/joint pain, brain fog, and energy issues. In following the treatment plan provided by my functional medicine doctor (antibiotics, followed by antimicrobial herbs such as the oil of oregano, milk thistle, and dandelion root) slowly but surely my symptoms began to lessen.
The first noticeable improvement was the clearing of the acne and auto-immune rash on my face that first appeared four months prior to my Epstein Barr diagnosis. The next improvements were with an increase in my energy, less muscle pain, and fewer days of a foggy brain. At this point, I was extremely confident that we were on the right track in addressing the root cause of my poor health.
Living Relatively Symptom-Free
Over the following four months, my symptoms continued to lessen. The inflammation in my body was practically non-existent and having digestive issues seemed to be a thing of the past. I will admit that I occasionally have days where my IBS-C symptoms “flare up” meaning that I will have pain + gas + bloating + constipation. The difference is that I now have a set of tools to address my symptoms, thus making these days far less frequent and much more manageable when they arise.
I like to think that I have a multi-faceted approach to addressing my IBS-C that involves diet modification, specific supplement use, and stress reduction. Granted, I use supplements on the daily and I am very vigilant about avoiding certain “problem” foods. Through my own personal experience and through working with others who have IBS, getting to the root cause of this issue is unfortunately very complex. This is because each person is incredibly unique with regard to factors such as:
The emotional, physical, and familial environment during the early days of life
Whether you were breast fed or formula fed
Food intolerances/sensitivities/allergies during childhood
Antibiotic use during childhood and throughout the course of life
Past or present eating disorder
This is not a complete list and as you can see, discovering the root cause of your IBS can be effected by one or a variety of the factors listed above. I believe the best plan in addressing IBS is to consider what factors could have impacted your gut health throughout the course of life and then adjust your lifestyle through diet, exercise, and supplementation to support these possible deficits.
For those who are ready to take an active role in improving their digestive health, I have a few recommendations based on personal experience as well as recent scientific literature that has made all the difference in better managing IBS
My Tips and Recommendations
Finding what works best for your body will take some trial and error, but the wisdom that comes from listening to what your body responds to is incredibly empowering and valuable! This is not a comprehensive list, and if you have any additional recommendations based on experience please feel free to comment below!
**As a disclaimer, I do want to preface these recommendations with the fact that I am not a doctor and as such cannot provide definitive medical advice. The following recommendations are based on my own experience and the experience of others who have shared their successes with me.
An elimination diet is essentially a process of eliminating and then reintroducing foods that are very commonly problematic for people such as:
Nuts and legumes
I know that this list might look a bit intimidating, but keep in mind that you are not eliminating these foods forever. Realistically, a standard elimination diet protocol call for a 21-day period where these foods are removed from the diet. After this period, you reintroduce each food individually over the course of one week to observe your reaction. If you have no reaction in terms of digestion, energy, mental clarity, body aches, then the food can be safely re-incorporated into your diet.
This is incredibly beneficial for individuals who often find themselves bloated after meals, as this is often an obvious sign that the body is reacting to something you ate.
For more information on elimination diets check out this article.
FOD what? FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. What a mouthful! Essentially these are all components of carbohydrates that are very difficult for your digestive system to break down meaning that they are then fermented by the bacteria in your GI tract. This fermentation creates a ton of gas, bloating, pain, and discomfort for some individuals. Think of it this way, there are some foods that your body is incapable of digesting, so you gut microbiome steps in and feasts upon the components and then have a big old' burping/farting party that wreaks havoc on your tummy. Not fun. The FODMAP diet is similar to the Elimination Diet in that you remove or severely limit FODMAP foods for a period of at least 2 weeks, and then reintroduce them slowly to determine your body's reaction. Some foods that are on this list include:
Fruits such as apples, apricots, avocado, cherry, mango, plums, and watermelon
Sweeteners such as Fructose, sugar alcohols (sorbitol mannitol, maltitol, xylitol), honey, corn syrup
Dairy products high in lactose (milk, ice cream, yogurt, cheese)
Vegetables such as artichoke, asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, green pepper, leek, fennel
Grains such as wheat and rye
Legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans, lentil, soybeans
I'm sure this list is intimidating, but keep in mind all of these foods are not off-limits for forever. This diet serves as a process of elimination designed to identify foods that are problematic for you! For more information, this website is a fantastic resource!
Food sensitivity testing
I would consider this to be important for individuals who are not responding well to supplementation or diet modifications. Sometimes there are multiple (in my case nearly all) foods that you consume on a regular basis that are creating digestive issues such as leaky gut, gas, bloating, auto-immune reactions, and so on.
The specific test that I had done is called an ALCAT it may help uncover which foods and other substances trigger chronic inflammation and its related health issues such as gastrointestinal, metabolic disorders and others.
A small sample of your blood is sent to the laboratory overnight. Upon receiving the sample, the blood goes through a multi-step quality assurance process. During testing, your white blood cells are tested against foods and other substances in a process known as flow cytometry and cell impedance methodology. After testing, the results are presented in a clear and easy to read color-coded format.
Monitoring caffeine consumption
I know, I know, we hear this all the time. Caffeine can either make symptoms better (in the case of IBS-C) or it can make symptoms worse (IBS-D). There is also evidence that caffeine upset the stress response thus making symptoms and flare-ups more common.
My advice would be to play around with your caffeine consumption. Nothing is set in stone and there is no way to know if caffeine is making your symptoms worse unless you experiment with caffeine timing, amount, and frequency. Before you say “I couldn’t live without ::insert caffeinated beverage here:: I would encourage you to at least try it for one week. You can do anything for one week and who knows, it might just be the one thing that kickstarts better management of your symptoms!
Stress management and reduction techniques
I cannot stress this enough, if you are persistently stressed and are not actively including stress reduction techniques into your day, chances are your IBS will eventually become unmanageable. Whether it be emotional stress from work or relationship or physical stress from exercise, cortisol and like stress hormones wreak havoc on your digestive system and lack of management will only make your symptoms worse. DO yourself a favor and look up the relationship between stress, IBS, and leaky gut. It will help reinforce the importance of stress management techniques. Some of my favorites are:
Mindfulness activities and meditation à this can be as simple as using the free Calm or Headspace app that guides you through a 10-minute meditation. Learning to slow your mind and body down through breathing is incredibly valuable and will help you become aware of the difference between a stressed body and a relaxed body.
Yoga! Yoga works along the same premise as meditation in that your breath is guided and controlled as you move through various yoga asanas. One of the best resources I have found for guided yoga classes is through the website doyogawithme.com. This is a website full of FREE guided yoga classes that vary based upon length, experience level, and style. Totally worth checking it out!
Not to mention, many of the yoga poses are specifically designed to aid your digestive system such as deep belly breathing, twists, and inversions.
Avoiding dairy, legumes, and gluten
This one will take some tinkering with and you may find that some of these foods don’t agree with you if you decide to do an elimination diet. I personally have found that I absolutely cannot consume dairy, and I must limit my consumption of gluten and legumes as they make my symptoms worse the more I eat them. Determining which foods don’t work with you is SO unique to the individual, but is incredibly important in learning what foods work for your body. If you can remove any emotional attachment to a certain food and simply view it as a way of making yourself feel better on a day-to-day basis, then eliminating problematic foods will become much easier.
I cannot praise probiotic supplements enough! When I started using them daily roughly 6 years ago, my world changed. My symptoms were much more managed and I wasn’t afraid to eat out or be away from home as I had been prior to using them. Probiotic use is also unique to the individual, but there are a few brands that I have used and commonly recommend to my friends, family, and clients.
These are listed in ascending order according to price and potency. If you occasionally have symptoms, but they are not debilitating you can safely stick to the upper portion of this list. However, if you encounter painful or frustrating symptoms daily, the lower portion of this list is for you. Typically, 30-50 billion CFU (number of beneficial gut bugs) is appropriate for maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome, whereas anything around 80-150 billion is more of a therapeutic dose useful for individuals with severe symptoms.
Renew Life Ultimate Flora 30 Billion CFU
Garden of Life Whole Food Probiotic 50 Billion CFU
Renew Life Ultimate Flora 150 Billion CFU
VSL #3 The Living Shield 112.5 Billion CFU
This is a well-researched herb with known benefits such as decreasing abdominal pain, anxiety, depression useful for individuals with IBS
Olive of Oregano
This is a classic anti-microbial agent known to reduce the effects of candida overgrowth. A word of caution, do your research before using this as it is very potent but when used correctly can have amazing results.
This herb is also incredibly old in its usage dating back to the beginnings of Ayurvedic medicine. Milk thistle helps with “peristalsis” or the activity of the muscles of you GI tract which help you eliminate! This herb also helps to clear out residual bacterial overgrowth and toxins if you suffer from Candida,
Dandelion root is a “bitter” and thus stimulates the production of bile from your gallbladder. This aids your digestion and helps move food through your GI tract.
This herb is well-known for reducing gas and bloating. You can take this as a supplement or you can add it to your repertoire of herbs while cooking. Fennel can also be found in many medicinal teas such as Yogi brand or Traditional Medicinals.
You can most certainly consume slippery elm as a tea, but be warned it is NASTY! I like to take it as a supplement when I encounter constipation because it helps the stool to absorb water and become easier to pass.
Essential Oils are potent extracts of medicinal plants and herbs that have been used for centuries to aid the bodies healing processes and the reduction of symptoms for other ailments. *Please keep in mind, not all essential oils are meant to be taken internally consumed. Make sure that the oil you are using is food grade, otherwise, it is only intended for external use! Some that are well-known to be useful for IBS are:
This is a blend of clove, cinnamon, rosemary, lemon, and eucalyptus which creates a potent blend of antifungal and antibacterial properties that can keep your gut microbiome in check and free of bad bugs known to cause issues such as Candida.
This is the OG of essential oils for providing relief from indigestion and IBS. Peppermint is incredibly soothing and can help regulate stomach acid. *You can also drink peppermint tea with meals for a similar effect!
Just going to warn you, ginger essential oil is quite pungent but is a very potent agent to alleviate gas, bloating, indigestion, and it even helps you digest your food! *You can also drink ginger tea!
Not only will this oil help put you into a dreamy sleep, but it will also help calm your digestive system when applied to the abdominal. I love to use this oil for abdominal massages that help to stimulate your digestive system and reduce inflammation.
I mentioned how you can take oil of oregano as a supplement, but essential oils are much more potent. This oil is particularly helpful for those with leaky gut, and it is even a potent aphrodisiac meaning it can improve your mood!
Full of insoluble fiber, cruciferous vegetables add bulk to the stool which then pushes against the walls of your digestive system which engages the muscles of your colon to move the food along! However, if you suffer from IBS-D, I would watch your consumption of cruciferous vegetables as this may make matters worse. Instead, try to consume foods that are rich in soluble fiber such as oats, berries, chia seeds, etc as these foods will slow down transit time and reduce the occasion of diarrhea.
Full of magnesium and calcium, leafy greens help to attract water into the digestive system which helps to make the stool softer and easier to pass.
Apple Cider Vinegar
This can be added to food or added to drinks 1 tsp at a time. It is an acquired taste and takes some getting used to, but it is incredibly useful for balancing stomach acid and reducing gas/bloat.
Vitamins and Minerals
This is one of my favorites minerals to take specifically for digestive health. I take anywhere from 400-600mg of magnesium citrate to help with peristalsis and regularity. There is a noticeable difference (i.e. constipated vs not) when I take magnesium.
A word to the wise, if you are more on the gas/bloating spectrum try taking Mg at night.
This is an oldy but a goody for constipation. I take 1,000 mg/night of vitamin C and it truly helps to soften the stool and keep things moving.
Unless you spend an hour a day relatively uncovered in the direct sunlight every day, chances are you are deficient or low in vitamin D. Every single cell in your body has a receptor for vitamin D and requires it for numerous metabolic processes. There are numerous studies linking vitamin D deficiency and IBS, so it is very important to get your numbers checked through blood work! Ideally, you want your serum vitamin D (amount of free vitamin D in your blood) to be on the upper end of the reference range as this indicates that your body most likely has sufficient stores of vitamin D!
B-6 is actually very easy to find through foods such as bananas, avocados, nuts, meat, whole grains, and some poultry. Deficiency in B-6 really is not all that common, but if you are nervous you could also take a high-quality B-complex. B vitamins are water soluble, meaning that toxicity from taking too much is very, very rare. Your body will excrete whatever it does not need through your urine (turning it fluorescent yellow!) and the worst thing that could happen from taking a B complex is called "niacin flush" which is where your skin on your face, neck, and chest will turn red or "flushed". If this happens, discontinuing the supplement for a week or so will fix the problem.
Ultimately, finding a treatment plan for managing your IBS will be completely unique to your body and as such, will require a bit of time and attention when determining what foods, exercise, and supplements work best for your body. To reinforce the importance of being your own advocate for digestive health, medications used to treat IBS have not been shown to have long-term efficacy, meaning that eventually, they stop working as well in treating symptoms. What has been shown to have long-term efficacy is diet and lifestyle modification.
I know that for some, paying attention to your digestive system will be new and uncomfortable. BUT I can say that it is the most rewarding skill you can gain in that you will learn how to avoid flare-ups and how to manage symptoms when they arise. I wish I could say that I found the magic pill for IBS and like digestive issues, but alas not even the scientific community has found a solution. The best we can do now is to stay informed about our management options and not be shy when it comes to discussing our symptoms. No one deserves to struggle with digestive issues daily, so I’m putting the power back in your hands so that you can advocate for your own digestive health and overall well-being!