IBS: A Complex Condition with Complex CausesIBS: A Complex Condition with Complex Causes

By J. Matthew Brand, L.Ac.

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, affects an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population, mostly women. Among the criteria used to diagnose IBS are recurrent abdominal pain for at least three days per month for at least three months; reduced pain after a bowel movement, associated with a change in the frequency of bowel movements; and/or a change in the appearance of the stool. Historically, a diagnosis of IBS is usually made after a healthcare practitioner has ruled out any organic physical bowel disorder such as a hole in the bowel. IBS has been considered a functional bowel disorder, meaning that there is an unknown physical cause of the bowel not functioning properly. The condition is typically divided into three sub-categories: IBS-C, involving constipation; IBS-D, involving diarrhea; and IBS-M, with a mixture of both constipation and diarrhea.

Stress used to be considered a cause of IBS. While this cause has recently been discredited, it is certainly viewed as a strong aggravating factor. Chronic stress has been found to be a contributing factor in its development, as is the case with many illnesses; this is an echo of the ancient saying in Chinese medicine that emotions are the root of all disease. Other contributing risk factors and triggers for the worsening of symptoms include certain foods, hormonal changes in women, anxiety and depression, as well as a history of physical or psychological abuse.

In recent years, an increasing amount of scientific research has pointed to a potential link between small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and IBS. An overgrowth of methane-producing bacteria has been shown to be intimately tied to constipation, while an overgrowth of bacteria producing hydrogen is associated with diarrhea or mixed-type IBS. While not all IBS sufferers have been shown to have SIBO, or vice-versa, there is enough of a link for scientists to pursue further investigative research, as well as novel treatment methods. One such method involves the use of the antibiotic Rifaximin, which has been associated with a decent amount of success. Interestingly, a recent study showed that herbal medicine treatment had the same, if not better, success in treating IBS. Some of the herbs used in the study were Chinese herbs, including coptis root (Huang Lian), scutellaria root (Huang Qin), phellodendrum bark (Huang Bai), ginger (Sheng Jiang), licorice root (Gan Cao)and Chinese rhubarb root (Da Huang).

All in all, IBS remains a complex condition with a complex range of causes and triggers. Using as holistic an approach as possible to treat it is the most effective way to improve an otherwise compromised quality of life. Digestion is one of the most fundamental aspects of our physical existence. No one should have to suffer through a condition as debilitating as irritable bowel syndrome.

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