Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your health: Natural remedies for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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Many digestive problems can be traced back to eating habits. Keeping a diary where you note the situations when your IBS occurs can be very helpful. Photo / 123RF
Many digestive problems can be traced back to eating habits. Keeping a diary where you note the situations when your IBS occurs can be very helpful. Photo / 123RF

Hi Sandra, I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome and it can make me quite self-conscious at times. I'm keen to try anything that might help keep it under control - can you recommend any plant medicines that I could try? Kathy.

Hi Kathy, thanks for your question. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the diagnosis when symptoms of bloating, gas, cramping, constipation or diarrhoea are experienced in the absence of any obvious cause. There are no structural problems present in the digestive organs and bowel so the bowel is deemed to be "irritable".

Traditional medicine views digestion as an extremely important process. This is supported by cutting edge research into how digestive function and our microbiome affect overall health. Our health and vitality depends largely on how well our digestive system functions. The complex and intelligent interactions between the various parts of the digestive system are indeed astounding, but this complexity means there are many conditions under which the connections can go awry and we end up with less than optimal digestion.

Many digestive problems can be traced back to eating habits. Keeping a diary where you note the situations when your IBS occurs can be very helpful. For instance, it may occur regularly at a certain time or meal of the day, or when you eat certain foods. The specific details of your diet should be determined to suit you as an individual, but all diets should avoid highly processed foods and artificial additives as much as possible. Our bodies work best with meals derived largely from whole, fresh foods which are as close to nature as possible.

In many countries there is a long-standing tradition of consuming plants as a medicinal tea following meals to improve digestive function and the body's ability to tolerate certain foods. The best plants for this include Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgare) and Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). These medicinal plants support the digestive organs and promote secretion of stomach acid, bile and digestive enzymes that are essential for the proper breakdown of food.

It's also important to understand there is constant interplay between our state of mind and digestion, with emotions having a physiological effect on the functioning and actual tissue of the digestive system. A holistic treatment of the digestive system will often include support of the nervous system, especially if the IBS coincided with a period of intense stress or it worsens under pressure.

Interestingly, many medicinal herbs have therapeutic properties that support both the digestive and nervous systems concurrently. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is a perfect example of this. Its flowers are effective for soothing digestive upsets including indigestion, spasm, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, wind and distension; but it is also a gentle sedative and anti-anxiety agent that helps to calm the nerves. Both children and adults with IBS driven by anxiety do particularly well on Chamomile, because it works simultaneously to support both body systems.

Other essential plants for IBS include Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) and Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum). Both of these are carminative, meaning they help to relieve the cramping, colic and wind that is often problematic in IBS.

I like to combine the above plants together in a formula that provides comprehensive support for all the different organs and body systems involved in IBS. When consumed in the traditional way as a medicinal tea following meals, it can provide immediate symptomatic support to troubled digestion. With continued use, it can also help to strengthen and heal the relevant organs, leading to improved digestion over the longer term.

If your condition worsens or does not improve, consult your leading healthcare professional immediately.

References:

Grundmann, O., & Yoon, S. L. (2014). Complementary and alternative medicines in irritable bowel syndrome: an integrative view. World J Gastroenterol, 20(2), 346-362. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i2.346

Madisch, A., Holtmann, G., Mayr, G., Vinson, B., & Hotz, J. (2004). Treatment of functional dyspepsia with a herbal preparation. A double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Digestion, 69(1), 45-52. doi:10.1159/000076546

Vanuytsel, T., Tack, J. F., & Boeckxstaens, G. E. (2014). Treatment of abdominal pain in irritable bowel syndrome. J Gastroenterol, 49(8), 1193-1205. doi:10.1007/s00535-014-0966-7

Wall, G. C., Bryant, G. A., Bottenberg, M. M., Maki, E. D., & Miesner, A. R. (2014). Irritable bowel syndrome: a concise review of current treatment concepts. World J Gastroenterol, 20(27), 8796-8806. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i27.8796

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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