Dr Libby: What You Need To Know About IBS & Gut Disorders

By Dr Libby Weaver
Upset about your upset stomach? Dr Libby offers her advice. Photo / Babiche Martens

Our gut is a delicate ecosystem. Here’s what could be upsetting yours.

Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and Coeliac disease were once whispered in hushed medical circles, relegated to the footnotes of broader health discussions. Today, however, they claim the spotlight, with increasing numbers of diagnosed

These conditions, while distinct in their pathologies, share a common arena: the gut. A realm once under-rated, the gut is now hailed as the body’s second brain and disturbances within its confines reverberate through our overall wellbeing.

Why do you get irritable bowel syndrome?

These prevalent ailments are far from the norm — our food isn’t meant to bloat us or cause discomfort — and it doesn’t have to be this way. It does beg the question though, why, amid our heightened awareness and cutting-edge healthcare, do so many suffer with irritated bowels?

Firstly, our more urban lifestyle has seen dramatic dietary shifts and changes in food production and manufacturing.

Simple household staples, like bread, which once consisted of three to four natural food ingredients and took days to ferment, now contain a long list of highly refined ingredients and other additives — including extra gluten — and are made in a few hours.

Too many commercial food crops are doused in pesticides and grown in poor-quality soils. Homecooked meals have been overshadowed by ultra-processed foods with artificial sweeteners, preservatives, sugars and poor-quality fats. Beyond these additional problematic ingredients, food processing favours speed and costs over retaining nourishment.

The delicate ecosystem of our gut, which thrives on food (not junk) — real foods and ingredients — is constantly besieged by these modern dietary invaders, some of which can contribute to internal chaos.

Certain preservatives reduce the abundance of beneficial bacterial species, giving opportunistic and potentially harmful bacteria a chance to flourish.

The overconsumption of sugars can contribute to bacterial overgrowth syndromes, as can a lack of bile from the liver.

Anything that unfavourably changes the pH gradient of the digestive system can drive a host of changes that make various parts of the tract unable to fulfil their role. If stomach acid is not acidic enough, for example, it can’t effectively sterilise what we swallow (such as mucous from the ears, nose and throat) and this can be an entry point for bugs that go on to colonise the large intestine, leading to further pH changes and symptoms.

Some dietary components and pathogens can cause an increase in inflammation in the gut lining, potentially leading to conditions that involve increased gut permeability, aka “leaky gut”.

What is the connection between stress and your gut?

On top of these dietary shifts, the frenetic pace of our times has made stress an almost accepted norm.

Continuous stress hormone release, a by-product of an ever-anxious state, not only wreaks havoc on our emotional wellbeing but is intrinsically linked to our gut health.

The gut-brain axis, a bi-directional communication line between our digestive system and the brain, means that mental turmoil often finds an echo in our bowels.

One of the side effects of the presence of stress hormones is the downregulation of digestion. Blood is shunted away from digesting food to our arms and legs, providing us with the energy in our limbs that we would need to get ourselves out of danger (which is what stress hormones communicate to our body). This can result in poor stomach acid production which, over time, can alter your gut bacteria profile and the pH of the large bowel.

How can you soothe your digestive system?

Even as we discern these contributing factors, there’s a silver lining. There are effective and accessible ways to calm your digestive system down — it’s about finding yours.

Fibre helps some while is a disaster for others with bowel conditions. Some people can tolerate grains while for others, avoiding some or all grains provides significant symptom relief.

The Mediterranean diet, with its generous servings of vegetables, fruits, and proteins, can provide a useful template, although you may need to observe which fruits and veges your gut likes.

Onions, garlic and apples are common foods that some with gut problems do better without, while those with IBS may find a FODMAPs (some carbohydrates that can resist digestion) approach offers insight.

Slow-cooked and warm foods are easier on our digestive system than cold or raw foods so you may find it beneficial to regularly include soups and stews in your way of eating.

Bone broth and aloe vera juice can be particularly soothing to the inflamed gut.

If you’re unsure what triggers symptoms, try keeping a food and mood diary. It’s astonishing how many of us have become strangers to our own rhythms. Patterns will emerge, pointing out the culprits. Avoid these while you’re recovering your gut integrity.

If you are omitting certain foods for longer than nine weeks, it can be wise to check in with a nutrition professional who can ensure your nutrient requirements are being met.

It can help to focus on stimulating stomach acid production by slowing down your meal consumption pace, drink water between meals rather than with them, and chewing your food really well. Remember that your stomach doesn’t have teeth! Eating mindfully, in other words, focusing your attention on consuming your meals without looking at your phone, television, laptop/computer or book and doing your best to eat in a calm state can make such a difference.

If regular feelings of stress and/or anxiety are familiar to you, these could be contributing as well, and addressing what’s at the heart of this can be key to symptom alleviation. The age-old practices of meditation, yoga, and even simple diaphragmatic breathing exercises can not only calm a restless mind but equally placate an irritated bowel.

You may also benefit from considering your perceptions of pressure and urgency and reflecting on all the ways that you create additional stress in your life through your unique lens.

Re-establishing your gut health is possible, yet it may take time, or not — for some, relief is immediate when they make dietary changes.

Be patient with yourself and your body and seek professional guidance if you feel that tailored insights to your unique condition may be of benefit.

Dr Libby Weaver.
Dr Libby Weaver.

Dr Libby Weaver PhD is a nutritional biochemist, 13 times best-selling author and international keynote speaker. Learn more about the 28-day Detox by Dr Libby programme at Drlibby.com.

More from Dr Libby

From the importance of iron to ‘beauty sleep’.

The importance of iron (and what to do if you think you’re deficient). It plays a key role in energy, detoxification and thyroid function.

What you should know about hormone imbalances. From sex hormones to stress hormones.

The roles progesterone plays outside of fertility. The essential hormone affects the lives of women in profound ways.

Brittle nails or thinning hair? Now’s the time to listen to your body. You don’t want to ignore what might be going on internally.

What happens when you don’t have enough ‘beauty sleep’? And how can you encourage a good night’s sleep?

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: