Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Part 1: Are you living with digestive problems?
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Our digestive system and its proper function are fundamental to our wellbeing. When all is well, we feel nourished. When a dysfunction exists in the gut, we can be plagued with many unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, heartburn, and abdominal discomfort. Many people live with such symptoms and are often diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Finding solutions to address IBS is important because chronic bowels problems can affect our quality of life over the short-term and can have significant health implications over the long-term. Nutritional deficiencies (e.g. vitamin B12) and low-grade chronic inflammation is commonly seen for people with IBS, which in turn, can affect other tissues, systems and organs in our body leading to many other health ramifications. This is why many people with digestive problems commonly deal with fatigue, joint pain, skin issues, allergies and other respiratory issues, hormone imbalances, mood changes, among many other health problems.
Yet, despite the crucial role that our gut health has on our wellbeing, chronic digestive problems (such as IBS) are often under-diagnosed, missed or allowed to proceed without treatment for far too long.
How can this be? As a naturopathic doctor who specializes in digestive concerns, I have observed many reasons for this:
- IBS related symptoms can be less severe than other health conditions and therefore, patients are told to “live with it”. Conventional medicine is very skilled at diagnosing serious digestive tract conditions that involve pathological changes (i.e. those that involve abnormal or diseased tissues) such as celiac disease, bowel cancer, Crohn’s disease or colitis. In contrast, IBS involves functional changes (i.e. the way the digestive system functions is abnormal yet there is no serious tissue damage), and therefore considered less serious. For this reason, adequate treatment options, nutritional advice and guidance is often neglected for those with IBS.
- Despite already improving their lifestyle by avoiding junk foods, eating more fiber, drinking more water and exercising, many patients continue to have IBS symptoms. Such basic recommendations although important, are often not enough to completely resolve one’s IBS symptoms.
- Palliative options such as over-the-counter medications (e.g. laxatives, antacids, Pepto-Bismol, etc.) aimed to alleviate symptoms are often recommended and used by those with IBS. However, such treatments rarely resolve symptoms completely and many patients are left without answers making a long-term solution more elusive.
- Differentiating between celiac disease and IBS is often problematic. Laboratory tests that verify for celiac disease can be unreliable because patients are not told that they needed to consume gluten for a minimum of 3 weeks prior to doing their blood test. In situations where patients were correctly eating gluten prior to the blood test and results are negative, patients are often told that they can continue to eat gluten/wheat. Furthermore, patients are often told, that the only type of reaction to gluten or wheat is celiac disease. However, many patients with IBS can have severe reactions to gluten which involved different types of antibodies as those found in celiac disease.
- Other than food allergies (e.g. a peanut allergy), patients are often told that what they eat and drink are not involved with their digestive problems. In reality, chronic food reactions (also known as food sensitivities or intolerances) can profoundly affect certain people. For example, it can be frustrating for patients to live with chronic constipation or loose stools (often for years) despite adequate fiber, fluids and exercise, yet unknowingly have a health-altering food reaction. The proteins found in wheat (gluten) and dairy (casein/whey) are often very problematic. Specialized blood tests are available at Moncton Naturopathic Medical Clinic to check for such food reactions.
- Stool testing at our local hospitals to evaluate for gastrointestinal infections only verify for severe infections caused by certain bacteria or parasites. For example, such infections can include giardia, C. difficile or E.coli which usually involve severe diarrhea, which is not normally seen in IBS. Instead, for those with IBS, it is important to check for chronic infections in the bowels (versus acute infections). Specialized stool tests are now available at the Moncton Naturopathic Medical Clinic that can check if there are sufficient good bacteria in the gut (e.g. Lactobacillus species) and also to verify for all ‘bad’ microbes (e.g. all bacteria, yeast, parasites), not just the worst-case scenarios for bacterial infections.
- A common cause of IBS is a bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine (known as small intestinal bowel overgrowth or SIBO for short). Despite being recognized by conventional medicine worldwide as a standard medical condition, the diagnosis and treatment options for SIBO are not presently conducted by our conventional health care system in NB. A diagnostic breath test for SIBO is now available at the Moncton Naturopathic Medical Clinic.
- After conducting investigative diagnostic tests such an endoscopy and colonoscopy (tests that include cameras that are able to visualize and biopsy the inside of the digestive system), patients are often told that they do not have a more serious gut pathology such as celiac disease, bowel cancer, Crohn’s disease or colitis. This comes with a big relief. However, living with daily digestive symptoms without get an answer becomes frustrating over time. Gut symptoms are very annoying and can dramatically affect our quality of life.
As you can observe, if you are living with IBS symptoms, you are not alone. Many gaps presently exist that can create challenges for those with IBS.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Dr. Gleixner’s series on IBS. In his next article, a common sense 5-step approach will be outlined to address IBS.
In the meantime, if you have gut symptoms, there are solutions.
To help understand why improving your digestive health is so important, please read my article “Digestion is the foundation for all health conditions”.
Back to Dr. Gleixner’s full list of articles.
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