Herbs to Help Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Try these herbs to help irritable bowel syndrome, includes Q and A with leading natural health experts.

Herbs to help irritable bowel syndrome include calendula flowers you can brew as a soothing tea.

Herbs to help irritable bowel syndrome include calendula flowers you can brew as a soothing tea.

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Herbs to help irritable bowel syndrome include calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) that help calm the irritation and inflammation caused by IBS.

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Herbs to Help Irritable Bowel Syndrome

After a period of intense digestive discomfort (constipation, nausea and abdominal pain), I recently was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. Are there any foods and herbs that can help?
Tempe, Arizona

Keville responds: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) generally is a catch-all term for a series of related disorders that produce similar symptoms. There are both foods and herbs that will help. That’s good news for many people who have discovered that Western medicine has little to offer people who suffer from this disorder.

Soothing herbs, such as calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis), marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), hops (Humulus lupulus) and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), help calm the irritation and inflammation caused by IBS. (Do not use licorice root if you have high blood pressure.) These herbs also relax the nervous constriction of digestive muscles that promotes bowel problems.

Psyllium seed (Plantago spp.), which also is popular as a gentle, bulk laxative, is useful for IBS, especially when it is associated with constipation. Several studies conducted back in the 1980s tested psyllium in people who had IBS or similar disorders. Eighty percent of the participants reported less pain, constipation and diarrhea.

Another remedy to try is specially designed enteric-coated capsules that contain peppermint (Mentha xpiperita) essential oil. These capsules do not release their contents until they reach the intestine, so the peppermint gets to the colon rather than being absorbed earlier in the digestive tract. Medical doctors have prescribed this remedy to IBS patients for a long time, and it is available in U.S. pharmacies.

There are many theories as to what causes IBS. One idea is that the syndrome is connected to the immune system. It certainly doesn’t hurt to take an immune-enhancing formula and see if you start noticing any improvements after a few weeks. A few of the herbs I’ve already mentioned—chamomile, marshmallow and licorice—help improve immunity, soothe the bowels and fend off food allergies at the same time. I’ve noticed that including immune herbs in the formula makes a big difference for many people. IBS can be triggered—and in some cases, perhaps caused—by food allergies, which seem to irritate the digestive tract, especially the colon. So try to determine if eating certain foods makes symptoms worse. This can be a little tricky, since symptoms often result many hours after eating, or even the next day. Try eliminating any suspected foods from your diet, at least temporarily, to see if it makes any difference.

Another factor to consider is stress. As you may have discovered, IBS comes and goes, and bouts of stress can bring it on. Look for ways that you can destress and make your life more relaxing. Also, take advantage of herbs that help you reduce your stress level. Hops and chamomile, as well as catnip (Nepeta cataria), are good choices, since they aid the digestive tract.

Khalsa responds: IBS is a common disorder of the intestines. In IBS, some experience constipation, while others deal with diarrhea; some even alternate between the two, or pass mucus with bowel movements. Frequent cramping and bowel urge without passing stool is common. More than 5 million Americans are living with IBS.

There is no recognized cause for IBS, and no cure in mainstream medicine. IBS can be a minor annoyance, or it can be disabling. Eating, having intestinal gas or having food in the colon can cause the colon to act up. Frequent culprits include chocolate, milk products, fatty foods, alcohol and caffeine. Women have more symptoms during menstrual periods, and many have increased symptoms with stress.

Probiotics assist digestive function and reduce the presence of negative organisms. In a four-week double-blind, placebo-controlled trial published in the Journal of Gastroenterology, 60 IBS patients were treated with the probiotic Lactobacillus plantarum. The probiotic largely reduced intestinal gas. A smaller double-blind trial using L. acidophilus also showed benefits.

Triphala, the famous Ayurvedic herbal combination, is a gentle internal cleanser. It has a high tannin content, so low doses (1 gram daily) treat diarrhea. In higher doses (7 grams daily), it treats constipation in a very slow, gentle way, toning the walls of the intestines while it works.

As Keville mentioned on Page 8, enteric-coated peppermint oil eases the symptoms of IBS, and acts as a relaxant for the muscles of the intestinal wall. In one double-blind trial, four out of every five IBS patients experienced reduced symptoms with enteric-coated peppermint oil.

Caraway (Carum carvi) oil has similar properties, reducing gastrointestinal motility. A 1999 German study of peppermint and caraway oils showed a significant reduction in pain in 223 IBS patients. A study from 2000, published in Phytotherapy Research, again confirmed that a combination of peppermint and caraway oils effectively normalized intestinal movement.

Psyllium seed balances bowel function and relieves IBS symptoms, especially diarrhea. The mucilage in psyllium creates a soothing effect, which may relieve cramping. In a 1987 English study, 82 percent of the subjects had IBS symptom relief when taking a psyllium supplement. A study to find the optimum dose settled on 20 grams a day.

Some people with IBS cannot digest lactose. This may cause abdominal symptoms consistent with irritable bowel syndrome. People with IBS should perform a trial of milk avoidance.

Eating a special diet reduces IBS symptoms in some cases. The diet must be individualized to minimize the personal triggers. Use just enough fiber so that you have soft, easily passed and painless bowel movements. Eating more frequent, smaller meals usually works better than eating fewer large meals.

Kathi Keville is the director of the American Herb Association (www.ahaherb.com) and author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books, including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild. Khalsa’s book Body Balance is available on our Bookshelf, page 58.

Please send your questions to Herbs for Health “Q & A,” 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; fax (785) 274-4305; or e-mail us at letters@herbsforhealth.com. Provide your name and full address for verification, although both will be kept confidential.

The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health care provider.