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
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
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
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.
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