Just about everyone can agree that having tummy troubles is miserable. And if you’re among the millions of people who suffer from the painful and vexing condition known as irritable bowel syndrome, you know firsthand just how much tummy troubles can interfere with your life.
But the good news is, research may be uncovering the secret to truly understanding and even healing this puzzling condition. What is this secret? Your gut microbiome.
Today we’re going to explore exactly what irritable bowel syndrome is, how your gut microbiome might be the root cause, and most importantly – the steps you can take to manage this condition. Let’s dive in.
What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is what’s known as a functional gastrointestinal disorder. A functional gastrointestinal disorder is a type of condition that has to do with your gut-brain axis. Your gut-brain axis is the two-way communication track between your digestive system and your brain.
You see, your brain regulates your gut’s activities like motility, motor function, and sensation.1 So when there’s a breakdown in communication along your gut-brain axis, it can throw your entire digestive tract out of whack and cause the unpleasant symptoms seen in IBS.
Let’s take a look at exactly what these symptoms are.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms
IBS symptoms include:2
- Abdominal discomfort, pain, or cramping – usually related to passing a bowel movement
- Bloating and gas
- Changes in your bowel movements (harder or looser than usual)
- Changes in how often you are passing stool (more or less frequently)
- Constipation, diarrhea, or an alternating combination of both
- Mucus in your bowel movements
What’s interesting about IBS though, is that severe symptoms may be present without any indicators of damage or disease to your digestive tract. So what on Earth causes these distressing symptoms seen in IBS?
What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
We haven’t pinpointed a single underlying cause of irritable bowel syndrome. The truth is, in most cases, there are a number of factors that contribute to the development and severity of irritable bowel syndrome. Some of the causes that we do know about include:3,4
- Intestinal muscle contractions (or lack of): Your intestinal walls are lined with special layers of muscle that contract in a wavelike motion to move food and waste through your digestive tract. If there’s a misfire in the signals from your brain to these muscles it can cause contractions that are more forceful and last longer than normal. This triggers gas, bloating, and diarrhea. On the flip side, weak and infrequent intestinal contractions slow down digestion and cause constipation and dry, hard stools.
- Mental and emotional stress: It’s been found that people with elevated stress levels or who have been exposed to traumatic events (especially in childhood) are more likely to develop IBS. IBS is also much more common in people with certain mental health diagnoses like depression and anxiety.
- Severe infections: IBS can be triggered after a severe bacterial or viral infection – particularly infection of the gastrointestinal tract that causes diarrhea and stomach upset.
- Food sensitivities or intolerances: If your body is sensitive to certain foods or food groups, you may unknowingly be eating things that can trigger IBS and amplify your symptoms.
But there’s one underlying factor that can not only influence all of the causes listed above but also may be the key to truly understanding and healing irritable bowel syndrome. What is this underlying factor?
The bacteria that live in your gut.
IBS and Gut Bacteria
The bacteria, viruses, and fungi that inhabit your gut make up what’s known as your gut microbiome. This is a complex and delicate ecosystem that works together with your own cells to carry out the functions of your digestive tract. But if the fragile balance of this intricate ecosystem gets thrown out of whack, it throws your gut into what’s known as dysbiosis. Then dysbiosis can create a domino effect – triggering a cascade of events leading to IBS that goes something like this:5,6,7
- “Bad” bacteria go unchecked: In dysbiosis, there’s a shift in the microbial populations in your gut which can allow certain “bad” bacteria to begin crowding out “beneficial” bacteria.
- Immune activation: This spike in harmful bacteria can activate your immune system – causing immune cells and pro-inflammatory chemicals to migrate to your digestive tract. This low-level inflammation in your gut continues to build as your body attempts to neutralize the threat and rebalance your microbiome.
- Increased intestinal permeability: This shift in your gut microbiome paired with your body’s natural immune response causes what’s known as increased intestinal permeability. Increased intestinal permeability means that the lining of your intestines becomes weaker and more porous – allowing harmful microbes and toxins to pass from your gut into your tissues and bloodstream.
- Gut-brain axis disruption: Gut dysbiosis and mounting inflammation interfere with the signals between your brain and gut. This miscommunication along the gut-brain axis can cause a shift in:
- Muscle contractions: Causing the alteration in movement of the GI tract that leads to the bouts of either diarrhea or constipation seen in IBS.
- Neurotransmitter production: Which explains why IBS is much more prevalent in those with mental health diagnoses as well as why stress is such a potent trigger for IBS symptoms.
- Pain sensation: The visceral hypersensitivity – or increased bowel pain – is one of the key indicators of IBS.
- Impaired nutrient breakdown and absorption: This combination of an altered microbiome, impaired intestinal integrity, and disrupted communication amidst the gut-brain axis puts a damper on your gut’s ability to properly break down and absorb vital nutrients – furthering the cycle of inflammation and dysbiosis.
This ensemble creates a vicious cycle that leads to the symptoms seen in irritable bowel syndrome. But if dysbiosis can set off this domino effect that seems to be a downward spiral, how can we pump the brakes and put a stop to IBS symptoms?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Treatment
Irritable bowel syndrome is typically diagnosed via a process of elimination – with doctors running blood, stool, and/or breath tests that rule out other underlying conditions.8 Once it’s confirmed that there aren’t any other underlying conditions (like Celiac disease or Crohn’s disease), you can get on the road to an IBS treatment plan.
Irritable bowel syndrome treatment may sometimes include medications like:9
- Laxatives to relieve constipation
- Antidiarrheal medications to mitigate severe diarrhea
- Antibiotics to address an underlying infection
- Antispasmodics or low-level anti-depressants to help control abdominal pain
But none of these medications will ever address the root cause of irritable bowel syndrome. Because of the link between IBS and the gut microbiome, truly treating and healing IBS requires a big-picture approach that improves and supports your gut health and microbiome.
How to Improve Your Gut Microbiome
Your gut has a tricky job. It has to house a massive ecosystem of microbes, digest and distribute all the vital nutrients from your food, and simultaneously shield you from the harmful bugs and toxins that make their way into your gut. So supporting this fascinatingly complex system requires some big-picture lifestyle tweaks.
If you or a loved one is struggling with IBS, here’s what I recommend:
Get Your Diet Right:
Your diet is undeniably one of the most powerful tools you have when it comes to managing and healing IBS. Some people with irritable bowel syndrome may require a high fiber diet, while some may feel better avoiding excess fiber. Everyone is unique and finding a diet that works best for you takes some trial and error.
But there are a few key dietary aspects that are beneficial for everyone managing IBS. They are:
- Follow an anti-inflammatory diet: Prioritize inflammation-fighting foods that support a flourishing microbiome. Build most of your meals around fresh vegetables and fruits, quality protein, and healthy fats.
- Avoid inflammation-promoting foods: Packaged foods, processed sugar, and refined oils are all notorious for boosting inflammation, so keep these foods to a minimum.
- Follow a special diet for a short period of time: If you have a severe or stubborn case of IBS, it may be beneficial to do a short bout of a more restricted diet to give your gut a chance to heal and reset. The Specific Carbohydrate Diet and the Elemental Diet have both been proven to be particularly helpful at aiding in the resolution of severe gut inflammation. Head over to my article exploring the differences between Crohn’s ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease to learn more about these specialized diets.
Getting your diet right is absolutely foundational if you want to get your IBS symptoms under control.
Add in Gut-Supporting Supplements:
While your diet is the foundation of managing IBS, adding in some strategic supplements can have a monumental impact on speeding up and amplifying your results. The most potent gut-supporting supplements that I recommend are:
- Probiotics to reinoculate your belly with friendly beneficial bacteria.
- Prebiotics to ensure those friendly bacteria have plenty of fuel.
- Collagen to strengthen the integrity of your intestinal lining.
- Digestive enzymes to help your gut break down and absorb nutrients.
- Essential Fiber to promote regular and healthy bowel movements.
- Glutathione and Vitamin C to combat inflammation with a concentrated dose of antioxidants.
- Gut Immune to provide your tummy with a concentrated dose of immune-boosting immunoglobulins.
You can find all of these gut-boosting supplements and more at my online store. And you can even get 10% off your first order by clicking right here.
Make Mental Health a Priority:
IBS is significantly impacted by stress and your mental health. So making your mental well-being a priority is essential. Some tips to keep your mental health in check and minimize stress include:
- Incorporate meditation and yoga into your daily routine
- Make time for fun and connect with loved ones
- Relieve stress with a good workout or time outdoors
- Make sure you’re getting plenty of quality sleep
Your mental, emotional, and spiritual health are equally as important as your physical health. These aspects of your overall health have a particularly potent impact on your gut health – so this step is crucial.
Are You Struggling With Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome can be unpleasant and frustrating – and flare-ups can have a significant impact on your life. But the good news is, you are not at the mercy of your diagnosis. You have so much power over your gut health, microbiome, and management of your symptoms.
So if you or a loved one is struggling with IBS, following the steps outlined in this article is a good place to start. I also strongly encourage you to seek out the guidance of an experienced Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor to help you come up with a comprehensive individualized plan to get you feeling your best. If you’ve never worked with a Functional Medicine Doctor before, you can click here to learn how to find one that’s a good fit for you.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking for more ways to support your gut health or simply optimize your overall well-being, my blog is chock-full of articles to help you do just that. And if you want to take it even deeper, I encourage you to sign up for my weekly newsletter. All you have to do is enter your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn that the gut microbiome might be the key to understanding and healing IBS? What are your favorite ways to support your gut health? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- Definition & Facts for Irritable Bowel Syndrome | NIDDK (nih.gov)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome: IBS, Symptoms, Causes, Treatment (clevelandclinic.org)
- Irritable bowel syndrome – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic
- Symptoms & Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome | NIDDK (nih.gov)
- Clinical Management of the Microbiome in Irritable Bowel Syndrome | Journal of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
- Frontiers | The Microbiome and Irritable Bowel Syndrome – A Review on the Pathophysiology, Current Research and Future Therapy | Microbiology (frontiersin.org)
- The gut microbiome and irritable bowel syndrome (nih.gov)
- Diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome | NIDDK (nih.gov)
- Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome | NIDDK (nih.gov)
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Jill Carnahan, MD
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.