Alternative Medicines for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the colon that involves irregular bowel movements and discomfort in the abdomen. With IBS (also called spastic colon or mucous colitis), the nerves and muscles in the colon overreact to normal functions of digestion. Its causes are unclear, but it's probably not related to a disease of the bowels.

Several alternative therapies can offer relief from the symptoms of IBS or even prevent them. These treatments are usually combined with a high-fiber diet, exercise, and stress-reduction techniques.


Biofeedback Training for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Biofeedback training has been shown to be very effective in the treatment of IBS. One way that biofeedback can help is by teaching people with IBS to manage stress in their lives, thereby lessening the chances of future attacks. Especially when combined with other relaxation techniques, this approach to prevention is effective enough to attract the attention of many conventional physicians. To a lesser extent, people may use biofeedback training to gain control over some actions of the colon. The treatment uses monitors that "feed back" certain biological levels. Armed with this information, patients can learn to alter involuntary functions of the body.

Thermal biofeedback is often used to teach relaxation to people with IBS. Here's how it works:


  • The biofeedback trainer tapes sensors to the patient, often on the finger, to measure skin temperature. Shown on the monitor, the temperature is used to gauge the level of blood flow.
  • Next, the trainer leads the patient through various visualization and breathing exercises -- all designed to bring a state of relaxation to the patient.
  • The monitor shows whether there is any progress --a corresponding rise in skin temperature. The patient and trainer can then use the information to guide or intensify visualization efforts.

Several studies have shown positive results for people with IBS when biofeedback is combined with instruction in positive thinking or assertiveness and education on the link between stress and the bowels.

Biofeedback trainers will usually instruct their patients in progressive muscle relaxation, which can be done at home to reinforce the training sessions. Here is an example of progressive muscle relaxation:

  • Wearing loose clothing, lie down on a firm but not hard surface.
  • Close your eyes and imagine tightening the muscles in your feet.
  • Then release these muscles.
  • Next, direct your attention to your calves, tensing and then easing these muscles in the same fashion.
  • Continue up the body, including your arms, until you end with your scalp.


Nutritional Therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Nutritional therapists hold that altering the diet may prevent the symptoms of IBS. One well-established strategy is to increase your intake of fiber to help regulate the bowels. However, this should be done with caution. Excessive fiber, particularly insoluble fiber, can exacerbate IBS symptoms in a few people.

Several foods or specific ingredients seem to trigger IBS in some patients. In fact, food allergies and sensitivities may play a role in the condition. The common culprits include:


  • dietary fats
  • corn
  • wheat
  • monosodium glutamate
  • fructose
  • caffeine
  • dairy products
  • tomatoes

Nutrient deficiencies can be a problem for some people with IBS because intestinal abnormalities make absorption of certain nutrients difficult. In these cases, supplementation may be helpful.

The best way to tell if a certain food is to blame for your bouts with IBS is to keep a food and symptom diary. Record the following in your diary:

  • What you eat and when
  • What symptoms you experience and when they occur
  • How you're feeling each day (relaxed, stressed, excited, and so on)

After about a month, any correlations should be apparent. You can also bring your diary to your physician or practitioner; it may help to identify problems.


Herbal Medicine for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Herbs can be effective in easing disturbances in the digestive system and in reducing anxiety. Peppermint oil, which contains menthol, can reduce gas and abdominal pain and relax the intestinal muscles.

In a British study, tablets of peppermint oil worked better than a placebo in reducing the symptoms of IBS. The tablets had a special coating (called enteric) that allowed them to disintegrate in the small intestines, not the stomach. Enteric coating ensures that the oil is released at the proper time and lessens the possibility of heartburn.


Other useful herbs include:

  • bayberry
  • chamomile
  • ginger
  • marshmallow
  • meadowsweet
  • valerian


Other Irritable Bowel Syndrome Therapies

  • Homeopathy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome -- Several remedies can be very helpful but an appropriate prescription requires an expert evaluation.
  • Hypnotherapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome -- Certain techniques can teach people with IBS to relax and to imagine the easing of the bowel muscles. Several studies have shown that hypnotherapy reduces IBS symptoms in up to 85 percent of patients tested.
  • Yoga for Irritable Bowel Syndrome -- Several aspects of yoga can be very effective relaxation tools.


For more information on irritable bowel syndrome and alternative medicine, see: