What You Need To Know About Functional Medicine & Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome

You’ve got questions about natural treatments for IBS, and we have answers.

We treat a lot of IBS cases in practice in our Longmont and Denver, CO offices. Often, we see patients who have run the gauntlet with chronic GI pain, gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea (or a combination of all of these), who have seen every doctor and taken all the prescription medications they’ve been recommended, and yet, they still feel miserable and their symptoms have not subsided. Or, they get some temporary relief, only to find new and (uncomfortable) triggers resulting in more flare ups.

We practice Functional Medicine. We take a different approach to treating gut issues. Especially Irritable Bowel Syndrome, because it affects people so differently, yet it’s disease processes are often similar for most sufferers. In Functional Medicine, we do not automatically assume IBS is solely a “gut issue” because we know that IBS is often the symptomatic outcome of a combination of issues.

One of the first things we will recommend is blood work or other diagnostic testing (depending on your specific situation). Now, that may be met with a bit of hesitation at first as you say to yourself, “well, I’ve had blood work done already and they told me there’s nothing wrong! Everything checked out as ‘normal.'” Depending on the specific training of whom exactly is looking at and interpreting the results of these tests can mean a world of difference between continued recurrences of IBS, and the relief you’re seeking. We say this because not all tests are created equally and viewing their results through the lens of Functional Blood Chemistry (which uses a different set of reference ranges) can detect whether the symptoms you experience are from infection, stress, a food sensitivity or a combination of many factors. Many men and women with IBS suffer from:

  • SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth)
  • Parasites
  • H. pylori
  • Yeast overgrowth
  • Food sensitivities

It is imperative then to treat the root cause(s) of the IBS in order to control the symptoms. We generally like to treat IBS as a metabolic condition, because all of the body’s systems must be brought back into harmony before any real, quantifiable, long term relief can begin. In addition to treating determinable IBS protagonists like those above, a “typical” Functional Medicine IBS protocol should also include…

A Metabolic cleanse heavily focusing on the Hepatic system. Clearing the liver, pancreas and gallbladder of sludge and toxins helps support those organs in order for them to work most efficiently. Not to mention, when these organs are fatigued, they cannot clear hormones as intended or help in digestion properly.

Next we will look at the patient’s diet. We will either have an idea of foods they need to permanently avoid from the results of their food sensitivity test(s), or we will recommend an elimination diet to find offending items. In our practice we strongly recommend food sensitivity testing through a lab called Cyrex. They have many arrays and can test for sensitivity to hundreds of foods. In our opinion food sensitivity testing is one of the most important steps in any solid IBS treatment protocol. Many, many patients come to us having no idea part of their issue was something as simple to avoid or modify as a very common gluten sensitivity, or lactose intolerance, for example. Elimination diets can end with similar outcomes as sensitivity tests, but they aren’t nearly as accurate, they are very time consuming, and unless you’re a nutrition pro there’s always the possibility of encountering a food you thought was going to be safe but actually turns out to contain an ingredient that turns out to be anything but safe for you.

Additionally, we want to make sure the patient has very steady control of their blood sugar. This will happen through dietary modification and possibly all-natural supplementation (depending on multiple health factors). Keeping steady, regulated blood sugar will reduce stress and mood swings (which is a giant IBS culprit), it will also ensure your metabolism remains on an even keel. This helps reduce stress on all the various body systems. When putting up a “fight” on one front, we need to make sure the other “fronts” are able to do their jobs well. It’s not easy on the body to have GI issues, immune issues, hormonal dysregulation and sleep fluctuations at the same time. Many of those issues can cause one to feel poorly on their own, add them on top of IBS and you have a perfect storm making people absolutely miserable.

Once we have cleaned out the liver and gallbladder, and steadied the blood sugar swings, we will move on to a Gut Cleanse and Repair. This will be done with all-natural nutritional supplements and will be helped along by your modified diet. The repair portion is very important, as you can imagine. Many patients don’t know they have imbalanced gut flora (the “good” bacteria that aid in digestion) or leaky gut (which can lead to further issues like autoimmune disorders). IBS patients who have been traditionally treated for SIBO may have taken many courses of antibiotics which can also wipe out our “good” bacteria. That is one issue with antibiotics, they are very indiscriminate with the bacteria they kill off. They can also be less effective against bacteria encapsulated in what are called biofilms. These lipid-based films are the evolutionary protection response of pathogens, the fittest of which survive, despite medications given to kill them. We recommend a strict protocol of supplementation that eliminates these biofilms making other medications more effective.

Many patients also don’t know that around 80% of their neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) are made in their gut. A healthy gut makes healthy levels of neurotransmitters (guess what an unhealthy gut makes?). Neurotransmitters are very important to our mental and emotional well being, as well as hormone regulation, sleep and immune response. Although supporting neurotransmitters may not sound like part of a common IBS treatment, we know from years of treating this condition that it helps ease stress and emotionally triggered IBS. There are very strong links between the gut and the brain.

We will also add in supplementation for inflammation. We know “inflammation” is often billed as a new-age bogeyman, but think about more common inflammation (like a sprained ankle for instance). At first, your body does what comes naturally, it swells and attempts to stabilize an injury, and it sends your immune system in to help save the day. But if your sprained ankle continued to stay swollen forever, you’d start to wonder if there’s something wrong. The guts of people with IBS are often inflamed long-term and not only is that not helpful in healing, it creates a negative feedback loop with your various systems trying to maintain the “healing.”

Lastly, we recommend a chiropractic technique for pain relief known as Visceral Manipulation. This isn’t something that all chiropractors are trained in, or practice, but we do recommend finding a practitioner of this technique in your area if you are not close by. This therapy is an IBS patient’s Secret Weapon and can really help in the relief of discomfort.

In conclusion, in our opinion (and practice) an effective natural IBS protocol should include:

  • Diagnostic testing and interpretation of results using functional blood chemistry
  • Systematically treating root causes, whether they be pathogenic, imbalances in gut flora, or a combination of multiple factors
  • Modifying the patient’s diet and lifestyle
  • Regulating the Metabolism
  • Only trusted, pharmaceutical grade nutritional supplementation and herbs
  • Visceral Manipulation for pain relief