Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often requires multiple therapies to manage. Learn about alternative and complementary therapies for IBS that can help.
- Managing any functional condition, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), may require multiple strategies.
- Complementary therapies for IBS that can be effective for people suffering with the condition include:
- nutritional support
- Chinese herbal medicine
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- The best approach is often a combination of Western treatments and one or more complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies.
- IBS itself is poorly understood, so no one treatment will work for everyone.
IBS is notoriously difficult to treat. Many people, however, have found symptom relief with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies (also sometimes known as integrative or holistic medicine). For many, a combination of CAM and conventional Western medicine works best.
Alternative and complementary therapies for IBS
Living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is hard. IBS is a functional disorder, meaning there is no clear physical cause for its symptoms.
Although we don’t know for sure what causes IBS, there’s widespread agreement that IBS may have multiple potential causes, including autoimmune, allergic, psychological, neurological, viral, and microbiotic.
As there’s currently no cure for IBS, the main medical approach is to make living with IBS symptoms as comfortable as possible. Many people have found symptom relief with complementary and holistic therapies for IBS. They’re non-invasive, low-cost, and may be able to improve symptoms.
For example, one of the more common success stories is peppermint oil for IBS. Researchers aren’t sure how it works, but the results speak for themselves and have encouraged doctors to look more closely at holistic approaches to IBS.
Following are five complementary and alternative medicine therapies that can be used to improve IBS symptoms.
Acupuncture is the use of thin needles that are placed gently into the skin by a trained practitioner, generally with the goal of relieving pain. Why it works depends on who you ask.
In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s believed that acupuncture redirects energy in the body. A common Western medicine theory is that the placement of the needles stimulates muscles, nerves, and connective tissues and produces natural pain-reducing chemicals.
Acupuncture for IBS has been tested across dozens of studies and has repeatedly been found to bring relief from symptoms. Look for a board-certified practitioner, and discuss your treatment goals with your acupuncturist before you begin a course of treatment.
2. Nutritional/dietary support
When you’re diagnosed with IBS, it’s likely that your first referral will be to either a nutritionist or a dietitian. A nutritionist for IBS is one of the more effective and noninvasive options, helping patients to craft dietary interventions to lessen symptoms.
This can take a number of directions and will depend on your personal beliefs, your specific nutritional needs, and your symptoms. In some cases, you may first need to undergo an allergy panel and reduce or eliminate dairy and other foods with a high risk of allergic reactions.
In other cases, you may try different approaches, such as a low-FODMAP diet or increasing how much soluble fiber you take in.
3. Chinese herbal remedies
Most medical practice has its roots in herbalism. This may be why Chinese herbal medicine, which has been used for centuries, has been shown to be effective for many conditions, including IBS: Many prescription drugs are derived from plants.
There is evidence, however, that a combination of traditional Chinese medicine (including herbal therapy) and Western medicine (usually in the form of prescription drugs) may be an even more effective way to treat IBS. For example, one analysis of treatments of IBS patients in China found better outcomes when providers used both.
The trade-off, however, is that you’ll need to work closely with both your doctor and your herbalist. When working with herbalism for IBS, herbs and medications must be introduced carefully to avoid herb-drug interactions, when two chemicals introduced into the body have an unexpected effect on health.
Certain herbs can also interfere with medical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.
If you’re interested in trying herbal therapy, be sure to work with a reputable herbalist. It’s also important that you tell your healthcare provider about all supplements you are considering or already taking.
4. Cognitive behavioral therapy
Depression and IBS often go hand-in-hand. While we don’t know for sure that IBS causes depression, many people who suffer from IBS do have depressive symptoms.
And evidence is increasing they may be connected. Recent research suggests that depression with IBS may be related to the gut-brain axis and its effect on intestinal flora.
Psychological/behavioral therapies are known to be effective for improving depression and other IBS symptoms. There’s a solid body of evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular, can improve IBS symptoms and quality of life, with potentially long-term results.
If you’re interested in trying CBT for IBS, a skilled CBT therapist can help you identify and change negative thought and behavior patterns that feed your illness and worsen symptoms.
Homeopathy is based on the belief that “like cures like.” Homeopathic practitioners use extremely dilute solutions of natural substances that, when taken in large doses, would bring on the symptoms being treated.
Homeopathic remedies are derived from plants, animals, or minerals and are generally tailored to the individual and their specific symptoms.
Some IBS sufferers use homeopathy, and there’s a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that it can help with symptoms. However, there’s little evidence that homeopathy for IBS is effective. Many experts feel that homeopathy may work for some people because of the placebo effect.
If you choose to try homeopathy for your IBS symptoms, working with a reputable homeopath will be vitally important. You will also need to inform your doctors of any homeopathic remedies you are taking to avoid the risk of potentially dangerous herb-drug interactions or interference with medical treatments.
Choosing the right holistic approach
With IBS, the overall approach is as important as the individual therapies. We recommend taking the following steps if you’re considering a CAM therapy.
- Speak with your doctor. Discuss your IBS with your doctor and what you’re doing to manage it. Discuss holistic therapies and ask for referrals or recommendations.
- Make lifestyle changes. Make any changes your doctor recommends and see if they’re helping. This step can guide you toward different approaches that may be more effective for you.
- Take careful notes. When speaking with a CAM practitioner, be clear on what they are recommending and discuss what you learn with your doctor. Be ready to disclose all medications you’re taking.
- Add therapies one at a time. If you choose to try more than one CAM therapy, integrate them into your care regimen one at a time. It’s the only way to know which therapy is improving your symptoms.
- Be patient. Most CAM therapies take time to show results. Your practitioner can tell you when you should start to feel relief.
We know that living with IBS is challenging, and Bright Belly is here to help. To learn more about IBS and the best ways to treat it, follow our blog. To find a reputable CAM therapist near you, visit our provider directory today.