How Functional Medicine Treats IBS Naturally
Updated: Feb 2
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation. Long term, IBS can also lead to nutrient deficiencies,
Conventional medicine has a very limited scope of treatment for digestive symptoms.
It usually involves laxatives for constipation, anti-diarrhea drugs, anti-depressant medications (if their doctors think their IBS is psychosomatic), pain medications, steroids, and in the worst cases, immune-suppressing medications with harmful side effects.
Using functional medicine, I can assess the function of organs and organ systems in your body that are crucial for healthy digestion.
Neurotransmitter imbalances, suboptimal stomach acid levels, liver problems, damaged gut microbiome, and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis imbalances are all potential causes of IBS that are rarely investigated.
Once the cause of your symptoms is found then we can reduce, or alleviate your symptoms entirely. Not only can your symptoms go away, but your whole body can drastically improve in its overall function.
If you have digestive symptoms of any kind, the likelihood is very high that you also are experiencing a other symptoms in a different part of the body - it may be in your brain - 'brain fog', your joints with joint pain, your sleep may be affected, your sex drive may be decreased, and your weight may not be where you want it.
Here are two example patients to show you how different people arrive at long lasting solutions for their IBS.
IBS. . . Even With A Healthy Diet
It is very common for patients to come to me with immaculate diets but who still have severe digestive symptoms.
They only buy organic, they make everything at home and they have tried various combinations of Paleo, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Autoimmune Paleo, FODMAP, SCD or Keto with very limited success.
Or they may have achieved significant improvement in the beginning with these diets but they have hit a plateau and now feel stuck eating a very strict diet just to remain symptom free.
After putting so much time, effort and money into these diets it can be very frustrating when you still experience severe digestive symptoms.
This was the case for 'Mona,' a woman in her mid thirties who was on a Mediterranean gluten free diet. She practiced yoga twice a week and cardio three times a week. Berries and nuts were her only indulgences.
After a functional medicine appointment we found that the primary stressor on her body was not based in her diet or in a nutritional deficiency or a genetic variant - it was in her lifestyle.
Mona had become accustomed to high amounts of stress for long periods of time.
She had begun to feel like her body never recharged at night, her sleep was not restful and she frequently jolted awake in a panic.
After evaluating her adrenal function through physical examination, blood tests, and her medical history, it was determined that she was in adrenal fatigue.
Can Stress Cause IBS?
Your adrenal glands are responsible for secreting key stress hormones (like adrenaline) so you can run away from danger or cram for an exam, but if you are stressed for too long, the strain on these glands can cause them to no longer be able to 'keep up' with the daily stresses of life.
Not only had her stress levels impaired the function of her adrenal glands, it also damaged her stomach function. High stress (which means high adrenaline and cortisol levels) will damage the stomach's ability to produce and secrete stomach acid.
Stress not only takes a major toll on psychological health but also damages internal biochemistry at the cellular level.
Her stomach acid levels were so low that she was not fully digesting food - causing her partially digested food to stay in her system too long. This caused loose stools and occasional constipation.
Even though she had tried a mixture of fiber, laxatives, strict diets and magnesium on her own to help her symptoms - nothing seemed to work.
Treating IBS By Supporting Gut Health
After her functional medicine appointment we put Mona on targeted supplementation to support her adrenals and liver function, and modified her diet so that she produced the right balance of stomach acid.
We did not use a popular supplement for stomach acid called Betaine HCL because her examination revealed it would most likely cause further damage to her stomach.
Most people who have IBS have an underlying stomach problem in which not only stomach acid levels are too low but they are also on the verge of developing an ulcer or having stomach lining inflammation.
For these cases, it is absolutely paramount to first heal the actual stomach tissue while also supplying the raw materials for the stomach to make stomach acid on its own without taking Betaine HCL.
She started to meditate to reduce stress and got counseling for some unresolved past trauma. Over the course of a few weeks these healthy habits started having the desired effect - getting her body out of a chronic 'fight or flight' state and into a restorative parasympathetic state.
Within weeks, her digestive symptoms lessened to the point where she finally had normal bowel movements, was no longer was bloated, digested her food easily and she could, for the first time in years, feel confident about her health.
"The Better I Eat, the Sicker I Feel!"
Sally was in her mid twenties and also had a healthy diet. The problem was, when she was 'good' on her diet, she felt worse.
If she was out and grabbed a quick sandwich, her stomach felt fine, but if she was home on the weekend and prepared a perfectly healthy meal of baked vegetables, a fresh salad and a chicken breast - she was tired and had stomach pain and bloating the rest of the day.
One of the best things about a functional medicine appointment is its length - Sally's first patient appointment with me was an hour long, giving us enough time for her to tell me, in detail, about her health since she was a child.
Sometimes it only becomes clear when your illness started when you go through every seemingly inconsequential detail.
Sally remembered that she got food poisoning in college, a few weeks after that she got a urinary tract infection (UTI). Her doctor put her on a round of antibiotics. The UTI came back a few times over the course of a few months. Each time, she would refill her antibiotics and after a few days the symptoms would be gone.
After that incident, her digestion was never quite the same and slowly deteriorated over the course of a few years.
Precise Testing For The Right Interventions
Her digestive symptoms were serious enough to warrant further testing. Unfortunately she had gone to a few doctors who put her on a probiotic or an elimination diet without finding out exactly what was wrong. This is why most 'gut healing' diets and digestive supplements don't work - they are not specifically targeting what is wrong.
We ordered a test to confirm the presence of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and a comprehensive stool analysis. From these tests we learned that she had two bacterial infections - klebsiella pneumonia and streptococcus.
We also found that she had low levels of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus and an E. coli overgrowth.
The repeated antibiotics years earlier had wiped out her beneficial bacteria (which kept infections at bay) - over time, strep and other 'bad' bacteria had the chance to grow unchecked and take over her intestinal tract, which caused symptoms.
Support The Liver, Then Kill The Infection
First, we cleared her infection. Using the specific information from her stool analysis and SIBO breath test we determined the precise herbal antimicrobial medicines that would be most effective against the harmful microbes.
Based on Sally's functional medicine evaluation and test results, it was necessary to clear the harmful infection first and then proceed to repair her liver, digestive and immune system.
For those who are more sensitive to chemicals, foods, or supplements we have to first support the immune system and liver prior to killing the harmful bugs to ensure the body can safely clear the infectious debris. This drastically improves the outcomes for these patients.
During the treatment period we enhanced stomach acid function and modified her diet to include more soups and cooked vegetables - this helped her body break down her foods easier.
We switched her diet from high fat to a moderate intake of healthy fats - this gave her gallbladder and liver a rest while we optimized her digestive tract. We supported her immune system so her body could kick out any future infectious bugs.
After her infection was gone we gave some specific probiotics to ensure the health of her microbiome. Through all of these steps her digestion and overall health significantly improved. She could now eat a wide variety of food without the worry of whether she would feel sick afterwards.
True 'Gut Healing' Requires Targeted Treatment
If you have tried every new product promising to rid you of digestive problems and have been on every 'gut healing diet' - the fact that you still have symptoms is a red flag that your underlying problem is not being fixed.
If you have a viral infection, autoimmune condition or bacterial imbalance causing your symptoms then diet and supplement changes can often be just band-aid solutions to temporarily reduce symptoms.
Getting to the root cause of your symptoms will allow you to not be tied to a strict diet the rest of your life to control symptoms - it can free up your body's resources to actually heal.
If you would like to speak to me to ask questions about functional medicine, chronic illness or how I can help you, please schedule a Free 15 Minute Consultation or call or text my office at 913-728-5291.
*Names and other details have been changed to protect privacy
If you think that you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information. Nor should you ever delay seeking medical advice or treatment due to the information contained on this Website.