Those experiencing painful abdominal cramping, bloating, and diarrhea, may find natural relief with the use of herbal remedies. These irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms affect more than 60 million people in the U.S. Although pharmaceutical companies offer a wide array of mild to potent prescription drugs for this serious health condition, scientists argue that no safe and effective conventional treatment exists. Fewer side effects and more successful results may come in the form of herbs for IBS.
IBS tends to affect more women than men. While the condition has no direct cause, there are factors that may trigger the onset of symptoms. These can include a malfunction in communication between the intestinal tract and the brain, an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, an infection, or inflammation.
IBS patients may be advised to follow a low-carbohydrate diet based on the dietary acronym known as FODMAP. This stands for fermentable, oligosaccharide, disaccharide, monosaccharide, and polyols.
While there is scientific research suggesting that fermented foods such as yogurt can help break down sugars and carbohydrates, this form of therapy can also promote IBS symptoms. The good bacteria that form in gut during this process may cause diarrhea, bloating, and painful abdominal cramps.
Herbal remedies are part of complementary and alternative medicine therapy for IBS, known as CAM in the medicinal world.
Effective Herbs for IBS to Relieve Symptoms
1. Peppermint Oil
Peppermint oil is the result of exposing the stems and leaves of the peppermint plant to a high-pressure steam process. Known scientifically as Mentha x piperita, the hybrid plant and its oil have been used for centuries as a natural treatment for various ailments, particularly digestive conditions.
The existing medical evidence has led the American College of Gastroenterology to approve the use of peppermint oil to treat abdominal issues. In fact, it is the only herbal remedy recommended by the esteemed group of professionals.
Peppermint oil has been shown in clinical research to relax the stomach muscles as the menthol helps block calcium channels in the cells. This produces an antispasmodic effect that helps move food through the digestive tract, improving IBS conditions.
Australian researchers published a study in the journal Pain in 2011 examining the effects of peppermint oil on IBS patients. The oil worked as a pain reliever by targeting a specific anti-pain channel called TRPM8 to calm pain-sensing fibers in the gastrointestinal tract. Researchers said the oil was particularly effective against chili- and mustard-induced pain.
IBS symptoms tend to flare up in many patients following the consumption of spicy and high-fat foods, as well as alcohol and caffeine. Those with a recent history of gastroenteritis have been known to experience IBS symptoms. These conditions can damage nerve endings, causing pain.
The study discovered a rise in gastroenteritis cases after violent floods ravaged Australia. Researchers suggested exposure to contaminated water led to the high number of incidences.
Another study involved peppermint oil for IBS patients. Participants were spilt into two controlled groups: one with peppermint oil and one with placebo treatments.
Of the participants using the oil, the majority experienced abdominal pain relief, less bloating and gas, and less frequent bowel movements. Less than half of the placebo group showed the same positive results.
The peppermint oil used in the study did not cause any serious side effects.
2. Slippery Elm
The herbal remedy slippery elm, or Ulmus rubra, is developed from the inner bark of the slippery elm tree. It has been used for digestive issues similar to those seen with IBS because it is known to soothe irritated intestinal linings.
Those patients with severe diarrhea symptoms are recommended not to take slippery elm as it works as a laxative and may worsen the symptom.
Slippery elm for IBS has been researched in clinical trials.
Aussie scientists looked at the effects and tolerability of two natural medicine supplements containing slippery elm in improving bowel function and abdominal symptoms in patients with IBS. One supplement was designed to treat IBS with diarrhea as a symptom, while the other was designed to treat IBS with constipation.
The study included 31 patients, 21 one of whom were classified as suffering from diarrhea-predominant IBS and 10 of whom were classified with constipation-predominant IBS. The patients were given either a supplement containing powdered bilberry fruit, slippery elm bark, agrimony and cinnamon quills, or a mixture of dried powdered slippery elm bark, oat bran, and licorice root. The aim of each supplement was to normalize bowel movements.
The researchers found that the first slippery elm formula significantly increased bowel movement frequency along with less straining in the patients. Patients also reported less abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence. Participants taking the second formula experienced the same benefits, but to an even more significant degree. In particular, these patients recorded a 20% increase in bowel movement frequency.
3. Licorice Root
The root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant is extracted for its anti-inflammatory properties to treat IBS ailments. Licorice root is said to work as a calming agent on the digestive lining and membranes by stimulating mucus production.
It has also been shown to improve circulation within the digestive tract. Licorice root can, however, raise blood pressure, so high blood pressure patients should be closely monitored.
A study conducted by a team in Ireland examined the effects of a slippery elm and licorice root combination similar to the formula mentioned in the above study. This study found that licorice root alone reduced the symptoms of an ulcer, which are also seen in IBS patients.
In the 1980s, two compelling studies showed the effects of the flavonoids of licorice extract. As the extract targets the harmful bacteria within the intestinal tract, the bacterial balance of the gut is restored.
4. Aloe Vera
Aloe vera gel is found inside the leaves of the aloe plant. Commonly used topically as a treatment for skin conditions such as burns, cuts, and scrapes, aloe vera is also used to treat IBS symptoms when ingested as a juice.
This cucumber-flavored drink has been successful in alleviating constipation issues by acting as a laxative. But it also can worsen symptoms if taken in large quantities.
A study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences in 2013 found that using aloe vera juice was partially successful in treating IBS patients. For nearly 30 days, 35 participants were randomly given aloe vera capsules or a placebo.
Both groups saw constipation relief, but the abdominal pain of the IBS persisted. Other symptoms seemed not to be affected, either negatively or positively, in this study.
Yet, many patients report an improvement in the condition with the use of aloe vera juice for IBS symptoms.
It is important to note that aloe vera as a treatment for constipation has not been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. According to the American Cancer Society, there is a lack of evidence on the safety and success of the plant gel for such a use.
Turmeric has an active ingredient known as curcumin. In-depth scientific research has shown that curcumin stimulates changes within the cells’ communication paths.
The compound works as an anti-inflammatory agent in IBS patients to stop intestinal bleeding and the development of ulcers, and to remove irritation within the digestive tracts.
Clinical research has shown the positive effects of using turmeric as a treatment for IBS symptoms, as well as mood disturbances, which commonly accompany this digestive problem.
A human study published in 2004 involved the daily ingestion of turmeric extract tablets over an eight-week span. Participants reported a reduction in symptoms, including pain. The authors of the study were concerned about the self-reported results by participants and recommended more placebo-controlled studies, however.
A 2010 study involving rats found that the curcumin stimulated contractions in the muscles of the small intestines. In 2015, another animal study concluded that the positive effects of turmeric-based curcumin include improved digestive and bowel irregularities. These rats also showed a reduction in depressive, stress, and anxiety markers.
Not just a tasty vegetable, the has also been used as a medicinal treatment for high cholesterol and IBS symptoms. This plant, known scientifically as Cynara scolymus, also offers anti-inflammatory agents.
The leaf of the plant appears to stimulate bile production, which improves the digestion of fat, lowers intestinal disturbances, and hinders the contraction of abdominal muscles. Clinical studies involving IBS patients have focused on using artichoke leaf extract to enrich participants’ quality of life.
In 2001, a post-marketing supervision study looked at the use of this extract to treat IBS symptoms over a period of six weeks. More than 95% of participants reported a reduction in symptoms and good tolerance to the therapy.
A 2016-published study also suggests that IBS patients may benefit from use of artichoke leaf extract. Over a six-week period, 279 participants had reduced symptoms with nearly all also tolerating the extract well.
Further analysis of another study showed that constipation and diarrhea symptoms in some patients improved to the point that bowel movements became regular.
The artichoke leaf extract has also had success in preventing some symptoms in IBS patients.
The alfalfa perennial plant, also known as Medicago sativa, may offer IBS symptom relief while providing essential nutrients. These include potassium, iron, magnesium and vitamins A, D, E, and K.
These nutrients promote good bacteria within the intestinal system, which is essential to proper digestion. Alfalfa may have a cleansing effect on the digestive tract to alleviate symptoms of constipation, muscle constriction, and reduce inflammation.
Alfalfa taken for IBS symptoms is intended for short-term use as excessive intake may stimulate autoimmune conditions. This herb is not recommended as a treatment option for pregnant and nursing women.
8. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort has been widely used as a natural treatment option for depression. Clinical studies have shown this herb, Hypericum perforatum, to improve stress-related IBS symptoms in participants. The findings suggest that the herb’s ability to manage psychological stress and serotonin levels may result in fewer physical IBS symptoms.
Other studies have challenged this claim, showing no significant improvement in symptoms when comparing the use of the herb to a placebo for IBS treatment.
In a 12-week study, IBS participants were split into a placebo-receiving group and a group given St. John’s wort. Those ingesting the herb saw improvements related to mood disorders, which can present as harmful physical stress on the body. Pain, discomfort, constipation, and diarrhea were reduced in frequency and severity at the end of the trial.
The Maranta arundinacea plant produces the starch, arrowroot, which provides many essential vitamins and minerals. These include B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and phosphorus.
Arrowroot has been used mainly to treat diarrhea, and is said to work by softening and soothing the mucous membranes. This form of treatment has been studied in clinical trials with rats.
A human pilot study, published in 2000, focused on IBS symptom treatment with arrowroot. Surprisingly, IBS patients reported constipation relief as well as reduced diarrhea and abdominal pain as a result of using arrowroot. However, as mucus production was not seen in the intestinal tract, the researchers believed these findings may be challenged by the participants’ miscommunication and misunderstanding of their own symptoms.
Further studies may be required to confirm the use of arrowroot for IBS symptoms.
Psyllium is used as a gentle laxative for the treatment of constipation and mild cases of diarrhea. The seeds of the Plantago psyllium plant have been studied for such use in IBS patients in clinical trials.
A 2009-published study evaluated the use of psyllium in 275 IBS patients over a three-month treatment course. One group received this herb while the other consumed bran to ease constipation symptoms. The psyllium had a higher success rate in treating symptoms relating to the bowel irregularities.
Abdominal pain and discomfort were not alleviated with the use of psyllium in a review of separate studies of IBS patients. These studies recommend further investigation into the use of fiber for IBS treatment therapy.
11. Skullcap and Valerian Root
Skullcap and valerian root could be helpful herbal remedies for IBS attack. They both help with the nerves that regulate muscle function of the intestines. Take either of these at bedtime, too, so that they can soothe muscular function while you are sleeping.
12. Milk Thistle
The herb commonly overlooked as a weed, Silybum marianum, may alleviate painful symptoms of the IBS condition. Better known as milk thistle, this plant is thought to target the liver by stimulating bile production. This allows for the faster and easier breakdown of dietary fats within the intestinal tract.
Milk thistle may ease constipation issues as well as the accompanying pain and discomfort of muscle contraction. It also coats the intestinal lining.
Final Thoughts on Herbs for IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome is a manageable disease despite the pain, discomfort, and lasting symptoms.
This condition offers no direct cause but is associated with several triggers, including extreme stress and an inflamed intestinal tract.
Treating the symptoms is the first course of action in dealing with IBS.
Due to their anti-inflammatory properties, you may find relief in the form of herbs for IBS anxiety, gas, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, and other bowel movement irregularity symptoms.
As with any herbal remedy, check with your doctor or pharmacist first. They will inform you of any potential allergic reactions or drug interactions to avoid.
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