IBS: Multiple Causes and the Functional Medicine Approach

by | Nov 13, 2023 | gut health and digestion

Are you feeling intense abdominal pain accompanied by changes in bowel habits? Do you experience constipation, diarrhoea or alternate between both? If so, you might be suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive disorder affecting millions worldwide. The symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, loose stools and constipation characterise IBS. They can significantly impact a person’s quality of life. While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, it is likely the result of multiple factors, including genetics, diet, stress, and gut dysbiosis.

The traditional approach to managing IBS has focused on treating the symptoms, such as using laxatives for constipation or anti-diarrhoeal medications. However, a better way is to address the underlying causes of IBS using the principles of functional medicine. This approach looks at how lifestyle and dietary factors contribute to irritation in the gut and works to restore optimal health.

Improving Your Quality of Life Through Functional Medicine

Functional medicine is a holistic and integrative approach to healthcare that addresses the underlying causes of health issues rather than simply treating symptoms. If you suffer from IBS, this approach can help you manage multiple causative factors and improve your quality of life.

By taking a functional medicine approach to addressing IBS, you can reduce inflammation in the gut, heal the lining of the intestines and improve digestion. This approach looks at the underlying causes of IBS, such as chronic stress, diet, bacterial overgrowth and lifestyle factors, and uses evidence-based therapies such as elimination diets or lifestyle modifications to address them.

Lifestyle Interventions for Managing IBS

One of the vital components of a functional medicine approach to managing IBS is implementing lifestyle interventions. These can include stress management techniques, such as yoga or meditation, and dietary changes, such as eliminating trigger foods and modifying fibre intake. Exercise and getting enough sleep can also play a role in reducing inflammation and improving gut health. By prioritising these lifestyle interventions, you can support your body’s natural healing processes and better manage your symptoms of IBS.

Dietary Changes for IBS

If you have IBS, you may experience frustrating symptoms. Bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain can all affect daily life. Social situations may be uncomfortable. But there is hope. Simple dietary changes may alleviate some symptoms and help you feel better.

It’s essential to pay attention to the types of foods you eat. Certain foods can be challenging to digest and can trigger IBS symptomsFoods like beans, onions, garlic, and broccoli contain FODMAPs. These fermentable carbohydrates can cause bloating, gas, and abdominal pain in people with IBS.

Limiting or avoiding foods high in fat may also help, as fats can slow digestion and exacerbate symptoms. Additionally, it’s essential to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water throughout the day to promote healthy digestion.

Eating slowly and thoroughly chewing your food are great ways to improve digestion. Eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day rather than three large meals can help keep your digestive system moving smoothly. On the other hand, some people find that intermittent fasting can help to reduce IBS. Again, experimenting a little and seeing what works for you can be a good idea.

Understanding the Low FODMAP Diet for IBS

FODMAPS are short-chain carbohydrates not digested but fermented by gut microbiota, causing painful symptoms such as gas, bloating, and cramping. The low FODMAP diet was developed by Monash University, specifically for those with IBS. It involves reducing the intake of these problematic carbohydrates.

The acronym FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These carbohydrates are naturally found in many foods, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains. While these foods are typically healthy, they can cause issues for those with IBS due to their difficulty digesting them properly.

The low FODMAP diet works by eliminating high FODMAP foods from your diet for a while, typically 2-6 weeks. After this elimination period, you slowly reintroduce these foods into your diet to determine which ones are causing your symptoms. This allows you to create a personalised diet that works for your needs and helps manage your IBS symptoms.

Some examples of high FODMAP foods include onions, garlic, apples, pears, wheat, and lactose-containing dairy products. Low FODMAP alternatives include berries, bananas, gluten-free grains, and lactose-free dairy products.

Why Wheat is Not Always the Culprit for IBS

If you’re suffering from IBS, you may have heard it can help to avoid wheat. Wheat contains two groups of FODMAPs, but only some are sensitive to these. Wheat is also a common ingredient in many foods, making it difficult sometimes to pinpoint the exact cause of digestive distress. However, it’s essential to understand that only some people with IBS have a wheat allergy or food intolerance.

This makes it challenging but not impossible to determine whether wheat is indeed the culprit or simply one of many triggers for IBS symptoms. The best way to find out if you are sensitive to wheat is to avoid it for a while and see if this helps. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to IBS; finding what works for you may take some trial and error.

Herbal medicine and IBS

Many herbal remedies can help with IBS; if you’re unsure what to try, it is best to work with the guidance of a qualified herbalist. They can help you identify the right herbs for your symptoms and ensure you take them correctly. Some common herbs used for IBS include peppermint, ginger, valerian, and chamomile. However, if you’re pregnant or taking prescription medications, it’s best to consult a herbalist before starting new herbal remedies.

Herbal medicine is an integral part of a functional medicine approach to treating IBS. Herbalists are experts in the use of medicinal plants and can help create a personalised herbal protocol for you. An individualised herbal protocol may include dietary modifications, lifestyle changes, and herbs and supplements that can help reduce inflammation, support digestion, and restore balance to the gut microbiome.

Generally, herbalists work in private practice, either in-person or online. You can book a discovery call with me to find out more.

Which Supplements help IBS?

Some people find that a digestive enzyme supplement can help with their digestive symptomsDigestive enzymes help to bolster the body’s own enzymes that break down our food. If you don’t produce enough digestive enzymes of your own, a supplement can help. On the other hand certain herbal medicines can help your body to produce its own enzymes and this is where a herbalist can help personalise your protocol.

Another supplement that people often ask me about are probiotics. These supplements can help to improve gut health by reducing harmful bacteria and improving bacterial balance. Probiotic brands that contain single species, used for a short period of a few weeks and at low dose, are often the most effective. However, probiotics  can sometimes increase gas and bloating. If this occurs, it is usually short lasting. One way to get round this is to reduce the dosage of the probiotic and build up very slowly.

Research also found that propolis supplementation was able to reduce abdominal pain in people with constipation and mixed bowel movements types of IBS.


In conclusion, IBS can be a complex and frustrating gastrointestinal disorder. Still, with the right approach, it is possible to find reliefFunctional medicine offers a comprehensive and personalised approach to addressing the multiple underlying causes of IBS. By identifying and addressing these root causes, such as gut dysbiosis, food sensitivities, and stress, functional medicine can help alleviate symptoms and improve digestive health, overall health and well-being. If you are struggling with IBS, consider seeking a functional medicine practitioner with knowledge of herbal medicine to help you find the best approach for your unique situation.


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