When you’re living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food is your foe. You’re pretty sure something in that ___________ (insert food you just ate here), left you feeling not so right. Worse, it made you look like you’re 7 months pregnant, and you never thought that you would have kids.
So what is the deal, you hear of specific diets that are great and helpful, but do they work for everybody? What is right for you? I’ve lived with IBS my entire life and I’ve helped myself and thousands of my patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) navigate the food conundrum successfully, so they can live their lives being the legends that they are. I can help you too. Find out the food rules here.
Food is Foundational to Your Health
We all know that we cannot live without food. Sure, we could survive for a while but eventually we just wouldn’t have enough gas in our systems to keep things going.
Food is the foundation of our lives, it nourishes our body mind and soul. It’s so sad that it is working against us and causing our symptoms. Or is it?
Food as the Cause of your Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Symptoms
I know that with IBS sometimes you wish that you could just live without eating, cause you’re positive that the burger you ate is what is giving you all your symptoms and making you feel, well, like crap. You’re bloated, you can’t poo or you poo too much, you’re gassy, crampy, you have pain.
It is just not ideal. What if I told you that it wasn’t so much about the food you are eating, but more about the way that your body is digesting!?
Freedom in your Food Choices
I love the saying, “It takes two to tango” and this is absolutely the truth in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Sure, you eat the food, and sure, you might not always make the right choices. A little too much pasta here, a little pizza there and oh – that cheesecake. These are definitely not the right combinations for you, but why aren’t you entitled to indulge a little bit too? Otherwise life feels like a prison, and when you EAT HEALTHY FOOD you still get symptoms. So it might not necessarily be about the freedom to choose between good and bad foods.
Healthy Food that Makes your IBS Worse
For me, as a naturopathic doctor student dealing with IBS, I was blown away by my limited food choices. I undertook several so called “healthy”, “gut healing” diets with hope in my heart that I would be able to overcome my predicament. I was really getting exhausted by my symptoms and worse, embarrassed and overwhelmed. It was too much to handle and my IBS was literally becoming a full time job with lots of unpaid overtime.
The Healthy Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diets Didn’t Work
Diet after diet, the healthier I was supposed to get, didn’t happen. Actually, I felt worse and worse. My naturopathic doctors would say, “Don’t worry, push through it’s just a healing crisis” otherwise known as a Herxheimer Reaction. This is a reaction to healthy healing products or diets and is contributed to die off of bad bacteria in your body. It basically makes your symptoms worse and worse before they get better, and can be due to your inability to be able to clear the die off. All disclaimers aside, in many cases it’s true, but when you keep on getting worse and worse and the healing crises never ends, there is a big problem.
Your Irritable Mind Goes to the Worst Case Scenario
Here I was trying to get better desperately, but I was just feeling worse. I really started to question if it was really IBS that I had or something much more menacing, scary, unspeakable. The Big C. Yup, Cancer. I was petrified and horrified and worried that if I did have the C word, and I didn’t get better sooner, I was a goner.
Can Healthy Food Irritate an Irritable Bowel?
Luckily that was the work of a highly active imagination, trying to understand why I wasn’t responding to the diets. It’s that the healthy food in the diets was healthy, yes, but what I didn’t know was that maybe those healthy foods just weren’t healthy for me. ‘Cause I’m me and I’m different (headcase and all, you hear me!)
It’s at that point I got fed up and started looked for answers in my food. I asked my naturopathic doctor to test my food allergies.
Food Sensitivity (Not Allergy) Testing Solution
We tested and I was in awe with the results. I was sensitive to all the healthy foods, namely rice, almonds, kale, broccoli, turmeric and dairy (this last one I don’t really consider healthy but I wanted to list it because it was my sensitivity). I was blown away, also devastated that the other 5 naturopaths I had seen hadn’t recommended for me to do this invaluable test. It could have saved me so much pain.
That day for me was like the sun came out from behind the clouds, the fog lifted and all I could hear in my head were two songs. Hallelujah and I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I knew what was wrong with my food!
Is Food Sensitivity Research Valid?
But alas, thank God, for it was because of this experience that I am adamant with my patients about requesting them to test their food sensitivities. Many complain that the research may not be 100% valid1, but to me it is beneficial enough. It’s telling us that certain foods are causing inflammation and immune reactions in our bodies2 3.
For me that’s good enough proof and it’s important to do because those are two main areas that mess up our bodies as we are trying to heal. In effect, it’s a relatively harmless way (you just need to get poked and have a few vials of blood drawn) that we can get some good clues that prevent so much suffering.
Click here for more information on food sensitivity testing in the US.
First Steps after Receiving my Food Sensitivity Results
So I proceeded to take those foods out of my diet, and my diet looked drastically different from other sufferers of IBS. It’s then that I realized you REALLY, REALLY need to figure out a plan that is individual to you. Did my symptoms drastically all go away? No not really, I definitely saw improvement but I really wasn’t out of the weeds yet. I had some more clearing and detective work to do.
Food isn’t the Only Culprit, Say Hello to your Digestion
Food – meet digestion – you two have to work together now. Come on, play nice. Food choices do matter but it’s not the only thing. For some reason we blame everything that comes from the outside. It’s the bacteria, the food, instead of realizing that we have a role to play in this too. Where I was missing the mark was in my digestion.
My digestion wasn’t working well, I hesitate to even say it was working at all. Digestion is much more than how we digest our food, it’s also how we digest life, and at that point I sure wasn’t digesting food or life well at all.
What if it is simply that we are lacking the ability to properly DIGEST the foods we eat? Nibble on that my friends.
The Other Side of Food: Digestion in Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Digestion, you see, is the other side of the coin. The milk with my cookie, the pie in my eye. You get the point. Even if you have figured out which foods you’re sensitive to and are making you not well, you also have to figure out what could be up with your digestion, or not up at all.
My Digestion is a Disaster
Digestion is gentle, like a child that needs to be nurtured. Like a child, it can also have tantrums and those tantrums can be extremely hard to get out of. It is also highly responsive to a variety of different stimuluses that can shut it down:
- Stress4 – Emotional, mental, or physical, digestion doesn’t care and reacts negatively to each type of stress the same
- Acidity and Inflammation – Tightly regulated enzymes function at a certain pH and irritation to mucous membranes via inflammation equals loss
- Unhealthy Microbiome – Gut bacteria will switch from carbohydrate fermentation to protein catabolism the longer that it stays in your body
- Back Up of Stools – The longer stools stay in, the higher the risk of sensitivity and allergy
- Lack of Antioxidants – Antioxidants are needed to protect the gentle mucosa of the digestive tract. Faster transit time creates amazing molecules that heal the lining of digestive tract.
1. Stress as a Major Factor in Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Stress has got a bad wrap but unfortunately, stress, you deserve it! Sorry not sorry! With irritable bowel, studies show that we have a change in cortisol (A.K.A. the stress hormone) that pumps out of our systems. It is significantly increased in the morning and drops in the evening5. This is also seen with people who don’t have IBS but have a significant amount of stress and functional dyspepsia, meaning problems with digestion in their stomach. This elevation of cortisol increases your risk for infections like H.Pylori, the culprit in stomach ulcer conditions6.
Fortunately our circadian day/night cycle observes the same rhythm as healthy subjects, this is a big win that actually keeps us balanced.
Increased Stress Hormone Cortisol in Irritable Bowel Syndrome
So big deal! I have more stress hormone in the morning than most. Well it’s actually a huge deal when you’re stressed and the soup of our hormones and neurotransmitters is not in optimum balance. It sets up your body and more importantly, your gut and digestion to be out of balance too.
In rat models, with forced mother separation to mimic a stressful situation, changes were noted in the microbiome as well as the motility of the digestive tract7. In addition, scientists have been tracking the oral digestive enzyme, salivary alpha-amylase and Immunoglobulin A (only found in the digestive tract8) because these could serve as an excellent biomarker or test for stress.
It has been noted that when cortisol is elevated there is an increase in this digestive enzyme that breaks down sugar, to help you get quick energy to deal with the stressor9. We’ve know for years that there are alterations to how you digest with stress and this is a huge aspect of IBS10.
Is Stress the Cause of my Leaky Gut?
In fact, many may label Irritable Bowel Syndrome as a disorder of your gut-brain axis, causing symptoms of pain in the abdomen but also affecting motility and how food is digested and moved through your system11. Under stress and elevations of stress hormone, your intestinal membrane is also unhealthy and lacks integrity. A popularized term used to describe this is “LEAKY GUT”. It’s obvious that if your intestinal wall is full of holes, digestion isn’t going to be in its best state.
So the take home is we have to relax and adopt practices and strategies that will reduce our cortisol surges. To fix this, I practice my castor oil pack at night, it works not only to reduce the pain I may be experiencing, but castor oil packs also help to move your system into the relaxed state, therefore decreasing your stress hormone and response.
They do this because of the touch on the skin of the actual pack component. The soft fabric stimulates receptors in the skin and transmits a message to the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system, the one involved in rest and digest functions of the body and gives you a sensation of calm. In fact, so well that the touch of soft12 organic cotton sherpa stimulates the limbic part of your brain, the area in charge of emotion that produces feel-good satisfaction hormones like dopamine13. It can mimic the feeling you get when you having an amazing, satisfying, fatty meal. Wow!
Wait there’s more! This same touch, like the touch of the castor oil pack, has recently been shown to elicit the hormone oxytocin14, the love and connection hormone that is high after sex, but highest when giving birth. That is just incredible because we lack these hormones in our systems because many of us are not feeling the love. This is one thing that you can do for YOURSELF daily to help you get in the LOVE.
What is a Castor Oil Pack?
A castor oil pack is a legendary practice used since ancient times. They are popular in the medical system (more so in the early 1900s), midwives and naturopathic and functional medicine practices. The pack is as easy as applying oil to a compress and placing it on your body, under your right ribcage for a minimum of 1 hour to overnight. It’s a daily practice with considerable benefit.
If you would like a pack, here is the one that I personally use for myself and my patients!
2. PH of our Digestive Tract is VITAL for Balance
One of the most important balances in our bodies that affects every organ is pH, otherwise known as acid base balance.
pH is disturbed in our bodies with inflammation15 mainly due to the lack of oxygenation of the tissues and changes that happen in the body16. It is safe to say, where there is inflammation there is also acidity of the tissues.
In digestion we want certain pH’s in certain areas because they exert a function. A low acidic pH, is what triggers the enzyme pepsinogen to cleave and function17 in the stomach, breaking down protein.
During fasting, the pH of your stomach acid can go from 1 up to 4.5 during a meal18. The larger the meal, the higher your pH goes. The more basic it becomes (the opposite of acid), the less able you are to digest.
So to improve this aspect of your digestion, eat smaller meals to keep your pH in the right place. Follow the principles of digestibility you incur. So here is where small meals are key. HARA HACHI BU, eat until you are 80% full, that keeps your digestive juices going in the right direction19.
To address the inflammation, you’re already doing it, the castor oil pack as we discussed above is one of the best methods to reduce local inflammation20. Castor oils’ chemical structure mimics a prostaglandin21 of the human body, making it an effective anti-inflammatory. When used locally as a pack it is a great tool to reset the digestive tract.
3. Microbiome, Digestion and IBS
It’s no surprise that everyone is talking about the bugs in our guts and how they impact what we digest. They work with us to provide us with nutrients like B vitamins and other goodies that heal up our gut lining and help us be better. That is if we’ve got good bugs down there, the ones we call probiotics and not the bad ones.
Bad bugs, I like to term conbiotics™, which I came up with to give you a good picture of what they do. They are con artists of the bug world. They take up residence in your hospitable, inflamed digestive tract and wreak havoc. Bad deals, gangster shootings, using up all of your metabolites that you need to feel good. Worst of all, their metabolic byproducts are so nauseating22, smelling like methane and other such delights that it makes it uncomfortable to be in your skin and digest anything.
All in all, you don’t want them because they mess up your system.
First things first, the conbiotics have to ability to create a protective barricade known as biofilm. This biofilm is a mix that is quite impermeable and difficult to get through. To get rid of conbiotics™, we must first break this down.
The best tool is castor oil packs! Are you beginning to see a theme? I know I am. Castor oil has shown to be more effective in the human body, as compared to chemical solutions, at breaking down biofilm23 24 25 26. This is a huge win that gives your body a fighting chance to improve your microbiome. Biofilm makes changing your microbiome very difficult, so with castor oil it is a clear home run. Plus you’re already doing those castor oil packs to help with stress reduction, inflammation reduction and pH balance.
But What About the Probiotics, Do I Take a Supplement?
At first, I recommend to actually start by drinking green tea. It has shown to have the ability to modify your gut microbiome into a healthier spectrum of bugs27 that will improve your digestion. Green tea, in combination with castor oil packs is my go to for patients. Not only to fix the bugs, but it’ll also improve the pain, gas and bloating you may be experiencing.
4. Back Up Of Stools, Brimming with Food Sensitivities
Because my irritable bowel syndrome was overwhelming my system, I was experiencing all the symptoms – the gas, the bloating, and worst of all I really didn’t have good bowel movements. I would alternate between constipation, which would keep me bunged up for days and diarrhea. What I didn’t realize that when I was constipated, the longer that food and stools stay in your body, the greater likelihood that you are to create sensitivity and allergy to those foods28. WHAT!!!!???? Yup.
This means that because I wasn’t regular, I was in effect the creator of my food sensitivities. So part of the solution was to get my bowels moving regularly.
Castor oil packs came, once again, to the rescue of my irritable bowel syndrome. They have been shown to improve elimination, the sensation of complete evacuation29 as well as stimulating smooth muscle contraction30 of the intestine to create bowel movements.
Be cautious though, because castor oil packs shouldn’t be used during pregnancy because they also stimulate the smooth muscle of the uterus. Definitely not what you want when you’re pregnant!
5. Antioxidants that Preserve and Improve your Digestion
Because of my bowel backup, my body was having problems dealing with all the toxicity that I had in my system. The more toxins that stay in your body, the more that you use up important antioxidants to keep your body healthy.
Lack of antioxidants, especially if you’re backed up and recirculating toxicity, sets you up for a never improving conditions because we need those antioxidants to protect the digestive health and the mucosal membrane.
So I brought out my trusted friend again to help with this aspect of my digestion dilemma. Castor oil has been shown to improve glutathione status31, a molecule utilized to heal the gut lining, move out toxins and overall, keep you healthy. All chronic disease conditions experience a low level of glutathione in the body, so anything you can do to make it work better is money in the bank. Thank God for the castor oil packs.
IBS Next Steps
So this was my easy 5 step solution to helping improve the tango that was going on between food and digestion with my IBS. It did wonders and was inexpensive and easy to do. Castor oil packs, green tea and Hara Hachi Bu (eating until you are 80% full) are some of the simplest lifestyle tweaks that will make major impact on your life.
By no means is it the only thing. There are more steps to come, but I find for me and my patients, I like starting here. It’s good to feel better when you have an irritable bowel because we often don’t feel well.
What I love about the simplicity of the castor oil pack is that it is an all in one that not only treats you but helps you to connect to you. It sets the foundation for your food, your digestion, your stress, and any treatments or supplements that you want to take so that they are better absorbed.
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