Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a collection of symptoms that can include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. Complementary therapies can help reduce the symptoms.
Some complementary therapies that may help with IBS include acupuncture, herbal remedies, and mind-body techniques.
It is important to note that, when it comes to IBS, everybody is different. What helps can depend on the root cause of the symptoms and a person’s individual response to different therapies. Because of this, it is a good idea to work with a gastroenterologist when considering complementary approaches.
Keep reading to learn more about complementary therapies for IBS, including diet, supplements, and more.
Before trying complementary therapies, it is important to understand that IBS affects people differently. The name “IBS” refers to a group of symptoms that vary from person to person.
Because of this, people can have very different responses to treatments for IBS. Many people have to try multiple approaches to find what works for them.
IBS is a functional disorder, which means the symptoms occur as a result of a problem with the way the intestines work. The exact cause is unclear, but there are a number of factors that may contribute,
IBS symptoms often benefit from dietary and lifestyle changes. This is where doctors typically start when treating someone with IBS. The standard approach to IBS often begins with:
- dietary changes to help a person avoid common food triggers
- lifestyle changes, such as getting regular exercise or practicing relaxation
- other changes, including anything that could be making the symptoms worse, such as a medication that is irritating the gut
As a result, the standard treatment for IBS has some crossover with approaches people might think of as “complementary.” However, with IBS, these diet and lifestyle changes can be enough to control symptoms and improve quality of life. This makes them a mainstay of IBS treatment.
Complementary treatment involves a person trying additional therapies alongside standard treatments. For example, a person might change their diet according to a doctor’s advice, but they might also try supplements or relaxation techniques recommended by another practitioner.
There is no one diet that helps everyone with IBS. Some may find they get symptom relief from only avoiding a few specific foods, while others may find they feel better avoiding a whole food group.
Because finding the right approach to food can be complicated, it helps to work with a dietitian who is knowledgeable about IBS. They can ensure that a person is getting adequate nutrition while they try out different approaches.
A common recommendation is gradually increasing fiber intake, as this can make stools softer and easier to pass for those with constipation. However, this approach may also make symptoms worse for some people.
Another approach is the low FODMAP diet. Highly fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) are carbohydrates that are hard to digest.
Because FODMAPs can trigger or worsen IBS symptoms, doctors may advise limiting high FODMAP foods. This may be both in terms of the type of food a person eats and the portion size.
Because many high FODMAP foods are nutritious, researchers have concerns about limiting them on a long-term basis. If following the low FODMAP diet for several weeks reduces a person’s symptoms, a dietitian may advise slowly reintroducing medium to high FODMAP foods, one at a time, to expand someone’s choices.
There are many supplements on the market that companies claim will help with IBS. A few have evidence behind them, but many do not.
When looking for supplements, remember to always:
- Do research: Look for credible evidence that a product does what it says it will.
- Check the quality: Look at the amount and origins of the ingredients on the label. Opt for reputable brands that use third-party testing to prove their products are pure.
- Tell a doctor: Ask a doctor about a supplement before taking it. They will be able to tell if it is likely to cause adverse effects or interact with someone’s medications.
Probiotics are species of beneficial bacteria. Research into probiotic supplements is still in its early stages, but there is some evidence that specific strains of bacteria may help with IBS.
After assessing five clinical trials, it found that the probiotic may significantly decrease IBS symptoms without any appreciable side effects.
However, people with IBS as a result of SIBO may have different responses to probiotics. A 2020 review notes that prior research on probiotic therapy in this group has been mixed. In some cases, probiotics seem to cause or worsen SIBO symptoms.
In the 12 studies researchers analyzed, seven reported improvements in IBS symptoms for those taking this supplement. There were few adverse effects, and the researchers deemed the treatment “safe and effective.”
However, it is worth noting that the long-term effect of taking essential oils internally is unknown. Generally, doctors advise against it.
Curcumin is a compound in turmeric. A
IBS is a physical illness and is not “in someone’s head.” However, because the gut has links to the brain and nervous system, it is directly affected by stress and emotions — and vice versa. This link is known as the gut-brain axis.
A 2019 review states that alterations in the brain-gut connection, along with stress, may predispose a person to IBS. Additionally, previous research suggests that people with IBS have high levels of certain inflammatory chemicals that are associated with anxiety and depression.
This may mean that therapies to relax the brain and body also have a positive influence on the gut. An older 2014 review analyzed eight clinical trials to ascertain the value of relaxation techniques in relieving IBS. The results suggested they have a positive effect.
Some mind-body therapies people may wish to try include:
- Relaxation techniques: This includes breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing, box breathing, and 4-7-8 breathing. It also includes progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and then relaxing muscles around the body, one at a time. The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders recommends practicing one of these exercises every day, even if only for 5 minutes, to bring down stress levels.
- Yoga: Yoga is an ancient practice that involves moving into different postures while controlling one’s breathing. A
small 2017 randomized controlled trialfound that 24 weeks of yoga practice reduced IBS symptoms to a similar extent as a low FODMAP diet. The researchers suggest that combining both yoga and dietary changes may be beneficial for IBS, but more large-scale trials are necessary.
- Hypnotherapy: This therapy involves a person entering a state of relaxed focus, at which point a hypnotherapist begins working to suggest new ideas or behaviors that a person wants to adopt. Gut-directed hypnotherapy (GDH) aims specifically to improve gut function. A small 2018 study found that GDH reduced IBS symptoms and their psychological impact but that it did not affect the microbiome. This suggests it may work by affecting the nervous system, but more research is necessary.
It is worth noting that there are many mind-body therapies beyond this. A 2020 review of studies on various types of mind-body therapies found that they all improved IBS symptoms to a similar degree. This included biofeedback, psychotherapy, meditation, and more.
People with anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular, may benefit from psychotherapy in order to reduce the impact these conditions have. It can also help people cope with the effect chronic illness has on their mental health.
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that involves a qualified practitioner placing very fine needles into the skin at specific points around the body. Scientists are not entirely sure how it works, but some evidence suggests it may help with IBS.
A 2019 meta-analysis of previous studies concluded that acupuncture worked better than a Western approach to treatment. The Western approach in this study included the use of medications such as antispasmodics, laxatives, and antidiarrheal drugs.
However, the researchers state that acupuncture worked best as an additional, complementary therapy, alongside medical treatment.
This study had some drawbacks, including potential for bias and the inclusion of some studies that had small groups of participants. More research is necessary to explore how well acupuncture might work in larger groups.
There are many complementary therapies for IBS that may help a person reduce their symptoms. While standard medical treatment often involves dietary and lifestyle changes, complementary therapies can also involve supplements, mind-body therapies, or techniques from alternative medical systems, such as TCM.
No matter what treatment a person chooses, it is important to discuss it with a doctor first. A doctor can help make informed decisions about a person’s care and advise on avoiding therapies that might be harmful.