How Functional Medicine Looks at Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease

by Marianne Beck, D.C.

Undoubtedly you’ve seen the rash of TV commercials that deal with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), such as the one in which a woman sitting at a table in a café has a sudden attack of diarrhea and must run to the restroom (actually what you see is a “pink colored intestinal tract” running to the restroom). Well, for millions of people, this is a very real problem. In fact, IBS/IBD affects 25 to 45 million people in the U.S. Two out of three IBS/IBD sufferers are female and about one in three is male. IBS/IBD affects people of all ages but most are under 50 and even children can be affected. Up to 40 percent of all visits to the gastroenterologist are due to IBS/IBD symptoms.

What is IBS?

IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder affecting the large intestine and is characterized by abdominal pain, gas, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, alternating diarrhea and constipation and the urgent need to defecate. Anxiety, depression and loss of appetite are also associated with IBS. Symptoms can be a mild inconvenience or severely debilitating and can control a person’s emotional, social or professional life. Mayo Clinic states that IBS is a “functional gastrointestinal disorder” of unknown cause, meaning your gastrointestinal tract is not working correctly and your doctor doesn’t know why! There is no cure, only medications that may treat some of the symptoms. This is where Functional Medicine differs. A Functional Medicine practitioner doesn’t want to cover up any symptoms but rather looks to uncover the root cause of WHY a patient has IBS. Since IBS is a collection of various symptoms as listed above, each individual can have a different root cause. Leaving the underlying cause untreated could lead to more serious conditions.

What is IBD?

IBD involves chronic inflammation of all or part of the digestive tract. IBD primarily includes colitis and Crohn’s disease which are classified as autoimmune. Symptoms are the same as in IBS, however, there can be rectal bleeding associated with IBD. This bleeding is caused by inflammation in the GI tract and causes erosions, ulcers and destruction of the intestinal lining. Any inflammation in the GI tract is caused by an immune reaction that produces inflammatory chemicals that damage the intestinal lining. Mayo Clinic states that all IBD is “idiopathic”, meaning the cause is unknown!

The Main Causes of IBS/IBD

A patient who presents with IBS/IBD symptoms may be found to have one or several of the following causes:

Food Intolerances. Food intolerances can cause abdominal pain, gas, bloat and varying consistencies of bowel movements identical to IBS symptoms. Food intolerance symptoms can be delayed up to 72 hours making it difficult to connect foods with symptoms. Gluten, dairy, soy, egg and corn are some foods that patients may be intolerant to that cause IBS symptoms due to their irritation and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Functional Medicine doctors teach you how to eliminate all inflammatory foods from the diet and can help identify if this is a cause of your IBS/IBD.

Leaky Gut. Your digestive tract acts as a barrier to keep parasites, yeast, pathogenic bacteria and toxins from getting into the bloodstream. When this barrier system is damaged and the cells that line the digestive tract break apart, these yeast, fungi, bacteria and their toxic byproducts can leak into the bloodstream where they do not belong. Your immune system then mounts a defense trying to get rid of these “foreign invaders” which causes inflammation of the digestive tract lining. When this happens, inflammatory chemicals are produced that get through the leaky gut lining into the bloodstream and cause not only IBS/IBD symptoms but also joint pain, arthritis, liver disease, depression, anxiety and vertigo as the inflammatory chemicals cross the blood- brain barrier and inflame the brain, as well as a host of other inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Functional Medicine doctors will use a Gut Restoration Program to help heal and seal up your leaky gut.

SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). SIBO occurs when bacteria from the large intestine, where 99 percent of our bacteria are found, migrate up into the small intestine where they do not belong. These bacteria, which eat the food we eat, start to ferment the different types of sugars that we eat from fruits and vegetables and grow in large numbers. IBS is very often mistaken for SIBO. Hydrogen and methane breath testing can be done to see if a patient has SIBO. If a patient is found to have SIBO, Functional Medicine doctors recommend a special diet to remove fermentable sugars being eaten. In addition to the diet, large numbers of bacteria may be eradicated by natural antimicrobials. High doses of probiotics are also given to reestablish the healthy gut flora.

Parasites and Yeasts. Parasite and yeast overgrowth are usually uncovered when a Functional Medicine doctor orders a Comprehensive 3-Day Stool Test. This is a highly specialized test and is nothing like a conventional stool test that your MD may do during an office visit. Yeast overgrowth by species of Candida can cause IBS symptoms like gas, bloat and diarrhea. Yeasts like Candida overgrow when our gut’s immune system is weakened, we eat too much sugar and when our normal gut flora are imbalanced. Good bacteria in our gut such as lactobacillus can keep Candida under control. However, when our normal good gut flora are compromised, yeasts are sure to grow. Candida along with other yeasts secrete toxins that can inflame the gut lining and contribute to leaky gut. Parasites can also grow in the gastrointestinal tract. Parasites such as blastocystis hominus, cryptosporidium, ascaris and giardia can be the common causes of inflammation and IBS that often go undiagnosed. If Candida is found, specific natural anti-fungal supplements can be given along with a low carbohydrate diet and specific probiotics that help “crowd out” yeasts. When parasites are discovered in a stool test, specific anti-parasitical nutraceuticals can be given along with probiotics.

Isn’t It Time You Finally Find the Root Cause of Your IBS/IBD?

Too many IBS/IBD sufferers are prescribed anti-inflammatory and steroidal medications for their symptoms instead of looking for the root cause of the inflammation in the first place! Functional Medicine has the tools to uncover probable root causes of your symptoms. Testing and treating for Leaky Gut, food intolerances, SIBO, parasites, yeasts and immune system imbalances are all necessary to truly heal patients with IBS/IBD symptoms.

Marianne Beck, D.C. is the director of Women’s BestHealth, 601 E. Sample Rd., Ste. 104, Pompano Beach. She has been in active practice for 36 years and is a functional medicine and clinical nutrition practitioner. For more information, call 954-782-4855 and visit WomensBestHealth.com

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