Dealing With IBS - Go Magazine Feb 2013

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects four million Australians; it is twice as common in women and may often affect people younger than 45.  Mary-Kay Harrison investigates ways to alleviate symptoms naturally.

People with IBS may suffer varying degrees of constipation, diarrhoea (or alternating between both), abdominal aches and cramping (sometimes relieved by passing a bowel motion), bloating, flatulence, passing mucus, nausea or reduced appetite.  The symptoms can last a few hours, days or weeks and greatly intrude on people’s work and social lives.

The actual cause of the IBS is not well understood, however being perceptive to factors that may trigger an IBS attack may help reduce its onset and duration. 

Researchers suggest that a combination of physical and/or mental health issues can contribute to IBS.  Some factors include the rate that food passes through the intestines called motility (slower motility causes constipation, faster causes diarrhoea), hypersensitivity of nerve endings that line the intestine (causing painful contractions as food passes through), altered hormones – heightened during menstruation, family history, mental health issues ranging from depression, panic disorder, anxiety and stress, all of which may contribute to the onset and duration of IBS.

Treating IBS

Diet and nutrition

It’s important to know which foods will worsen or trigger IBS.   If you’re unsure, keep a food diary for a couple of weeks and record everything you eat and note any side effects with the aim of reducing offending foods from your diet.

Avoid large meals; opt for smaller more frequent meals, which will be easier on the gut to digest.  Try to avoid late night meals which burden the digestive system at bedtime.

Adding fibre to your diet may assist with constipation relief.  Studies have shown that soluble fibre is better tolerated.  Foods high in soluble fibre include: apples, pears, grapefruit, berries, barley, brown rice, figs, oatmeal and oat bran and psyllium husks.

When increasing fibre in your diet, start slowly and build up to 10-25g per day.  Drink plenty of water or herbal teas throughout the day. Lightly cooked fibre is better digested.

Consider supplementing your diet with:

  • Probiotics – Lactobacillus plantarum and Bifidobacterium infantis restore and maintain the natural balance of bacteria in the gut, providing a protective layer and improving symptoms of IBS such as bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea and cramps.


  • Aloe vera – studies show it improves gastro-intestinal function, colonic bacteria activity, gastro-intestinal pH levels, and gastro-intestinal motility.  Relieves symptoms particularly for constipation-dominant IBS as it has a laxative component.  Use slowly at first and monitor your body’s response. 


  • Magnesium and calcium – aid in nerve conduction, assist in muscle contraction and relaxation, reducing muscle spasms as well as overall support of nervous system during stress, depression or anxiety, and menstruation.


  • Ginger and chamomile – anti-inflammatory, calming, anti-spasmodic to help calm digestive tract and reduce symptoms such as bloating and abdominal cramps.  Take as herbal teas or supplements.  Peppermint is also a good choice for assisting digestion.


If you are taking prescription medicines, please check with your doctor before adding supplements to your daily regime. 

Mental health and reducing stress

Various therapies are available to assist IBS sufferers, these include:  talk therapy, hypnotherapy and mindfulness training.   Weekly exercise aids in stress relief, try incorporating 10-30 mins of relaxation activities into your day.

When to see a doctor

It’s important to have your IBS diagnosed by a doctor, as the symptoms of IBS can sometimes mimic other conditions such as coeliac disease, lactose intolerance or intestinal infections.  The Gastroenterological Society of Australia advises seeing your doctor if:

  • you have blood in your bowel motions
  • you are over the age of 40 and your symptoms have come on recently
  • you've lost weight or
  • a family history of bowel cancer.

Research is continuing on aloe vera’s health benefits!  Together with healthy dietary and lifestyle changes, stress reduction and exercise, aloe vera juice may help calm and soothe an irritated digestive system.  


Mary-Kay Harrison is a qualified nutritionist, possessing dual science degrees and is a registered member of Australian Natural Therapists Association.


This article originally featured in Go Magazine Feb 2013 produced by Go Vita

- Print