Ayurveda for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder characterized by serious and sometimes debilitating episodes of abdominal cramping, pain, and gas. IBS can include both diarrhea and constipation. While the symptoms of IBS point to a problem in the colon, the exact cause of IBS is still unknown. Current medical treatment options include fiber therapy, nutritional changes, and some antispasmodic medications. Ayurvedic medicine is an alternative, holistic approach to healing the body while seeking balance with mind and spirit, which can also be used to address Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
How Can Ayurveda Help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Some Ayurvedic clinics have developed specific treatment protocols for addressing IBS.
Most of these protocols involve activities in the following areas:
Elimination of impurities
Individuals with an imbalance in the pitta dosha, the natural forces at work in the body associated with the digestive system, will likely undergo a digestive cleansing process. This can be achieved through several possible means, including fasting, special diets, laxatives, enemas, and ingestion of oils infused with particular herbs and minerals.
Reduction of symptoms
Strategies include yoga, meditation, sun therapy, and taking herbs (often suspended in honey) to improve the functioning of the digestive system.
Addressing psychological issues
Special emphasis is placed on reducing anxiety and increasing emotional balances. Strategies can include yoga and meditation, exercise, and other techniques.
Ayurvedic medicine views the body as a system of vital points that store and distribute energy. Massage can be focused on points related to digestive dysfunction. Ayurvedic massage is meant to address both physical and psychological imbalances.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda may be the world’s most ancient medical system. Developed in India over 5,000 years ago, the Ayurvedic system focuses on creating a harmonious integration in the balances between the body, the mind, and the spirit. While its central goal is to promote wellness and not necessarily to fight illness, Ayurvedic medicine is also used to prevent illness from developing. The philosophical system that supports Ayurveda proposes that health is determined by individuals, their relationships, and their relationship to the universe. Treatment attempts to address any imbalances in this system.
An Ayurvedic practitioner will be especially focused on the body’s constitution, or general health, as it pertains to balance and smooth functioning. The constitution (or prakriti) is seen as a blend of physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects. Three critical qualities (called dosha) influence the shape of an individual’s constitution. These dosha are comprised of one or more of the world’s five basic elements: space, fire, water, air, and earth, in varying proportions. Imbalances, both between and within each dosha, are uniquely related to different bodily problems.
One of the three doshas is pitta. This dosha is linked to hormone control and regulation of the digestive system. Imbalances in pitta have both emotional and physical consequences, including hostility, jealousy, heartburn, and other digestive disruptions.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder centered in the colon, the final portion of the human digestive tract, which is approximately six feet long when laid out straight. When material leaves the small intestine and enters the colon (also referred to as the large intestine), two sets of muscles begin to contract in rhythm (one set in a circular rhythm, the other in a progressive rhythm, moving waste materials towards the rectum). The colon absorbs excess water for the body and is also specialized to extract minerals. In individuals with IBS, the colon’s two sets of muscles spasm, disturbing the necessary rhythm, and creating the symptoms associated with the disorder.
Although researchers have not found the exact cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), studies have confirmed that individuals with IBS have extra-sensitive colons. They can be easily induced to spasm by even mild stimulation. Movement of the colon’s two muscle groups (referred to as “colon motility”) is controlled by both nerves and hormones, as well as the electrical activity produced by the colon. In normal circumstances, colon motility is well regulated, with the colon’s electrical circuitry acting like a pacemaker. In IBS, colon motility is spasmodic and irregular, and the pacemaker appears to have temporarily turned off.
What Are the Symptoms and Triggers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
The primary symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are: abdominal pain, bloating and distention, and irregular bowel movements. Individuals may also experience constipation, extreme difficulty in producing bowel movements. Stool can be excessively dry, and this individual might pass mucous and blood as well. Mucous is created in these situations to help provide lubrication. Other individuals experience excessive diarrhea, which is produced when not enough water has been reabsorbed by the colon. Some individuals have bowel patterns that alternate between these two extremes. For a formal diagnosis, the symptoms must have occurred for at least 12 weeks of the last 12 months. The 12 weeks do not have to be consecutive.
Researchers have discovered a set of circumstances, or triggers, that can exacerbate IBS and initiate episodes, including:
- Stress and emotional conflict
- Eating overly large meals
- Foods high in fat content
- Dairy products
- Some prescription and over-the-counter medications
How is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) treated?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is predominately approached through alterations in diet. Individuals are encouraged to avoid foods likely to stimulate an episode and to increase their intake of insoluble fiber, found in whole-grain products, cereals, and beans. A doctor may recommend that a patient also utilize over-the-counter fiber supplements. Individuals using fiber want to make sure that they are consuming the right amount, as high-fiber diets can sometimes cause additional gas and bloating.
Doctors recommend that IBS patients eat smaller meals more frequently, putting less stress on the digestive tract. They may also prescribe a variety of medications. Some may target water retention in the colon, others may focus on colon motility—no single pharmaceutical approach has yet emerged as the best approach.
Ayurvedic medicine can help Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) by treating the patient holistically, altering diet to reduce negative impact of foods on the digestive system, reducing mental stress’ impact on the digestive system, and creating a harmony of mind, body and spirit.
Additional Resources on Irritable Bowel Syndrome
American Gastroenterological Association
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Additional Resources on Ayurvedia
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine
The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa