An Ayurvedic View On Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Around 1 in 5 Australians experience the unpleasant symptoms of IBS at some point in time.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is also referred to as a “spastic colon”. It is characterised by cramps, gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea or both constipation and diarrhoea alternately. IBS is the second leading cause of missed days at work after the common cold (Cash, 2005).
Although it is not a serious health problem initially, it causes overtime nutritional deficiencies and inflammation which can progress to more serious conditions like colitis and cancer. But above everything else, it is an uncomfortable and unnerving condition.
The Western medical approach to this condition is to rule out a more serious problem with an array of tests, and then treat the condition symptomatically using medication such as anti-spasmodics, anti-diarrhoeal drugs, laxatives or fiber supplement such as Metamucil. Sometimes even anti-depressants are prescribed.
Cure is not expected because the root cause of IBS is unknown, although they acknowledge that stress plays a major role. IBS is not due to structural abnormalities but is exacerbated by certain foods or beverages, such as wheat, alcohol, coffee, chocolate or dairy products.
The Ayurvedic View
The Ayurvedic approach is a lot more hopeful. All illnesses are considered imbalances of the doshas (the three humours of the body), and most are treatable with balancing therapies.
The symptoms of variable intestinal functions as seen in IBS are signs of an imbalance of the Vata dosha (air/ether elements). Vata resides primarily in the colon, and when out of balance it creates changeable bowel movements and erratic symptoms (think when too much air, or wind collects in the colon we experience flatulence). Vata causes our digestive fire to be functioning like a candle blowing in the wind, causing churning, spasms and discomfort.
Vata is also responsible for the functioning of our nervous system. Therefore, events that cause our nervous system to become overactive such as stress, worry, a chaotic lifestyle, and lack of routine, are also causing an overactivity of our colon, which is IBS.
Stress and IBS
The connection between stress and IBS is now well documented. The mind and the gut are intimately connected via the enteric nervous system, so whatever is happening in one ultimately affects the other. They call this connection psychosomatic, meaning a psychological or emotional issue occurring in the mind has a corresponding manifestation in the body. Stress and anxiety are top contributors to psychosomatic disorders.
We have all felt this connection. For example, when we are nervous we get the feeling of butterflies in our stomach. Or when we see something repulsive, we may feel nauseas. This intimate link of the mind and body, and abnormality of brain-bowel function, is the main area of focus when treating IBS.
Stress can arise from a perceived or actual event that disturbs the balance between mind, brain, and body. Stress can occur with or without conscious feelings of anxiety, distress, or anger. Stress can be acute or chronic, and range from daily hassles to life-threatening events. So given this wide context of stress, there can be many triggers in life that are contributing to IBS – work demands, bills, relationship issues… just to name a few!
Because nervous system imbalance contributes to IBS, from the Ayurveda perspective Vata imbalance is an underlying cause of the condition and needs to be reversed. Addressing stressors is the first step. People suffering with IBS should work with their health care providers in developing a treatment plan unique to them and their specific presentation to address these issues effectively.
Meditation is the most profound tool for not only relieving stress symptomatically, but removing deep rooted stress from the physiology. It can vastly improve this uncomfortable condition.
According to Ellin Holohan, a study on meditation and IBS conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that a meditation practice helped to reduce emotional and psychological stressors. Moreover, women suffering from IBS who practiced meditation experienced a 38 percent drop in their symptoms (Gaylord et al, 2011).
Adopt a diet and lifestyle that does not aggravate Vata. Factors that increase Vata include:
- Irregular routine: a chaotic lifestyle or too much travel
- Irregular meal times or eating on the go
- Suppression of the urge to pass gas or stools
- Excessive fasting
- Lack of exercise
- Excessive change and stress
- Vata aggravating foods include:
- raw foods
- ice cold food and drink
- dry foods such as crackers
- excessive salads
- green smoothies
- heavy to digest legumes such as chickpeas and kidney beans.
These should be avoided in the diet.
There are also many herbs, body treatments, yoga poses and foods that assist in healing IBS. If you are experiencing digestive upset, then its best to see a practitioner who will work on formulating a unique program just for you.
All treatments in Ayurveda are prescribed only after a careful diagnosis of the patient’s dosha (mind body constitution), family history, sex, age, and stage of the disease. This will enable the patient to receive treatments that are specifically suited to their very needs. Ayurveda treatments will therefore vary from patient to patient.