Many people are uncertain whether they suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
IBD and IBS have similarities — both can harm digestive function and other body systems. However, they each have different causes and symptoms.
IBD causes chronic inflammation in different areas of the digestive tract, which begins at the mouth and ends at the anus.
IBD is a chronic condition. It currently has no cure. There are two main types of IBD:
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
Crohn's disease is a chronic, long-term auto-immune disease that affects the digestive tract.
It causes inflammation and gradual weakening of the gastrointestinal lining, making digestion difficult and painful, and reducing the absorption of essential nutrients.
The cause of Crohn's disease is unknown. Several theories exist, such as bacterial dysbiosis, environmental factors, and genetics — though none of these theories have been proven.
As with any chronic condition, many contributing factors are likely at play.
Crohn's disease can affect all and any parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Most commonly it affects the ileum — the lower section of the small intestine — or the colon or large intestine.
Over time, Crohn’s disease can lead to blockage of the intestines due to gradual thickening of the intestinal wall, swelling, and fissures or ulcerations.
Nutritional complications such as deficiencies of vitamins, calories, and proteins, are also common in Crohn's disease. Nutritional deficiencies may arise, due to poor absorption of nutrients, inadequate daily nutrition, allergic reaction, or loss of protein from the intestines.
Osteoporosis and liver disease are further complications of Crohn’s disease.
Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a chronic disease that causes inflammation of the large intestine. It can also cause ulceration of the lining of the intestine.
UC differs from Crohn’s disease in that it does not affect the full thickness of the colon and never affects the small intestine.
UC usually begins at the rectum or sigmoid colon and progresses either partially or entirely throughout the rest of the large intestine.
Although the exact cause of colitis is unknown, there are several possible causes, including a genetic abnormality in the immune system, antigens, immune disturbances such as an infection, or dysbiosis.
Ulcerative colitis is usually caused by a combination of hereditary and environmental factors, such as poor nutrition and psychological stress.
This disorder is just as common to both sexes and is most often diagnosed in people in their 30s.
Symptoms of IBD may include some or all of the following:
- Rectal bleeding
- Bloody stools
- Sudden urge to have a bowel movement
- Abdominal cramping
- Loss of appetite
- Unexpected weight loss
- Joint pain
IBD symptoms tend to vary considerably from person to person. Typically, symptoms depend on the location and severity of the inflammation. Often times symptoms can cycle, and many sufferers experience periods of remission, followed by periods of symptom flare-ups.
Treatment for IBD
Unfortunately, there is no cure for IBD. The main goals of treatment are to manage symptoms and to keep IBD sufferers in remission as much as possible.
The treatment your physician recommends will depend upon the severity of your symptoms.
Medications to treat IBD
- Aminosalicylates: Can be used to treat mild symptoms of IBD. Aminosalicylates help to reduce inflammation.
- Immunomodulators: Can be used to treat mild to moderate IBD. Among this type of medication are azathioprine and steroids. These drugs suppress the activity of the immune system to reduce inflammation.
- Biologics: When other treatments have not worked, your doctor may prescribe biologics. They reduce inflammation by targeting specific areas of the immune system.
In some severe cases of IBD, surgery is recommended to bypass or remove damaged parts of the gastrointestinal tract. However, due to current advancements in medication, surgery is becoming less common.
Natural Treatments for IBD Symptoms
There are several lifestyle changes IBD sufferers can make to alleviate specific symptoms. These include:
Maintaining a healthy diet
You can reduce IBD symptoms by eliminating foods that may exacerbate IBD. These can include spicy foods, fatty foods, gluten-containing foods, raw fruits, dairy products, and caffeine. Keep in mind food affects all of us differently.
The best way to find out which foods trigger your IBD symptoms is to keep a food diary and consider an elimination diet.
Get regular exercise
Exercise is beneficial for IBD because it can help to strengthen a weakened immune system and reduce the risk of decreased bone density.
It can also help improve emotional health and help to manage stress. Exercise should be considered carefully as many people with IBD experience pain and fatigue.
Keeping stress levels low can help ease IBD symptoms. Combat stress with progressive relaxation, breathing exercises, and creative visualization.
Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. These healthy fats are found in foods such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, flax seeds, and chia seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be taken as a dietary supplement.
Psyllium seed powder
Psyllium seed powder (not husk) can help to stimulate the anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acid butyrate, which IBD sufferers often don't have enough of. The psyllium seed can also reduce diarrhea episodes quite effectively and quickly.
Curcumin is the active substance found in turmeric — an Indian spice. Curcumin has both anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant functions.
Various nutrients are essential for immune modulation and symptom alleviation in IBD. Many people with IBD are already deficient in these and become even more so over time as the disease progresses. These include Vitamins A and D, zinc, folate, calcium, iron, B12, calcium, and magnesium.
There is mixed evidence for the use of probiotics in IBD. The evidence that does exist is much stronger for the use of probiotics in ulcerative colitis rather than Crohn’s disease. VSL #3 currently has the most evidence in its favor for use in ulcerative colitis.
Saccharomyces boulardii may help reduce intestinal permeability (leaky gut) found in Crohn’s disease.
More research is currently underway as there is a shared understanding amongst researchers that microbiome disturbance plays a crucial role in the pathogenesis of IBD.
IBS is a chronic condition that affects roughly 15% of Americans. (About IBS Statistics, 2016)
It affects the gastrointestinal tract and causes clusters of symptoms. Unlike IBD, IBS does not cause damage to the digestive system and the level of inflammation is usually lower, although often still present.
IBS is more prevalent in women than in men. It is also more likely to occur in adults under the age of 50.
The causes of IBS are not known. However, many medical experts believe that increased gut sensitivity and dysbiosis are contributing factors. It is also possible that IBS runs in families.
Symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Abdominal bloating
- Alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation
- Non-digestive symptoms such as depression and brain fog
Treatment for IBS Symptoms
The type of treatment your doctor recommends will largely depend on your symptoms. Treatment may include:
- Anti-diarrheal drugs: To firm stool and reduce diarrhea
- Fiber supplements or laxatives: To bulk up stool in the case of constipation
- Antispasmodics: To reduce abdominal cramping and pain
Lifestyle Changes for IBS Symptoms
You can also make the following changes to help manage your IBS symptoms:
- Increase dietary fiber intake (this depends on the individual as it may worsen the condition for some)
- Maintain a gluten-free, nutrient-dense diet
- Get regular exercise
- Reduce stress
- Get adequate sleep
- Incorporate a relaxed eating style
Nutritional Therapies for IBS Symptoms
Although the type of foods you eat does not cause symptoms of IBS, there are several nutritional therapies that you can try to lessen or alleviate them.
Bulk-Forming Laxatives and Fiber
Bulk laxatives help to absorb liquid in the intestines. They also improve constipation in IBS by bulking and softening your stool.
In turn, this stimulates the muscles in your intestines to speed up the passage of bowel movements. The effects can usually be seen within one to three days. Natural sources include psyllium and senna, though these should not be used regularly.
You can increase your fiber intake by adding fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes to your diet. These recommendations are not suitable for all cases of IBS. For example, foods high in FODMAPs may exacerbate IBS.
Probiotics are beneficial supplemental bacteria similar to the bacteria that live inside your gastrointestinal tract. Probiotics can inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria in the digestive system and regulate the immune system.
Live probiotics are found in a few foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and some cheeses. You can also take a probiotic supplement with a strain indicated for a specific purpose.
Probiotics can support the beneficial bacteria in your digestive system, improving your digestive processes— including motility — and relieving abdominal bloating and cramping.
If you suffer from IBS and your intestinal lining is inflamed, this can prevent the proper absorption of calcium. Vitamin D stimulates calcium absorption to prevent disorders such as osteoporosis.
Natural sources of vitamin D include eggs, liver, cod liver oil, fortified milk, and butter. You can also take a daily vitamin D supplement or ensure sufficient, safe sun exposure.
Because people with IBS may poorly absorb vitamin D, this can lead to calcium deficiency. Lactose malabsorption has also been linked to IBS, which is another contributory factor in calcium deficiency, since people with this condition often abstain from dairy.
Calcium supplementation is, therefore, an important consideration for IBS sufferers to avoid low bone density and osteoporosis.
If you think you may be suffering from an inflammatory digestive condition, then it’s essential to seek an accurate diagnosis to follow the appropriate treatment regimen.
If you and your healthcare provider determine supplements are right for you, we recommend the following: