Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Complementary Alternative Medicine

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tina Patnode, RDN, LD

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder and is estimated to affect 11% of the population worldwide.

There are a variety of therapeutic approaches to treating IBS, including diet and lifestyle modification, pharmacotherapy, psychological therapies, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Dietary supplements are the CAM modality most commonly used by those who suffer from IBS.

Here are a few examples:

  • Peppermint oil: derived from the peppermint plant, has been used for thousands of years to treat stomach upset. It has been shown to possess anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial properties. Peppermint oil is considered Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) and is available in enteric-coated capsules without a prescription.
  •  Iberogast: also known as STW 5, is a liquid extract of nine Western-based herbs (candytuft, chamomile, peppermint, caraway, licorice root, lemon balm, celandine, milk thistle, and angelica) that has strong scientific evidence supporting its use for gastrointestinal disorders, including IBS. It was made in Germany and has been used throughout Europe and other parts of the world for more than forty years. The recommended dose is 20 drops three times per day.
  • Probiotics: have been used for centuries for their health-promoting effects. Probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms in fermented foods that promote good health by establishing an improved balance in intestinal microflora.” Generally, probiotics may improve IBS symptoms such as abdominal bloating and flatulence. To reap the benefits, include probiotic-rich foods in your diet such as yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, and sauerkraut. Check out this recipe for Easy Homemade Greek Yogurt.
  • Prebiotics: are non-digestible food substances that stimulate the growth of health-promoting bacteria already residing in your colon. These prebiotics are widely used to add fiber to food. Examples include inulin, chicory root, and fructo-oligosaccharides(FOS). Prebiotics are not absorbed in the small intestine and are fermented by bacteria in the colon. Some individuals, especially those who suffer from IBS, may not tolerate these types of prebiotic fibers.

While the use of CAM therapies is becoming more and more popular, safety is always a concern. Some of these therapies may cause side effects and may interact with certain medications or other supplements. It is important for consumers to know that supplements are not monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and may contain ingredients not listed on the label. Talk to your doctor or dietitian before using CAM as a treatment for IBS.


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  • Gibson GR, Roberfroid MD. Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr 1995;125:1401-12.
  • Marteau P. Probiotics in functional intestinal disorders and IBS: proof of action and dissecting the multiple mechanisms. Gut. 2010;59(3):285-286.
  • Nahas R. Complementary and alternative medicine for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. Can Fam Physician. 2009;55(2):143-148.