The Herbal Approach to IBS + Food Intolerances
My relationship with food has never been this fiery wonderful relationship that anyone would be jealous of. The earliest memory I have of trying to put myself on a diet was at 8 years old, and that's because for the very first time I heard that I was fat from a boy in the same grade as me as we were arguing over art supplies. So, I'm fat? What does that even mean? Is that a bad thing? These were the questions I pondered for a very long time at such a delicate age. From that moment on I've always struggled with how I perceive food and what it does to my body. I don't like to sugar coat things to make myself appear "put together" for the internet, because the truth is, every single piece of food that goes into my mouth today is still analyzed as in: "what part of my body is this going to land into next?", and that's just my harsh reality that I am still working on as a human being. I'm not ashamed of that.
Around the age of 18 I noticed a lot of body changes such as weight gain, acne, amenorrhea, tense bloating and a changed digestive system. It seemed as if it was a snap of the fingers that my body went under so much stress in such a short period of time. Also at that time I was growing intolerant to some of my favorite foods and I didn't understand why. So great, not only do I struggle with food on an emotional mental level, but now I struggle with food on a physical and painful level. I didn't sign up for this? By that time the amount of different foods that I was able to eat without discomfort started to dwindle like a dead leaf falling from a tree. I can't eat avocados, the most delicious fat in the world. I also can't eat pineapple, quinoa, asparagus, walnuts, high amounts of garlic and tomato.. and so the list goes on. This list never existed, so what happened?
Breaking It Down
What is IBS?
IBS stands for "Irritable Bowel Syndrome". Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects 35 million people, 70% of those being women, and although doctors are still not sure why IBS occurs, there are many theories tied to hormonal imbalances, stress (the gut to brain connection), digestive malfunction and the embodiment of modern foods.
Our bodies begin to digest food as soon as we put something on our tongue, and when this process begins in our body, a series of muscular contractions move the food through our gut. IBS occurs when there is a loss of coordination between these muscular contractions. It is a common condition and can occur at any age, but most commonly occurs when a big change happens in one's life and cortisol levels skyrocket.
The symptoms of IBS are low sex drive, anxiety, depression, headaches, lower back aches, heart palpitations, uncomfortable elimination and abdominal cramping. All of which I attest to and am completely open and honest about.
What about food intolerances?
Food intolerances are just that, an intolerance to certain types of food, mostly the characteristics of the food like enzymes. While food can be the medicine, it can also be the sole cause of our sickness. We should also separate this from a food allergy, which is completely different and can be fatal. Food allergies can cause extreme throat and skin itching, internal bleeding or swollen esophagus which will close the airways to our lungs. Those who struggle with IBS most commonly suffer from food intolerances as well, then vise-versa. These conditions most commonly go hand in hand. It's like a horrible compliment. Food intolerances can be extremely broad because there are about a million different variations of food, vitamins, and enzymes that make up the food that affects someone's body differently. For me, I have an extreme sensitivity to abundant histamine and fodmap in food, some of the most common intolerances to those with IBS.
What is histamine?
I'm sure you've heard of "antihistamines", which are typically what we know as a compound in our allergy medication, and you would be aware of this in terms of our immune system. However, histamines are found not only in our bodies but our food. Histamine is a chemical involved in our immune system, digestion, and central nervous system. It's practically a mailman that sends important messages from our body to our brain. It is also an acid component in our stomach that then in return plays a role in our digestion. Ahh, good ole digestion.
Histamine’s primary role in our body is to cause an immediate inflammatory response. It will quickly notify our body of any potential stressors in our immune system, and when this happens our blood vessels swell so that our white blood cells can quickly find and attack the problem. The histamine buildup is what gives you a headache and leaves you feeling flushed, cramping and nauseatingly miserable. This is part of the body’s natural immune response, but if you don’t break down histamine properly, you could develop histamine intolerance, like myself.
High In Histamine:
Fermented alcoholic beverages
Fermented foods: sauerkraut, vinegar, soy sauce, yogurt, kombucha
Vinegar: pickles, mayonnaise, olives
Cured meats: bacon, salami, pepperoni, luncheon meats and hot dogs
Most citrus fruits like pineapple, but also avocado
Nuts: walnuts, cashews, and peanuts
Vegetables: asparagus, spinach, and tomatoes
What is fodmap?
Fodmap's are short-chain carbohydrates found in foods naturally, or not so naturally. Yes, processed food additives. Fodmap attracts water and they don't absorb well in our small intestine, instead, they head to our colon where bacteria will actually start to ferment causing gas and extreme bloating. The bloating can be so severe your stomach can feel hard to the touch. Onenote to take away about fodmap is that these short-chain carbohydrates can affect those not only with IBS, but celiac, Crohns or SIBO.
An Herbalists Approach
First and foremost, the herbal approach is more than herbs and this will be important as you continue to manage your IBS and Food Intolerance symptoms. When practicing herbalism the biggest compliment to the herbs start with a healthy lifestyle practice, but that can feel confusing when you struggle with food intolerance especially because if you are in anything like me you are unable to eat avocados, quinoa, asparagus, walnuts, and pineapple.. healthy stuff!
Don't worry, there's thousands of superfoods, vegetables, and fruit out there in the world that you will be able to find something that calms your tummy. So you're asking where do we start? We start with an elimination lifestyle. The word diet will never belong in my vocabulary. Sorry, not sorry.
If you have foods that trigger certain symptoms it's best to eliminate altogether. It's really rather simple. Don't eat what doesn't make you feel good. Huh, wow!
Start keeping a journal of everything that you eat and notice patterns. This search for patterns is extremely beneficial to those who might have an idea as to what food is causing the symptoms, but because that food is in a casserole dish, they can't be entirely sure yet. Next protocol is firing up our digestion properly. This means warm lemon water in the morning, tongue scraping, tummy massages and herbs.
When it comes to herbs and having a compliment to our digestive malfunctions, it's best to look for herbs that have specific tastes and actions. You'll want bitters, carminatives, adaptogens, and analgesics. Here is what these herbs can do for you and your digestion, and then you can see how they work in synergy.
Bitters- The holy grail of digestive aid. The bitter taste of herbs tells your brain to tell your gastrointestinal system to release the hormone gastrin, which increases gastric acid, bile flow, and numerous other secretions all along your digestive tract. It starts the digestive system off right. Dandelion, gentian, turmeric, goldenseal, coriander, fennel, cumin, burdock, mugwort.
Carminatives- Helps expel gas from the bowels and relieves cramping to then ease the stomach during times of stress. In this case, stress in the bowl is coming straight from our foods and a carminative herb will allow us to de-bloat with the expulsion of built-up gas, most popular is IBS symptoms. Wild carrot, white pine, tansy, valerian, angelica, black pepper, bee balm, goldenrod, kava, sage.
Adaptogens- Because IBS can cause weakened immune response, stamina and sexual interest, taking adaptogenic compounds from herbs or mushrooms will allow the body to adapt to these stressors and balance them out. Ginseng, eleuthero, maca, astragalus, tulsi, reishi, chaga, shatavari, ashwagandha.
Analgesics- This guy is your pain med without your pain med. Analgesic herbs are a safe alternative to pain medication as it slowly diminishes pain without inducing sleep. This can be a great resort when you are in an immense amount of pain if you get to the severe part of these symptoms, mostly in the abdominal region. Ginger, clove, chaste berry, catnip, cinnamon, black cohosh, coriander, elder berry, echinacea, skullcap, rosemary, yarrow.
You will want to start an elimination lifestyle, start your morning with warm lemon water and tongue scraping, then start practicing nightly abdominal massages and incorporate herbal energetics and tastes as mentioned above to healthfully stimulate your digestive and ease discomfort during these trial and error times. I also want to mention one more thing, and that's the power of our mind and body. Listen, always take time to listen. Our bodies are communicating with us all throughout our day but with work, kids and responsibilities we fail to take time for ourselves. Most diseases are linked to our digestive system not functioning properly, so preventive care with stable holistic support will keep us on the right path to a healthy gut flora. You are not what you eat, but what you digest.