Six things your G.P. probably won’t have told you about IBS…

By Emily Mumford on October 13, 2014 in The Garden Room Blog

1. Fibre can make it worse…


IBS symptoms include loose stools and diarrhoea and, even more commonly, constipation. So often when we are constipated the advice we are given is to increase our fibre intake. For many people this just makes things worse – but most G.P.s  seem still to adhere to this approach.

Many G.P.s are also unaware that there are two types of fibre in our food: soluble and insoluble fibre. Keeping a food diary, recording symptoms and then analysing the ratio between soluble and insoluble fibre may reveal key information about how to manage symptoms.

Some people, however, are best to avoid fibre altogether: Professor John Hunter, a consultant at Addenbrooke’s who is a recognised authority of diseases of the gut including IBS, advocates a diet devoid of fibre for many of his IBS patients. Instead of the usual encouragement to eat more fruits and vegetables he steers his patients in the opposite direction…

People suffering from IBS usually have a sensitive or reactive bowel – and one of the things that upsets ( irritates ) the bowel is often fibre.



2. Allergies and intolerances are completely different…

Many people I see have been tested to see if they are allergic to common foodstuffs – usually gluten. The term for someone who is allergic to gluten is coeliac and this is a very serious and painful condition – though once diagnosed it can be managed well.

The vast, vast majority of people who are tested in this way are found not to be allergic to anything … but what  G.P.s don’t seem to explain is that to be allergic to something means that you have an immunological reaction to it – which then leads to symptoms.

Many things upset our digestive systems and cause pain or bloating without causing an immunological reaction – this is often referred to as a sensitivity or intolerance. The allergy  test does not cover this.

I have met so many people who are suffering pain and bloating who tell me that they were tested to see if they were allergic to foods that they had convinced themselves were a problem for them – but their doctor told them they weren’t allergic so they have kept eating the food – because obviously they were mistaken and it couldn’t be the problem.   It was never explained to them that, though not allergic, they could well have an intolerance to the food and would do well to avoid it.



3. Laxatives can just make things worse…


Constipation is caused by two completely opposite dysfunctions in the colon:

the first is an atonic colon – where the muscles have lost strength and tone,  and lack the power to propel the food along the gastrointestinal tract;

and the second is a spastic colon – where the muscles are over reactive and are frequently in spasm – tightly contracted – not allowing food to pass through.


For people whose colon lacks tone,  laxatives – if taken in sufficient quantity – will help to empty the bowel but do nothing to improve the tone or functioning of the colon so, over time, the use of laxatives can compound the problem – encouraging the bowel to become lazy – managing symptoms rather than addressing the cause.

And for those whose constipation is caused by spasm, laxatives can be even less helpful! Many laxatives work by deliberately irritating the lining of the bowel to provoke it to eliminate strongly – this can only intensify IBS symptoms – though if enough laxative is taken the poor person will be catapulted from IBS constipation to IBS diarrhoea!


4. The only way to tell whether your constipation is due to an oversensitive, hyper-reactive bowel or a sluggish colon is to observe how it functions – Barium x-rays, colonoscopies etc don’t yield this information


One of the things I love about my job is that during the treatment we see how the bowel reacts to having water gently trickled in – this gradually distends the sigmoid colon,  triggering the body’s natural persistaltic reflex,  and thus emptying the bowel just as it does during a normal bowel movement.

As a therapist, I can observe how the bowel empties when stimulated in this way and tell you whether your bowel is within a normal range, sluggish ( atonic) , or reactive (spastic).

I once had a woman who came for a treatment who had been told by a radiographer that she was so constipated that she should move on to a much more powerful laxative and recommended a product which works by strongly irritating the colon.   By treating her I was able to show her that her bowel was spasming vigorously and thus, in my opinion, a strong laxative would only make things worse. In contrast, the colonic soothed and relaxed her bowel and improved its functioning.


5. Symptoms can be reduced through simple things like – chewing well, not drinking with meals, avoiding chewing gum


One of the joys of my job is when, during the consultation or treatment, we get a “light bulb moment”:

sometimes people’s bowel problems can be due to habits which can be easily changed and make a huge difference. Chewing is one of these habits – chewing usually crops up in one of two ways:

either I discover that the person is a regular gum chewer – which can lead to air swallowing and bloating;

or, during the treatment itself, I notice the evidence of insufficient chewing of food! Chewing our food thoroughly  is SO important – it leads to a whole series of complex and interrelated biochemical reactions that enable our food to be properly broken down and digested.  And, when it doesn’t happen, it can lead to a whole variety of problems.

Another common problem is drinking water with meals – especially chilled water. This dilutes and upsets the optimal functioning of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid. The enzymes and acid are added to the food in the stomach to break down the food to enable nutrients to be absorbed efficiently in the small intestine.



6. Not eating breakfast and eating very little causes constipation and bloating


I know that eating breakfast is an “impossibility” for many people – and I sympathise!

But just as simple things like chewing can transform how someone’s bowel functions – I have seen so many people who went from three years or more of misery – constipation, bloating – being afraid to eat anything much because everything seemed to make it worse – and they have a colonic with me and I explain how not having breakfast and eating very little makes all their problems worse – and they go home, follow my advice – and everything falls into place – it feels miraculous to them – but it isn’t!  But what saddens me is that often people have been to their G.P. over and over again – and this simple advice was never given.


And lastly …

if you have been to your G.P. dissatisfied because you have infrequent bowel movements and he or she asks you how long your body has been like this – and you reply that it’s been quite a while, and you are told either –


that things slow down a bit as we get older


–      or – my particular favourite –


that that is obviously “normal for you”




Come for a colonic and see if you can prove them wrong – as so many of my patients have!!

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Emily MumfordView all posts by Emily Mumford