Natural Remedies for IBS

When to Use Them and How to Use Them Safely

Herbs being ground into supplements
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At times, it can be challenging to get your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) under control. You may find it helpful to learn about some herbs and other natural remedies thought to be good for digestive symptoms.

As compared with prescription medication, herbal remedies offer the potential benefits of fewer side effects and concerns about the safety of long-term use. However, prescription medications have to undergo rigorous safety testing before being made available to the general public. This offers research-documented information regarding safety and effectiveness, something that is sorely lacking for most herbal remedies.

Before trying any herbal supplement, speak with your doctor to ensure that it will not interact with any medications you are taking or cause problems due to an underlying medical condition, including kidney or liver disease.

Herbs for Improved Digestive Health

These herbs are thought to improve overall digestive health. They are indicated for use regardless of IBS sub-type (constipation-predominant, diarrhea-predominant, or alternating-type).

Peppermint Oil

Peppermint oil is the only herbal supplement to get the seal of approval from the American College of Gastroenterology due to its effectiveness in reducing abdominal pain.

This pain-relieving quality is thought to be the result of peppermint oil’s effect on gut motility. Peppermint oil appears to relax the muscles of the gut. This can reduce the muscle spasms that contribute to abdominal pain.

The overuse of peppermint oil can have the opposite effect, causing nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain as well as dizziness and a slowed heart rate (bradycardia).

Slippery Elm

Slippery elm has a long history of use by Native Americans as a remedy for a variety of health conditions. In terms of digestive health, slippery elm is thought to calm irritation by coating the lining of the intestinal system.

Slippery elm’s effect on the stool illustrates why it is seen as helpful regardless of one’s predominant IBS symptom. By adding bulk to the stool, it is thought to ease diarrhea. Slippery elm also softens the stool, thus helping ease constipation.

Artichoke Leaf Extract

A newer natural remedy to the IBS treatment list, artichoke leaf extract (ALE) shows some surprising promise. In a 2016 meta-analysis, various studies indicate that it is effective in reducing bowel movements from regular constipation and diarrhea down to "normal." This is believed to be due to a certain antispasmodic compound called cynaropicrin.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera juice is often marketed as a remedy for IBS. However, the limited research that exists on the subject is contradictory. Some studies have shown it to have no effects on IBS symptoms. Yet, at least one double-blind RCT trial found it to effective in constipation, but not abdominal pain. There is still much debate and more research is needed.

Aloe vera can cause a drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and needs to be used with caution in people on diabetes medications.

Herbs for Constipation

There are herbs and herbal preparations considered effective in treating constipation because they have a laxative effect. Among them:

  • Amalaki is the fruit of the Amalaki tree is found throughout Asia and used often in Ayurvedic medicine. It is thought to positively affect overall digestion and serve as a laxative. 
  • Triphala is an herbal preparation made the fruit of the bibhataki, haritaki, and Amalaki trees. In addition to its laxative effect, Triphala is thought to reduce abdominal pain and bloating
  • Herbal stimulant laxatives contain substances called anthraquinones are used as stimulant laxatives. Examples of these include senna, cascara, rhubarb, and frangula.

Anthraquinone herbal laxatives should not be used for more than seven days as their extended use may increase the risk of liver toxicity and damage.

Herbs for Diarrhea

Certain herbs have been associated with a quieting of diarrhea symptoms. Among them:

  • Chamomile, available in tea, liquid or capsule form, is thought to reduce inflammation and quiet spasms in the gut. Chamomile is not appropriate for anyone following a low-FODMAP diet.
  • Berry leaf teas, including those made from blueberry, blackberry, or raspberry leaves, contain tannins which may decrease inflammation and the secretion of fluids in the intestines.
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Article Sources
  • American College of Gastroenterology IBS Task Force An Evidence-Based Position Statement on the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2009:S1-S35.
  • Bahrami HR, Hamedi S, Salari R, Noras M. Herbal Medicines for the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Systematic Review. Electronic Physician. 2016;8(8):2719-2725.