Do Over-the-Counter Remedies for IBS Really Work?

No single medication can alleviate all symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This leaves you dealing with lingering symptoms and trying to choose among the wide variety of over-the-counter (OTC) products that are advertised for IBS relief.

To help you in your search for symptom relief, it's important to learn which treatments are supported by research. Don't forget to get the go-ahead from your healthcare provider before trying any new treatment option.

Products for Overall Digestive Health

Customer buying medicine in a store

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Some products can help relieve digestive distress regardless of whether your primary symptom is diarrhea or constipation. Some of them may aid ​gut motility, improve the bacterial balance in your digestive tract, or soothe hypersensitive or inflamed gut walls.

Popular OTC treatments include:

  • Herbal remedies: Peppermint oil, aloe vera, and slippery elm are among the top choices.
  • Probiotics: "Friendly" bacteria may balance out "unfriendly" bacteria, reducing pain and severity of symptoms.
  • Digestive enzymes: Beta-glucan fiber and inositol supplements may significantly reduce abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence.
  • Vitamin D: A deficiency may be linked to IBS symptoms in some people.

Of these, in its 2021 guidelines, the American College of Gastroenterology only recommends peppermint oil and probiotics for treating IBS symptoms.

Constipation Remedies

Woman on the couch suffering from constipation

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Constipation can cause a lot of suffering. For some people, an over-the-counter IBS medicine can clear it right up. Others find that OTC drugs are only one part of a comprehensive treatment plan. You have several OTC options to consider.

  • Magnesium: This mineral is a natural laxative that can relax intestinal muscles and attract water to soften the stool.
  • Laxatives: Several types are available that work in different ways.
  • Stool softeners: Designed for short-term use, they may get things moving again.
  • Flaxseed: Studies show it relieves constipation and diarrhea, thanks to its fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds.
  • Triphala: A combination of three fruits purported to be good for the gut, research suggests it can restore the epithelial lining of the digestive tract.
  • Atrantil: Designed specifically for constipation-predominant IBS, limited studies suggest it may reduce bloating and constipation.

The ACG guidelines specifically recommend against the OTC laxative polyethylene glycol (PEG) and don't mention any of the other treatments in this list.

Diarrhea Remedies

Woman suffering from abdominal pain

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The unpredictable and intrusive nature of chronic diarrhea lends itself to the very human desire to “make it stop now!” Although they're not the miracle cure you may hope for, a couple of products may provide some relief, either alone or as part of an overall treatment strategy.

  • Calcium: Calcium is slightly constipating, and many people with IBS swear by it. Discuss taking supplemental calcium with your healthcare provider, though, because you can get too much calcium.
  • Imodium (loperamide): This drug is often easy to tolerate but can cause side effects including dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, and stomach cramps.

The ACG recommendations don't mention calcium. They recommend against loperamide as a first-line treatment for IBS-D because it only addresses diarrhea and doesn't improve other symptoms, as some prescriptions drugs do.

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