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

No single medication can relieve all symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This can leave you dealing with lingering symptoms and deciding which over-the-counter (OTC) product to use 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.

This article discusses what OTC products are available for IBS symptoms and how they can help.

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 (from oats and barley) 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.

Recap

Some OTC treatments may help to improve both diarrhea and constipation from IBS. Peppermint oil, probiotics, vitamin D, and beta-glucan fiber are among the popular choices. However, peppermint oil and probiotics are the only OTC products recommended by the American College of Gastroenterology for IBS.

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. There are 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: A dietary supplement 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.

Recap

OTC medications, including laxatives, and supplements such as Atranil are available to treat constipation. Some foods like flaxseed may help relieve constipation from IBS as well.

Diarrhea Remedies

Woman suffering from abdominal pain

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The unpredictable and intrusive nature of chronic diarrhea lends itself to a desire for an immediate cure. Although they're not the miracle you hope for, a couple of products may provide some relief. They may be used 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. It recommends against loperamide as a first-line treatment for IBS-D because it only addresses diarrhea and doesn't improve other symptoms, as some prescription drugs do.

Recap

Calcium supplements may help relieve diarrhea symptoms for IBS, but check with your doctor first. Imodium (loperamide) may be another option but it isn't recommended as a first-line treatment.

Summary

Some OTC products can help with IBS symptoms. Products such as peppermint oil and probiotics may be helpful in easing overall digestive symptoms, including constipation and diarrhea.

If your main symptom is constipation, stool softeners and laxatives are available over-the-counter. Supplements like Triphala and Atrantil are also thought to benefit constipation.

For diarrhea symptoms, check with your doctor. Calcium supplements may bring relief, but it's important not to get too much calcium. Imodium (loperamide) can also help but can sometimes cause side effects like drowsiness and stomach cramps.

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11 Sources
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