How to Calm an Irritable Bowel

Woman holding her belly
Do you often get a bellyache or diarrhea after eating certain foods or when you’re under stress or worrying about something? It happens to most of us every once in a while, but if you deal with it more often than not, you might have irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.

The brain in your gut
Health experts believe IBS symptoms are caused by faulty communication between the brain in the head and the brain in the gut. That’s right — your gut has a brain!

About 100 million neurons line the intestinal tract and help control gut behavior independently of the brain. According to Dr. Michael Gershon, a neurobiologist at Columbia-Presbyterian, not only can the head send messages down to the gut, the gut can send messages up to the head. And those messages can make you feel miserable.

Dr. Gershon even wrote a book about it, called The Second Brain. In an interview he did a few years back with Stephen Colbert he said, “You have to have these two brains cooperating with each other to have peace in the body. When this goes wrong, people get to be very disturbed. The gut has a profound way of disturbing the brain. So quite really, people can be made to feel terrible from this organ. If you’re chained by diarrhea to a toilet seat, for example, it can really do you in.”

Clip art of person on toilet


IBS causes
Being chained to the toilet is something we’d rather not even imagine. But it’s an unfortunate reality for about 58 million people in the United States. A complex combination of factors, including psychological stress, anxiety, hormones, the immune system, or sensitivity to certain foods can interfere with the messages going back and forth. The result — terrible cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Patsy Catsos is a registered, licensed dietitian with a personal and professional interest in helping “people with stomach problems get their lives back.” She shares her expertise on her blog and in her book IBS–Free at Last!

She points out that, “Differences in gut-brain biochemistry might help explain why people with IBS experience more pain from buildup of gas and fluid in the intestines compared to other people. It’s also likely that events in the gut affect brain biochemistry, so it goes both ways.”

Whatever the causes, IBS can be difficult  to manage. Generally, the goal is to reduce symptoms using a combination of approaches such as medication, psychotherapy, and dietary changes.

Food and IBS
While Patsy believes multiple triggers are usually at play, as a registered dietitian her focus is on food. She says limiting FODMAPs carbohydrates can control IBS symptoms. “Many of my IBS patients feel much better when they avoid certain sugars and fibers that encourage gas, bloating, and irregularity,” she says.

FODMAPs stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, and mono-saccharides and polyols.

FODMAPs carbohydrates include lactose, fructose, sugar alcohols, fructans, and galactans, which cause IBS symptoms because they are both fermentable and osmotically active.

  • Fermentable – broken down by intestinal bacteria that produce a lot of gas and cause bloating
  • Osmotically active – they pull water into the intestines and cause diarrhea

Some foods that contain FODMAPs

  • milk
  • apples
  • pears
  • wheat
  • onions
  • sugar-free gum
  • beans

As Patsy pointed out to me, “It only takes a few days of experimenting with a low FODMAPs diet to find out for yourself if they are causing your symptoms. Once you learn which foods are the problem, you can usually manage symptoms by limiting portion sizes. It’s rarely necessary to give up trigger foods completely.”

An IBS friendly recipe
Patsy was kind enough to share an IBS friendly recipe for Pecan Shortbread Sand Dollars, which, she explains, is an “example of a good choice: it is wheat-free, lactose-free, and sweetened with IBS friendly granulated sugar.”

Pecan Shortbread Sand Dollars

Not only a great cookie, this recipe makes a wonderful shortbread crust for your favorite bar cookie or fruit tart.

½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup oat flour, loosely packed
1 cup pecan flour, finely ground
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract

  • Preheat oven to 300° F.
  • Place butter in a medium-sized, microwave safe mixing bowl; microwave for 15-30 to soften the butter. Add remaining ingredients and stir together with a wooden spoon until a soft dough is formed.
  • Drop heaping teaspoons of dough onto ungreased cookie sheets.
  • Bake for 20-30 minutes, until golden brown on the edges and firm to the touch.
  • Remove from the oven, and use a spatula to transfer the cookies to a paper towel. Allow cookies to cool for 30 minutes, then store in an airtight container.

Servings: 12, 2 cookies each; yield 2 dozen

Nutrition Facts

Nutrition (per serving): 193 calories, 12.9g total fat, 9mg sodium, 16.7g carbohydrates, 1.6g fiber, 3.8g protein.

Recipe Tips

  • Pecan flour can be hard to find. You can grind your own in small batches in your food processor or blender.

If you have any questions about IBS or other stomach problems, you can contact Patsy directly through her blog — or buy her book.

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