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THE WELL Health Coaches

Updated: 12/02/2022

From what causes IBS to how to treat it, here's everything you need to know about the digestive disorder.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a broad diagnosis given by gastrointestinal doctors that cover a multitude of symptoms including — but not limited to — chronic constipation, diarrhea and bloating. Often this diagnosis is issued when there is not a specific cause for the symptoms the patient is experiencing.

If you're suffering from digestive discomfort and want to learn more about what causes IBS, THE WELL health coaching team is here to help. Read on for more information on root causes — plus, how to treat IBS naturally.

What Causes IBS?

Because an IBS diagnosis can encompass a range of symptoms, functional medicine practitioners aim to get to the root cause of the patient's symptoms. The thinking is as follows: There is always a reason why symptoms of IBS occur and if you treat the root cause, these symptoms can lessen and often go away entirely.

Some of these root causes of IBS include:

Candida Overgrowth

Candida is a yeast that lives in the gastrointestinal tracts — it doesn’t harm you, but it doesn’t necessarily benefit you either. However, problems occur when candida levels get out of control. This can happen due to dysbiosis in the gut (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria). Some common symptoms related to this cause of IBS are bloating, sugar/carbohydrate cravings and a white coating on your tongue.


Studies have shown that roughly 60 percent of all IBS sufferers have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Ideally, the small intestine is a sterile environment while the colon and large intestine are home to the majority of gut bacteria, breaking down food, processing key nutrients and eliminating waste. Sometimes, however, the buggers in these two organs grow beyond healthy levels, spilling over into the small intestine. The result? SIBO, which can also occur as a result of slow gut motility. When the muscles of the gastrointestinal tract aren't pushing food through the system as quickly as it should be, it can create a breeding ground for bacteria. Other reasons for SIBO include stress and low stomach acid.

Parasitic Infection

There is a common misconception that you have to travel abroad to a developing country to get a parasite — not true! You can pick up a parasite domestically in fruits, vegetables and meats. Poor hygienic practices in agriculture or when packing, transporting or storing produce can increase the risk of becoming contaminated with parasites. You can also get a parasite from contaminated drinking or recreational water. According to Mount Sinai, an intestinal parasite can share many of the same symptoms of IBS, such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

Low Stomach Acid

When we do not have enough stomach acid to digest our food, we can experience an uncomfortable “full” feeling and bloating — two common symptoms of IBS. Low stomach acid can be brought about by a variety of factors including stress, vitamin deficiencies, bacterial infection and chronic use of antacids, per the Mayo Clinic.

Environmental Toxin Overload

Toxins, such as pesticides, dyes, phthalates and pollutants, are all around you in today's world — in the water you drink, the air you breathe, your personal-care products and your food supply. Your body is designed to filter out toxins; however, if your systems become overloaded with them, your natural filtration processes (such as the liver and kidneys) need some extra support. If you're taking in more toxins than you're filtering out, symptoms such as constipation and chronic fatigue can occur.

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Stress, Anxiety and Emotional Challenges

Research continues to reveal a clear connection between psychological stress and IBS. This is likely due to the gut-brain axis — a bi-directional channel of communication between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. According to research published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, when emotional or mental health difficulties come up, they can create "alterations in neuro-endocrine-immune pathways" which "[act] on the gut-brain axis and microbiota-gut-brain axis and cause symptom flare-ups or exaggeration in IBS." In other words, stress and anxiety can cause certain hormones and neurotransmitters to be released in the body, which, in turn, can negatively affect gut motility, according to UChicago Medicine. They can also upset the balance of your microbiome, further contributing to GI distress (i.e. IBS).

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How to Treat IBS

The most important thing to know: You do not have to live with uncomfortable symptoms — IBS can be treated. Here's how:

Manage Stress

Taking a few deep breaths before your meals and really focusing on your food can help your body drop into the parasympathetic nervous system (aka your rest-and-digest mode). This can help stimulate stomach acid, increase absorption of nutrients and decrease bloating.

Clean Up Your Diet

Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods and limit processed carbohydrates and refined sugars as they can contribute to the imbalance of good and bad bacteria in your gut.

While the low FODMAP diet is commonly used in an IBS or SIBO diagnosis, it is important to note that this does not cure either condition. Rather, it is used as a short-term eating plan to decrease symptoms while the underlying cause is treated. What's more, a low FODMAP diet does not work for everyone as food sensitivities are different from person to person. As such, your best bet for successfully addressing IBS through diet is by working with an expert.

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Decrease Toxin Exposure

Because we come in contact with toxins daily, it’s important to avoid or decrease exposure wherever possible to help ease the toxic burden on your system. The best way to do that is to avoid known endocrine disruptors, like parabens, pesticides and BPAs found in plastic. Shop organic produce, especially when it comes to the worst pesticide offenders (aka the “Dirty Dozen”). Swap plastic water bottles for glass — or, even better, use a reusable stainless steel or glass water bottle to keep plastics out of the landfill.

As you run out of conventional cleaning or personal care products, switch them out for non-toxic options. For example, when you finish your laundry detergent, switch to a safer option. A great way to determine the safety of certain consumer goods is to use apps such as Think Dirty or Environmental Working Group's Healthy Living App.

Work With a Functional Medicine Practitioner

Finding the individualized support you need is essential in treating IBS and other gut-related issues. Rather than seeking temporary solutions, a functional medicine practitioner can help you not only find the root cause of IBS, but create a personalized holistic treatment plan that is right for you and your lifestyle.

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