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Smart Eating: Alleviate Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is increasingly being linked to coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity. When it comes to keeping your digestion going smoothly, here’s what you need to know about what to consume and why.

Smart Eating: Alleviate Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), presenting with symptoms in both the upper and lower regions of the tract. These symptoms commonly include discomfort, excessive wind and bloating alongside changeable bowel habits.

While diagnostic criteria for IBS includes alternating constipation and diarrhoea, there is often a tendency towards one or the other. 

Once the symptoms are recognised, on further investigation of the tract there appears to be no cause for IBS. As a result it is considered a “functional disease”, meaning the GIT does not function as it previously did, although there is no identifiable cause for that change in function. This gives rise to a high number of IBS diagnoses as well as many suggested reasons for its cause.

 IBS may be the symptom of other undiagnosed conditions. Gluten intolerance, for example, often presents with IBS-like symptoms.

Gluten is a protein found in all forms of wheat (including durum, semolina and spelt), rye, barley and related grain hybrids such as triticale and kamut. It is present in smaller amounts in oats and is undisclosed in many foods.

 Coeliac Disease (CD) is an autoimmune disease that leads to a permanent intestinal intolerance to gluten. Like all autoimmune diseases CD involves an unnecessary immune reaction that encourages the body to attack itself.

In the instance of CD, the villi in the small intestines are attacked. These villi, which are hair-like structures lining the GIT, are crucial to digestion. By increasing the surface area of the GIT, they allow for an optimal rate of absorption.  Through exposure to gluten, CD sufferers produce antibodies that destroy or flatten the villi.  Consequently, the surface area alongside the GIT lining is greatly reduced and food is very quickly processed.

This means less nutrient absorption and a fast transit time, leading to diarrhoea. The gastrointestinal symptoms associated with coeliac disease are similar to those associated with IBS.

It is possible to test negative for CD and still have a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten. Such a sensitivity would not involve damage to the villi as with CD, but some still have adverse reactions to foods containing gluten, causing irritation to the GIT and IBS-like symptoms.

Once a gluten sensitivity is diagnosed, be it CD or gluten intolerance, it is important to follow a gluten-free diet.

Stress is said to play a significant role in IBS. Increasing magnesium intake will help to support the nervous system for IBS that is aggravated during times of stress. Seek advice from a qualified health practitioner regarding a good source of magnesium that won’t stimulate bowel movements.

Herbal forms of liquorice can strengthen the adrenal glands and regulate stress response while providing anti-inflammatory and healing properties to the GIT lining.

Small meals are recommended for those with digestive weakness, as large meals place a high workload on an already stressed system.

Drinking enough water to keep the bowel hydrated is important, as is taking time out to enjoy your meal rather than eating on the run.

This allows for maximum blood flow to focus on digesting food rather than operating larger muscles such as your legs. The same can be said about emotional eating – there is insufficient blood flow in the digestive system to process food because the stress hormones have sent blood to the periphery.

Consuming apple cider vinegar just before meals will help to improve the digestion of proteins, causing less stress on an already inflamed digestive tract.

Aloe vera is nature’s healer of the digestive system, providing great anti-inflammatory action while also working to restore good bacterial levels.

Additionally, slippery elm powder is a wonderful nutritive aid to digestion. It heals GIT lining while providing a range of antioxidants, including zinc and selenium as well as B vitamins, while helping to create bulk in the stool.


Gluten-free quinoa is a seed that contains all the essential amino acids required to be considered a complete protein. If you’re having a meat-free day, add quinoa to a salad for extra protein.


Amaranth was traditionally considered a seed, but is now acknowledged as a gluten-free grain. As a complete protein, amaranth is a good source of iron and makes a tasty porridge if using flakes. 

Coconut Flour

Coconut flour is very high in fibre and only needed in small amounts when used as a gluten-free flour. By swapping regular flour for this flavoursome one, you will enjoy the antifungal benefits as well.

Almond Meal

Almond meal is an easy substitute to use in baking when you’re avoiding gluten. It provides a nutty flavour and has good levels of calcium. An orange and almond meal cake is a popular gluten-free treat.

Chia seeds

Chia seeds are a great alternative to using grains in cooking, as their gelatinous nature allows them to pull in and hold onto water, acting as a binding agent with extra anti-inflammatory action.


With its beautiful golden colour and round form, millet is packed full of nutrients. It acts like a broom for the digestive tract, relieving the bloating and discomfort associated with constipation.

Nutritionist: Susan Buxton

Some people report adverse reactions to eating gluten. These include gastrointestinal (GI) issues, nausea, bloating and joint pain.

While tests for coeliac disease can come back negative, in this case the diagnosis is often non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. With limited research into this area, there is little evidence to back up the claim that gluten triggers these symptoms.

This has the scientific community questioning if it is gluten, or another component of the grains, that is causing the problem.

Research has found most grains that contain gluten are also high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, and mono-saccharides and polyols). These are groups of short-chained carbohydrates, which in some people are poorly absorbed by the small intestine. This causes adverse GI symptoms.

If you are interested in trying a low- FODMAP diet, talk to a registered dietitian or nutritionist to ensure you are still eating a well-balanced diet.

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