Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Omega3 Fatty Acids

This post explores the mind-gut link and the importance of Essential Fatty Acids (especially Omega 3s), chlorophyll-rich foods, and other foods and nutrients in symptom management of some serious digestive disorders. An upcoming post will discuss a holistic mind-body-soul view of IBS from a Jewish psycho-spiritual perspective.

Several years ago I was working with a fairly well-known holistic doctor. She asked me to interview several of her patients who were suffering from various digestive issues. She wanted me to choose the most relevant and compelling stories to write about and publish. In addition to being her ghostwriter I also agreed to do some original research, so I found myself visiting several of her patients in their homes.

The first interview was with a woman in her forties who had suffered from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) since childhood. She was an artist and an art history teacher at a nearby university.  She was quite sensitive to nuances in her environment and appeared to be unable to relax, even after we got to know each other. She eventually shared with me that any number of subtle changes in her surroundings could trigger symptoms of anxiety and she never felt fully relaxed.

As I got to know this creative and charismatic woman and the other interviewees, it soon became apparent that they all experienced heightened levels of anxiety in situations where many people would not. I spoke with man in his seventies who had ulcerative colitis and was considering major surgery, a woman in her fifties with IBS who was markedly overweight, and a woman in her twenties with Crohns. Also among the interviewees were two women with Celiac disease and several others with various digestive problems.

It seemed that something else was going on here. Each diagnosis is markedly different, yet IBS, Crohns and Ulcerative Colitis, and Celiac disease have quite a few overlapping symptoms, including anxiety.* Although the emphasis of my interviews was supposed to be mainly on symptom management through the use of various natural treatments, I did get to know each patient, and some even became friends. Not only were most of them easily stressed, the majority of them were Jews of European descent, though the majority of this doctor’s patients were not Jewish and her offices were not in a particularly Jewish neighborhood.

Research reveals that IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease such as Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis) is as much as eight times more common in people from Ashkenazi  descent (mostly Jews from Eastern and Western Europe). Some experts posit that Jewish women suffer disproportionately from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), as compared to women of other backgrounds. In general, most IBS sufferers are women. While I was doing the interviews, I also learned that my grandmother suffered from IBS.

And though I didn’t realize it at the time (we are blindest when it comes to ourselves, I guess), every year or two from the age of ten, I would have an attack of what I always thought was food poisoning. The agony was so severe, I’d end up in the hospital emergency room (once they even made me stay overnight). Thank G-d I haven’t had an attack in around four years.

Celiac disease (also called Celiac Sprue), appears to be of a different genre according to Western medical outlook. It is a genetic autoimmune disorder (it even has a gene named after it), that expresses as an inability to tolerate some of the proteins in gluten. Usually painful digestive problems are the telltale symptoms, but not always. It is not classified as an IBD. However, it is considered to be a cause of Ulcerative Colitis, which is itself an IBD. Like IBS and IBD, the rate of Celiac disease among Ashkenazi Jews is also higher than the general population.

Body, Brain, Gut

IBS and IBD aren’t always so easy to diagnose. That’s because the many of the symptoms can be similar. However, tests can be done. If you have an inability to process gluten for example (as people with Celiac disease do), you may be able to manage your symptoms by changing your diet.

The reasons people get IBS and IBD are not so clear-cut; they’ve been linked to several factors including, but not limited to: h-pylori or other bacterial infections, parasites, autoimmune disorders, genetics, food allergies or intolerance, enzyme depletion, use or overuse of certain antibiotics, inability to manage stress and anxiety disorders, and even an abusive childhood. Whatever the medical reasons, IBS (and to a certain extent IBD), often respond to dietary changes. In many cases, exercise can also help reduce symptoms.

IBS and IBD also respond to behavioral treatments including psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, meditation, visualization, and bio-feedback. One *study showed significant brain differences in women with IBS. Researches found decreased amounts of brain matter in the areas that suppress pain and govern the ability to pay attention. This and other evidence leads some scientists to classify IBS as a “brain-gut” disorder.

IBS (and some types of IBD), may also respond to acupuncture and breath-work (healing breathing techniques). And because a percentage of people with IBS appear to suffer from depression or another type of mood disorder or anxiety, psychotherapy, especially behavioral therapy, can be helpful.

There are other interesting correlations. ADD/ADHD is linked with IBS. So is eczema and/or psoriasis. Inflammation is considered to be a factor not only in the eponymous IBD, but also IBS.

There is strong evidence that shows that incorrect metabolism of EFAs (essential fatty acids), especially the Omega 3s which have an anti-inflammatory action, might be an issue for people with attention disorders/eczema/psoriasis. (The symptoms of both skin disorders can be triggered by stress, though psoriasis is more likely to be an indication of an autoimmune disorder—and both are linked to inflammation.)

Eat Your Fats!

Various Essential Fatty Acids, especially the Omega 3s, have been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory action. That’s why *fish oil, flax oil, ground flax seeds, whole or ground chia seeds, dark leafy greens, and other bio-available sources of Omega 3s have shown promise as supportive treatments for ADD/ADHD, eczema and psoriasis,  and in some studies, IBS and some IBD (including Crohn’s).

But it isn’t just the lack of Omega 3s, that are contributing to these disorders. It is the over-consumption of Omega-6s. If we look at our diets from a broad, historical perspective, we’ll see that any number of factors have caused drastic changes over the centuries. Drought, famine, severe weather, migration, and so on, have all contributed to enormous flux in our diets (and our lives).

Until the 20th century, the quality of the foods in our diets was essentially unchanged. A bowl of Bubby’s chicken soup in Poland was nutritionally similar to Granny’s chicken soup in Iowa. An apple from Hungary was nutritionally similar to an apple from Oregon. But technology has dramatically changed the way we farm and produce foods, for good and for not so good. In some cases the nutritional content of foods is higher than ever before, in other cases, the opposite is true.

Most Americans have never eaten grass-fed beef, free range chickens (and their eggs), wild as opposed to farmed fish, and other wilder foods that our ancestors ate.  Most of our produce is now grown in nutrient-depleted soil. And when was the last time you had a CLA (conjugeic linoleic acid)-rich glass of milk from a cow that grazed in a field all day?

It wasn’t all nutritional roses in the past, by the way—our ancestors didn’t have our hygiene standards, didn’t have access to a smorgasbord of healthcare choices, and often went hungry. But they did eat foods which were high in important essential fatty acids, especially the important Omega 3 fatty acids. These include EPA, DHA, and ALA.

Today we consume far too few Omega 3s (and almost no CLAs), and way too many Omega 6s (we’ll save the Omega 9s for another discussion). Highly processed grain-based foods, including seemingly healthy foods like natural packaged cereals and “healthy” grain-based snacks, have taken the place of other important foods. Also, we regularly consume vegetable oils higher in Omega 6s than Omega 3s (such as soybean, sunflower, and corn), which are used in many processed foods. These and other food choices have led to an imbalance in the Omega-6: Omega-3 ratio.

Ideally, the ratio should be 1 (or up to 2) Omega-6s to Omega-3s. The majority of Westerners have a ratio around 15:1 or even up to 20:1. Correcting this imbalance is pretty important.

What’s at stake? Many of the body’s systems simply don’t operate at top capacity without the right balance of essential fatty acids. Our nervous system, our heart, even our vision suffer from this imbalance. That’s why so many doctors recommend people eat fish and/or take fish oil.

I want to emphasize that fish oil and seed oils may not be the right choice for everyone, especially those with digestive disorders like IBS. They can cause indigestion, loose stools and other symptoms. Also, from a more Eastern energetic perspective, which source of Omega 3 to use depends on your constitution, how your symptoms express themselves, and some other factors. Fish oil might be too energetically “hot” for some.

Drink Your Greens

In general, when it comes to IBS and IBD, raw foods, especially raw vegetables and many types of fruit are usually contraindicated, as are some cooked vegetables (some say corn, spinach, mushrooms, eggplant, peppers, onions, garlic and so on). However, there is other evidence that fruits, such as kiwi as well as some chlorophyll-rich vegetables are actually very healing for IBS and IBD. Wheat grass juice (many people do better with powdered rather than fresh) and chlorella, are good choices as a supportive part of your comprehensive treatment plan. Some people feel spirulina (a blue-green algae) is helpful, but I feel it is too bitter and cooling for most symptomatic IBS/IBD sufferers.*

Though each of these vegetal greens have different nutrients and energetic profiles they all contain chlorophyll, the substance that makes plants green. Chlorophyll is proven to have cancer-fighting properties and it also has the ability to “sweeten” the digestive tract in some people. Because everyone is different, I don’t like making general recommendations, but if you’d like to try a green drink,  start slowly by mixing 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of your choice of green powder with pure, room temperature water (not cold). Shaking it in a jar with a lid works well. Drink one serving first thing in the morning and another in the evening, a couple of hours after dinner. You can increase the dosage, up to 2 teaspoons a day of wheat grass or chlorella, if you find you tolerate it.

Drink it five or six days a week for up to one month.  If you find some relief from symptoms then have at least one week break from the regimen before starting again. If you don’t find relief, then look at your diet, stress levels, and other factors.

Other Dietary Factors

Probiotics are often recommended for those with IBS and IBD. If you can find one that works (many brands are simply inactive—which is why plain, homemade yogurt, if you like it and it agrees with you, might be a good option) than go ahead and try it. Still, adding pro-biotics won’t address the underlying issues.

Overeating in general, eating too many kinds of food at one meal, drinking caffeinated beverages, consuming icy-cold foods and drinks, over consumption of high-gluten grain-based breads, crackers and pasta, may all contribute to IBS and IBD. So does eating while stressed out.

Also, even though I know I keep repeating myself, how you eat is as important (maybe more) than what you eat. The Seven Rules of Mindful Eating can help IBS (and IBD) sufferers slow down and manage emotional-eating.


*In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and other holistic medical outlooks, dis-ease is looked at not only in terms of overt symptoms, but also in terms of the general physical and emotional healthy of the person. So, two people with the same symptoms who have similar personal attributes and lifestyles might be given the same types of treatment even though Western medication might diagnosis these patients as having two, separate diseases. More about this in Part II.

*The brain differences themselves might cause the digestive disorder.  While no one has yet proved the reason for the correlation between these brain differences and the disorders, some experts believe that episodes of the digestive disorder might have changed the brain.

*Some people with digestive problems cannot tolerate fish, fish oil, or any type of seeds and their oils, proceed with caution.

*Spirulina can be helpful for other conditions.

Photo of flax seeds by Sanjay Acharya.

DISCLAIMER: This article and all other articles on are not intended to diagnose or treat any illness or condition. If you have any symptoms or suspect that you have IBS, IBD, Crohns or Celiac disease, please get a comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis from an MD before you try symptom management with holistic approaches. Other diseases can have similar symptoms to IBS, IBD, Crohns, and Celiac disease. It is very important to get a diagnosis.


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