Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Young People
By David Pollack, D.C.
Over the years, I’ve helped many young adults and kids overcome severe digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Many tell me their IBS seemed to come out of nowhere. Others have had milder symptoms that were mostly ignored for years.
Young people don’t always feel discomfort or pain the way adults do. Sometimes these new feelings of discomfort can be interpreted as anxiety or even a pulled muscle. Sometimes the anxiety or even that pulled muscle is actually part of the problem.
I tend to find three common factors in young adults and kids with IBS.
People in their early teens and twenties are experiencing an abundance of new stress. Between school, social situations, and learning a bit more about what’s happening in the world, it can be overwhelming.
In many kids, stress manifests as anxiety. In others, it shows up as an extreme study or sports habit. Obsessive behaviors are common as well.
Stress is a major component of many, if not most, IBS situations. Simply put, what looks or feels like chronic stress is the emotional manifestation of hormone imbalances, primarily involving adrenal gland hormones such as cortisol, which is our natural cortisone/prednisone. Cortisol helps us overcome health issues that are inflammatory in nature, such as IBS. If we are chronically stressed or anxious, our cortisol level rises and our immune response suffers.
We know that yoga and various therapies can help mitigate stress. From the perspective of cause, we want to improve the adrenal gland’s ability to balance hormones like cortisol, so the negative experiences of stress are minimized or eliminated.
The second major factor I find in virtually all IBS sufferers is a history of physical injury or trauma. It can be obvious, such as a labral tear to the hip or a severe sprain of the lumbar spine. Or it can be subtle, or perhaps even hidden, such as repetitive stress to and inflammation of the spine, hips, knees, or ankles.
Why these areas? Because the nerve roots that control the bowel also control the physical aspect of the lumbar spine all the way down the legs. Injuries in these areas put bandwidth pressure on our lower nervous system, creating spillover from the motor (muscle) control nerves to the autonomic (organ ) control nerves.
I’ve also seen the same mechanism in reverse—for example, lumbar scoliosis that resolved after bowel function was repaired.
The injury or trauma can have various causes, from poor posture resulting from being on the phone for hours on end to youth sports, which are often traumatic on the body. Unlike professional athletes, who have regular therapeutic and physical care, our kids just build up injuries and live with them.
These injuries may not seem relevant at first, but for many young people, they are a piece of the puzzle as to why IBS sets in “out of nowhere.”
Upper digestive tract issues
While the symptoms of IBS affect bowel movements, the true digestive root of this condition is actually the other side of the digestive tract. Most cases I help seem to have insidious and almost invisible upper digestive tract dysfunction. This can be in the form of silent reflux (GERD), gall bladder dysfunction or stasis, or small intestines motility issues (SIBO/candida).
Most kids with these issues aren’t aware of the problem, although some have had overt symptoms dismissed by their general practitioner. But if digestion is compromised in its early stages—in the stomach and/or beginning of the small intestines—then the bowels can’t function normally. Attention must be given to the upper digestive tract to make sure primary digestion is optimized.
Nine out of 10 IBS patients I help never need direct intervention targeting the bowel. The treatments often target stress, physical injuries from the low back down, and the upper digestive tract. These treatments can include emotional-release strategies, physical-type therapies, nutraceutical supplementation, acupuncture, and other Chinese Medicine therapies. They are among the many safe, natural alternatives that have helped millions of people overcome health challenges.