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Many of us who deal with chronic stress and anxiety also deal with gastrointestinal distress. I myself am included in this group. Anyone who lives with IBS knows that it can take a terrible toll on your self esteem. During the worst of times, IBS dictates everything I do, from my work day to whether or not I can take my dog for a walk. When this is combined with an anxiety disorder, the cumulative pain and suffering can sometimes become unbearable.

Many people — myself included — have experienced little or no relief from medications. I have yet to find a medication that provides any lasting relief from the symptoms of IBS. This lead me to search for alternatives to pharmaceutical medications, where I found out about peppermint oil, fiber supplements, and probiotics.

Although there has been anecdotal evidence for its efficacy, only recently have clinical trials shown some evidence that peppermint oil really works. If you’re interested in trying it, keep in mind that you probably want to avoid “peppermint spirits.” The spirits will work and it’s much more potent than the oil, but it is diluted in about 80% grain alcohol, so consuming it can feel a bit like taking a shot of peppermint schnapps. “peppermint oil”, on the other hand, is smoother and contains less alcohol. Regardless, make sure that the oils/extracts you purchase are indicated for consumption and not for homeopathy or diffusion.

Additionally, when purchasing peppermint oil, you’ll have a choice of capsules or liquid. I myself prefer liquid, as it seems to work more quickly than capsules. Yet, it’s difficult to carry a bottle of oil with you everywhere you go, so if you’re away from home, the capsules are a great way to carry your relief with you.

Next we have fiber, the importance of which cannot be understated. It is possible that a diet low in fiber is at least partially responsible for IBS in some people. Much of our modern diet is full of fats and starches and a lot of unnecessary junk that does little but fill our stomachs and thicken our thighs. We’ve strayed from the diet that our ancestors ate for thousands of years, and one of the main constituents in that diet were fiber-rich whole grains. Increasing the amount of whole grains you eat is a simple, cheap, and tasty way to enrich your diet and improve your digestive system. Since the U.S. government revised the old food pyramid to include whole grains in 2005, many companies are now making whole grain versions of just about everything. You can find whole grain cereals, whole grain crackers, whole grain breads, and even whole grain frozen pizzas. This makes it even easier. There’s no excuse not to buy the whole grain brand of these products, and doing so can save your stomach a lot of pain!

But sometimes we just can’t eat enough fiber. In that case, try fiber supplements. There are a handful of different brands and when it comes to fiber, you get what you pay for. Believe it or not, any good gastroenterologist will tell you that all fiber is not created equal. You may have to try a few different brands before you find one that truly works. For me, that brand was Benefiber chewables. I prefer chewables because the caplets are huge horse-sized pills that I’d rather not swallow and the powders are too messy. Have you ever tried cleaning a drinking glass after filling it with fiber powder? It becomes a gooey mess likely to solidify into cement if not cleaned promptly. Besides, I’m lazy, and the chewables taste like orange sherbet. Your individual mileage may vary.

Finally, the last thing I’ve found to helpful is yogurt. The concept is simple: keep the digestive system flush with healthy bacteria to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria. The use of “beneficial bacteria” is often referred to as probiotics, and a probiotic diet is likely to lead to better digestive health.

Here are some links for your perusal:

April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month (NCCAM)
IBS information from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
AboutIBS.org
IBS information from WebMD
MyPyramid.gov
Whole Grains Council

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I believe that much of our modern anxiety is the result of our lifestyle. The way in which most of us live is inherently unnatural. We’ve truly lost our connection with the rest of the natural world and, as a result, we’ve forgotten our place in it. I myself spend much of my day sitting in traffic where the only animal life I see are those who’ve been crushed on the highway. One could make the argument that, since humans are natural, anything we create is therefore natural. That’s a valid point, but it’s a bit too philosophical for this blog, so I’ll leave that for someone else to delve into.

Nonetheless, when we consciously set ourselves apart of the rest of the world, we can develop a deep sense of loneliness. I’m often amazed at how a simple walk in the woods or a weekend camping trip can really bring me back to the present moment. If you’re interested in some suggestions on how to reconnect with the natural world, take a look at this article from About.com’s Anxiety & Panic Disorders site.

Dr. Weil has the low-down on L-theanine and whether or not it may be helpful for those of us living with chronic anxiety.

"Drag your thoughts away from your troubles... by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it." -- Mark Twain

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