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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a blight for many people who suffer it, yet the precise cause of it is unknown. It’s notoriously difficult to treat, and a number of studies have been done to try and isolate mechanisms that cause it and regimens to treat it. Could it be vitamin D?
Between the months of October and March, many of us just aren’t getting enough vitamin D. People living in northern climates should consider supplementing – even if it’s just weekly.
Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is the only vitamin that we don’t solely rely on food. Whilst it’s available in limited number of foods, most of us get it by converting ultraviolet sun rays into the vitamin through our skin.It’s by far the most reliable way of getting it.
But if, like me, you live in the northern regions of the planet, there are a good number of months where you never see the sun. It’s dark when I go to work, it’s dark when I leave! This is true for many of us between the months of October and March.
The darker your skin, the more troublesome it is getting vitamin D! Yet ironically, the lighter the skin, the easier it is to get vitamin D from the sun – but much more likely to burn!
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
There is currently no way to test for irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS as it’s commonly known. It’s only diagnosed by a process of elimination, or by the lack of red flags. For example, you may have symptoms of bloating, excessive gas, diarrhoea or diarrhoea and constipation intermittently.
Stomach cramping is also common – and is only relieved by going to the toilet. You might feel as if you’ve not completely emptied yourself when you do get to the loo, and for some people who have the condition severely, going out means planning where the nearest toilet might be.
Your medical doctor might suggest a hospital referral if they suspect something else, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease (collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease) – but this is frequently unnecessary.
Today, you’re more likely to have a blood test first. You should never ignore symptoms of IBS, especially if you display red flag symptoms such as:
- Passing blood when you go to the toilet
- Noticing mucus in your stool
- Rapidly losing weight for no obvious reason
- Excessive fatigue
If you have been diagnosed with IBS, there are a number of things you can do to help manage your condition. I’ll include these at the end.
Vitamin D and IBS
People living with irritable bowel syndrome have been shown to have low vitamin D levels in their blood. Supplementing could alleviate or reduce symptoms.
Vitamin D is an essential component to the optimal functioning of our body. For anyone that knows anything about this vitamin, they know it’s essential for the uptake of calcium, for bone health and avoidance of rickets – a condition we thought had disappeared from the modern world!
But vitamin D is now seen as so much bigger than this. It’s been discovered that it may well play a vital role in both immune function and the nervous system.
A new research paper looked at a number of studies where vitamin D status among groups of people who had been diagnosed with IBS was measured. It also looked at studies where people with IBS took vitamin D supplements.
What they found was, a great number of people with IBS were deficient in vitamin D. Moreover, the clinical trials that they looked at showed that symptoms were improved after supplementing with vitamin D.
Now there is a cautionary tale in this before you rush out and buy supplements. This paper only examined a few studies because this link hasn’t been widely researched. The clinical trials were small and so the findings may not be statistically significant from the point of view of more participants means better chance of finding or not finding a cause/effect.
Often, researchers either don’t calculate their sample size correctly, or just can’t get the participants they need. So this leaves us thinking, can I trust the result? The link itself was found in observational studies, which can only tell us that there is a correlation, not a cause and effect.
But it looks promising when you pool this together. It’s really possible that more clinical trials looking at supplementation and IBS could reveal something. Besides, many people living in northern climates should be considering supplementation between October and March anyway – especially those in the vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly, and those with dark-toned skin.
So if you have IBS, supplementing with vitamin D or, better still, getting a vitamin D test certainly gives another option! Especially with this irksome condition!
As suggested by the NICE Guidelines (2008)
- Have regular meals and take time to eat.
- Avoid missing meals or leaving long gaps between eating.
- Drink at least 8 cups of fluid per day, especially water or other non‑caffeinated drinks, for example herbal teas.
- Restrict tea and coffee to 3 cups per day.
- Reduce intake of alcohol and fizzy drinks.
- It may be helpful to limit intake of high‑fibre food (such as wholemeal or high‑fibre flour and breads, cereals high in bran, and whole grains such as brown rice).
- Reduce intake of ‘resistant starch’ (starch that resists digestion in the small intestine and reaches the colon intact), which is often found in processed or re‑cooked foods.
- Limit fresh fruit to 3 portions per day (a portion should be approximately 80 g).
- People with diarrhoea should avoid sorbitol, an artificial sweetener found in sugar‑free sweets (including chewing gum) and drinks, and in some diabetic and slimming products.
- People with wind and bloating may find it helpful to eat oats (such as oat‑based breakfast cereal or porridge) and linseeds (up to 1 tablespoon per day).
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat. He writes for www.veggieandspice.com and www.itsaboutnutrition.com