The challenge of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is that there's no magic plan to manage its various symptoms. But, if you're looking for natural ways to ease gastrointestinal pain caused by your IBS, you might consider omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil.
There's no hard science to back up fish oil's efficacy, but anecdotal evidence suggests it may help some, says Niket Sonpal, MD, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City.
Read more: Fish Oil Dosage for Adults
Treatment of IBS
IBS is a chronic condition that affects women more than men and often those with a family history of the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you have IBS, you're all too familiar with its cramping and other abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation, often when you're feeling stressed. Eating certain foods, like dairy, beans and cabbage or drinking carbonated beverages can trigger IBS symptoms, Mayo notes.
Standard treatment is often a combination of lifestyle changes that include reducing stress, getting regular exercise, getting enough sleep and eating more fiber and little or no gluten, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK).
Your doctor also may suggest a low-FODMAP diet, which means avoiding foods that have certain specific carbohydrates that are hard to digest, the NIDDK says. These potentially troublesome carbs include apples, berries, onions, dairy products, honey and foods made with high-fructose corn syrup.
If your IBS is severe, you might take medication for diarrhea, constipation and abdominal discomfort, according to NIDDK. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet also may ease symptoms, says Dr. Sonpal.
IBS and Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to your health. As with many important nutrients, your body can't make them on its own, according to the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements. That means you must get them from food or supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids may help as they "can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and have the potential to help reduce inflammation in the bowel," Dr. Sonpal explains.
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While there's no shortage of omega-3 supplements, the best source is food, says Kelly Krikhely, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition coordinator for Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Krikhely recommends foods over supplements because foods have other components that contribute beneficial effects. When you take a supplement, you're isolating just one compound, she explains. The foods richest in EPA and DHA are fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel and sardines. ALA is found in plant-based foods. Chia and flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and English walnuts are at the top of that list, followed by soybean and canola oils, and other nuts and seeds.
Your body can convert ALA to EPA and then DHA, but the amount is small, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. That's why it's best to get these acids by eating fatty fish two or three times a week.
Omega-3 Side Effects
It's hard to say how exactly how much omega-3 should be included in your diet for IBS. The Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 3 grams a day of both EPA and DHA from food and no more than 2 grams a day from supplements, says Office of Dietary Supplements.
Too much omega-3 can have some unpleasant side effects, including bad breath, burping, headaches and heartburn. Too much also could cause diarrhea, which you certainly don't want if you have IBS.
It may require some experimenting to see how much fish oil is right for you. And be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any supplements.
- Niket Sonpal, MD, gastroenterologist, professor of medicine, Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, New York City
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- Mayo Clinic: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease: "Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease: "Eating, Diet & Nutrition for Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- Kelly Krikhely, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition coordinator, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City