Charcoal Capsules for IBS: Help or Hype?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects more than 55 million Americans-mostly women-and can cause a vast array of symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, and excessive gas. One potential IBS remedy that's gained some recent attention is charcoal. Known for its ability to extract and neutralize many more times its own weight in gases, heavy metals, toxins, poisons, and other chemicals, some believed it may help with IBS-related gas problems as well. But despite the constant conversations on message boards, there is no hard evidence to support the benefit of charcoal for IBS sufferers.

Finding the Right Treatment

The good news for sufferers is that in many cases, symptoms can be controlled by managing diet, lifestyle, and stress.  Keep these tips in mind:

  • Avoid problem foods. Foods such as alcohol, chocolate, caffeinated beverages, dairy products, and sugar-free sweeteners can aggravate symptoms. If gas is a particular problem for you, avoid beans, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. Chewing gum or drinking through a straw can also cause more gas.
  • Eat at regular times. Eating about the same time every day can help regulate bowel function. If you have diarrhea, eating small, frequent meals may make you feel better. Conversely, eating large amounts of high-fiber foods may relieve constipation.
  • Get regular exercise. Maintaining an active lifestyle can relieve stress and depression and stimulate normal contractions in your intestines.
  • Experiment with fiber. Fiber can be a mixed blessing for easing IBS symptoms. While it helps reduce constipation, it can make gas and cramping worse. Your best bet is to slowly increase the amount of high-fiber foods in your diet such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. If your symptoms stay the same or get worse, talk with your doctor.

If your problems are more severe, you may need more aggressive treatment. Your doctor will help you determine the best treatment options, such as the following:

  • Fiber supplements, such as Metamucil or Citrucel, to help control constipation
  • Anti-diarrheal medications
  • Prescription medications, including alosetron, a drug designed to relax the colon and slow the movement of waste through the lower bowel. Because of the potential side effects of alosetron, it should only be prescribed by a gastroenterologist with expertise in IBS. Lubiprostone is FDA approved for women 18 and older who have IBS with constipation.



The Digestive Diseases Dictionary,