Natural Help for a Common Digestive Problem

By Kimberly Beauchamp, ND

Healthnotes Newswire (March 9, 2006)—Women who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may find some relief by taking melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone involved in the sleep–wake cycle, reports Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics (2005;22:927–34).

IBS is a disorder of the large intestine that includes symptoms such as abdominal pain or cramping, bloating, excess intestinal gas, constipation, and diarrhea. IBS affects about one in five people in the United States. Although the exact cause is not fully understood, the problem may be related to a dysregulation of portions of the nervous system, resulting in disordered internal muscle contractions. Because women are more frequently affected than men, female hormones are thought to play a role. Food sensitivities have also been implicated; people with the disorder are more likely to be sensitive to chocolate, wheat, barley, rye, and caffeine-containing foods and drinks.

Dietary changes and stress management can relieve many of the symptoms. In severe cases, however, medications may be prescribed when conservative measures are ineffective. One of these medications, tegaserod (Zelnorm), helps coordinate the muscle contractions of the colon, relieving constipation. Serious adverse effects related to the use of this medication have been reported, such as life-threatening diarrhea, low blood pressure, and severe intestinal disease.

Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and is released during the night, facilitating sleep. Studies have shown that taking melatonin at bedtime improves sleep quality and can relieve jet lag, as it helps reset the body’s internal clock. Melatonin is also found in high concentrations in the gastrointestinal tract, where it may help regulate movement of the intestines.

The new study investigated the use of melatonin for the treatment of IBS in 17 women with the disorder. The women received either 3 mg of melatonin or a placebo each night before bed for eight weeks. After four more weeks, the treatment groups were switched. Prior to the start of treatment and again after each eight-week treatment period, the women answered questionnaires regarding the frequency and severity of abdominal pain and bloating, and other symptoms related to elmination. Questions about sleep and mood helped to assess other effects of the treatment.

When taking melatonin, the women reported significantly fewer IBS symptoms than when taking placebo. When asked about their overall evaluation of the treatment, about 88% of the women experienced mild to excellent improvement in their IBS symptoms when taking melatonin, compared with only 47% when taking placebo. Melatonin did not appear to have an effect on stool consistency or frequency, nor did it alter mood or sleep.

The results of this study suggest that melatonin may be useful in the treatment of IBS.

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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