Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is among the more common unexplained medical conditions that afflict people in wealthier countries such as the United States. There is no known cause of the disease, nor are there any definite risk factors consistently known to trigger flare-ups in those who have already developed IBS.
Evidence suggests that diet may play an important role, particularly in controlling flare-ups. But little research has been done on the contribution played by specific nutrients.
But according to a 2011 study conducted by researchers from Innlandet Hospital Trust in Norway and published in the journal Nutrition Research, vitamin B6 may play a critical role in the severity, or perhaps even development, of IBS.
A serious affliction
Between 10 and 20 percent of people will suffer from IBS at some point in their lives, with approximately half of those experiencing their first symptoms before the age of 35. IBS is characterized by intense abdominal pain, bloating and gas, cramps, and alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation. Symptoms may abate for months or even years at a time before flaring up again.
There is no cure or reliable long-term treatment for IBS, although certain pharmaceutical drugs and dietary practices can reduce the frequency or severity of flare-ups.
The power of B6
The researchers in the 2011 study had 17 participants fill out daily reports on what they ate, as well as recording the occurrence and severity of IBS symptoms including abdominal pain and discomfort, urgency and bloating, stool frequency and consistency, and straining and incomplete bowel movement. The median daily B6 intake among participants was 0.9 milligrams per day, slightly lower than the recommended daily intake for both women (1.2 mg/day) and men (1.6 mg/day)
After a week, the researchers analyzed the data, finding that intake of B6 was significantly associated with less frequent and severe IBS symptoms. No other nutrient showed any effect on IBS symptoms.
“A significant inverse association between intake of vitamin B(6) and severity of IBS symptoms might have clinical implications,” the researchers noted.
Vitamin B6 plays a host of critical roles in the body, helping to regulate everything from energy production to metabolism to synthesis and breakdown of amino acids. It is a critical component required for DNA production, immune function, and nerve, muscle and red blood cell health.
Studies suggest that increased vitamin B6 intake might help prevent or alleviate health problems as varied as carpal tunnel syndrome, menstrual and premenstrual problems, depression, diabetes, heart disease, HIV, kidney stones, endometriosis, and morning sickness. In combination with vitamin B12 and folic acid, vitamin B6 may also help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
Good food sources of vitamin B6 include whole grain cereals, spinach, broccoli, bananas, watermelon, acorn squash, avocados, poultry and fish.
As a water soluble vitamin, B6 is generally safe and it is difficult to take too much. However, nerve damage can occur at extremely high doses (100 mg per day or more), so supplementation from non-food sources should be undertaken with the supervision of a qualified health care practitioner.