The minefield of an IBS diagnosis
Let’s talk about being diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
IBS is a chronic condition of the digestive system with no cure, and no set rules for diagnosis – you just need to fall into a set of symptoms which are characteristically defined as IBS symptoms. The reality of it is that nobody knows exactly what IBS is, or what it is caused by.
So, what can we do about it?
As someone who has suffered with IBS for over 10 years, I can tell you there is no simple fix!
There are so many (some not so pleasant) different routes to go down: from invasive tests, taking medication, mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a low FODMAP diet, and so many more. Different health professionals will all tell you different things and advise on their thoughts, but as I learnt the hard way – it’s all down to you to manage it yourself.
Here are some top tips for making it a little bit easier to manage in your daily routine:
LEARN YOUR TRIGGERS
This is a tricky one, as it can change constantly, but the best way to learn what your triggers could be is to keep a diary.
Now I’m not saying you need to write down everything that happens every day but keeping track of the food and drink you are consuming, your emotions and symptoms throughout the day and making a note of your bowel movements can truly be eye-opening. It may seem like a pointless task at the time, but over a period of time you may begin to notice patterns after you eat a particular meal or after a certain activity. This is the easiest way to see if you have a potential intolerance to a particular food, or maybe you are easily stressed out by delays on your commute to work.
I was given this advice by the many doctors I saw, and realised stress is a huge trigger for me, so it’s definitely worth putting the work in to your diary in order to help you tackle the symptoms in a more proactive way!
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
The only person who knows what is normal for you and your body is you! IBS is an unpredictable condition and can flare up at any time. Maybe today your body wants to binge on the sofa and watch Netflix for hours on end with your favourite snacks, or maybe your body is telling you to get moving and go on that run you’ve been promising you’ll do for weeks. Both are perfectly normal, and it’s important to listen to what your body is saying and nurture it. Remember, sometimes your body can crave things such as, in my case, pasta - which you know is prone to giving you stomach cramps and bloating. In these cases I find that stressing over the fact that you want pasta and not allowing yourself to have it because of the fear of what it will do to you, is much worse than just eating it and being relaxed about it. You need to be able to achieve a balance in life, and only eating foods which are perceived to be ‘good’ for IBS will make you miss the foods you crave and make you anxious, in turn making your symptoms worse.
As well as keeping your gut healthy, it is also important to nourish your mind and soul. The wellness industry is booming at the moment, with a wealth of information out there about meditation and mindfulness and this is a such a powerful tool for dealing with the anxiety and stress that seems to come hand in hand with IBS.
You may or may not know, that the gut and the brain are actually connected. This has only been discovered recently and confirms that our mental health does affect our gut health whether we like it or not. Click below for a brief introduction to the gut brain connection:
In short, we need to look after our minds in order to support our guts. The simplest way to do this is to breathe. It may sound too simple, because everybody breathes right?! But there is a difference in our normal breathing, and deep intentional breathing. Dr Chatterjee has some great resources on breathing techniques on his blog over at:
Exercise is a very important part of managing symptoms, mentally and physically. Your body releases endorphins when you exercise, triggering a positive feeling and supporting your mental wellbeing. Exercise has also been shown to improve digestion. Remember, exercise means something different to everyone, and doesn’t mean spending 2 hours in the gym - it could be a brisk walk, 20 minutes of yoga, running club, weightlifting, there are countless ways of incorporating exercise into your life and you have to choose which ways work best for you, in order to be able to maintain it. There will be days when exercise is the absolute last thing you want to do, but it’s important to make exercise a priority in order to reap the benefits. Your mind and gut will thank you for it!
IBS is a disorder that can be embarrassing, and rarely spoken about to people other than health professionals. But why? We are all human, we all have stomach grumbles, we all use the toilet, and we shouldn’t feel the need to be embarrassed by these symptoms. It’s so easy to lie about why you missed your friend’s birthday because you were stuck in the bathroom for two hours curled over in pain... but maybe being a bit more honest is the best way to move forward. I find that honesty is always the best policy. People can be so understanding and caring, and explaining why it’s not ‘just a bellyache’ will educate more people to understand how debilitating this condition can be.
The truth is, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, and it’s all about experimentation and finding out what works for you most of the time. What works for you one day, may not work the next – and that’s okay! It’s entirely normal to experience a wave of emotions and symptoms which change on a regular basis. Just remember to focus on your breathing, learn how your body reacts to things and manage accordingly. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but where’s the fun in that?! Try and enjoy the journey and figuring out who you are as a person, rather than as a diagnosis.
Maia Jeans July 2019
*Disclaimer* Please note I am not a healthcare professional, all views above are my own and from personal experience and will not work for everyone.