I wanted to write about something a little more personal today. With it being irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) awareness month, I thought this was the perfect time to tell you a little bit about my experience with IBS, which you may or may not have known I have suffered with for quite some time.
From a young age, I would always get a tummy ache if I was worried or anxious about something, usually this would be around school time or when my parents were away. These were mild but still quite stressful as a young girl. Fast forward to 2018, I decided to move to Edinburgh to pursue a degree in nutrition in a country where I knew nobody, was living with complete strangers and to top it off I had just begun a new relationship a month before.. hello long distance!
I was experiencing extreme bloating, brain fog, irritability, low mood and severe tummy pains. Luckily, in the UK health care is free so I decided enough was enough, registered with a GP and booked an appointment. I went through all the tests; coeliac, lactose intolerance, IBD, Chron’s etc. Soon after I got a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome, was prescribed some anti-spasmodics and a sheet of paper outlining the low FODMAP diet and a list of trigger foods. Even as a first year nutrition student, I felt confused and unsure what to do so I began trialling this diet.
Over the course of about 2 years, I aimed to stick to the low FODMAP diet rigidly. As many of you will have experienced, this is extremely difficult and isolating, especially when you’re faced with nights out and hang over meals which often made matters worse. This was almost always followed by an overwhelming sense of failure and guilt and a ‘f**k it’ mentality and all the chocolate was needed.
Each week, my shopping list would consist of a short list of ‘safe foods’ and I avoided any sweet foods or chocolate like the plague for fear of a flare up. The thing is, none of this helped. Even though I was following the diet rigidly, my bloating and stomach pain persisted (and often worsened) leading me to believe I was a failure and that I would always feel this way. The only thing left to do was to restrict even more. To avoid the nights out, to avoid going for meals with friends for fear of being confronted with a trigger food. Even when my boyfriend visited (the biggest foodie I know!) I would fear where he’d like to go for food and what was on the menu. It was awful.
Restriction during the day lead to extreme hunger which lead to allll the chocolate at night (my flat mates will remember this!) followed by guilt and more bloating. Eventually I had enough. Surely this can’t be my life now? Why me? Where did I go wrong?
After receiving a new cook book for Christmas, I decided to forget about FODMAPS and try out some new recipes. Now, this book was full of ‘clean’ vegan and veggie recipes which in reflection was not much better, but I gave it ago. The recipes were also relatively cheap and easy to make (happy broke student!) and meant lots of fibre! I slowly became more open to trying new foods and recipes although I was still apprehensive.
As I got further into my degree, I became fascinated with gut health and began researching the gut microbiome and how it affects almost all aspects of our health. I learned that these little microorganisms in our gut have a huge impact on IBS and overall gut function. I discovered that fibre, lots of variety, and sometimes probiotics can help our gut microbiome to grow and thrive. I also realized that IBS is not only affected by our dietary choices but that many lifestyle aspects can affect our symptoms greatly such as sleep, stress and movement. As I was regularly active, I was sure it had to be diet related. Even though my sleeping schedule was irregular, and my stress levels were through the roof.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? When I look back and identify all of the stressful things in my life at that particular time (uni work, being away from home, a long distance relationship, working part time) it’s very clear that my IBS was stress related and less so by diet. And do you know what’s really interesting? The year I graduated and 9 months after my boyfriend moved over to Edinburgh, my symptoms virtually disappeared, with some exceptions.
During this pandemic, my IBS has been up and down. But instead of panicking and worrying, I just accept it. Now I allow the symptoms to take their course. I’m not saying it’s easy, but after years of panicking and beating myself up, it’s a much better option. Symptoms will come and go. Now I know it’s a sign from my body that something is upsetting it and I need to change.
I’m not saying that the low FODMAP diet doesn’t work. It is successful in 50-70% of IBS cases which is wonderful! All I’m saying is there are other ways. If you’ve tried the low FODMAP diet and it hasn’t been helpful, there are alternative interventions. You are not alone in this.
If you are struggling with managing IBS symptoms, please reach out. You don’t have to go this alone and there are thousands of people in your situation, even if your friends and family don’t get it.
So why have I told you all of this? Well, I just wanted to let you know that I understand. I truly do. And this is exactly why I do what I do. I want to give you the tools to manage your IBS, reclaim your life and to reconnect you with foods you love without the fear.