When I was in year 12 I used to get horrible cramps and digestive trouble. Sometimes it was so painful that I would be doubled over on the floor in agony. Naturally I just thought it was due to the stress of my final year of high school, until my mother made me go to the doctor. After describing my symptoms my doctor told me I most likely had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) brought on by stress, and that there wasn’t much I could do besides try to keep my stress levels down and avoid certain foods. From that point on I thought that digestive trouble was just going to be something that I had to put up with. Thankfully, my symptoms lessened over the years, but things were still never quite ‘normal’.
This week I’ve started reading up on IBS to expand my health knowledge. For those that don’t know I’m studying to be a holistic health coach, and the more knowledge on various conditions I have, the better coach I will be! It reminded me of the problems I had all those years ago, and it made me think about how many people are suffering with IBS in silence (approximately 1 in 5 Australians experience IBS symptoms!). Perhaps without even having ever seen a doctor or other healthcare practitioner. So I thought I would shed some light on the topic, and hopefully let a few people know that it’s something you don’t have to ‘just put up with’.
So what is IBS? Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a disorder of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (namely the large intestine), which can cause a wide range of unpleasant symptoms. Some of which include abdominal pain, altered bowel movements (diarrhoea or constipation), bloating, mucus present in stools, and nausea. IBS is known as a ‘functional disorder’ because there are no physical signs of disease when the GI tract is examined, however the function of the tract has changed in quality. Unfortunately the exact cause/s of IBS are not known, but there a number of theories consisting of mental and physical problems. For example:
- bacterial imbalances in the gut
- food sensitivity
- mental health problems eg. anxiety
- brain-gut signal problems, and
- GI motor problems
What we do know is that there are a number of ‘triggers’ which can set off or worsen symptoms. These triggers range from medication, to food intolerance, to stress.
Diagnosing IBS can be a lengthy process, as other conditions such as Coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease have to be ruled out. It is best to seek your preferred healthcare
professional if you suspect you have this condition.
It all seems pretty grim right? Well don’t despair there are things you can do to ease and maybe eradicate symptoms altogether. Traditionally, there are medications you can take for some of the symptoms, however I believe medication is just a band-aid fix and won’t help you in the long run. I believe diet change is first and foremost the most important change you can make. Some people groan at the thought of having to watch what they eat, but it’s worth feeling better right?
The first step in an IBS friendly diet is elimination. There are certain foods/substances which wreak havoc on those with sensitive stomachs. Sorry coffee drinkers, but coffee is an absolute no-no. Coffee strips the lining of the intestinal tract! The lining of our intestines is what keeps all the things our body doesn’t want out of the bloodstream, so you can imagine the damage that could occur when this isn’t working properly.
The second food to eliminate is white flour. “But flour is in everything!”, I hear you say. Yes, it is in a lot of processed foods, so you’re going to have to check labels. Flour also strips the lining of the intestine, and it has next to no nutritional value anyway.
Third is sugar because it causes loose bowel movements. This can be one of the hardest things for people give up (believe me I know!). It’s an addicting substance, and even consuming a little bit will always leave you wanting more. But if you persevere there are healthier options you can replace sugar with. Dairy is another no-no, especially cows milk or products containing milk. Scientists have identified 25 different molecules in milk that have the potential to cause an allergic response. If you can’t live without dairy, try eating sheep and goat dairy products as they’re easier to digest, and make sure the stuff you do buy is organic.
Finally, the last substance that should be weened out is artificial sweeteners. These guys have all sorts of nasty chemicals in them such as aspartame and sucralose. Now as far as I’m aware, there are strong arguments for and against the safety of artificial sweeteners (which I won’t go into in this blog), but as far as I’m concerned natural is always best. Some great natural sweeteners include honey, brown rice syrup, stevia, and agave nectar. Again, in my opinion I think they taste better too 😉
If you do try to eliminate any or all of these foods, do take care to do it gradually, as the body can experience some withdrawal symptoms from some of them.
Well hopefully you’re not running for the hills already because there are many more things you can do to ease symptoms. So let’s talk about what you can eat, and it can be summed up in one word, ‘fibre’. Fibre is essentially plant roughage, which keeps your digestive system healthy. It helps you to feel more satiated, and breaks down slowly so you feel fuller for longer. For those with IBS, lots of dietary fibre will help make bowel movements less painful, and more regular. Really good sources of fibre include, dark leafy greens such as kale and chard (silver beet), nuts and seeds, and a general increase in fruit and vegetables. When you increase your intake of fibre, remember to chew (and this goes for anything you eat). Digestion starts in your mouth when saliva starts breaking down the food. If you eat too fast your intestines have to do all the work of breaking down food for you.
Another inclusion to your diet that can be very helpful are probiotic supplements. Probiotics are good bacteria that are very similar to the ones found in our own GI tracts. They help improve the balance of flora in our digestive system, and provide a number of beneficial roles to keep our digestive systems healthy. Probiotics come in a number of forms, but it’s best to speak to your healthcare professional first.
I also cannot stress how important water is for the body. We are made up by more than half of it! Bodily functions slow down and stop working if we don’t have enough water. So first thing tomorrow morning have two big glasses of water before you start your day, and your body will thank you for it.
So with all this diet information, it’s best to start keeping a food diary. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner religiously, and you may be able to figure out patterns to what food makes you feel good, and what food triggers your symptoms.
Aside from diet, lifestyle is a huge factor in contributing to IBS, and stress is a big culprit. If you’re a bit of a worry wort and have noticed that your symptoms worsen when you’re put in a stressful situation, you are the perfect candidate for some relaxation training. There are many, many ways you can lower your stress levels, so it’s up to you to find what works best for you. I find meditation and breathing exercises really beneficial, but you might just enjoy sitting and reading a book. I have a friend who finds cooking her most relaxing activity! Whatever you choose, find some time each day for it, and not only will it help you relax, but it will also make your day a bit better. Another important lifestyle move is exercise (see what I did there 🙂 ). Exercise can also help with stress levels, but more importantly a study had shown it can substantially reduce symptoms.
Now you may be asking “what can I do when I’m in the middle of an attack?”. I know how painful digestive pain can be, and I’ve tried some of these remedies, and they really do help. First and foremost you need to try to relax your body. Breathing exercises and meditation can help enormously. Hot water bottles can also provide great relief, and are great to use daily anyway. If you have a gas pocket that won’t shift, try moving around or doing sit-ups in attempt to dislodge it (only if you are able to). You can also get some gas relief products from health food stores.
For those that are willing to try anything, there are heaps of alternative therapies out there that can also help. I myself love working with crystals, and more recently essential oils, because I usually find that there are underlying emotional blockages that can bring out physical symptoms. Red calcite, and many other red crystals are great for removing blockages in your base chakra. Just make sure you cleanse them before use. Ginger, Frankincense, and Peppermint essential oils are also fantastic to use.
Phew, what a list! And that’s just a small glimpse at the some of the changes you can make! Just like any condition, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or alone, it’s always best to seek help from a professional that can guide you through the changes you need to make. A Health Coach is a great option for putting you on a diet and lifestyle plan that suits your own unique needs, rather than a general plan that may not work for everyone. I encourage you to explore all avenues, no matter how crazy it seems, because it’s better that than suffering in silence.
If you would like anymore information about anything I’ve referred to in this blog please don’t hesitate to comment below. I got much of my information from Health Coach, Randi Cestero, who specialises in IBS, as well as the following websites:
You can also find clinical trials relating to IBS here.
Love and light,