Living with IBS is a constant battle; a battle that can leave you frustrated and often feeling exhausted. IBS doesn’t have an end, not really. It’s always there, lingering over your shoulder, awaiting the next opportunity to pounce. I try not to be negative or saddened by my IBS, and in some ways, I am thankful. I have grown much more aware of healthy eating, the importance of exercise and the benefits of looking after my mind. I have developed a real love for home-cooking, experimenting with new recipes and sharing the IBS friendly food I make with friends and family. I am also very proud of myself every time I have a successful bowel movement; those of you with IBS will relate.
The first real wave of IBS hit at University; poor timing but not entirely unexpected, particularly when the stress of exams and dissertations loomed over me. But it was an accumulation of factors that contributed to my IBS, stress only playing a minor role. It was food that slowly became my worst enemy. The typical student diet is one of high carbs, lots of salty foods to overcome a hangover, and anything sweet and stodgy. There was also the component of alcohol, a significant problem for all those with IBS. I would love to say I was the University’s angel; accredited for 3 years of sobriety. But that would be a big fat lie; I drank and partied at weekends through first year. Nothing could stop me.
Until realisation sunk in; the effects of drinking, diet and stress became unmanageable. The constant bloating, abdominal pain and rarely making or completing bowel movements created embarrassment and anxiety. ‘Is this normal?’ ‘Why is this happening?’ were questions playing in my head, questions I needed answering. To be perfectly honest, I was down in the dumps. So, I courageously took the first step; visit the GP.
Although, at this stage I was unaware of the painfully long process that would occur, and the lack of compassion or support the GPs would show. The GP’s first impression – by my description – was IBS or Celiac disease. So, it was suggested I had blood tests, to rule out any other possible illnesses. When my results came back normal, besides having low red blood cells (anemia seems to be common amongst IBS sufferers), and there was no “reason to believe” I was celiac (I’ve never had a test for it), the GP “diagnosed” me with IBS. I add inverted commas to demonstrate my sarcastic tone whilst writing this. What the GP actually said was along the lines of, “You’ve most likely got IBS, here’s a helpful information sheet.” An information sheet which I later discovered was easily accessible on Google. He should have saved his ink.
I saw many GP’s through University and, looking back, the biggest fault in the system is their lack of compassion. Everyone is hurried in and then out, one person’s problem semi-resolved, so straight onto the next. I didn’t expect a full hour therapy session, nor did I expect a hug and a sticker. But what I did want, and expect, was understanding and support. None of this was given.
With a diagnosis of IBS, what I should have felt was relief. But what I really felt was uncertainty. The reality of having IBS isn’t simple, and I was about to undergo a process of ‘trial and error’ to figure out which foods caused me most discomfort. I went back to basics with food and began keeping a diary, slowly reintroducing food-groups one by one. I found this very challenging, particularly whilst at University. To be completely honest, the attempt failed miserably. So, option two was the Low Fodmap diet; difficult at first, but easily manageable over time. I carried the diet on for one month (the recommended time) and the difference I saw was significant. I was also able to identify which foods for me – remember, it’s different for everyone – caused problems, and which didn’t. My worst enemies are lentils and the majority of beans. Their tastiness makes the complete abolition of lentils and beans impossible, but I’ve reduced them massively. For my own sake.
A contributing factor to my IBS symptoms is WHEN I eat and HOW much I eat in one sitting. I try to spread out my meals throughout the day and NEVER miss breakfast. This might sound common knowledge but there is a lot of people who skip meals, due to busy lifestyles, early starts or snacking. Snacking being the most treacherous of all. I also eat smaller portions than I used to, and ‘try’ to eat slowly – although I find this painfully hard. It has also benefited me to eat dinner early, usually around 6 or 7. These are just a few suggestions for things that have worked for me, which could work for you.
I have endless IBS stories to share; of moments that were tragic to go through, but amusing to look back on. A more recent story took place in Vietnam, where I spent the past year as a TEFL teacher. The unfamiliar selection of fruit and vegetables and cheap local street food, means that traveling is difficult. Whether you have IBS or not, there is always the chance of an upset tummy. Particularly the Vietnamese diet; consisting mostly of rice noodles, beef, bok choy and broth. Nothing too nutritious there, particularly for a vegetarian like myself. So, after 8 months on the Vietnamese diet, of trying really hard to limit an IBS flare-up, it pounced. Everything that I ate gave me bloating, pain and constipation. I increased the exercise and maintained a healthy diet, but nothing changed. I worked myself up to believe there was a bigger problem than just my IBS, with rumours of parasites from dirty water and food circling amongst travelers. So I visited the public hospital, where I knew there was a great translator. They told me it was wise to do a colonoscopy, to check for any ulcers or polyps.
The following day I arrived early at the hospital and the procedure went as follows; I drank a litre of laxatives and had to wait 4 hours until my bowels had emptied. The laxatives were not strong enough and little came out. So, the next step was an enema. I’d had one a few years back when I’d been constipated for a month (another story for another time), but this enema experience was extremely uncomfortable. And it took 9 attempts to flush me out completely! As the gush of water enters your anus you wait for that sudden feeling of ‘needing to go’, or how like to describe it, a feeling like you might explode. Then you run to the bathroom and let it all out. Once it’s all over, the relief is immense.
After the enemas, I was injected with general anesthetic -which I now question was necessary- and sent into the operating theatre for my colonoscopy. When I later came around, the doctor and translator came to speak with me. He reassuringly told me there were no ulcers or polyps and that the problem was my IBS alone. I was relieved. But the biggest relief of all was that I had no signs of IBS for weeks after. They’d unblocked the blockage. Not that I’d recommend regular enemas.
Your IBS does not define you, your strength and courage does. We can get through this together.
Nikki’s Top Tip
- Peppermint essential oil: Rub a small amount into your hand with body lotion. Massage in circles on your stomach. Always give an hour after eating before trying this.
- Probiotics have been amazing for me. Another case of ‘trial and error’, but worth trying.
If you want to learn more about IBS read on here
If you have IBS and want to help research into the area you can take part in a patient research study run by Lauren White at the University of Sheffield. Learn more about it here