I have been living with IBS for 15 years and I have been successfully (on the whole) managing these symptoms for around 2.5 years. I’m always learning how to better manage my symptoms and heal myself. In 15 years there are many things that I have learned and while everyone has to learn the idiosyncratic ways in which they can heal themselves, here is some of my wisdom for someone who is embarking on their path to overcoming IBS.
You can’t heal yourself physically if you don’t heal yourself mentally.
Stress is a huge factor in causing IBS symptoms and this is becoming increasingly well known. If you don’t tackle stress and sleep deprivation you might not be able to truly improve your IBS symptoms.
Qin et al., 2014*, conducted a comprehensive review of IBS research and concluded that IBS is a stress-sensitive disorder and it is necessary to take an integrative approach to IBS management which includes stress-management.
After working shifts in a mental health hospital for years and experiencing both high levels of stress and sleep deprivation, this link was inescapable for me. After burning out and reaching rock bottom, it took for me to overhaul my approach to life in general and work-related stress in particular before I saw real change in my IBS symptoms. In turn the improvement in my IBS symptoms has had an incredibly positive effect on my mental health and confidence.
That’s why these pages are full of tips on managing stress. Try to take note of your symptoms of stress and use strategies like those outlined in my PickMeUps to reduce the effect of stress on your gut.
Listen to your body.
I have often been told that my approach to eating is ‘very strict’ or ‘must be a lot of effort’. While this may be true for some, I don’t agree with either of these particularly. I have been incredibly ill from food and so taking steps to avoid this illness and to empower myself with knowledge about how I can feel well enables me to take control of my life back. A key part of this has been developing a keen awareness of my body and it’s responses to food, sleep, stress and my environment.
It is not simple to teach someone to listen to their body. It takes years of practice. But by noticing when things don’t feel right, trying new ways of doing things and a keeping a diary of the symptoms you experience, you can learn to notice small changes which provide you with information. Remember, there is a direct link between your gut and brain- feelings of grumpiness, tiredness or negativity are all possible symptoms of poor gut health. Alternatively, you can use technology to help you monitor your body and keep track of it’s responses. This is known as Biohacking and you can easily find resources online to help you with this- try https://www.bulletproofexec.com/ for some inspiration.
When it comes to eating, wolfing down food on the go will only serve to make you feel worse. You need to take your time, chew plenty and stop moving around. Don’t drink while you’re eating. If you feel thirsty, drink before you eat and give yourself time after your meal before you drink again. Drinking while eating contributes to bloating as does swallowing unchewed food. You start the process of digestion with enzymes in your saliva so the more work you do before the food enters your stomach the less work you have to do to digest it afterwards.
This may be an extreme approach for some people but if I feel very stressed or lacking in time, I take the approach that it’s better to eat very little or nothing than to eat a meal even if I’m hungry. The discomfort of IBS is often a worse feeling than hunger so sometimes, on balance, it’s better to be hungry.
Keep Experimenting. Keep Positive.
It can be very disheartening to find that things that were so promising, that apparently changed the lives of many people who have tried them before you, didn’t make you feel better at all. But the digestive system is not a simple thing and there cannot be a one-size fits all answer to everyone’s problems. There are any number of symptoms that fall under the diagnosis of IBS. IBS is in fact a diagnosis of exclusion which means that it is what you are left with when other illnesses have been ruled out…. therefore, it could encompass a wide range of problems.
My advice to you is KEEP GOING. It took me 12.5 years, and a lot of growing up and learning to look after myself, before I saw real improvements in my gut health but I did see them. Keep trying new things, keep experimenting and most of all, keep an open mind. It is difficult but if you give up then you will never improve. Try to keep positive. For every new piece of information you have- whether it is knowledge that something hasn’t worked for you or you’ve found something that you are sensitive to- you are wiser than you were before. You are a little bit more empowered, even just a baby step closer to being well. But you are closer.
You can feel so bloated and lethargic with IBS but these feelings are self-perpetuating if you let them get the better of you. Rather than moping about on the sofa, get some exercise. Do yoga, pilates or if you need to do something more energetic, go for a run, kickboxing, zumba- whatever floats your boat. Exercise is well known to help improve mental health and it can also help to get your sluggish digestive system going.
Stand tall! My posture was terrible when my IBS was at it’s worst. I look back at pictures of me then and I look like a stooped old woman not a spritely 20-something. Good posture can have a positive effect on mental health and standing tall can minimise the appearance of bloating. A bloated stomach makes it harder to engage your core postural muscles but these are the ones which help to pull your stomach flatter and to help you look taller and therefore feel more positive. I recommend doing exercises to improve your core strength and really working on doing these with good form.
Your body can feel like your worse enemy but be kind to it, treat it well and be forgiving. You will thank yourself for it down the line.
*Qin H-Y, Cheng C-W, Tang X-D, Bian Z-X. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG. 2014;20(39):14126-14131. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126.