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Today’s post is a little different and somewhat more personal than what I would usually write about on the blog, but it’s an important issue that I’ve been wanting to discuss on here for a while now. It’s about a health condition which is rarely discussed and sadly often seen as taboo to talk about, despite roughly 20% of the UK population suffering from it.
I’m talking about IBS.
IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a rather unflattering name in itself, which is a long-term condition of the digestive system.
Not many people know this, but towards the end of last summer I spent a considerable amount of time in and out of the doctors after experiencing serious stomach pain and discomfort for several weeks. I had everything from blood tests to ultrasound scans in order to rule out other conditions such as coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease and even some cancers.
After an anxious few weeks of testing, the results came back all clear and I was told the likelihood was that I had IBS. IBS is often diagnosed after narrowing down many other possible causes and diseases.
I was a little shocked by this diagnosis at first, mainly because I, like many others, only associated IBS with symptoms such as diarrhoea or constipation. Little did I know that the condition came in many different forms and could also be characterised by stomach pain, cramps and bloating, as well as additional problems such as lethargy, nausea and even backache.
As an avid foodie, I was also particularly upset by the suggestion that food was a prominent player in the pain I had been experiencing. Growing up, I had always had a stomach of steel and was particularly smug about the fact that I never had any allergies or intolerances to deal with. But as it turns out, 20 to 30 is actually the most common age to first develop IBS.
Narrowing down and cutting out the triggers
Unfortunately, there’s no miraculous cure or medicine for IBS. In fact, the best way of dealing with it is to reduce the initial triggers.
Under Doctors orders, the first thing I did was start a food diary to find out if any particular foods might be triggering my pain. Food intolerances are an important contributor to IBS, with the majority of suffers finding that particular foods trigger symptoms.
I narrowed down the list of foods which made me feel the worse, with red onion coming out on top. I also did my best to alter my diet to reduce the number of common trigger foods I was consuming, such as dairy and refined sugar.
Like many other sufferers, I also came to realise that stress and anxiety were a massive trigger for me, even more so than the food a lot of the time. In fact, the worst the symptoms ever got for me was the anxiety-ridden few weeks between getting my tests done and waiting for the results.
A vicious cycle of stress and IBS
A vicious cycle is the best way I can sum up my experience of living with IBS for the last year and a half.
I can go weeks feeling completely normal, then one day I will get a bout of stomach pain and grumbling and discomfort which will often come with feelings of mild nausea and lethargy.
Whether the initial bout is triggered by stress or food I’m not always sure, but what I do know is that the combination of symptoms can sometimes leave me feeling so physically and mentally drained that I find it hard to focus my full attention on important things such as work or even socialising with friends.
The problem with this is that as a freelancer, missing even a day of work and falling behind on deadlines leads to anxiety and stress which only worsens the original symptoms. Despite the fact that relaxing and watching a film with a hot water bottle is a recommended method for lessening the pain of IBS I can often feel like IBS isn’t a valid excuse to be lying in bed all day (it totally is!).
This vicious cycle continues until the symptoms eventually lessen on their own often several days later.
Hiding the condition
As I mentioned at the start of this post, IBS is unfortunately seen as a taboo condition to talk about. Just like many other sufferers, I am guilty of trivialising my IBS by using excuses such as simply telling friends I am ‘unwell’ if I’m having a particularly bad few days or only saying that I have ‘food intolerances’ as the reason why I try to avoid certain foods.
‘Irritable bowls’ has always felt like an inappropriate thing to shout across a dinner table when someone asks why you can’t eat a certain dish!
There have even been times where I’ve been going through a bad bout but have been too afraid to use it as an excuse to get out of events I knew I probably shouldn’t be going to.
As a lifestyle and foodie blogger, I am quite often in situations where there’s a large quantity of amazing and exciting food in front of me, and on more than one occasion I’ve ended up eating things that I know will probably have me feeling awful the next day because I refuse to admit my condition to myself or others.
Why we need to talk about IBS
Luckily, my symptoms are far less severe than many other sufferers out there, however, it is still something which can have a huge effect on my daily life. Being diagnosed with IBS has opened my eyes to this extremely common condition which affects one in five people in the UK alone.
Having only been diagnosed last year I’m certainly still navigating my way around living with IBS. I’m constantly thinking about what I’m eating and trying to work out what triggers the uncomfortable pain in my abdomen and what stops it.
I’m working on lessening the stress and anxiety while also not giving myself such a hard time for not feeling great. But most importantly, I’m working on not feeling so bad about having IBS to begin with.
Writing this post today is my first step in being more open about my condition. I hope that by increasing awareness and knowledge of IBS it is something that will be taken more seriously and more openly discussed in the future.
It’s important for people who suffer from IBS to be able to be honest with their friends, families, bosses or clients, and to not feel embarrassed or guilty about their condition or the steps they may need to take to deal with it.
I also hope that it encourages more people to open up too – I’m always here if you want to chat!
Learn more at the IBS Network here.
UPDATE: Dealing with IBS through meditation
It’s now been two years since I was diagnosed with IBS, and on a day that I woke up in so much pain that I could barely move (my own fault after eating everything I shouldn’t have on a weekend away in France), I decided to come back and add a quick update to this post.
I started to realise recently that although I could reduce trigger foods in my diet and be more careful with what I ate, I wasn’t realistically going to cut out so many of the things that I love consuming completely – especially as 80% of the time they don’t cause a serious or painful reaction.
I do have a lot of coffee, I drink quite a bit of alcohol with my job, I enjoy a cheese binge every now and again, and when I travel it can be particularly difficult to avoid a lot of rich foods or particular ingredients.
What I have found is a great way to deal with the symptoms when they do appear all of a sudden. And that is meditation and hypnosis…
Now, these are things that I’ve always been extremely sceptical of. I’m not a very mindful person and I’ve always been cynical about these types of practices.
But what I’ve discovered are some YouTube videos (this one is my favourite) of guided meditation and hypnosis which I listen to relieve my pain.
I’ll lay in bed with a hot water bottle and listen to the video. Often I won’t make it through the whole thing without nodding off but that doesn’t seem to matter (it may even be part of what helps).
In as little as an hour, this can have me feeling completely relaxed and de-stressed, and relieve my stomach pain significantly. The pain which used to take several days to ease can be gone in as little as a few hours.
If you’re an IBS sufferer too, I would highly recommend giving this a chance!