Anxiety isn’t the only medical condition I have to deal with (or, for that matter, the only invisible illness). I really lucked out in 2013 when I was diagnosed not only with an anxiety disorder, but also with Irritable Bowel Syndrome – commonly referred to as IBS. IBS made life really really hard for me for the best part of 2013 – I felt sick almost constantly, barely ate, and lost a lot of weight. My body was not a happy body. But now, in 2015, I can say with confidence that I’m very good at managing my symptoms so that they almost never interfere with my life. It can take a while, but it is absolutely 100% possible to create a repertoire of tips and tricks to live healthily with the irritating bullshit that is IBS.
Before I get into my list of things I do to manage the fact that my gut essentially hates me, I thought I’d take a minute to explain what IBS is, for those of you not in the know.
What is IBS?
Patient.co.uk defines IBS as “common functional disorder of the gut. A functional disorder means there is a problem with the function of a part of the body, but there is no abnormality in the structure. So, in IBS, the function of the gut is upset, but all parts of the gut look normal, even when looked at under a microscope.” Basically what this means is that, even though your gut may for all intents and purposes be absolutely fine, it thinks it’s not and just has a massive temper tantrum, kind of like a small child who’s told they can’t have that packet of lollies in the supermarket.
There are a whole raft of symptoms associated with IBS, and these tend to vary wildly from person to person. One friend of mine who also has it finds that he voms after eating too much of a certain food, but I’ve never experienced that problem. Another friend who has it finds that she can be fine for weeks on end but suddenly and for no apparent reason has times where she reacts badly to any food she eats.
In terms of symptoms, I’ve actually come off pretty lightly. When I was first diagnosed, I did a lot of reading on the subject and found myself confronted with scary phrases such as “explosive diarrhoea” and horror stories of people who constantly had the shits or who never knew when they’d next need to rush to the toilet to have an unexpected vom. To those people, you have my utmost sympathy. I’ve experienced nothing of the kind: my main symptoms are a bloated tummy, discomfort in my general tummy/gut area and reduced appetite. However, when I’m having an episode, my appetite disappears altogether, even the thought of food can make me nauseous, and the discomfort in my gut can turn into pain. So far there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern to my episodes – they can happen whenever they feel like it, and I just have to ride them out with all the grace and dignity of a person whose gut has given up on her.
What causes IBS?
In short: idek man, and neither does anyone else. While we are aware of the range of symptoms IBS causes, as well as many possible ways to treat or manage those symptoms, nobody really knows where IBS came from and what makes it do the shit it does. Our current understanding of the IBS situation is that it’s not a solely physical disorder nor a solely mental one – rather, both physical and mental factors seem to work together to make it all happen.
To give you a personal example, I’ve found that eating certain types of foods can set me off, and I try to avoid those types of food where I can. But I’ve also found that stress can have a huge impact on how happy (or not) my gut is, and of the two, stress certainly has the biggest impact. The fact that I’ve got both the mental and physical triggers going on makes it a bit difficult to pinpoint specific things that aggravate my IBS (i.e. did that BK set me off, or am I just a bit stressed out today?). The same is true, I imagine, of most – if not all – IBS-sufferers.
The good news is that, no matter how shit IBS makes you feel, you’re not ever actually in any danger of dying from it. IBS causes no permanent damage to your colon – yay! This means that when you’re on the crapper and feeling like you’re literally shitting your internal organs out – you’re not! It just feels like you are! Despite the somewhat sardonic tone of those last two sentences, this is actually really good news. IBS is not doing serious damage to your intestines, and that’s something to be grateful for.
With this in mind, IBS is probably not going to pack its bags and go away anytime soon, so someone with IBS needs to develop a successful approach to treating their symptoms. The personalized nature of IBS symptoms unfortunately requires a personalized approach to managing these symptoms, and will probably mean a lot of trial and error until you find treatments that work for you. So here are some of the things that I’ve found really effective in treating my symptoms.
- Eating regular meals. I’ve found that eating at least three regular meals, at roughly the same time every day, does wonders for my tummy. Even if they’re not always big meals, just eating something at regular times really helps me.
- Exercise regularly. Especially when you’re having a bad IBS day, getting up and exercising can be the last thing you wanna do. Make sure you push yourself to do it anyway. I’ve found that getting a good workout several times a week is amazing for my appetite, my tummy, and my general stress levels. It’s all good.
- Never skip breakfast. Never never never! Always eat something! Even if it’s just a piece of toast or an apple! Skipping breakfast can fuck you up for the rest of the day. Don’t do it.
- Don’t spend too long lying down. This is something I made the mistake of doing all too often when I was first diagnosed. It may make you feel better in the short term, but it’s really bad for your gut to be lying down all the time. Unless you’re really bad, make a pact with yourself to get out of bed in the mornings and stay out of it until bedtime in the evening.
- Gastrosoothe. This is a medication my doctor prescribed for me when I was really struggling with my IBS. On bad gut days, it just helps to calm down your agitated tummy and lessen any yucky tummy pains you may be experiencing. And the neat thing is you can take it up to 4 times a day if you have to. It’s available over the counter, but I’d recommend getting a prescription, because it’s like a zillion times cheaper that way.
- Mylanta and Gaviscon for heartburn. Since I’ve had IBS, I’ve noticed that some morning I wake up with very unpleasant heartburn. This usually results from eating too close to bedtime the night before, which I try to avoid doing, but in cases where I wake up and the heartburn is already there, I like to kill it with a combination of Mylanta and Gaviscon. It also helps if I get up and get moving and just get on with my day, no matter how burny and yucky my insides feel. Generally moving around helps the symptoms to go away quicker.
- Prune juice. This is my go-to for if I’m feeling bloated, yucky, or – if you’ll pardon me for being straightforward about this – having trouble taking a shit. It gets everything moving (yaaaaaay) and I think it’s pretty delicious as well.
- Ginger beer. Ginger beer is my go-to for when I’m feeling nauseous or gassy, because it usually sorts me right out. Make sure you get a brand that actually uses real ginger though, not just ginger flavouring (looking at you, Schweppes).
- Having plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. I’m not always the best at this, especially when I’m in Wellington, but when I’m eating lots of fruits and vegetables I definitely notice an improvement not just in my digestive health but in my mood as well.
- Avoiding too much gluten. For some reason, gluteny foods tend to make me feel bloated and gross if I eat too much of them, so as a general rule I try to have at least one (two if possible) gluten-free meals a day. For a while I went completely gluten-free, but this is expensive and difficult to sustain as a student. Eventually I just missed garlic bread and cake and sandwiches so much that I said ‘fuck it, I’ll just be careful’. You might find going gluten-free will be a big help to you, but I’ve found that just managing my intake works good enough for me.
- Managing my stress levels. Again, this isn’t something I’m always good at (arguably it’s not something that’s always possible, me being a third-year uni student and all). But I do try to make sure I’m not getting too stressed out, and if I do find I’m getting particularly stressed, that I take the time out to address that issue. Like many invisible illnesses, in my experience IBS is not wholly physical or mental, but caused by a complex interplay of the two. I understand that stress (or anxiety, for that matter) can trigger an IBS episode, so I do what I can to minimise the chances of that happening.
- Identifying triggers. Too much stress and gluten are two of the triggers I’ve identified; other things include caffiene (which I avoid entirely), beans and highly spiced foods (the latter of which I just avoid eating too much of at a time). Unfortunately this is a bit of a case of trial and error as you work out which foods and/or other things can cause you to have an IBS reaction. Keeping a food diary (where you write down everything you eat and how you felt afterwards) can be a helpful way to work out which foods disagree with you.
- Pushing through the bad days. Even with an excellent regime in place for managing IBS, like the one I currently have, there are gonna be bad days. It’s kind of unavoidable. There’ll be days when nothing makes the pain and discomfort and yucky feelings go away, and that’s something you just have to accept. Once you’ve done that, I strongly advise just pushing through them as much as possible. Life goes on, and the bad days will pass. Unless your symptoms are totally debilitating, usually bad days are actually totally survivable. I acknowledge they won’t be pleasant, sure. But it’s not impossible to get shit done regardless, and make the most of a bad situation.
- Staying positive. IBS, much like anxiety, can be an extremely unpleasant disorder. But the great news is that it will not kill you. It’s also very very common, and chances are you’ll know lots of other people who have it too. Get together with them, share tips, have a good complain together about how shitty it is. Try to keep a positive frame of mind even through the bad times, because this is an illness that is shitty, yes, but is also totally manageable. It took me about a year after my diagnosis to finally figure out a good self-care system for my IBS, but now everything is under control and I hardly ever experience really bad days anymore. So the same is definitely achievable for you too.
I hope you found this little write-up helpful and informative. As always, please feel free to comment your own tips if you have any.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been extraordinarily busy and stressed lately, but happily I found time to sit down and write this post. This weekend I’m in Hastings for the last of many 21st celebrations – this one a dinner with my extended family. The break from uni is a very welcome one, I must admit. Here are some pictures of when I flew home on Thursday afternoon.
Gandalf chillin’ in the airport.
This wasn’t my plane, but it looked cool so I took a picture.
In the air.