I’ve spoken about IBS before on my blog – however as far as health related content goes, I’ve been a little quiet recently. I had an overwhelming response to my IBS and Anxiety series last year (which you can read here, if you like) and it helped me immensely to understand that I wasn’t alone in suffering.
However, since then – my posts have been fairly infrequent. I’ve been having a bit of a tough time generally, which has led to a massive flare-up, not just affecting my life intermittently, but every waking moment – even disturbing my sleep on occasions. I often feel slightly silly admitting that I’m really struggling because to the outsider, the symptoms of IBS might seem a bit trivial – but it does affect me, really badly – and I think I need to stop apologising for being unwell with something out of my control.
For those of you who didn’t read my IBS series, I’ll start off with a bit of background about me and the condition as a whole. IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a fairly common digestive disorder which typically affects 1 in 5 people throughout their lives. More prevalent in women, it is characterised by periods of diarrhoea, constipation, severe bloating, abdominal pain, nausea and tiredness.
Because of the embarrassing and unsympathetic symptoms, a common ‘branch symptom’ of the condition is anxiety – or in many cases depression, as the severity of IBS can overwhelm and control sufferers lives, in ways unimaginable unless you’ve gone through it yourself. I have a tendency to play the symptoms down when I tell people how it affects my life, almost as a defence mechanism – as I’ve been hiding my IBS since the age of 14.
I finally decided to start talking about it in April last year – and was surprised (but delighted) at the thousands of you who reached out to me. I honestly can’t thank you enough if you got in touch, you’ve helped in more ways than you know and you are always more than welcome to email, tweet or message me. I set out to break down the stigma and try and make it less of a taboo subject – and to some extent, I feel I’m some way in achieving that.
Since I started my IBS series last year, I’ve been presented with a number of opportunities to help put a face to the condition (as any help currently lays largely on anonymous forums online) and start talking about it in the same capacity that conditions such as diabetes and asthma are spoken about. Just because IBS has embarrassing symptoms, it doesn’t mean we have to suffer in silence. Even though I’ve faced some dilemmas, I’ve been working with a number of incredible brands and agencies to put together campaigns to raise awareness. There’s a TV internet ad coming out very soon, I’ll keep you posted!
Although I try to have a positive outlook on the condition and push for the fact it doesn’t rule my life, 99% of the time, it does. Many people can have periods where they don’t suffer at all – followed by massive flare-ups for which the triggers lay unknown. During such times, what you can eat is fairly limited (unless you want to make things worse) and at the moment, I’m at the stage where even the doctors have exhausted all options and are at a bit of a loss. My Uni work is affected. I haven’t been to a lecture in two weeks, which I’m sure must be perceived as skiving to many (oh I wish) when actually, I’m at home in an enormous amount of pain, in bed with a hot water bottle and a peppermint tea, trying desperately to stave off hunger pangs because anything I eat will make things 10 times worse.
Living with IBS on a day-to-day basis is tricky. I found my usual coping mechanism was to pretend it wasn’t there at all, however when that didn’t work out – I tried the opposite. In many ways, this has helped, although I’ve had some nasty comments from some people I actually thought I could trust. I know it’s an embarrassing condition but the right people, the right friends – will see past the childish hilarity and do their best to help where possible.
Although at present it’s the worst it’s ever been, probably due to the stress of my course, I thought I’d write a list of the things that do help me manage it on a day to day basis, just in case there’s one on there that you haven’t yet tried. None of them I would describe as a ‘cure’ per say, but when things are awful, they definitely help improve the situation.
- Water, water, water. I know it sounds strange but whereby food has the ability to irritate the symptoms of IBS, I find that water often soothes and calms the abdominal pain associated. When I’m at uni, I drink in the region of 2-3 litres a day, as a way of flushing my system and assisting recovery. If you have IBS-D your colon doesn’t actually absorb many of the nutrients and water from your food like it should, so you’re not getting the necessary amount of fluids and may become dehydrated without actually knowing it. If you’ve had a particularly bad bout of symptoms, drink lots of water – but make sure it’s plain rather than with any fruit cordial or squash in it. I love Robinsons Apple & Blackcurrant, but the artificial sweeteners and sugars in this can cause further problems, so I’d stick to plain to be on the safe side.
- Eat little and often. I don’t have the healthiest diet, but when symptoms flare up – I literally have to cut everything out of my diet and stick to plain foods for a couple of weeks in order to stand any chance of functioning like a normal human being and having any kind of social life. During this time, I stick to smaller meals, more often – as this means you’re not putting huge amounts of pressure on your system to digest a massive meal all at once, but it’s working constantly throughout the day in smaller forms. For breakfast, I’ll have gluten free porridge and peppermint tea, lunch I’ll have a fish finger wrap (yes, an odd choice – but for some reason, I can eat it without problems) and for dinner, some plain chargrilled chicken and rice or potatoes. The lack of fruit and vegetables is done on purpose, as I find these can irritate my stomach even more – however its different from person to person, so see how you find them!
- Don’t panic. The annoying thing about IBS is that the symptoms are exacerbated by stress, anxiety and worry – which IBS is often the cause of anyway. It’s a bit of a catch 22. You worry about having a flare up, which causes you to have a flare up, which then causes you to worry more. So, in many ways – just saying ‘Don’t Panic’ is a bit inconsiderate and unattainable. However, I have an app called Headspace downloaded which I often use before massively overwhelming situations to calm me and my stomach down. It has little recordings (10 minutes long) which you can do in a quiet place (or just plug your headphones in and do it on the train) and has helped me immensely.
- Medication. I don’t actually take any regular medication for my IBS because I’ve had some absolute disasters in the past. I am however, a walking chemist and have almost 30 different varieties of tablets in my handbag at any one time (yes, I counted). This way, I know a ‘solution’ is in my bag if I need it, which can calm me down. I usually take peppermint oil, buscopan or loperamide hydrochloride dependent on what symptoms are irritating me most, however I also have some herbal supplements too which can really help. I’ve recently tried Aloe Vera Extract (£3.49) and Milk Thistle (£9.49) from the Superdrug range, which have really helped somewhat and are certainly worth a try!
- Be comfortable. Although I love fashion and have a wardrobe full of pretty dresses, I often choose comfort over fashion (and try and interweave the two if at all possible) because if I don’t have something tight around my stomach, I’m more likely to not suffer a flare up. This has resulted in some rather unflattering combinations, because I have to buy everything in two sizes bigger than I actually am – however if it helps, who cares about the number on the label! No-one but you will know!
Do you suffer from IBS? If so, do you have any tips on how to manage it on a daily basis?