My last post regarding IBS, my Diet Overhaul article received some really lovely and positive comments both on the blog, via Twitter and on Instagram. I’m forever surprised (but pleasantly so) at how many of you can relate and are interested to find out more. Since I began writing about my digestive troubles this time last year, I’ve seen an overwhelming increase in the number of other bloggers sharing their story, which is so reassuring and has given me yet another reason to relate to (and love) the blogging community.
In this instalment, following last week’s, I thought I’d give a little more background regarding why I decided to overhaul my diet and some simple switch-ups you could try to see if your symptoms improve.
Depending on how severe and interfering your symptoms are – whether you suffer from IBS itself or simply have a troublesome digestive system, there may be differing degrees as to how drastic you would be willing to change your diet. I literally cut EVERYTHING out, as I was so frustrated at my almost weekly visits to the doctors, which usually ended in me in tears and them offering me yet another anti-depressant, anti-spasmodic or the like. Of course, I understood it wasn’t the doctors fault that they couldn’t offer me a miracle cure however it’s taken me 7 years of suffering to realise why they do this.
IBS is a very generic term for a range of symptoms that can be as a result of a lot of things. Doctors don’t really know what it is, or why we have it or how to cure it. Many treatments might mask the symptoms and provide temporary relief however it’s getting to the root cause of the symptoms and dealing with those that I’m more interested in now. If I have to live with this thing, I don’t want it to control anymore of my precious time.
Recently, I underwent a rather horrible invasive procedure to decipher whether my IBS was something more serious. I lost faith in the NHS doctors because they completely messed up my referrals to gastroenterologists (my doctors surgery at home is brilliant but the one at University is terrible – more on that later) and so we took matters into our own hands and went to see a private gastroenterologist at Spire. The doctor I saw really listened to my worries and took on board some of the alarming symptoms I’d been having (blood, stabbing pains keeping me up at night). He wanted to take a look inside my colon to investigate further, something I knew was coming (and dreading) but necessary to give me peace of mind. He also wanted to take some biopsies to send off for testing, hopefully ruling out UC and Crohns (Inflammatory Bowel Disease).
The day came around and oddly, I was anxious but almost excited. I’d never really been tested by any other means than a simple blood test, so to actually potentially get some answers was going to be life-changing for me. I had to take this horrible stuff that literally clears everything from inside you a couple of days prior, which wasn’t the nicest of experiences but again, necessary. I was sedated and a tube with a camera and implements to cut bits out of my colon was inserted into my body. Sounds thrilling doesn’t it.
All the forums I’d read online said that this procedure was painless so I was actually expecting to fall asleep and forget it had ever happened. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for me. The next 30 minutes was the most agonising experience I have ever been through. I don’t remember all of it, as I was in and out of a sleepy daze but as the surgeon tried to push this tube through my colon it felt like something was ripping through my insides. Later, we discovered that the tube had scraped and cut some of the lining – yet more blood – but if it wasn’t for the very kind nurse who held my hand and gave me gas and air (which I apparently wouldn’t let go of) I think I would have passed out there and then.
Once he’d got through my colon, it was time to switch the camera on the screen on and I could watch the journey back – checking for any inflammation. Although I was sedated and probably talking a load of rubbish, it was the most amazing and weird experience to see the insides of my body, live – on a HD camera.
It made me feel very mortal, very human and it also reiterated to me that bodies are such incredible, amazing things that need to be treated with respect, love and care. It looked so delicate and intricate that it emphasised how important it is to keep it healthy, giving it the right things to digest rather than fatty, greasy foods which clog it up (you only need to google what this looks like to be put off). I know it was quite a weird moment to be having some odd light-bulb realisation moment but it did reaffirm that whatever medications you take, you really need to look after your body – especially if you want to stand a chance in managing your digestive issues.
Although I was relaxed, so sedated – interestingly, I could see how when I had a flutter of nerves it sort of spasmed and cramped up – almost as an instantaneous reaction, a defence mechanism (fight or flight) – preparing for battle. The surgeon then took biopsies, which was another crazy experience to be watching. A little claw came out of the tube, went over to a certain spot and closed on the colon wall, he then tugged and I felt a little popping sensation – but no pain.
At this point, I fell into some sort of sleep and remember vaguely being wheeled back into my room to recover, before my dad arrived. The surgeon came round to see me about an hour later, they’d given me quite a lot of sedative and they wanted to see it wear off and me eat something before discharged. He basically said that the severe pain was caused by the fact I have a longer, more twisted and loopier colon which he struggled to manoeuvre around.
Some people are born with colon’s double the size of a normal person’s (although genetically, women’s are bigger than men’s anyway) and some people develop them, but many people with IBS have this issue without knowing it’s there. Because of all the loops, twists and turns – it means that anything travelling through – especially if you have a big, fatty meal – is going to get stuck and cause pain. Your body has to work extra hard to push it through, which puts it into spasm and creates the stabbing pains you experience. It might not be the sole cause of my problems but it was almost reassuring to get a physical reason for my troubles, as I have had some rather ignorant doctors who told me my issues were as a result of me needing to get my ’emotions in check’.
Once I got home, I started researching further into this problem, for which there isn’t much information out there online unfortunately. Things such as refined sugar are very hard to digest in a long, loopy colon and often sit around fermenting (lovely, I know) which creates gas, pain and nausea.
My doctor at Spire gave me a different anti-depressant to try and said we would wait to hear back on the biopsy results – which he expected to be all clear.
For once in my life, I’ve actually gone against these orders and I am going to try and manage my symptoms naturally – without any medication. I’ve bought the prescription, so the tablets are there if I need them but I have been on anti-depressants before and they really messed me up, so I wanted to get a hold of my condition without any medicinal help. Maybe it won’t work, maybe it will. But all I can do is try I suppose.
Since I’d already been eating well a month and a half prior to my procedure, having cut out all dairy, eggs, refined sugar and wheat/gluten, it has been fairly easy to slot back into things – however I’ve had to significantly reduce my intake of food – eating 3 mini meals a day rather than my usual breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is to let my body settle back in after having something poking around and irritating the lining of my colon – and to ensure I’m not putting unnecessary pressure on my body. I’d actually highly recommend this method – especially if you can train your body to have smaller meals, perhaps more frequently – as you eliminate feeling sluggish or having any gurgles.
So, after that long winded explanation (sorry – if you’re still here, you deserve a medal) here are the switch ups I’d highly recommend and some interesting facts you may or may not know:
- Refined sugar – white sugar, brown sugar etc – is found in a lot of products you might not imagine to even be sweet. However, it’s best to avoid it at all costs if you want to give your tummy a break and stand a good chance of being symptom free. I know this is a horrible thought but honestly, it does the world of good. I realised this the hard way when even after cutting out normal chocolate, I re-introduced a slab of dairy-free chocolate into my life. Within minutes, I had horrible stabbing pains in my stomach and was kept up for the rest of the night. Switch it up for natural sugars, which can be found in fruits (although avoid acidic fruits) and pure maple syrup, agave nectar and some honey varieties. Natural sugars don’t give the same rush as refined sugars do. You know that feeling when you’ve eaten a whole bar of Galaxy and you’re feeling slightly sick but half an hour later, you’re still craving more sweet stuff? That’s the refined sugar doing that. It’s hideously addictive – but when you don’t feed it to your body, eventually – it no longer wants it.
- Milk. Did you know that 75% of the UK population is lactose intolerant – but probably doesn’t know it? Nope, I didn’t either until I did a bit of research when I found I was indeed cows milk intolerant. Lactase, the enzyme which allows you to digest milk is actually something you’re born with (DNA wise – we’re meant to drink milk as a baby) and usually lose once you get past the age of 6. Some people retain their lactase, however for many – the natural process is to not have it anymore, which means that when you drink milk your body has to work much harder to digest it. So essentially, if you can’t digest milk (lactose intolerant) you’re in the majority rather than the minority as the food industry would have us think. When you don’t have the enzyme to digest something, it can cause stomach upset, grumbles and nastier symptoms which I’m sure I don’t have to go into. I’m not suggesting that everyone should give up milk altogether but when you start to look at the packaging of many foods we eat, you’d be surprised where it appears! Salt & Vinegar Pringles. You guessed it, include milk! If you’re having trouble, try cutting it out for a month. Switch it up for rice milk or nut milks. I’m personally not a huge lover of nuts, so rice milk is my favourite – something I add to my porridge and creamy sauces as it has a really sweet, natural taste. Nut milks can be really nice for hot chocolates and cakes but it’s really up to you! My advice is don’t try or buy the artificial cheeses, they’re gross and so processed you may as well eat normal cheese.
- Gluten/Wheat is the enemy of an IBS sufferer, however it came up on my allergy test as a ‘borderline’ reaction which means that technically, I’m allowed two items with wheat ingredients a week. I’ve actually just opted for no wheat, as with anything I do – I have to go cold turkey or it doesn’t work. Rather than filling up your cupboards with gluten free bread, pasta etc as I used to do, I now just avoid carb things like that altogether and get the same starchy fix from vegetables. I buy brown rice pasta from Ocado – which is super yummy and fibrous, and then I’ll make red pepper roasts and sweet potato fries rather than having a sandwich. For breakfast, I’ll have gluten free oat bran – the ‘bran’ means it’s extra milled and so you won’t be left with lumpy porridge.
- Anxiety. I’m still working on this one. Since my procedure I’ve had the worst pains in my tummy (although it has been through turmoil, so that’s probably why) and it left me doubting what I’m doing and wondering whether I should just take the medication and shut up. I honestly worry about EVERYTHING, even if someone says something a bit odd or off to me, it could indeed ruin my entire day. I’ve found that apps including Headspace are really useful if you’ve worked yourself into a flap about something (I do this often) and I’ve also been reading a very helpful book about training your mind to think differently – and get excited for things rather than anxious. I honestly spend my life dreading things to then find that I’ve worked myself up for nothing – something that doesn’t help my IBS whatsoever. From Panic to Power by Lucinda Bassett is a really great book with coping methods I can really relate to. I’d give it a read if you’re interested!
So there we have it, my very lengthy post regarding my IBS updates. I’m sorry it’s a bit graphic, a bit waffly and a bit TMI at times, however honestly – I’m all for more information at the moment. I’d rather have an honest account than something sugar-coated, so there we have it. Maybe this won’t help anyone, maybe it will – but the main thing is that there shouldn’t be a stigma surrounding talking about these issues and after 6 or so years of hiding what I have, I’m not willing to do so any longer. There might be people that feel uncomfortable when I talk about it, our toilet habits have always been something we’ve been curbed from talking about, even from a young age – but if they find it awkward, that’s their problem – not yours.
Let me know what you thought about the post – including any tips you might have, your story or what you do to manage it. I love finding others who speak openly about it and am always happy to chat!