Irritable bowel syndrome: It’s a rather unsympathetic term for an equally unsympathetic condition.
I was diagnosed on a rather bleak evening, aged 14, after suffering for months from what I could only describe back then as permanent food poisoning. Navigating teenage life is difficult enough without a condition that leaves you bound to the bathroom and feeling rather self-conscious of your uncontrollable bowels.
After several tests and reviews, the doctor rather nonchalantly proclaimed, “It’s just IBS.”
I was handed a leaflet, a prescription for antispasmodics, and naively I thought my troubles would soon be over. In reality, they were only just beginning. In the ten years since my diagnosis, I’ve tried and tested everything that claims to help IBS. From antidepressants, to laxatives, to peppermint oil, to natural supplements, and even hypnotherapy.
In the end, I realized that the most important aspect of managing my IBS was not a medication or remedy, but myself and how I approach it. Here are some of the lessons I am thankful to say I’ve learned along the way:
Embarrassment and stress can have a very negative impact on your quality of life, and exacerbate your IBS. I spent years at school wondering what people would think if I had to rush out and go to the toilet. I was convinced the entire classroom could hear my stomach gurgles when we were sitting an exam.
But years later, I soon discovered that no one had been any the wiser. Everyone is so consumed by their own lives and personal worries that they are rarely thinking about yours. Only once was I the target a negative comment and, looking back, the fact that they cared enough to comment spoke more about them and their own happiness (or lack of thereof) than me and my IBS.
When I finally realized I couldn’t control what other people were thinking, and that it was therefore a waste of energy to worry about it, it felt like a burden had been lifted.
A handy little exercise I used to do to combat this was to sit on a bench in a park and people watch. As people walk past, take time to wonder what stresses and concerns they might be having that day. Just like you, they all have something on their minds. Their inner turmoil isn’t yours, and neither is yours theirs.
Growing up, I thought that suffering in silence was my only real option. It didn’t really seem appropriate to start discussing bowel habits in the school canteen, and I wasn’t sure my friends would really understand what I was going through.
However, looking back, I wish I’d found a way to broach the subject with a close friend, because having a sidekick who knew what was going on would have been a real help. Aged 18, I finally “came out” via a blog post, and the support was overwhelming. So many peers and fellow classmates had been suffering too. I’d had no idea. People started approaching me at events to talk about their symptoms and how similar they were to mine.
Suddenly, I could breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t my “dirty little secret” anymore. It’s exhausting to keep it to yourself, so make sure you have someone you trust to confide in!
One of the biggest realities about IBS is the fact that, sometimes, you simply can’t control it. And feeling out of control of your own body is extremely scary. You’re not sure whether it’s going to interfere with a date, ruin a social dinner, or disrupt a trip to the cinema.
But learning to live with that lack of control is the key to regaining control. (If that’s not a paradox, I’m not sure what is.) Because living with IBS is often a catch-22. You worry about your symptoms flaring up, which invariably causes those symptoms to flare up.
My advice? Try to plan ahead to keep yourself reassured, and try not to think too deeply about the “what ifs.” As humans, we have an innate desire to control situations and prepare for what is ahead. But, sometimes, this is counter-productive, because we start putting ourselves into “fight-or-flight” mode without needing to be in that state.
If you feel yourself going out of your depth, take a few deep breaths, sip some water, count to 10, and let the moment subside. You’re going to be okay, I promise!
Okay, so admittedly, this is difficult to do when you’re sitting on a toilet, with painful stomach cramps and bloating. I’m sure even Amy Schumer couldn’t make light of this kind of situation. However, as a whole, it’s important to stay upbeat and not let IBS envelope you as a person.
When my IBS flared up for the first time at 14, this overwhelming sense of drive and passion also kicked in. I wanted to be a journalist, I loved writing, and I loved telling stories. And I wasn’t going to let these symptoms control that.
My IBS often meant I had to take long periods off school or miss lectures. During periods where peers were bored, partying, or complaining about their workloads, I was quite thankful that my IBS drove me to work even harder. I didn’t want to let it beat me — and looking back, I’m so thankful for this sense of drive it gave me.
Whether over-the-counter or prescription only, I have tried pretty much every IBS medication on the market. I initially thought I was going to find a miracle cure, but after a few years I’d become sceptical. Often, medications made my symptoms worse, or simply masked them altogether. Like that time I was prescribed extreme strength diarrhea tablets for my 12-plus per day trips to the toilet, only for them to make me go the other way. (Two weeks without a bowel moment isn’t fun.)
This won’t be the case for everyone. For example, I know many people find peppermint oil to be very helpful. For me, however, it just isn’t effective. Instead, the key to preventing a symptom relapse has been identifying my trigger foods, managing my stress levels, and making sure my gut flora health is in check.
I now take daily probiotics (Alflorex in the United Kingdom, and known as Align in the United States) which help maintain equilibrium in my gut. Unlike other probiotics, they don’t need to be stored in the fridge, so they’re great if you’re constantly on the go. Plus, they’re effective regardless of what time of the day you take them (with or without food).
I recommend experimenting by giving each potential solution a month to work its magic. It’s easy to give up after a few weeks of it not working, but unfortunately there’s no overnight fix for IBS, so consistency is key.
One thing I am thankful to my IBS for is that it’s pushed me to really connect with my own body. When you have a rather needy condition like this one, you quickly become aware of what foods react badly, how you feel in certain situations, and how stress can take over rapidly.
Keeping a food diary can be very helpful for developing this connection with your body (especially if you’re forgetful like me), and it really can give you insights into what causes flare-ups of your symptoms. Make note of everything you’ve consumed in one 24-hour period and how you feel, symptom-wise, after each meal and then at the end of the day. After a week or so, you’ll soon begin to see patterns that might help eliminate your triggers.
Stress is probably the most difficult thing to learn to control because, for the most part, it just seems to crop up when you least want or expect it. Realizing that stress is a natural part of life is key. It’s more about how you react to it that affects your IBS.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was a huge help for acknowledging that stress and worry is a natural by-product of life, and that I had to change how I process anxiety. When a stressful thought arises, I ask myself, “Will worrying about this situation make it any better?” If the answer is “No,” then I let the worry dissipate.
It’s not about being lazy or not caring — it’s about identifying what is and isn’t productive. In a stressful situation, it’s helpful to remind yourself that you can only control your actions and responses, no one else’s. Take things slow and try not to let your anxieties run away with you.
Only in the last few years have I fully understood how much impact food has on your symptoms. However, it took me getting to a point where I couldn’t sleep at night because the stomach cramps were so agonizing, before I actually took action.
After a three-month elimination diet, I learned that dairy and eggs made my symptoms worse, and so they disappeared from my diet without fuss. I thought it would be difficult giving up cheese and chocolate (previously my two favourite things in the whole world), but it was much easier than I imagined, because my incentive was to feel better.
People say things like, “Life just isn’t living without ice cream and chocolate!” But as I’m sure any IBS sufferer will know, you’ll try anything to regain control of your body. If something as simple as avoiding dairy is what you need to do, you’ll do it. The FODMAP Diet can be a good starting point for eliminating certain things and seeing whether they have a positive or negative effect when you re-introduce them.
By following the above tips, I’ve managed to be entirely symptom-free for four months, and mostly problem-free for nearly two years. It does take a little bit of getting used to, but I’ve come to accept that IBS is one ‘health flaw’ that I can learn to live with. But my IBS doesn’t define me, nor does it define you — and that’s what you have to remember!
(Oh, and FYI, life totally is worth living without ice cream and chocolate!)
Scarlett Dixon is a U.K.-based journalist, lifestyle blogger, and YouTuber who runs networking events in London for bloggers and social media experts. She has a keen interest in speaking out about anything that might be deemed taboo, and a lengthy bucket list. She’s also a keen traveller and is passionate about sharing the message that IBS doesn’t have to hold you back in life! Visit her website and tweet her @Scarlett_London!