April is IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) Awareness Month. Raising awareness of the inconvenient and often distressing digestive issue that affects a whopping one fifth of the population. As a sufferer myself, I’m encouraged by how much more awareness there is now compared to when I was first diagnosed in early 2014. We’re not even halfway through IBS Awareness Month and there’s already so much awareness-raising activity taking place:
- The IBS Network’s Conference & Exhibition – celebrating 25 years of the IBS network
- Contented Belly talking all things IBS
- Jo’s ‘8 Things’ vlog sharing the things she swears by
- “Blue ribbon” recipes from low FODMAP bloggers
- Nicer Foods spreading the word of IBS and sharing resources
…and so much more!
Since being diagnosed, I’ve learnt that IBS is not something that can be cured BUT it is something that can be managed – hoorah! In aid of IBS Awareness Month, I thought I’d share the ways I manage my symptoms. Of course, symptoms and ways of dealing with it will vary from individual to individual, but hopefully, the following will be of some help. I call it my ‘rule of three’.
IBS Management technique 1. Eating well
In April 2014, I embarked on the low FODMAP diet, following the advice of a registered dietitian. At this time, the diet was relatively new in the UK but had already seen a pretty good success rate in those with IBS. In a nutshell, this is a diet which eliminates FODMAPs (the foods that are harder for the body to digest). After 6-8 weeks, you then reintroduce these high FODMAP foods to find out which ones were causing you problems, adapting your diet accordingly.
I noticed a positive difference very quickly which I was thrilled about! Until I started on this diet, I had begun to think my symptoms were all in my head. It was such a relief to find that in fact, diet was playing a big factor and I had fun trying lots of low FODMAP recipes. Thanks to the diet, I have been able to get a much better idea of what aggravates my IBS. Now, I follow a low FODMAP lifestyle, as a rule, incorporating high FODMAP foods in my diet that my body accepts. Not that I don’t ever get caught out of course, but on the whole, my tum is SO MUCH HAPPIER! Now that I know my body better, I feel so much more comfortable:
- Travelling with IBS – snacks are key!
- Eating out with IBS – adapting foods where possible, often going for the lower FODMAP option.
My approach to eating, as with most things, is ‘balance’. I have a rather sweet tooth, but (try!) to keep a balanced and varied diet as far as possible.
IBS management technique 2. Being mindful
Have you heard of the gut-brain axis? It talks about the relationship between our brain and our gut and the effect that one can have on the other. With this in mind, it makes sense that you have to look after both the mind and gut, not just one. Colleen of ‘FODMAP Life’ has written an interesting blog on the subject.
So, I was now managing my diet and was noticing a huge difference in how I was feeling, but I knew I also had to give my mind some attention. IBS undoubtedly affected me psychologically, anxiety being the big one. I knew that to reduce my IBS symptoms further, I’d need to tackle the anxiety, otherwise, it would be likely I’d be all aboard the ‘vicious cycle train’ once again!
Having heard about the benefits of mindfulness I decided to give it a go. This involved following a DIY course: a book and accompanying CD. Each week involved a different practice or combination of mindfulness practices. I soon realised that my mind was wandering off far too easily – often to negative thoughts or worries. Stress and anxiety is known to play a part in IBS, so it was important to get to the bottom of this. Mindfulness teaches you to bring the mind back to the here and now through focusing on the breath, which in turn aids a refreshed perspective.
The course has taught me to react to situations differently compared to how I would have before. I’m able to reassure myself more at times of anxiety. If I’m out and about and begin to feel anxious, I tell myself to stop, breathe and in doing so I reassess the situation. It’s quite incredible how a simple practice can change your whole perspective. I intend to keep mindfulness practices as part of my routine.
In addition to this, I’ve revisited my youth with colouring books. Try and concentrate on something else whilst you’re colouring – it’s tricky! Your mind is focusing on the colouring, instead of anything else (e.g. negative thoughts). It’s also extremely relaxing (despite the frustration when going outside the lines!)
There’s also a number of apps on the market which encourage taking some time out of your day to calm the mind, such as Headspace or Happify. All you need for a bit of calm in your day right at your fingertips! Best of all, these are both FREE. Happy days.
I’d like to add that anxiety is not something I’ve got rid of completely – I don’t think it works like that. But I feel much more confident in dealing with it when it does arise, which in turn is better for my IBS.
IBS management technique 3. Staying active
Ah, good old exercise. Really does help in releasing those endorphins making you feel GOOD about yourself. I don’t always feel like exercising but I know how good I feel afterwards which encourages me to get off my ass!
Short runs + yoga = my exercise combo
I started running after university and soon got ‘the buzz’. Eleanor of ‘Low-FODMAP Me’ wrote a fab blog about running and IBS which really inspires to dust off those trainers and get out there. I’ve had times where running hasn’t agreed with my stomach (although I believe other factors are likely to have impacted this too), so I always listen to my body and appreciate its limits.
I’m a newbie to yoga (is it hard or what?!) but can already see the benefits. I’ve realised that it’s about finding your body’s limits and listening to them…so lanky me just does what my long limbs allow! The class I attend finishes with 15 minutes of mindfulness = absolute bliss.
What are your management techniques?
Remember, as the IBS Network quite rightly say, it’s #NotJustIBS.
Here’s to IBS Awareness Month!