Do IBS Symptoms Last Forever?
For women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), the burning question is: am I going to have live like this for the rest of my life? At the height of my IBS discomfort in my 30s that was certainly the question that dogged me.
When I first encountered IBS more than twenty years ago, there was zero treatment available. At the age of 31, I spent two weeks in hospital in so much abdominal pain I had to be sedated for seven days. I saw a number of specialists, and had a colonoscopy but none of the doctors could find anything wrong with me. They wanted to know if it was “all in my head”?
These days, we know more, and IBS is a recognised condition. Treatments vary depending on the doctor, and no treatment offers a cure.
What is IBS?
IBS is classed as a food intolerance condition that affects the digestive system. Its symptoms include stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. Some people have continuous symptoms but it’s much more likely for symptoms to come and go. When symptoms come, they’re referred to as a flare up.
IBS is far more common amongst women than men, and many women report an increase in flare-ups around the time of menstruation. Menstruating women say that symptoms worsen in the high-hormone phase of their cycle, and that with their periods comes abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
But food intolerances are uniquely individual and have a range of symptoms. Other symptoms include fatigue, mood swings, backache, side ache, insomnia and PMS. For many women, the condition seriously impacts quality of life affecting work, relationships, confidence and overall mood. To date, the only treatment for IBS is the FODMAP diet.
What is FODMAP?
FODMAP stands for fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharaides and polyols. These are types of carbohydrates found in food.
Some digestive systems don’t break them down or absorb them in the small and large intestine. As a result, water is drawn into the gut and fermented by bacteria causing a bunch of undesirable gut symptoms including bloating, cramping, gas, constipation and diarrhoea.
The FODMAP Diet can be confusing because it means eliminating these foods from the diet if you have IBS. The following are examples of FODMAPs:
Oligosaccharides (e.g. fructans and galacto-oligosaccharides): leeks, onions, wheat, rye, barley, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, large amounts of garlic and artichokes.
Disaccharides (e.g. lactose): milk, ice cream, custard, yoghurt, soft cheese.
Monosaccharides (e.g. excess honey): honey, apples, mango, pear, watermelon, corn syrup, agave.
Polyols: apples, apricots, avocado, cherries, nectarines, pears, plums, prunes, mushrooms, sugar-free candy.
The FODMAP diet may be the basis of IBS treatment but in order for it to be effective, an extra level of self-care is required.
What is Self-Care?
When your body is unwell, it demands extra care. Unfortunately, because IBS is a condition that most doctors don’t understand, it’s often left up to patients to figure out the best way to manage symptoms. That was certainly my experience.
The idea of self-care usually conjures two images: the invalid in a care home, or the rich lady being pampered at a fancy salon. In reality, self-care is a choice you make every day to honour the needs of your body, whatever they may be. The first step of self-care is learning to listen.
It may seem a little crazy but I like to think of my IBS as an advanced signalling system that tells me when to slow down and attend to my physical needs. It tells me what it does and doesn’t like to eat, when it needs to move, when it’s out of sorts, and when it needs healing. It keeps my environment in check too, telling me what’s fun, what scary, and who I don’t like.
Listening to this constant stream of information gives me the cues I need to take care of my physical and emotional wellbeing. On this blog, I’ll explore the tools I use to manage my IBS but I’ll start here with the most important:
Listen to your Body
Developing a new conversation with your body is the first step towards managing IBS. As people who are used to being tormented by the irregularities of a dysfunctional digestive system, the conversations we have with our bodies tend to be exasperating at best, and downright abusive at worst.
A typical private IBS conversation goes something like this:
What now? What’s wrong with you now? Why are you so tired? Goddam it, I went to bed at ten last night. Why can’t you get out of bed? Is that a new pain? Is it the same pain? Can I eat something to make the pain go away? What can I eat? Is there anything I can eat? Why are you bloated now? Why are you so uncomfortable? Why are you never happy? Why are you punishing me? Why is this happening to me? How do I get rid of you?
Imagine having that same conversation with a sick child. Imagine saying to a feverish toddler in an angry voice: Are you punishing me? Why are you never happy? How do I get rid of you? You’d never do that, right? You’d be patient, considerate, and gentle. Instead of demanding, you’d coax, spoon-feed and encourage. That’s the kind of self-care you need to give yourself to manage IBS.
It’s not an easy change to make. After so many years feeling frustrated, getting angry is a normal response. Blaming your body is a normal response. Wanting to give up is a normal response. But change is possible and worthwhile. It’s starts with a few kind words and learning how to listen. There is no known cure for IBS but there definitely are ways to manage it, and live symptom free.
Go for a long walk this week, and attempt a new conversation with your body, one full of compassion. Ask your body about the obstacles it’s facing, and what changes it would like you to make. Then, listen. Don’t judge. Just listen.
Let me know how you get on in the comments below.