My Journey With Gut Health: Stomach "History," IBS and Food Intolerances
I’ve dealt with stomach issues for as long as I can remember. Stomach pain and discomfort is, sadly, my normal. There are times where I can hardly stand straight, where all I can do is lay on my bed waiting for the pain to (hopefully) subside. Other times it brings me to tears. Tears not only because of the pain or discomfort, but because despite my extensive efforts to live the healthiest life possible, my body will always fight back because I have IBS (or at least we think) and a myriad of food intolerances. Being a part of this community has made me realize how prevalent digestive issues and food intolerances are and has helped me not feel so alone in my struggles. I want to be able to help others that struggle and provide the support that so many others have provided me.
Before I truly dive into what IBS is, how I figured out I have it, how I discovered the foods that trigger it for me and what I do to help me feel better, let’s back up a little and take you through a history of my stomach.
My stomach issues have definitely gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but the more I figure out about my stomach, the more I realize how much it affected me when I was little without realizing there was an underlying issue.
Flashback to every dinner out when I was younger. I would eat the bread and butter (this was way before I realized I was gluten and dairy intolerant, and possibly before these intolerances fully matured to the level they have today) that came before we ordered, like everyone else. But unlike everyone else, I would be laying on my mom’s lap before our dinners even arrived. I would only be able to take a nibble or two. We blamed it on me “filling up on bread,” and in the future I was discouraged from eating the bread because it wouldn’t leave any room in my little stomach for dinner.
I thought I just got full very easily. I thought the stomach aches were just a sign from my body to eat smaller meals. Little bites and snacks were how I ate ever since I was tiny because it was the only thing that seemed to work for me.
Flash forward to mid-elementary school. Due mainly to a stint of dealing with eczema, but also a brief thought that my stomach may have other issues (UM HELLO YES), my parents had me go dairy-free. After a week of not feeling much better (HI WHAT ABOUT GLUTEN), I ditched the idea and went back to eating how I was used to. My family ate quite healthy when I was growing up (we grew a lot of fruit and veggies, went to the farmers market regularly, made fresh juice, ate loaded salads and we never went to fast food), but besides being vegetarian (which also didn’t help since I also have an intolerance to soy) I still ate whatever I wanted. I ate cheese with breakfast, I ate chunk after chunk of bread on the side of my salads, etc. I didn’t realize what I was putting in my body was slowly poisoning it in a sense (that sounds morbid, but it’s true).
Flash forward again to junior high. I accompanied my mom to the DMV and, naturally, we swung by Starbucks beforehand. I got what I always got – a skinny vanilla latte. I sucked that bad boy down and right away felt like I always felt afterwards – nauseas, foggy brained, low-energy. I remember telling my mom I “didn’t think I should get the vanilla latte anymore because it made me sick.”
I look back at that moment in particular and want to yell at myself. “IT ISN’T THE VANILLA LATTE!!! IT’S AN INTOLERANCE TO DAIRY! IT’S THE SUGAR MESSING WITH YOUR IBS!!!” I realize now the signals my body was so desperately sending me and how I wasn’t in an in-tune place with my body yet to hear them for what they were.
Flash forward to senior year of high school. Every day after lunch (usually consisting of all of the foods I now realize I’m intolerant to) my stomach started feeling worse and worse. I felt sick and bloated and just straight up gross. Once again, I thought I was just getting too full.
By this point I thought stomach aches were normal. My mom has Crohn’s disease so I was so used to her stomach pains and upsets that I never really realized the average person can go days without a stomach ache. The idea is still novel to me.
Flash forward one more time to my freshman year of college. Oh BOY where do I even begin with freshman year? Think of the stereotypical college experience. Yup. I pretty much embodied that. I partied every Friday and Saturday. I drank too much alcohol. And, although I still tried to eat somewhat healthy, I had yet to figure out any of my food intolerances. I ate frozen yogurt in the dining hall, drank chai tea lattes almost every day (the idea makes me want to throw up just thinking about it), I ate bagels when I was hungover, I dipped pretzels in peanut butter at 2AM and I ate cheesy beans and rice in flour tortillas at the local Mexican restaurant (only to end up having to pretty much lay down in the booth just like when I was little). I’m not saying any of that is bad in and of itself. But I now realize how bad it was for me. (literally the thought of my freshman year makes me feel sick. I made amazing memories, but I sure am glad my life has taken a much different route. Now I can barely sip half a glass of red wine without getting drunk ;) ).
I pretty much had “fog brain” my entire freshman year. I remember telling my mom on the phone how I was convinced there was mold in the walls of my dorm and how the water in our water fountains had to be full of chemicals. I knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t looking at the right clues yet.
It finally hit me again to try going dairy free the summer after freshman year when I ate some yogurt before a run and almost threw up. I remember crying on the side of the road, my mom (who had been biking besides me), comforting me. I cut that run very short and I cut out diary soon after.
Since just going dairy free had never helped much in the past I decided a few months later to go gluten free as well. Right away I could tell how much it helped.
Despite that, I still had daily stomach aches. I slowly started figuring out more foods, like soy, that gave me the same nausea, stomach pain and brain fog that dairy and gluten give me, but the stomach aches only got a little better. I thought I was just going to have to accept that I had a f*cked up stomach and nothing would help.
I finally went to see a gastroenterologist (in simpler terms – a stomach doctor) about a year ago. She agreed that my daily stomach pain wasn’t normal, but after multiple tests still nothing seemed clear. This is when the conversation about IBS began. Without doing more intense tests (which I finally am buckling down and doing in August) this is the only this my doctor could think to attribute it to.
IBS doesn’t actually show up on tests and can only be diagnosed by looking at your symptoms. It also can’t be cured, but thankfully can be helped through diet (food is medicine amiright?!).
So, what is IBS? *
To be straight forward – IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome. YUP. It’s a gastrointestinal disorder, pretty much meaning people with IBS can’t digest things correctly. It’s like our intestines don’t work right. IBS is also considered a “brain-gut” disorder because the functioning of our intestines and our gut are controlled by the brain. So, when you have IBS, your brain isn’t sending the right messages to your intestines/gut in order to digest food.
What causes IBS?
IBS can be caused by a few different things – genetics (like a family history of IBS), intestinal infections and even very traumatic or stressful life events. The crazy thing is, before writing this post I didn’t really think about why I had IBS. I just thought it kind of came up and became more apparent in relation to when my food intolerances became more apparent and got worse. But reading further, I realize my IBS became glaringly obvious and much worse after my friend Parker was killed in the fall of my freshman year (I talked a little bit about this in my Why I Run Post.) It turned my life upside down and I truly believe this traumatic event is what triggered my IBS (because that is the time when it became severely worse). Knowing this reality, although not comforting in the least, makes everything about my health make more sense. Just another reason to always do your research!
How do you know if you have IBS?
IBS can’t actually be tested for, but talking to your doctor about symptoms can lead you in the direction of getting answers. Check out this article from the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders that describes the symptoms and what your doctor should be looking for (https://www.aboutibs.org/what-is-ibs-sidenav/diagnosis-of-ibs.html).
How do you treat IBS?
Sadly, there’s no real cure for IBS. The best things you can do to help it is keep your stress levels low (as stress is a big trigger for it), take probiotics to keep the good bacteria in your gut thriving and find the foods that trigger you.
There is something called a FODMAP list (as stated by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: “FODMAP is the acronym for a group of osmotically active, rapidly fermentable, short-chain carbohydrates. It stands for Fermentable Oligo- Di- and Monosaccharides and Polyols”); the listed low-fodmap foods are more easily digested and “safe” for individuals with IBS, while the high-fodmap foods should be avoided. My mom showed me this list right away, but I was still too stubborn to cut out many of the high-fodmap foods. They were foods I liked, even loved, and I wasn’t ready to give them up.
Naturally I paid the price for my stubbornness and realized although I now had the knowledge to change my health, I wasn’t doing anything with it. As one of my professors once said: “knowledge isn’t power, it’s potential power.” I had the potential power to change my gut health and feel better, but I wasn’t being mature enough to utilize it.
But after many more long days of stomach pain I and constant anxiety around dinnertime because my stomach was always the worst at night, I bit the bullet.
Now, I didn’t do the full elimination diet that is suggested with the fodmap diet, but I did the best I could. I knew, for me, doing a full elimination diet would not be healthy. I couldn’t afford to lose any weight (especially with my running), which I heard typically occurs with an elimination diet and I couldn’t mentally afford to be so restrictive (because I had reached such a healthy point in my relationship with food and didn’t want to fall back into old ways).
In January, during my January Term at school, since I had more time to experiment, I slowly started cutting out a few foods at a time and then adding them back in slowly. I did this with almost everything and finally found more “random” triggers – raw broccoli, cauliflower and zuchinni (yet cooked to death has proven to be just fine), an overload of beans, peanut butter (tragic I know… I’ll be doing a full post on this at some point), gum, alcohol, honey, celery, too much garlic… the list goes on and on.
I’ve gotten really, really, REALLY in-tune with my body through this process and through dealing with IBS. I now know how many sweet potato wedges I can eat before getting a stomach ache, I know the fine line with garlic that I mustn’t step over, I know how many beans is too many beans. Being so in-tune with my body is something I’m very grateful for.
If you have IBS or suspect you have IBS, experiment with the FODMAP diet (but talk to a doctor first!). Don’t let the idea of eliminating foods freak you out. Because in the long run, isn’t feeling better, more energetic and healthier worth it? The answer is YES. YOU are worth it!!!
And even if you eliminate something and feel better, it doesn’t mean you can never eat that food again. I know what triggers my IBS, but sometimes I still eat a small amount because I love the taste or because I’m out to eat and celery on my salad won’t kill me or because my mom is making something for dinner and I’m going to enjoy every bite of that homemade meal with my family. And yes, I’ll get a stomach ache, but when I know the reasons why and know I made the choice to eat those foods and have a clear understanding of why my stomach hurts, I don’t feel as anxious because I have taken control of the stomach issues that once took control of me.
If you’re struggling with digestive issues I urge you to see a doctor. Get tests done. Take control of your health.
And know that your health is a journey. I’m still learning every day how to better care for my gut health and lessen my stomach issues. And YES it can get tiring to have to be so careful, and YES it can get frustrating when no matter how careful I am I still experience stomach pains. But I wouldn’t change my health journey for anything. This journey has been bumpy, but I’m grateful for what it’s taught me. It’s taught me to be resilient, it’s taught me to continually research and find ways to help myself, it’s taught me how to be in-tune with the signals my body is sending me and it’s taught me that food is medicine. It has also taught me to be grateful for the good days and to truly appreciate when I feel 100%.
As difficult as having IBS and food intolerances is, I’m grateful for my struggles because they have shaped me into who I am today and have fueled my passions for health and nutrition.
I can’t wait to continue sharing about gut health, IBS and food intolerances with you all and hopefully shed some light onto these subjects!
* All of the scientific information for this post came from the International Foundation of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders