IBS: the link between food, body and brain

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During my first year at Durham I was, at different points in time, gluten-free, dairy-free and even onion and garlic-free. This was all in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a common condition that affects the digestive system and is often a life-long problem.

There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the condition which can feel frustrating when experiencing bloating and stomach pain. On typing IBS into the NHS website, two of the key facts that come up are ‘there’s no cure’ and ‘the exact cause is unknown.’ As you can see, IBS is quite the enigma. I know a lot of people who suffer from IBS and I want to highlight that it is a common issue and encourage people not to feel embarrassed about suffering from it.

Over the past two years, I have approached my IBS in many different ways. For short-term relief, a hot water bottle has been a life-saver. However, to try and manage the problem in the long-term, I met with a nutritionist last year for some expert advice.

We discussed the roots of the problem, which are personal to each individual, and concluded that my period travelling in South America is likely to have triggered my stomach’s sensitivity. Having contracted food poisoning in Bolivia, I took a course of antibiotics which were too strong and, although they killed the bad bacteria causing my immediate sickness, they also destroyed much of the good bacteria in my stomach which is necessary for healthy digestion.

IBS is quite the enigma

The nutritionist explained that IBS is strongly related to your state of mind. The stomach is commonly known as the second brain and IBS is a primary example of this. When you feel nervous, you get butterflies in your stomach. When you feel scared, you can feel nauseous. When you feel stressed, your stomach can become far more sensitive than usual.

I found that during the summer term of my first year, when exams were approaching, the frequency, and intensity, of my stomach pains increased. Eating a bowl of yoghurt, or a pizza with thick dough, would undoubtedly inflame my stomach lining, whereas during periods of lower stress levels, such as the summer holidays, these types of food would often have little, if no, effect. Unfortunately, removing stress from my life entirely is impossible, but being more aware of the connection between my mind and stomach has helped me to manage my eating during stressful periods more effectively.

I love to cook, I love to eat, and I am a student with a limited budget

A common recommendation for managing IBS is going on the FODMAP and my nutritionist advised me to try this during the Easter holidays of first year. The involves cutting out certain types of food, including gluten, lactose, garlic, onion and more specific foods such as beetroot and grapes, and then gradually re-introducing them into your meals in order to determine what foods cause stomach pain.

Truthfully, I found the very challenging. Although my mum provided a lot of support, the repetition of my became unappetising. Porridge for breakfast, salad with fish for lunch, and meat, cooked in lactose-free butter, with rice and low-FODMAP vegetables constituted my meals each day. Undoubtedly, my stomach pains decreased. However, the is expensive, since lactose and gluten free alternatives are costly, and it is difficult to maintain when eating college food. I worked out that dough and thick bread certainly incited stomach pain, as well as large quantities of yoghurt and cheese, but when I returned to university I did not cut these out entirely.

FODMAP relieves the discomfort of IBS significantly, and I would recommend it to anyone struggling with stomach pain, but I have not maintained it during my second year at university. I love food, all types of it, from bags of Cadbury chocolate buttons to cheddar cheese on crackers, and I do not have the will, or the way, to give these things up. If I feel that my stomach pain is worsening, I will take action and reduce my intake of foods that I know cause it. I’ll steer clear of the aioli sauce and restrain myself from cooking bowls of pasta for dinner. IBS is a serious pain, pardon the pun, but I will never cut out food groups from my entirely. I love to cook, I love to eat, and I am a student with a limited budget. I know how to manage stomach pains, and alter my eating accordingly, and that is enough for me.

Image: Imani Clovis via Unsplash

One thought on “IBS: the link between food, body and brain

  • Great, honest article about the reality of IBS. Strong antibiotics seem to be the initial trigger for so many people. The low FODMAP diet is the most effective way to control symptoms. It requires discipline and research to make sure it is balanced, but once mastered it will give you control. As you say you don’t need to follow it all the time, but when you need it (e.g. before flying or after a flare-up) it can be a life saver.

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