Nature as an IBS Remedy
Last updated: November 2019
I know what you may be thinking: Why would I want to be in the woods if I am worried about needing a bathroom or experiencing tummy pain? Hear me out.
A few months back, I wrote about camping and IBS and how I've come to terms with the fact that while I may be able to camp for a night or two under a very specific set of circumstances (meaning the meal plan and access to bathroom facilities are carefully considered), I won't ever be the kind of person who goes out into the wilderness for a week with a backpack and a one-person tent, and who will dig holes in the woods to use as a makeshift toilet.
But I've learned to better understand my body's limits and work with them and find a middle ground where I can still be happy.
I love nature
I have always loved the outdoors, even if my chronic pain and illness have made it difficult to divulge in that love to the extent I would theoretically want. But that doesn't mean I can't still be in the outdoors at all or come to a compromise with my body to make it work.
I am lucky that I live where I do, in a suburb outside of the Boston area where I have equal access to woods as well as arts and culture. I live only a couple of blocks – or 5-minute walk – from a large and beautiful kettle pond. I go there almost everyday or make sure to try to find an excuse to cut through it while on my errands. While the area surrounding it is developed (it's not "unaltered" nature by any means), there are still plenty of trees, animals (ducks, bunnies, swans and the occasional heron) to enjoy looking at and admiring. When I want something more solitary and wooded, I can drive only 10 to 15 minutes and be in a forest. I try to get out for at least an hour or so a week. I find it relaxes me and makes me feel healthier.
Green spaces are good for us
And science backs this up. A study published in 2018 out of the University of East Anglia – which analyzed data from 140 studies that looked at 290 million people who reside in 20 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, and Japan – scrutinized the health impacts of spending time in "green spaces." For the purpose of this study, the researchers considered green spaces not just undeveloped land with natural vegetation, but urban green spaces such as parks. They found that people who had access to nature had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and lower levels of salivary cortisol – a physiological marker of stress. As such, if they concluded spending time in nature reduced the risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death, while improving sleep.1 Better sleep and less stress surely benefit IBS!
Fearing nature will call when outdoors...
Of course, some of you again might be thinking that the last thing you want to do is get outside if you are having a flare. And that's okay. I wait until I am flare-free or at least feeling like I'm not going to have an outbreak before I go out. As with camping, I no longer beat myself up if I am not traveling all over and doing long, all-day hikes. The pond near my home is great because it's only a couple of blocks away. If I feel like I going to get sick, I just turn around and home, which is only a few minutes away. The other places I hit up during the weekend usually are a close enough drive and they have visitor centers with bathrooms. If I don't feel well, I know I can be home in a short while. Do not underestimate what even 20 minutes in nature can do for your health, and don't put expectations that it has to be a mountain or forest to count: even being out for a little while in a pretty park with some lovely trees can set one's mind at greater ease and benefit your health.
I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood with little access to green spaces (which I am sure is at least partially responsible for some of my health issues as an adult), so I understand not everyone has the privilege to access such areas. I hope those who can't will one day like me, be able to (which I realize is also a function of my privilege). This is why I advocate for the rights of everyone to have access to nature and green spaces.
How about you? Do you have a park or place in nature you like to go to? Does it help you feel better and do you notice any positive effects on your health (and IBS)? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below!
Do you suffer from IBS-C, IBS-D, or IBS-Mixed/Alternating?