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A Portable History of My IBS

Until now I have never attempted to write a chronological timeline of my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). I am going to try it now with progression over time, self-care details, and a conclusion. To put this in perspective, I have lived with IBS symptoms 60+ years, from age 5 to my present age of 65.

Early IBS memories

My earliest memory of tummy trouble is at a bowling alley in Toledo, Ohio in the early 1960s. Mom played in a morning league and took me with her.  It was such a treat to go to the bowling alley in the morning. I loved the musty shoe and stale beer odors, and the sound of balls toppling pins.

Mom would give me 10 cents for the pop machine and I would sit and watch her bowl, sipping the coveted 10-ounce glass bottle of Coca-Cola. I always got a tummy ache afterward, and once mentioned it to my mother. I don’t remember her response exactly, but she sounded concerned. I usually only drank milk and water, and Nestle’s Quik or Ovaltine for a chocolate fix. And, ironically, a teaspoon of Coke syrup for the occasional tummy ache. Carbonated drinks were rare, delicious, and desirable—and very hard on my digestion. I would go on to outgrow the tummy aches and enjoy soda pop for decades to come.

But a new kind of tummy trouble took its place, with a different substance as the trigger.

Early IBS triggers

In the mid to late 1960s, a summer cookout staple became my next nemesis: baked beans. Happily scarfing a hotdog and chips, I greedily devoured baked beans from my paper plate, then joined the group for outdoor games. Sudden intense waves of gas pains gripped me, followed by bowel urgency.

I ran to the bathroom and managed to aim explosive diarrhea directly into the toilet and on nothing else. Emptying my bowel relieved the gas pains and I bounced back outside ready to play again, like any normal 9- or 10-year-old. But gas pains would return, so I made a mad dash to the toilet once again and that was usually the end of it.

Years later, there were additional trigger foods in a similar classification as baked beans, and more extreme and confusing symptoms. By 1970, I had a vague notion to avoid baked beans, though I forgot about it every summer. I wasn’t yet aware of things having an acute or chronic habit, and always thought a painful episode was a one-off and would never recur.

New IBS triggers

In my 30s and 40s, more triggers made me sick with gas pains and explosive diarrhea in the form of cruciferous vegetables. And it wasn’t even consistent. Sometimes I could tolerate green/red/yellow/orange peppers, cabbage, spinach, kale, and brussels sprouts. And noodles with cheese sauce. But then I would eat a pizza with green peppers and feel awful, crawling into bed with gut pain so severe that sleep was the only escape.

At age 45, it took another turn. After a protracted bout of gas pains and diarrhea, I ate only a bowl of fresh fruit each day for a month. Gas pains and diarrhea persisted for 3 of those 4 weeks. Then it mysteriously ended. Suddenly, my gut fell quiet during week 4. I expanded my diet to include starch, butter, sweets, cheese and meat, all of which I digested as though nothing had ever been wrong. I felt I had turned a corner, but it was a blind, hairpin turn onto a blank canvas. And like most blank canvases, it didn’t stay blank for long.

A number of years passed between the weird 3-week bowl of fruit treatment (1990s) and seeking out a gastroenterologist (2016). Things got worse. In 2011, I developed gallbladder attacks and abdominal distention, and had it removed in the summer. Discomfort and distention persisted.

In 2016 at age 59, I quit smoking and gained 27 pounds. She tested me for SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and celiac, all of which were negative. I had a colonoscopy (my 2nd) which revealed a benign polyp but was otherwise clear. I was diagnosed with IBS-C, given high- and low-FODMAP diet sheets and told to perform an elimination diet with them, and sent on my way. I had purchased a probiotic and asked her about its efficacy. She couldn’t say. I never went back.

I eliminated dairy for only a week and felt no change, so I reintroduced it. Next I eliminated cruciferous vegetables, and felt no change. Soon I observed that it didn’t matter what I ate and stopped the experiment.

For years, my diet was closest to the Mediterranean regimen of fish, vegetables, some fruit, some grains, some meat. In 2022, I ramped up the vegetables and whole foods in my diet and became an accidental vegetarian. I bought so much in the produce section that I forgot to include meat and I didn’t miss it.

Making changes to my diet

In 2022, I also started a reduced-calorie diet with intermittent fasting. By summer 2023, I lost 34 pounds. Eating small portions, and eating slower (with less food in general) eased my harsher IBS symptoms, but not to the degree I wish it would.

I still experience IBS-M, see-sawing between constipation and diarrhea. I no longer take Imodium or Saccharomyces boulardii for diarrhea, or Miralax for constipation. They are all too harsh for me. I let my body correct itself, which it does every few days. If it takes longer for constipated stools to work their way out, I’ll take 2 stool softeners.

The sudden bowel urgency has not improved. I sprint to the bathroom. I don’t understand why I’m not getting an earlier signal that my bowel needs to empty.

In general, weight loss and careful eating have improved my IBS symptoms.

In closing, I read what I can about IBS research, but it is ultimately unsatisfying. So much is still unknown about this condition and how to treat it. We are mostly left to our own devices. By contrast, as misunderstood as multiple sclerosis (MS) is, we have lots of treatments and know a little more about it than we do IBS. So I feel more in control of my MS, a much more serious disease for me than IBS!

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