How I Learned to Listen to My Gut

I spent over 10 years with IBS before being diagnosed. For a long time, I didn’t question my pain, but even when I started to think it wasn’t normal, I was too embarrassed to bring it up with my doctor. After years of pushing through symptoms and ignoring my pain, I finally learned to listen to my gut.

Conclusion: IBS

One summer my belly was so painfully bloated that nothing in my closet seemed to fit. For months I hid behind loose shirts or stuffed my gut into high-waisted pants. I would go days without having a bowel movement and when I could finally manage one, I never felt like I was done (incomplete evacuation). I couldn’t ignore my symptoms anymore. I finally called my doctor.

I had already started a journal trying to sort things out on my own, and I continued taking notes leading up to my appointment. My doctor reviewed everything, asked some questions to eliminate anything more serious, and came to her conclusion: IBS. She told me to follow a low FODMAP diet and gave me a print out of the basics.

Where to start

I was elated, overwhelmed, and deeply embarrassed by my diagnosis. On the one hand, I finally had confirmation it wasn’t all in my head. There was a reason for my suffering. (I thought it was so simple back then!) But given this diagnosis and a new diet to follow I had no idea where to start. There were so many things on the list that I couldn’t have that had been staples of my diet. Worst of all I realized I wouldn’t be able to keep this to myself. I would have to share my embarrassing secret (sure, IBS has a name but it’s not a very pleasant one) with everyone. Between work celebrations and family gatherings during the upcoming holiday season, people would ask questions.

Overwhelm aside, I was determined to do this right and to find my triggers. I spent hours researching the low FODMAP diet and poring over lists of foods to eat, limit, or avoid. The elimination phase had ups and downs, but after weeks reading food labels, I was ready for reintroduction.

Trials and tribulations

I woke up eager for my first trial: fructose. I love honey, so I just took this straight off the measuring spoon after breakfast. By the end of the day I was doubled over in pain in my office wishing it wouldn’t be unacceptable to unbutton my pants. Trial days were so painful that I would just come home after work and lie on the couch with a heating pad, sipping hot tea until bedtime. Week after week I wrote down every FODMAP as a trigger. I felt so defeated.

I was also very confused. Everything I read said I wouldn’t be sensitive to every FODMAP, yet as the weeks wore on I was running out of categories that might not trigger me. I felt helpless. I turned to research. There had to be more to it.

What I found is that IBS symptoms are not just food related. While 75% of people with IBS find symptom relief through the low FODMAP diet, food is not the only factor to consider when it comes to symptom management.

Exercise, sleep, and stress are all huge contributors to symptoms. There were so many simple changes I could make to improve, but when I started taking my stress management more seriously, I really started to see results.

Good vibes, gut vibes

The biggest lesson I’ve learned on my IBS journey is to listen to my body. Looking back now, I can’t believe that I let myself suffer for so long, that I didn’t pay attention to the SOS flares my body was sending out. No one should spend their days hiding, feeling embarrassed or ashamed like I did.

We have to learn how to work with our bodies instead of against them. Symptom management is not a perfect journey, but understanding that gut health and mental health are intertwined changed my whole approach to IBS. Now, instead of focusing on what I can’t eat, I focus on mental health. Good vibes. Gut vibes. It’s all connected.

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