Four years ago, I was walking across campus leaving a biochemistry class when I noticed an incredibly sharp, stabbing pain in my left side. I was on my way to meet my boyfriend for lunch but ended up texting him to come meet me. I sat on a bench and waited for him and then mustered up the strength to walk back to my room and take a nap in the fetal position.
These sharp stomach pains happened a few times that year, but the summer after, they became more frequent. I remember being at a summer camp I worked at for a week and staying up all night in pain, as well as ending the day so bloated that I looked 7 months pregnant (not even kidding). I also noticed symptoms worsening after eating oats (my usual breakfast back then) and my favorite falafel wrap.
After a few weeks of this misery, I took notes and headed to my primary care physician.* She listened to my symptoms and didn’t have much to say, except say that it could be acid reflux. From my nutrition knowledge, I suggested testing for Celiac Disease. Although she said, “it could be, but that’s pretty rare,” we ran the test, which was negative. She told me it could be IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), prescribed me medication for acid reflux, and sent me on my way. I knew that it was not heartburn, so I didn’t end up picking up that medication. *Note: Although my experience wasn’t positive, not all physicians are clueless when it comes to digestive health. Try using a gastroenterologist or reputable naturopath.
IBS is not uncommon. It’s estimated that anywhere from 9-23% of people worldwide can be classified as having IBS, with it affecting females more than males. Also, most people don’t seek medical help – it can be embarrassing, so people may choose to “just live with it.”
Even though I tested negative for celiac, I tried eating less gluten and did notice a difference. I didn’t go completely gluten-free back then. Not gonna lie – I wasn’t quite willing to give up my favorite craft beers. If anyone can make a gluten-free Magic Hat #9 or creamy, chocolate-y stout, I will forever love you.
These sharp, stomach pains, bloating, and constipation continued on and off for the next several years. I managed them pretty well with nutrition and exercise – eating less gluten, sugar, and processed foods, as well as regular exercise, especially running and yoga.
Flash-forward to this past fall when the stomach pains returned with a vengeance. I do admit that I was a bit more stressed from being busy with the internship, but overall, I handle stress pretty well with exercise, yoga, meditation, and plenty of relaxing with friends or Netflix. It built slowly over a few months until it was back to pregnant belly misery.
I took things into my own hands and made a few small changes. I started playing around with my nutrition – changing my breakfast, cutting back on dairy, adding a probiotic (with FOS), eating/drinking more probiotic foods (kimchi, kombucha, kefir). It made a small difference, and some days would be better than others. Some days, I would be walking around the hospital, so bloated, then eat a fiber-filled salad for lunch, which would sit like a rock in my stomach. All I wanted to do when I got home after work was go for a run in my favorite running season (fall), but I would be so in pain and uncomfortable that I couldn’t even run.
At this point, I had been mostly gluten-free (remember fruits, veggies, meats/eggs/dairy, nuts, etc. are all naturally gluten-free), but I made the plunge to go completely gluten-free to see if it made a difference. I gave up my Magic Hat #9, paid close attention to labels, and bugged the servers at restaurants to make sure the food was gluten-free. It made a difference. As a dietitian, I pay attention to the research and science. There is research to support that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a real condition, and gluten-free has been shown to benefit various populations, such as people with gluten sensitivity or IBS. However, going gluten-free will not automatically help you lose weight. There is just as much junk food with a “gluten-free” label, and it will cost you double the price of the non-gluten-free version.
After a few more months, I was still feeling pretty miserable at times. I had heard a few talks by other dietitians about a low FODMAPs diet, in particular – Kate Scarlata. It is a diet tested in Australia, and research has shown that 75% of patients with IBS show improvement in symptoms (and quality of life). It limits foods that easily ferment in the digestive tract and may cause symptoms, such as lactose, fructose, fructans, and polyols. It’s hard to live a normal life if you’re in pain or bloated.
I was about ready to try anything, so I stuck the FODMAPs list to my fridge and started a 6-week elimination trial. Again, it worked. My belly went down, and I was able to run and namaste without pain. After the elimination phase, I re-introduced foods one at a time. As long as I don’t overdo it (like eat a ton of fruit salad), lactose and fructose are okay. Fructans and polyols are more problem foods. Some types/large apples, onions, chickpeas, wheat, figs, a lot of cauliflower, and FOS are example problem foods.
Around this time, I also went to a functional medicine doctor and did a IgG food sensitivity blood test, switched my probiotic to one without FOS, and tried a few other high-quality, researched supplements. Yes, I used supplements but FOOD always comes first for nutrients. Now, my intestines are working the best they have in 3 years, and I unless I eat a trigger food or stress out, I no longer have sharp, debilitating pain or pregnant-belly-bloating. I have more energy, am not uncomfortable, and am just happier. A happy belly makes for a happy, healthy Lauren.
Whoa, this is a lot to digest (pun intended), but the point is I wasn’t ready to just accept a diagnosis of IBS. I already knew that my bowel was being irritable, and a label to it does nothing to help. Although going gluten-free or trying a low FODMAP diet may not be a conventional or thoroughly researched method, I was willing to try it to see if anything made a difference. I have seen patients with IBS whose doctors have told them, “It’s all in your head” and were ever so grateful to people that listened to them.
I wanted to share my story because there’s many people out there suffering with these symptoms on a daily basis but too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone, even a doctor. If you have IBS or digestive symptoms, it is possible to feel better. Don’t settle for feeling miserable or just okay. Research, see a digestive health specialist (dietitian, physician, etc.), and make changes. Don’t feel embarrassed to talk about it or make special requests when eating out or at social events. Pay to your nutrition and symptoms – you could even keep a little food/symptoms journal to see if you notice trends. Lastly, pay attention to your STRESS. Stress can be a huge trigger, so find a way to relax, whether it is a simple activity like exercise, yoga, meditation, being social, or a larger change, such as leaving a stressful relationship or job.
Finally, this is my story and what worked for ME. Everyone is different, so it’s important to find what works for YOU. Seeing a health professional can help with diagnosis and treatment, especially if there is an underlying, more serious condition.
If you have any questions about IBS, FODMAPs, or digestive health, ask away below or email me. I would be happy to write more about digestive health, especially if it may help someone struggling with pain, pregnant-belly-bloating-syndrome (not a real condition FYI), or more.