I still remember the fateful day when I fully realized the gravity of my “IBS” as the doctor had called it. I was sitting on a tropical island in Thailand with my girlfriend, and I hadn’t gone to the bathroom in four days.
We had booked a day trip and planned to island hop, enjoy some tropical fruits, snorkel, and cave dive. In other words, for the average person, this was going to be a day in paradise.
But not for me.
I was too stressed about using the bathroom.
Unfortunately, such is the typical day in the life of someone with IBS (and people with other forms of IBS have it way, way worse). For me, constipation was the biggest issue associated with my IBS, while for others diarrhea is more predominant.
Fortunately, after more than five years of dealing with this, I’ve learned some simple strategies that tend to work really well. Here's what works for me:
1. Subtract food triggers.
For me, the first step was to figure out which foods were causing the biggest issues. The first time I suspected that food might be playing a role in my IBS was when I went to a Subway, got a foot long sub, and didn’t go to the bathroom for the next four days.
I thought it was odd at the time, but quickly forgot about it. But after making the mistake a few more times that summer, I put the pieces together: A “foot long” worth of bread was causing problems.
As I started to pay attention to which foods were triggers, I started to notice some patterns. Turns out that I was having trouble with certain kinds of carbs known as FODMAPs.
FODMAP stands for “Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols,” and they're typically not well-absorbed by the small intestine, but for the purposes of battling IBS, you just need to know which foods have FODMAPs in them.
The first group:
- Brussel Sprouts
- Chocolate (yes… sadly)
The second group:
The third group (mostly found in fruits):
The fourth group (Also found in artificial sweeteners):
- Fruit juice
- Anything with high fructose corn syrup
The fifth group:
- Dairy products
Obviously this list is pretty extensive! If you want to be 100% adherent for the best relief possible, stick with it for a couple weeks and see if things better. If things are bad, I’d suggest being religious about this. If they’re so-so, you’ve got some wiggle room. But the foundation is the same: set a trial period to avoid these religiously.
I realize you’re probably thinking, Ugh, I pretty much can’t eat anything.
Here's how I eat when I need some digestive relief. It comes down to one core principle: Protein + fat + veggies. The food will still taste delicious, it’ll leave you full, and it still falls within the scope of this low FODMAP diet.
Eggs with half an avocado, and/or a green smoothie.
I typically eat chicken, salmon or steak over a romaine salad drizzled with olive oil and balsamic.
I use another variation on lunch – one core protein source (a big piece, I aim for 5 ounces), a bed of greens, and then whatever fat source sounds good: olive oil and balsamic, coconut oil, avocado, etc.
Natural, organic meats are fine, as well as most plants (romaine lettuce, typical salads, kale, swiss chard).
Yes, this is Spartan, but remember it’s something you typically do for a short period of time until you’re feeling a lot better, and then you can reintroduce things one by one. Then, as you notice which foods cause which reactions you can make more mindful decisions.
2. Add smart supplements.
I added a few key supplements on a daily basis to help with my issues. First, I added a multivitamin. Next was fish oil, which can aid in the healing of the digestive lining and can decrease inflammation in the body. I incorporated L-glutamine supplements twice a day, before each meal (on an empty stomach) to help repair the digestive lining. Finally I added probiotics, specifically ones that included S. Bouldarii, which some research suggests might help with IBS.
Of course, please consult with your health care practitioner before you start taking any supplements!
3. Neutralize lifestyle triggers.
Beyond removing the wrong stuff, and adding more of the right stuff, there were some lifestyle interventions I applied.
Note: At the end of the day, you need to see what might trigger your IBS based on your unique situation. I have friends that get diarrhea if they have an insanely stressful week at work. Experiment and see what works best for you.
A. Squat instead of sitting on your toilet.
I know it sounds nuts … but when I lived in China for over a year, I had to squat to go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground. I noticed I had dramatically easier bowel movements (when they happened).
It took me a year or two after returning to the United States to realize what was going on — it was actually the fact that I was squatting that was making it so much easier, and now there’s and some research backing why this is a much more natural, easy way to relieve yourself. Plus, this is the way our ancestors have done it for millennia, .
B. Don’t do anything before a morning bowel movement.
Another reason for my IBS was that over the years I had diminished urges to go to the bathroom, whereas the normal person’s G.I. tract gives strong urges for the bathroom.
The morning is often the best time to go to the bathroom because you can usually get a strong urge after you eat or drink something right upon awakening. But the problem is that if you’re rushing around getting ready for work, it’s easy to miss the urge.
In the morning, I set a timer for 15-20 minutes, then I’d eat an apple, drink a large hot tea or hot coffee, and then just relax and read or meditate for 15 minutes.
This routine sufficiently relaxed me so that I could “catch” an urge and go to the bathroom before work. Over time, this became a routine.
These three things: removing food triggers, adding smart supplements, and making two key lifestyle adaptations have dramatically reduced 90% of the symptoms I associated with my IBS — despite the fact that western medicine said there’s “no cure.”
What’s worked for you?
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