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“Poor digestion is kind of taboo - no one wants to talk about poo”

April 18th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment


It’s twice as common in women than in men, and it’s thought that 20% of the population has it. Here’s how four women cope with IBS, its symptoms and their advice to fellow sufferers

April marks IBS Awareness Month, but let’s face it, irritable bowel syndrome isn’t an easy topic to bring up at the dinner table. With symptoms including frequent wind, bloating and constipation that alternates with bouts of diarrhoea, not to mention persistent tummy ache and exhaustion, it’s a condition that can dramatically impact sufferers’ quality of life, but that many don’t feel comfortable discussing. As a result, IBS can be isolating, as well as physically limiting, and many of us don’t feel at liberty to bring it up with our GPs, let alone our boss or best mate.

To shed light on what it’s like to suffer from IBS, and help to chip away at the stigma associated with it, we spoke to four women who’ve suffered with IBS, experienced the symptoms and come up with ways of coping that work for them.

Pandora Paloma, Holistic Nutritionist and Life Coach


When I realised I had IBS

“I’d suffered from eating disorders in my teens and early twenties and it was at the end of my recovery that IBS symptoms started to manifest. I started to get very bloated after meals, I constantly felt ‘full’ and had issues with my bowel movements that became very inconsistent. I never went to the doctors about it but instead began my journey into nutrition. I realised that by rejecting food groups and constantly starving and bingeing, I had created a poor digestive system, which was sensitive to the food groups I had deprived it of for so long and in general, very weak to say the least.

"I don’t have a family history of IBS but my grandmother died of bowel cancer, which I took a more serious note of when I began educating myself on IBS. Since then, I have always been very aware of supporting my digestive health."

My IBS symptoms

"My main IBS symptoms were bloating, constipation, irregular bowel movements and a mix of stools on the Bristol stool chart and alongside all of this, an emotional response, which got me down a lot."

Daily life with IBS

"It’s really difficult to live with IBS. For me I never quite knew when the bloating would strike and the really awful times would be when the flatulence would hit you in an important meeting. It’s really very stressful and not spoken about enough. I would find that it got so much worse through times of stress and when travelling for example, so often I’d spend the first few days of any holiday in agony. It also affects your mood, and that can be hard to turn around until you get support.

"IBS has affected my fitness levels too- I’ve found that calmer, lower intensity exercise just works better for me. Career-wise it hasn’t directly affected me too much, although it did make me retrain as a nutritionist from a job in PR!"

Daily life with IBS

"Always being bloated and feeling heavy can really take its toll on you from a mental health point of view. It actually meant a lot of my recovery of my eating disorder lingered longer; by feeling fat, I found it hard to shift those negative body image thoughts. When you’re bloated, it also changes how you dress as very often the things you want to wear, such as a tight dress, become out of bounds as you feel like you're too fat to wear it. I did anyway. It’s funny, I think that that time has actually shaped how I dress now- safe, never too tight and lots of black! My partner says it all the time. I actually dressed in more tight clothing when I was pregnant, as by this point I felt so proud of my body!"

My IBS triggers

"Heavier food such as a Sunday roast and too much bread were the main culprits for my flare-ups."

Dietary changes that helped me

"I’m pleased to say that I have managed to recover well over the years. I took a course of probiotics and shifted my diet to be more plant-based, with lots of lightly cooked veg, little meat and lots of organic fish and the occasional bit of goats or sheep cheese. Symprove is by far the best probiotic I have used and if I’m eating a slightly heavier meal, I’ll use some digestive enzymes to support my digestive system.

"Too much raw food can often give me bloating again so I monitor how much raw food I eat, especially in the winter when really our bodies need heat! I had to listen to my body and found keeping a food diary early on really helped to monitor what was making my IBS symptoms worse. I also found peace with food, meaning that I stopped over and under eating, which was a huge shift and a change that I felt supported the improvement in symptoms.

"If I feel like symptoms are creeping back in, I’ll simplify my diet to vegetables and protein and ease off the pulses. Liquorice tea always helps too and I’ll have some peppermint supplement capsules handy for when bloating strikes."

Lifestyle switches

"I also started meditation, which helped to keep my stress levels low, and yoga, which encouraged me to move my body in a more calming way, as opposed to very high impact exercise which often made my symptoms worse. Obviously training in nutrition and life coaching has dramatically changed my approach to health and life too. The skills that I have learned have meant that I rarely experience an IBS flare-up up these days. For me personally, I believe that so much of it was psychosomatic- I felt fat and heavy which only made the stress and resulting symptoms worse."

My advice to other IBS sufferers

"Seek help and support from a nutritionist or expert. There’s IBS itself but also many pathologies that cause these symptoms, so without working out why it’s happening, it can be hard to try and navigate how to make it better on your own. You need to get to the root of the problem, not just fix the symptoms if you want long-term results."

My coping strategy

“When IBS gets particularly bad, breathe! I always stop to take deep breaths if things get bad- I make it a priority to sit still and get back in touch with my breath above anything else.”

Pandora is the founder of ROOTED and specialises in self-love, empowerment and intuitive eating

Follow Pandora on Instagram @rootedlondon

Deborah Carr, founder of Nourish Kefir


When I realised I had IBS

"I first experienced bowel problems in around 1995, but IBS wasn’t really recognised back then (there was no name for it), and yes, I did go to a doctor, but was told for ages that there was nothing wrong with me. The symptoms never improved- they just got slowly worse over time. I am so grateful to say that I have been well since 2006, with just occasional bouts of IBS, that fortunately return to normal very quickly after I drink some kefir."

My IBS symptoms

"I remember my first experience of IBS really well. It started as ‘butterflies in my tummy’ and a feeling that I needed to go to the toilet. There is nothing wrong with that sensation every now and again, but for me it persisted, then gradually became daily episodes of diarrhoea. At its worst I found it difficult to get out the door in the morning to drive to work- I kept feeling the sensation of needing to go to the toilet, many times before the day had even begun. I also used to experience intense stomach pain due to trapped wind and bloating."

Daily life with IBS

"IBS used to control my life. I could have a sudden attack at any time and be desperate for the toilet. When I first experienced IBS it was as though I was the only person who had it – it was an isolating experience with antisocial symptoms. I had to be careful about what I ate- I became a very fussy eater! I needed to plan more carefully and going out for a meal with friends was no longer the fun experience it used to be as I would often feel unwell after the meal.

"My IBS definitely impacted my social life. I was lucky to find some inner strength to keep going work wise, but socially and in terms of relationships, seeing people could be really hard during the ten years that I was suffering badly with IBS."

IBS and my mental health

"Having IBS prompted me to begin a bit of self-analysis to try to work out what was causing my condition, as I would have thought that that I was totally healthy up to the point when it started. Getting to know, love and understand myself is an ongoing journey for me, but has been really worthwhile. During my ten years of being unwell my self-confidence did take a knock. Looking back, I feel sad about that as my 20s should have been a time when I was full of confidence, but IBS was in charge and the embarrassing symptoms impacted how I felt about myself. It has taken years to build it up, but still the symptoms are a reminder of how you can be totally fine one minute and bent double in pain the next- it’s tricky."

My IBS triggers

"Having been fortunate to find my own route to relief I would totally say that stress and a feeling of not being in control of one’s life are a major cause of flare-ups. We all handle stress differently, but it’s so often a trigger, even if you’ve made dietary changes that have helped."

Dietary changes that helped me

"My healing finally really came about when I discovered kefir- I know that that might sound really simple, but I lived with symptoms for ten years, in addition to being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and I tried all sorts of elimination diets, kinesiology, hypnotherapy, intolerance blood tests, aloe juice, lots of different types of medication for inflammatory bowel disease, vitamins and supplements…

"When I tried kefir for the first time I finally noticed a difference- it was life changing and a personal miracle for me. I drank at least 500ml a day at the beginning, spread across the day. My symptoms started improving and gradually I started to reintroduce regular food into my diet, without suffering after eating them. It was fantastic. People sometimes think that if you drink kefir, you still have to eliminate all the foods that trigger your symptoms, but for me that hasn't been the case- I eat a completely “normal” diet. I love food and I no longer have any food restrictions."

Lifestyle switches

"In my personal experience I find that exercise is really important in terms of managing IBS symptoms, as is rest and ‘release’ and processing the stresses in life. I believe that if we can manage our stress (let’s face it, living a life without stress is just not possible!), we can help ourselves feel better internally too. We all have to face a myriad of demands in our fast-paced lives, but finding our own way to cope with the stresses will help with symptoms, and exercise as well as yoga, massage and meditation are a great relief. I think that we need to feel good about ourselves and try to live an authentic life, meaning trying to do things that we enjoy, care about, feel good about, so we are living true to our values.

"I also take magnesium. Magnesium benefits muscles, and seeing as the intestinal tract is a large muscle, and when you suffer with IBS it can spasm, magnesium can aid muscle relaxation. I try to use magnesium bath salts at least once a week for this reason."

My advice to other IBS sufferers

"Being kind to yourself is really important. That’s the starting point for looking after yourself and trying to work out what you need and want in your life. It's vital to make time for yourself and to put at least some of your needs first. Not in a selfish way, but in a compassionate way to help you to reduce your IBS symptoms and have more of the life you are supposed to have- pain-free!"

My coping strategies

'My advice would be to avoid stimulants such as coffee that aggravate the bowel. I would also drink lots of water and try to rest. Also, I know I’ve already mentioned, but once I discovered kefir everything changed. Kefir directly attacks the bad bacteria in the gut and repopulates it with good bacteria, so the incidences of IBS flare-ups become less and less frequent- at least this is my experience. The stress is still there though, so I’m aware that that still needs to be addressed, but at least seeing bowel improvements is one stress that is greatly reduced."

Becky Excell, food blogger, freelance writer and vlogger


When I realised I had IBS

"I had my first bout of IBS in my first year at University in 2009. It was a very stressful time for many reasons."

My IBS symptoms

"Back then I thought I had a gluten intolerance, as wheat seemed to be the only thing that made me feel bloated and unwell, but as the years went on I became inexplicably intolerant to more and more things- weird things, like certain fruit and vegetables.

"It wasn’t until two years later that my doctor told me that I had IBS and the penny dropped. After he mentioned it, everything made a lot more sense."

Daily life with IBS

"I'd like to be all positive and say that I never allow it to affect my life, because I'm brave and don’t let it stop me, but in all honesty, it drags nearly every aspect of my life down, every day.

"I didn't realise how much of my social life revolved around eating out until I had IBS. Having multiple food intolerances makes eating out incredibly stressful yet 99% of social occasions involve eating or drinking.

"It's much easier (and safer) to stay in, eat at home and never go out, but that safety always comes at the cost of your social life and relationships, whether you realise it or not. Sometimes I feel like I can't win!

"I've lost count of the amount of times that I've sat in front of a desk at work in agony because of my stomach, but trying to hide it from my colleagues. Needless to say, it’s affected my performance at work massively, even if I made sure that it had minimal impact on my attendance. I was unhappy and I'm pretty sure everyone noticed, but never really knew why.

"I'm proud to say that I've maintained a decent level of fitness, despite my IBS, although I'll admit, it's so much harder to motivate myself to get down to the gym when I've got indigestion. Sometimes it’s a struggle to leave the house, but I do it."

IBS and my mental health

"I always try to open up about how IBS affects my mental health because it's just not widely enough acknowledged. I mean, am I really supposed to be told that I have this awful, incurable condition and just be fine with that?!

"The fallout of feeling so heavy, pained and bloated every day of my life really grinds you down over time. You eventually lose all hope of ever feeling better which is really damaging for your mental wellbeing. Every day, I fight that sense of helplessness as best I can, but some days are tougher than others.

"IBS really has made a massive dent in my self-confidence too, simply because my stomach is now permanently bloated. I already had body confidence issues before I had IBS, and IBS has just thrown more fuel on that fire. My stomach looks pregnant from the bloating and I now spend most of my mornings looking at myself in the mirror, desperately trying to reassure myself that I'm not fat. It's definitely made me realise how IBS affects so much more than just your gut."

My IBS triggers

"Apart from the usual trigger foods that give me immense grief, one of my biggest issues is stress, and it’s pretty inescapable. I am (and always have been) an over-thinker and a worrier. You'd think that IBS would teach me to be less stress-prone for fear of flare-ups, but IBS brings a whole new world of stress with it.

"Even positive stress can cause a flare-up, for instance when I'm really looking forward to something or I'm getting psyched up to do something important. I just can't win."

Dietary changes that helped me

"The low FODMAP diet has helped to curb my symptoms a lot. With the low FODMAP diet, there's basically a (very) long list of foods that people with IBS could find aggravate their stomach. These foods contain indigestible sugars that people with IBS struggle to digest - those sugars ferment and usually result in an IBS attack.

"Cutting these foods out for a period and slowly reintroducing them helped me to identify which foods were causing my flare-ups. While the low FODMAP diet helped me to manage my symptoms, it's certainly not a cure by any means, and it's very restrictive too.

"I eat little and often and avoid big meals which has helped so much. Even eating large quantities of foods I have no intolerance to can result in an IBS attack sometimes, so I have to be really careful.

"I recently started incorporating prebiotics like Bimuno into my diet after they were recommended to me. I've tried a lot of different remedies for IBS over the years, but prebiotics are one of the only things that I've ever experienced positive results with. One of my biggest symptoms is constipation (hope that's not TMI) and Bimuno has really helped to combat that already."

Lifestyle switches that soothed my IBS

"Exercise definitely helps to get my very, very slow digestive system moving! Even though I feel like a beached whale most of the time, hitting the gym and keeping active is one of the few things that lifts my mood and makes me feel better physically. Yoga is supposed to be really good too, but I'm too much of a wimp to go on my own so far."

My advice to other IBS sufferers

"It can be a frustrating road to diagnosis but seeing a doctor should always be your first port of call.

"IBS symptoms can be pretty vague, so your doctor will want to check you over for other conditions first. They might also refer you to a dietitian who can guide you through the low FODMAP diet too.

"Other than that, just make sure that you always have someone you can talk to- someone who cares. IBS can be a real struggle, so don't face it alone."

My coping strategy

"When I really, really feel that I can't continue, you'll find me under a blanket with my dog on my lap and a peppermint tea in hand!"

Follow Becky on Twitter and Instagram and visit her blog

Gina Geoghegan, founder of Wild Fizz Kombucha


When I realised I had IBS

"I got IBS when I was 20 after a bad case of food poisoning. My body never fully recovered and I spend 13 years with really bad symptoms.

"I went to every doctor, healer, dietitian, yoga instructor, meditation expert- you name it, and nothing worked. All they ever wanted to do was cover up my symptoms, or they told me to stress less, which was not very helpful. I did do some hypnotherapy which was somewhat useful, it was a good way to relax every day, but my symptoms persisted nonetheless.

"Then, when I was in the States on a roadtrip in Arizona, I found kombucha, and for the first time in a long time, I felt better. My symptoms went away and I felt “normal”. It was pretty amazing, life-changing stuff. That’s why I started my kombucha brand Wild Fizz- I wanted to make it to help others too. Not just people with IBS either, as everyone needs help with their gut microbiome and kombucha is one of the best things you can add to your diet in order to do that. I now say that I don't have IBS anymore, and I finally feel like I did before I got sick."

My IBS symptoms

"I don't really have any symptoms anymore which is insane! Kombucha really was a game changer for me and my disease, but I used to have a load of not very nice symptoms- constipation, diarrhea, bloating and nausea, plus I would feel tired and exhausted all the time."

Daily life with IBS

"Apart from all of the physical issues, the hardest thing for me was dealing with the social anxiety that comes with IBS. Poor digestion is kind of taboo - no one wants to talk about poo, which makes it even worse, because you feel ill, and then you feel ashamed and gross as well. Socially, it can make you retreat from friends and fun events because you never know when your symptoms will hit. There is nothing worse than getting on a train and realising that there is no toilet on board. It stops you doing the things you want to and living the life you should be living. I never thought I would live life without my symptoms. You come to cherish the body you're in when you get it back after years of dysfunction.

"IBS used to occupy every waking moment of my life. Everything I did involved strategies to cope. I know pretty much where every public toilet is in London. That is a thing of the past now, but I still know where to go when I need to go!"

My IBS triggers

"For me, the main cause of IBS flare-ups was stress. I could eat chocolate, drink wine, binge on crisps one day and feel fine and then get super ill doing exactly the same another. It all depended on how sensitive my body was feeling, and for me it was undeniably down to my day to day stresses."

Dietary changes that helped me

"Diet wise, I did damage control. I would avoid dairy, fried foods, alcohol, fizzy drinks and sweeteners if I was doing something social. If I was having a particularly bad time of it, I would limit my diet to white bread and rice crackers, which sounds crazy but it was the only thing that calmed my tummy down. No caffeine and no fizzy drinks and no raw veg- I avoided beetroots 100 per cent of the time. For some reason my tummy used to hate beetroots!

"I drink kombucha almost every day. It's my daily dose of good bacteria that seems to keep my body happy and healthy. Apart from that I also eat lots of kimchi and I try to keep my diet as colourful as possible, and organic. I find that getting what I need from food helps me to feel better than when I take supplements."

Lifestyle switches that soothed my IBS

"In terms of lifestyle, meditation, hypnotherapy and any exercise which makes you feel good can help to ease symptoms, but don't overdo it- being tired caused me to flare up. When bloated I would take baths and use hot water bottles to soothe my belly. I would also eat peppermint tablets which helps reduce that ‘bubbling’ feeling in your stomach. Getting enough sleep is also vital."

My advice to other IBS sufferers

"My advice to anyone suffering from IBS would be to go see a doctor as soon as possible. Get all the tests done to eliminate the possibility of other health conditions.

"Then read everything you can about gut health. There are lots of great books with really amazing research behind them out there. When you’re armed with the knowledge, then go ahead and experiment. Try every angle you can, see what helps/doesn't in your own time. Your symptoms and reasons for flare-ups will be different to mine, so you need to understand and read your body. That takes time.

"To kick start your journey, I recommend starting to include one fermented food into your diet every day, whether it’s kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi. Take peppermint oil tablets to help with flatulence while you go about it.

"A great cookbook for IBS sufferers is Eating for IBS by Heather Van Vorous. It helped me to eat well throughout my 20s. Otherwise, reducing booze, caffeine and sweeteners helped me, as did avoiding fried foods, dairy and red meat, and quitting smoking, if you do smoke, can make a very positive difference."

"It will take a little time, but you will learn to understand how your body works and when it reacts badly. It's quite wonderful when you start tuning into your body, and her reactions to your actions will start to make sense. Hopefully, with some practice, some patience and some love you'll reach balance where your body becomes your friend again."

My coping strategy

"It was really hard not to get depressed, so I would work hard not to cancel social events. Also, in desperate times, Imodium was a game changer when I needed to have control over my body for a few hours. I am so happy those days are over."

Should you adopt a low FODMAP diet?

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