• Ashlea Hartz, N.C., RYT

Living with IBS...

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a common disorder that is rarely talked about but surprisingly affects around 60 million Americans, that's almost 20% of the population. This condition is uncomfortable at best, and debilitating at it's worst. According to the Mayo Clinic, IBS is a chronic condition that must be managed, which means most doctors still believe that it has not true cause and no known cure. Lucky for me, after dealing with symptoms on and off for over 10 years I learned that functional medicine and holistic practitioners were well ahead of the curve when it came healing my body. Today I want to help you understand how living with IBS can change your life, not just in the physical sense but how it plays into your normal everyday routine in a way most of your friends and family can never understand.

IBS is real, it's not "in your head", it's not a tummy ache, and it's not an end of the line diagnosis when doctors can't figure out what is really wrong with you and just prescribe some pills that "might" help. It's a cluster of symptoms that a person can experience regularly or intermittently which include but not limited to pain in the abdomen, nausea, cramping, upset stomach, bloating, gas, muscle aches, fatigue, constipation, and diarrhea. It can also lead to headaches, irritability, anxiety, body image issues, disordered eating, and depression.

Needless to say, this is NOT pleasant. Eating food is one of the most fundamental necessities in life, when that becomes uncomfortable and when your stomach hurts or is in disarray you can pretty much figure the rest of your life is soon to follow. A study from 1992 showed that IBS was the second leading cause of missed work (after the common cold) and that gap has been closing every since. The quality of life for someone with IBS is a major concern for both their physical and mental health.

What causes IBS and how do you manage it? I will cover this briefly but if you want more info I recommend you read more from Dr. Axe HERE. There have been some great breakthroughs recently and many holistic practitioners agree it's a perfect storm of imbalances in the body that lead to the pain and discomfort of IBS. The most common underlying cause can be any combination (or like a domino effect) of the following:

- dysbiosis, the gut microbiome which is made up of bacteria (probiotics) is out of wack - overuse of antibiotics - bacteria overgrowth in the bowels, SIBO - yeast overgrowth, Candida - a parasite or other gut infection - excessive stress, physical or mental - hormone imbalances - food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity (especially gluten, dairy, and sugar) - poor diet, low in fiber and high in sugar

In order to find relief and manage this disorder (not cure which I don't really believe you can do) it takes time, effort, and understanding. It is not easy and often it is not very fun. You have to be careful about what you eat, how you eat, when you eat and when you don't. You have to read labels and ask waiters "does that have gluten in it" and wait for them to roll their eyes or run to ask the chef. You might also have to work with a practitioner who can run lab tests and figure out what creepy crawly organism may have invaded your GI track that last time you went to India (or maybe it was that time you got sick in Texas). You definitely have to say good by to sugar and conventional birthday cake unless you are willing to handle the fall out. Now this can sound depressing (remember IBS correlation to depression) but there is hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. Most of the foods you will avoid are not all that healthy for you anyway and there are wonderful fresh foods that you can enjoy, herbs that work like magic, and a time when you feel strong enough to treat yourself now and again. But all-in-all it's about taking things one day at a time. 

For me, as the IBS took over my health, the simple act of going out to dinner, hanging out with friends or enjoying a cocktail became a challenge. The best I can explain it when someone asks me what my "stomach aches" are like, is that it's like having a migraine in your stomach. It's painful, it's uncomfortable and it can make your whole body and mind just want to shut down. Even now after all that I know and all the work I have done to heal, I have good days and bad days. I can go weeks or even months with little to no symptoms and I can feel pretty good till almost forget about my condition. But this usually means I am very cautious, cooking my own food to avoiding any possible triggers, sleeping well, and getting regular exercise. But as soon as I let myself relax, get stressed out, have a glass of wine, or join my friends for dinner this panic and fear usually rushes over me. I know that the pain and discomfort of my symptoms can come storming back at any time, and eventually it always does. Whether it's eating the wrong food, a stressful day, that time of the month, or a combination of all three at some point the IBS will flare up again.

What is hard now is not so much dealing with IBS, it's trying to enjoy a "normal" life and explain myself when I am with strangers, friends, and even family. Most people just don't get it. It's the social awkwardness, the questionable stares when I am the only one at the table not eating, the begging me to try "just a little bit", or the every so common "what can you eat here?" that makes me want to crawl under the table and hide. I am not a foodie or trying to be rude, but I often feel like a freak. I try to laugh things off, and change the subject but it's hard when you can't join in the fun or celebration. You can image that Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday, I miss having pizza and beer on a Friday night, and oh how I wish I could have one of Grandma's famous chocolate chip cookies just one more time. I am a nutritionist and I love to eat healthy delicious foods, but I am far from perfect and crave comfort foods just like everyone else. I have just had to find my go to safe foods and do my best to avoid what I know doesn't serve me.

All I can do now is keep taking the steps I need to take care of me, and all you can do is take care of you.

If you know someone who struggles with IBS, or other chronic health conditions, just know that they are doing the best they can and they probably feel alone so be there for them and show them that you understand, even if it's just a little.

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