The New Normal (Hear Me Out)

After a year that changed our lives and turned everything we thought we knew on its head… What will “normal” look like? 

As the US vaccine efforts have improved over the last several months, I find myself looking forward to things again. Celebrating holidays with friends and family. No longer being so afraid to leave my home. Getting a long overdue haircut. I’ve recently received my second vaccine and while I’m feeling better about the idea of going out into the world again, I still plan to continue wearing a mask and social distancing per CDC recommendations.

There are many things I’m looking forward to, but if I’m being honest, there are some things I will miss about this past year and the specific experience I have had. I have been extremely privileged and I know that. Not only did I keep my job, but I was able to work from home without issue. My home is a safe space and I do not have to fear being here. My loved ones took this seriously from the start so I didn’t have to worry about convincing people to make safe choices. I wasn’t evicted. I was able to easily navigate booking a vaccination in my area when I was eligible. The list goes on and on and I am very aware of the incredible fortune I’ve had during this time.

The benefits of having a better handle on the pandemic as a nation far outweigh any of my personal experiences. The point here isn’t to say that I wish things wouldn’t change, because that’s simply not true. What I hope to do here is acknowledge what I’ve learned about myself through these extreme circumstances and how I can take this new understanding with me as we slowly return to a life that looks more like it did before March 2020.

I know that I’m not alone when I say though, that some parts of the pandemic, especially the social distancing, have made the IBS part of my life less complicated. 

When working from home, I’m always near a toilet I like where I have the resources I need when I’m struggling. If I experienced a flare up in the last year and didn’t want to do anything but curl up on the couch with a hot water bottle and cup of peppermint tea, I didn’t have to stress about excusing myself from a social event or canceling plans, or going through with plans and feeling like I might burst at the seams. There were no activities at all for a time and even after there were, I refrained due to the pandemic. While I advocate for sharing your truth and not being ashamed of IBS, I also understand that you may not always want to tell everyone that you’re canceling plans because you need to be near the bathroom until further notice. Simply removing the pressure of having that conversation over and over again was a game changer for my mental health.

The daily commute became a relic of a different time. I didn’t realize how much my daily commute impacted my mental health until I no longer had to deal with it. Not only have I not had to sit in traffic or even drive at all most days, but I was also able to put this reclaimed time to use by walking my dog in the morning and doing yoga in the evenings, both activities that help me manage stress.

When restaurants closed down, we started ordering takeout occasionally to support local businesses. Normally, I would have had to ask all sorts of questions about the food and potential trigger ingredients, but since we were just at home eating anyway, I didn’t worry as much if something might trigger me because I was in my safe space. I didn’t have to consider what I was wearing and if I might be bloated for the rest of the night if I ate something that might not sit right. And since I didn’t worry as much about food, I didn’t experience as many flare ups as I might have if I’d had to be concerned about the impact of eating something.

When I think about how much being home more often has benefitted my gut, I start to feel a creeping anxiety about living a life that departs from this cozy space I’ve carved out in the world in the last year. I recognize that I feel my home is safe. At times I felt it was the only safe place to be. I wasn’t just excited to spend a night in, I was terrified to leave my home where I knew the air wasn’t carrying the virus that had stopped the world in its tracks.

It is in these moments of creeping anxiety that I try to think about the good parts about returning to my old life.

We’ve all had to learn new ways to cope with challenges. We’ve all shared in grief and fear. It seems that so much of our health has been much less taboo since the start of the pandemic. We’ve all struggled with mental health issues like anxiety and burnout during this time and more conversations about these themes can help us remove some of the stigma associated with them. You might find that your peers are more open to hearing about and sympathizing with your chronic condition. 

Things may never return to the “normal” as we knew it pre-pandemic. We’ve all been through trauma and as it continues to rage in communities around the world, we cannot let ourselves believe it is over until it is truly contained everywhere. What we can do is take what we’ve learned about self care and mental health back into the world with us. We can care for ourselves and each other in new ways by letting others know what we need and asking how we can support one another. We can make caring for others and speaking up for ourselves the new normal.

8 Good-Mood Foods for Living Well with IBS

Guest Post: To mark IBS Awareness Month we welcome Gemma Harris, UK-based health and wellness blogger and founder of The Gut Choice. Read on to find out more about her favorite go-to foods to improve your mood!

Ever had the urge to reach for cookies when you’re feeling low and then uh-oh, before you know it, you’re doubling up with stomach cramps because it has triggered your IBS? This certainly wouldn’t make anyone feel cheerier. This used to be me… until I bought Rachel Kelly’s The Happy Kitchen cookbook and learnt one of the most important lessons of my five-year IBS journey – what we put in our mouths can actually impact the way we feel. Research shows the gut-brain connection is real and that certain foods can boost our mood which in turn can have a positive impact on our IBS symptoms. Here are my top good-mood foods for living well with IBS:

When you need mental clarity

From personal experience, when my mind is clearer, I’m calmer and my IBS symptoms are more under control. If you can relate, you might want to start adding these mind-blowing foods to your diet.

  • Beets – This brightly colored root vegetable is proven to be good for cognitive brain function. Bonus – they are high in fibre which is beneficial for digestive health. Just be sure to stick to two slices of cooked beetroot for a low FODMAP addition. One of my favorite breakfasts is Deliciously Ella’s sweet beet overnight oats. Get the recipe.
  • Pukka Revitalise organic tea – described as a tea ‘to wake you and invigorate you,’ this certainly does what it says on the box. Not only does it taste delicious with a spicy burst of cinnamon, ginger and cloves, plus hints of spearmint and green tea, but it helps me feel more alert and provides a sense of peace. This is my go-to at the beginning of a busy week. Cardamom is also a key ingredient that has been used for thousands of years to help with digestion.

For when you’re feeling low

Instead of reaching for the ice cream tub next time you’re down in the dumps, try nourishing your body and mind with healthier options that are more than just a short-lived fix for lifting your spirits, unlike their sugary counterparts. At the same time, everyone needs a pick-me-up now and then and a little bit of what we enjoy is good for the soul. Our stomach shouldn’t have to suffer afterwards either. Making smart choices is key here.

  • Dark chocolate – one for the chocolate-lovers. As a self-confessed chocoholic, I NEEDED to find a variety my stomach could deal with and thank goodness for dark chocolate. 70%+ cocoa is best if you’re sensitive to lactose, like me. Plus, our gut microbes ferment chocolate into anti-inflammatory compounds that help keep us healthy.
  • Avocado – this fruit is definitely worthy of its superfood status. Not only is it packed with nutrients and high in healthy fats, but it can also help us feel happier! Avocados are a good source of folate and, although the connection isn’t yet fully understood, research suggests low levels of folate are linked with depression. Think you have to cut avocado out if you’re following the low FODMAP diet? That’s a myth; just keep your serving small – 1/8 of an avocado is low FODMAP.

When you need an energy boost

Fatigue and tiredness are common symptoms of IBS, but what can help with this? Listed below are just some of the foods that can increase and sustain energy levels. Number two is so simple yet so effective.

  • Fresh ginger – just the smell of fresh ginger is refreshing and by adding a small amount to recipes throughout the week, I notice that I feel more awake and alert. Plus, it helps to relieve nausea and intestinal cramps associated with diarrhoea. Add it to a smoothie like this one for an invigorating way to start your day.
  • Hot water – it’s no secret that staying hydrated helps us to feel more energized, but it also helps us to have more mental clarity and feel happier. A happy mind = a happy tummy. I also find a mug of hot water great for relieving stomach cramps.

If you are feeling stressed

Stress is a part of everyday life but, unfortunately, it can be a major trigger for an IBS flare-up. It’s all about learning how to cope with life’s stress and some foods can help with that. Check them out…

  • Fish – here’s some fin-tastic news (see what I did there). Eating fish can help to fend off stress. Fatty fish in particular, such as tuna, mackerel, sardines and salmon, are a great option because their omega-3 fatty acids may help ease depression. What’s more these omega-3s play an anti-inflammatory role within the body. Top a cracker with avocado and sardines for a tasty, calming mid-afternoon snack.
  • Nuts – The B vitamins in nuts make them a great stress-busting snack. Just be sure to limit servings to a handful per day as nuts are high in calories. Low FODMAP nuts include macadamias, peanuts and pine nuts.

Share your thoughts

Have you tried any of these good mood foods? Let us know how it went in the comments!

Meet Gemma

Gemma is a freelance journalist and health blogger with a passion for health and wellness. She founded thegutchoice.com to help people make positive choices for their tummies and have a safe space to discuss gut issues as well as to provide a hopeful outcome for others. Check out her blog at the link and find her on Facebook and Twitter: @TheGutChoice as well.

April is IBS Awareness Month

Happy IBS Awareness Month everyone! This is a time to learn about IBS and encourage people who suffer from gut symptoms to make an appointment with their healthcare provider. Many cases of IBS go undiagnosed for years before people realize their symptoms are part of a pattern, not just normal discomfort. In 1997 the IFFGD declared April IBS Awareness Month and it is officially recognized on the U.S. National Health Observances calendar.

If you have IBS you probably already know a thing or two about it, but let’s take a look at the basics.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a collection of symptoms experienced in the gut that can cause pain and discomfort. The exact cause is unknown and most of the time a diagnosis is based on the presence of symptoms that don’t lead to a diagnosis of another gut disorder, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD0, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, etc. There is no single IBS test, so diagnosis is often a process of elimination.

Symptom severity varies for each individual and even within an individual’s own experience. There is no known cure for this chronic condition, but most people with IBS can improve their quality of life through symptom management techniques including diet, lifestyle, or behavioral changes.

Subtypes

  • IBS-C (Constipation predominant)
  • IBS-D (Diarrhea predominant)
  • IBS-M (Mixed)
  • IBS-U (Unspecified)
  • PI-IBS (Post-infectious – when IBS is induced by a gastrointestinal infection, this can often clear up with time, but not always)

Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain, cramping, discomfort
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Constipation/incomplete evacuation
  • Diarrhea
  • Alternating Constipation/Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion

IBS Fast Facts

  • About 10-15% of adults around the world have IBS
  • On average, those with IBS restrict activities 73 days out of the year
  • On average, it takes more than 6 years from symptom onset to diagnosis
  • Many people go undiagnosed because they are too embarrassed to visit a healthcare professional or because they don’t realize that their distress is abnormal.
  • IBS impacts more women than men
  • More than half of people with IBS are over the age of 50
  • Roughly 20-40% of all visits to gastroenterologists are due to IBS symptoms

Symptom Management

You can learn to manage your symptoms better through a variety of options including dietary changes, such as the Low FODMAP diet or limiting gut irritants like alcohol and caffeine. Stress management techniques, such as these, these, or these may also be helpful as they work to calm your gut by calming your brain. 

Many people find that one of these techniques works best for them, others find that a combination helps their IBS. Every gut is different! Try different methods and learn what works for you and your gut.

How to Celebrate IBS Awareness

My number one recommendation for what to do for IBS Awareness Month is to share your story! The more we normalize IBS the less stigma we will face as a community. So many of us are ashamed or embarrassed about the way our body functions (or doesn’t function) because we live in a culture where it’s taboo to discuss such things openly, but there is no reason to feel this way and dealing with the stress of hiding your condition can sometimes exacerbate symptoms as we know there is a link between stress and symptom severity.

For more ways to get involved, check out the resources on the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD)’s IBS Awareness page!

What are you doing this IBS Awareness Month? Comment down below or send me an email to share your story, what works for you, or any other thoughts you might have.

Remember: Work with your gut, not against it.

Coming soon: Gemma Harris of thegutchoice.com will be offering her take on some good mood foods. Read more about Gemma below and follow the links to check out her blog!

Gemma is a freelance journalist and health blogger with a passion for health and wellness. She founded thegutchoice.com to help people make positive choices for their tummies and have a safe space to discuss gut issues as well as to provide a hopeful outcome for others.

Avoid These 5 Common low FODMAP Mistakes

If you have IBS, there’s a good chance you’ve been told to try the Low FODMAP diet and been very confused by it. Many people share a similar experience of their doctor recommending the diet, giving them a list of some foods to avoid (but not much else in the way of guidance), then being sent off on their own to make sense of things. 

It can be difficult and confusing at the start and just when you feel you’ve gotten the hang of it, you learn you’ve been overlooking something. Feeling like you’ve made mistakes on the diet can lead to undue stress and as we all know, stress is an important trigger for symptoms.

Avoiding these 5 common mistakes can help you navigate the Low FODMAP diet and set yourself up for success.

FODMAP Stacking

You may have no trouble sticking to low FODMAP serving sizes of individual foods or ingredients, but maybe you’re forgetting that FODMAPs in a meal add up and too many green and yellow serves can add up to a yellow or even red total, making your meal high FODMAP. (See Monash for guidelines and 3 color system.)

Portion Size

Portion size is key! We know that eating too much of a trigger food or FODMAP group can cause symptoms. But did you know that eating too much at once (even if low FODMAP) or eating too fast can also cause symptoms like bloating and gas? It’s not just what we eat but HOW we eat and how MUCH that can make a difference in the hours after a meal.

Sneaky Ingredients

It can be easy to think that we know what’s in our food, but there are any number of unexpected ingredients in packaged foods especially. Condiments, snacks, and sauces are notorious for having unexpected ingredients listed. Not reading the ingredient lists on packaged food can mean that you’re getting high FODMAP items or experiencing FODMAP stacking if it’s something you might eat throughout the day. Keep an eye out for things like sugar alcohols, apple-based sweeteners, and chicory root just to name a few common offenders. Take your label reading game to the next level.

Being on the Diet for Too Long

Following the low FODMAP diet long term may feel like the right thing to do, especially if you experience symptom relief trying it out, but it’s very restrictive and doesn’t allow for the full variety you need in a healthy diet for the long term. It’s meant to determine sensitivities, not act as a forever solution.

Follow the guidelines below for each stage, and work with your healthcare team to make adjustments specific to your needs.

  • Elimination = 2-6 weeks
  • Reintroduction = 6-8 weeks
  • Modification/Personalization = long term elimination or limitation of only the foods that trigger your symptoms

Forgetting to Take Care of Yourself on This Journey

Being too hard on yourself is common when you’re working your way through the low FODMAP diet. It’s a tough process and pretending like it isn’t challenging doesn’t do anyone any favors. Remember to forgive yourself if you miss a sneaky ingredient or otherwise “mess up” the diet. It won’t ruin the process for you. Just learn from the mistake and move on, forgive yourself and keep going. You can do this and you are worth it!

The Low FODMAP diet can be a successful way to manage symptoms for many people and is worth trying if you’ve been diagnosed with IBS. Roughly 75% of people who try the Low FODMAP diet experience symptom relief through dietary changes/by discovering triggers and learning to limit or avoid the foods that cause symptoms.

If you’ve been caught up in some of these easy-to-make mistakes, consider giving the diet another try and keep these tips in mind to set yourself up for success.

As always, consider consulting a healthcare professional before attempting the diet again to make sure that you are armed with all the information and support you need to work with your gut.

Low FODMAP Friendly Valentine’s Day Menu

With Valentine’s Day coming up, you may be thinking about what to do for dinner. If you’re following the Low FODMAP diet, planning a meal you can enjoy with your partner can be tricky. Share a good gut meal with the one you love using the following menu. (Please note that all provided serving sizes come from Monash and are provided in the Low FODMAP quantity, so if these foods don’t trigger you, you can indulge a bit more. You know your body best!)

Appetizer: Cheeseboard

Main course: Salmon, Veggies, and Quinoa

  • Baked salmon – Pick up enough salmon for 2 and rub your favorite simple spices on it
    • I like to use a little salt and pepper, oregano, garlic infused olive oil, rosemary, and thyme). Wrap it in foil, skin side down and pop it in the oven at 350°F/175°C for about 25 min or until cooked through.
  • Steamed veggies
    • Chop a few of your favorite veggies and steam for a delicious, nutritious side to add to your salmon. I like to squeeze fresh lemon juice on my steamed veggies and the following make a great accompaniment to salmon.
      • Broccoli 75g
      • Carrots 75g
      • Zucchini 65g
  • Quinoa – Steam some quinoa in a rice cooker or on the stovetop, using 1 part grain to 2 parts water. Be sure to wash the quinoa first to remove the bitter coating. Compliment your spices based on what you selected for your salmon. I like to add the juice of about half a lemon, thyme, salt, and pepper for a bit of added flavor without overwhelming anything.

Dessert: Berries & Cream with Chocolate Shavings

  • Choose your favorite berry (or mix it up!)
    • Strawberries 10 med, chopped/150g
    • Blueberries ¼ C/40g
    • Raspberries 30 berries/60g
  • Top with whipped cream
    • 1/2c/60g
    • Note: Recommend making your own whipped cream so you can be sure there are no sneaky additives
  • Chocolate – add some chocolate shavings on top for a little extra decadence
    • Milk 20g
    • Dark 30g

Drinks

  • Red, White, and Sparkling Wine (5 ounces/150 ml)
    • Pay attention to sparkling wine and how your body reacts because carbonation by itself may trigger symptoms.
  • Remember, alcohol is naturally an irritant, so again if you know this is a trigger for you try something that won’t give you a flare up so you can focus on enjoying your time together.

Avoid FODMAP stacking throughout this meal, especially if you know your triggers. All the quantities listed are Low FODMAP, but be sure to stay within your own limits for what’s too much to eat as well.

Most importantly, don’t let your nerves get the best of you this Valentine’s Day. Share a gut-friendly meal with your partner and focus on your relationship, not the fear of having a flare up on a romantic occasion.

Stress Management Techniques, Part 3

Stress management techniques that you’ve never heard of

Welcome to the third and final installment of our January Stress Management Techniques series to kick off 2021!

We’ve already reviewed some techniques that you’re probably familiar with as well as a couple you might have heard of, but never really tried to deal with stress when it comes up. The last category is about lifestyle changes you can make to avoid stress in the first place.

The less time you dedicate to your stressors on a daily basis the more your time will free up for things you actually want to do, including giving you time to incorporate some of those other techniques like establishing a regular exercise routine or carving out space to meditate.

Plan Ahead

The goal here is to shift your time around to set yourself up for success instead of spending the week feeling like you’re drowning in responsibilities.

Set Aside Time

Once a week (or once a month, whatever works for you) decide what needs to be done and space it all out. There’s no reason you HAVE to clean your whole place all in one day. You could dust on Mondays, vacuum on Tuesdays, take Wednesdays off for your weekly happy hour with friends, etc. You’ll keep up with your responsibilities and you won’t constantly be trying to remember things you need to do which will free up your brain to focus on other things and allow your gut to go from fight or flight to rest and digest.

Meal prep

This is HUGE for IBS sufferers so let’s get right to it: 

  • Identify your trigger foods and find replacements for them
  • Have snacks on hand that don’t trigger symptoms
  • Write down meals and ingredients to make things at least one week ahead. Shop once.

To help you plan out your week, make sure you set aside some time to select a few meals and prepare a grocery list for the ingredients you’ll need to make it all happen. Write down the meals you’ve decided to make (I use a magnetic whiteboard on our fridge, but even just a note on your phone would be helpful) so you know what to make when and where to find the recipe. This little reference will help keep you from staring into your pantry at dinner time trying to remember what you planned out a few days ago.

Create systems

Take some time to think about what in your life causes you stress and make changes in how you approach those stressors to help manage symptoms. These should be positive changes that allow you to create systems that work for you instead of scrambling to get everything done day after day.

Unburden your mind and your gut from this anxiety by having an honest conversation with yourself about what causes you stress. Some of my stress triggers are below to help get your juices flowing.

Finances

I worry about money. I used to spend so much time looking at bank accounts, bills, savings goals, debt, etc. But then I found a system that automates my money and now it’s something I don’t have to worry about. I’ve reallocated that time to things that help me manage my stress, instead of feeding the stress.

Responsibilities around the house

I am married. We have 2 cats, a dog, and a growing indoor jungle. I am the house manager and it can be exhausting. For a long time I took on all the responsibilities. I would delegate occasionally, but not nearly enough to maintain my sanity. When I started to take my stress management more seriously to better control my IBS, I knew I had to really commit to offloading some responsibilities. Now we have a chore system that works for both of us.

Don’t think about these things every day anymore. Free up your time and make space for calm in your mind. Establish habits that will do the thinking for you.

A Few Final Thoughts

Don’t take all this on at once. Start small or pick one thing that you think would make the biggest impact and start there. You want to form good habits that you can stick to and you definitely don’t want your stress management to become stressful. I tried to take on meditation, yoga, running, and meal planning in the same week and I definitely felt the consequences of taking on too much.

Be open to the idea that you may try one of these things and not really like it. Give something an honest go and if it doesn’t work for you, move on. If you set something up and then find that it isn’t working, tweak it until you find a way to make your life easier, then commit to it. You deserve peace of mind AND peace of gut.

Stress Management Techniques, Part 2

This week in our series on Stress Management Techniques, we’re going to explore some that might not be as familiar to you as the ones from last week. Maybe you have heard of these, but maybe you haven’t tried them out for yourself. These techniques don’t usually appear on quick lists about how to manage stress (that was more true for the last post), but they’re definitely worth trying out for more long-term stress management.

Stress management techniques maybe you’ve heard of but haven’t tried

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological treatment that is used to manage a range of problems.

One way to think about this in the context of your IBS is to give yourself space to think about what is actually likely to happen or not. If you are nervous about going somewhere because you may have a flare up or may not be able to get to a toilet… actually stop to think through the scenario and don’t spiral out into the worst case scenario. Ask yourself, “What happens next?” and answer with a positive spin. Go through an entire experience like this, stopping when a fear pops up and tell yourself a different story.

Hypnotherapy

In a study conducted in the Netherlands, it was found that “up to half of people who had individual or group hypnotherapy had adequate relief from their symptoms compared with less than a quarter of people who only had education and support.”

You can check out The Calmer You for resources, a podcast, individual coaching, and more on hypnotherapy.

These techniques are a bit more involved than the others. They may take a bit more research to find a time and place that suits you. They may take time for you to really get into or see any benefits. If you’re like me, you may even feel a bit hesitant or silly trying them out, but ultimately you’ll never know if they could be your ticket to a happy tum unless you give them a try!

Remember not to take on too much all at once. Try the technique that speaks to you the most and see if it feels right. If it doesn’t work, let it go and try something else.

Next week for our final chapter we will explore some stress management techniques that you may have never considered could be helpful for managing your symptoms, but that might be just what you’ve been looking for!

Stress Management Techniques, Part 1

Stress management can be beneficial to everyone, but prioritizing it can be especially beneficial for those of us with IBS. Not engaging in stress management at all can exacerbate or even be the cause of symptoms. There are countless techniques we can employ in our daily lives, but it can take some time to figure out what works best. 

In this series, we’ll take a look at a variety of techniques that will range from the very familiar to ones you may never have heard of before. Not everything works for everyone, so try things out and stick to what helps YOU. We’re going to start with some easy to incorporate suggestions that will probably sound familiar.

Stress Management Techniques You’ve Probably Heard Of

Regular exercise

We know that moving our bodies makes them happy. We feel better, we sleep better, it can jumpstart our digestive systems (which is why it’s also important not to overdo it, especially if you suffer from diarrhea). In general these are all things that can work in our favor for symptom management. 

Yoga

Moving around slowly and gently (in the case of Hatha yoga, for example) can help you regain control of your breathing and also forces your gut into new positions that may help aid in digestion. Have you ever done yoga and then heard your belly rumbling? That’s why.

Meditation

Allow your mind the space it needs to stop thinking about all the things you need to do today, all the things you forgot to do yesterday, all the things waiting for you to do tomorrow and just do nothing and focus on right now. You don’t have to renounce your current life and become a Buddhist monk (or hey you know, give that a try… you do you). You don’t even have to meditate for that long to reap the benefits. I’m new to meditation and I try to do at least 2 minutes every day. Sometimes that happens when I wake up or in between meetings at work. Sometimes it happens in the 2 minutes before I fall asleep at night. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. It’s a work in progress.

If you’re new to meditation or are maybe looking to try something new, check out these apps: Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace.

Deep Breathing

When you feel the stress monster sneaking up on you (or if you’re like me and it’s less of a sneak and more of an ambush) close your eyes and breathe. If you don’t, your SNS  will override everything thinking your stress and quick breathing is a cry for help and your poor little PNS will be shoved to the side to make room. (Check out this post for a quick overview of your SNS and PNS.) Aim for 4-6 breaths per minute and be sure you’re breathing into your belly (doing the shoulders up-and-down kind of breathing can trigger your SNS so pay attention to your airflow), in and out through the nose or in through the nose and out through the mouth.

These techniques are great tools to have in your back pocket for when you need a little more focus or are experiencing a flare up. When I am having a bad belly day I make sure to do yoga. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. Even when I would much rather stay curled up in a ball on the couch. It feels a little counterintuitive to move when I’m in pain, but I always feel better afterward and I try to remind myself of that.

If you’ve ever tried to manage stress, whether it be for IBS or otherwise, you’ve probably looked into some of these options or maybe even given a few a try. Even if it hasn’t worked in the past for you, I encourage you to give it another go! Part of the journey is figuring out what works best for you and shedding whatever doesn’t work.

New Year’s Resolutions for IBS

Ah, it’s that time again, friends. Time for New Year’s Resolutions. This year especially, we may not have the mental space to think about improving ourselves next year (and that’s okay!). We don’t even know if our lives will regain some semblance of “normal” next year. My vote is that we don’t add unnecessary pressure to our lives, but instead we take this new beginning as an opportunity to better care for ourselves. Learn to listen to your body and mind. If you’re looking to improve your IBS symptoms in 2021, consider these low pressure, high impact options.

Take Your Needs Seriously

If you know that something triggers you, you have the power to turn it down. Even if you feel it would be rude to decline something you’re offered, remind yourself that it isn’t. I can’t count the number of times I’ve eaten just a bit of something I shouldn’t have or cleared my plate knowing I would feel sick afterward. It has taken me so much practice to learn that I can say no. If you’re comfortable, share a bit about why you are declining a food or only serving yourself a child-sized portion at dinner.

Share Your Truth

Find someone who understands you. Maybe it’s a fellow IBS sufferer or an online forum. Maybe it’s a close friend who doesn’t have a similar experience, but who is willing to listen and learn. Just establishing the freedom to share when you have a flare up with someone you know won’t judge you can be extremely liberating. Even those who aren’t afflicted have likely experienced some level of gut dysfunction in their lives and would be delighted to be there for you when you need some support. The more we normalize our experiences the better things get for all of us. Start with just one person.

Acknowledge Anxiety

Learn to listen to your body’s signals. When you start feeling that tightness in your chest or when that rumbling starts in your tummy, take a moment to breathe. Allow yourself to say, “I’m not okay.” Write it down in a journal, tell a friend, say it aloud to your dog or whisper your thoughts to a plant. Whatever it takes to release the pressure you’re feeling will be tremendously helpful. In time, this will become second nature and you’ll find that freeing your mind of burdens is the first step to freeing your body too.

Be Kind to Yourself

Allow yourself to indulge in the foods and drinks and activities that bring you joy. Eat pancakes for dinner, have the occasional glass of wine, skip the run and dance in your kitchen for 20 minutes instead. Forgive yourself for overindulging when you inevitably do and learn from your experiences about moderation and your body’s needs. No one is perfect all the time.

For most of us, 2020 has been a rollercoaster. Whether you’re working from home and helping your child in the virtual classroom or picking up groceries for your elderly neighbor or sewing masks for everyone you know, there is no doubt in my mind that you spent time this year caring for someone else. And while that can be extremely fulfilling, it can also be draining when we continue to prioritize everyone else before ourselves. The truth is, the better we are to ourselves, the more we can offer to others.

Take time in 2021 to be kind to yourself and to take your needs seriously. Share your truth with those you love and ask for their support on your journey. Acknowledge your fears, worries, and anxieties, but don’t let them rule your mind or your gut. Recognize that you deserve to be a top priority in your life and make choices that reflect how much you care about yourself.

Happy New Year to all. May 2021 bring you happiness, health, and love. 

Me, My Stress, and I(BS)

The best part about being diagnosed with IBS was feeling like I’d finally get some answers. I was mentally resigned to the fact that my diet may have to change forever, but I promised myself that if this would help me fit comfortably in my pants again, I would give up even my favorite foods.

Imagine my surprise when this diagnosis left me with more questions than ever before. My IBS journey was only really just beginning. At first this felt disheartening. Why is it so complicated?

There is still much to learn about IBS and how different people experience it, but let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in your gut and why just eliminating a trigger food may not be enough.

A Quick Recap of 7th Grade Science

Your body works full time taking care of all sorts of things that you never have to think about. For all the time you don’t spend consciously making your heart beat, you can thank your autonomic nervous system. It runs your basic body functions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion. One of the many things your body is handling right now is a constant stream of communication between your gut and your brain along what’s called the vagus nerve, part of the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis is a network of highly sophisticated communication that runs back and forth sending signals via neurons and hormones about what’s going on and coordinating a response through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Buckle up.

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): This baby is your fight-or-flight manager. It’s what gave our ancestors the boost of energy they needed to run from danger or the strength required to fight back when attacked. This system shuts down in the body what isn’t necessary and cranks up what is with one goal in mind: survive. In modern times it’s what makes you sweaty when you’re nervous or what gets your heart all fluttery and quickens your breathing when you’re stressed. That’s right friends: the system that helps us get moving or defend ourselves when we feel we’re in danger is constantly on standby even when “danger” has changed from “there’s a bear standing right in front of me” to “I have a meeting this afternoon with my boss and I haven’t finished that big project yet”.

Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): This is the super chill sib of your somewhat tightly wound SNS. PNS is responsible for the rest-and-digest side of life. When you’re not being chased by a tiger or trying to meet a deadline, this system helps your bod focus on digestion and slows your heart rate down.

What Does This Mean for IBS?

When you have IBS your gut-brain axis is a little wonky. Your SNS is at the wheel and can be a little over active, while your PNS—ever zen— is sitting in the back seat.

So when you realize you’re coming up on a deadline or bills are due and your checking account isn’t exactly overflowing or your to do list gets longer every day or there’s a global pandemic or whatever it is that stresses you out—your SNS is inside you screaming that it is in charge and your PNS has to wait its turn. Your SNS sucks up all your energy and adrenaline and keeps your heart beating fast, your breathing quick and short, and your body ready to pummel that to do list to the ground or sprint in the opposite direction of your checking account as fast as possible. Meanwhile your PNS is just waiting in the wings for when things are safe again. What your SNS doesn’t realize is that these stressors don’t require the level of attention or energy that it’s giving them and your gut is suffering because your PNS isn’t allowed to do its thing. Your gut is thrown into and out of its regularly scheduled digestion every time your SNS overreacts to your everyday life and this is a huge problem.

When you have IBS your gut-brain signals getting crossed can sometimes even be traced back to the symptoms themselves in a frustrating, vicious cycle of fear/anxiety/stress causing symptoms then the symptoms causing more fear/anxiety/stress about potential symptoms or another flare up. Before you know it your fear of symptoms is causing or exacerbating your symptoms and you’re stuck in an endless cycle of stress caused by symptoms caused by stress. 

Stress Management

Learning to manage stress will help you manage your symptoms and avoid this cycle. The challenge here is learning to consciously influence an unconscious system, but there are so many ways we can do that. Non-symptom related benefits of stress management will also help improve your overall quality of life. Less stress can lead to better sleep and better sleep can lead to less stress.

When you feel stress/anxiety creeping in, take a few deep belly breaths. Walk around the block or set a timer and meditate. Write down what’s making you anxious in a journal or sing your favorite song.

Keep your eye out for a deep dive into stress management techniques series coming in the New Year!