Following years of struggle with digestive health – Plunging My Way through Decades of Tummy Turmoil – my primary care provider told me I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS comes in three main variations, constipation predominant (IBS–C), diarrhea predominant (IBS–D), and those who are mixed, alternating between them (IBS–M). I lean toward “C”.
My provider and I talked at length about options for treatment and management. Since, I was not thrilled with the idea of trying to resolve my issues with ongoing medication, she recommended taking a daily dose of MiraLAX. I did see a difference in consistency, but I still regularly experienced pain, bloating, abdominal distension, and infrequent bowel movements. Put bluntly, MiraLAX made things… softer.
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For whatever reason I ended up telling a friend at a dance event about having IBS. It turned out she was a dietician, and highly recommended that I try a low FODMAP diet. I was hesitant, I’d previously tried many diets with no relief, but desperate times call for action.
The diet turned out to be more challenging, and also far more helpful, than I could have ever imagined. Because low FODMAP diets begin with an elimination phase, which is followed by a re-introduction and testing phase, I started paying close attention to what I was eating and how food was affecting me. Over time, I noticed that other factors, which I hadn’t been tracking, were triggering symptoms.
The secret to my success with IBS, over the past few years, lies in changing my approach to food, fitness, relaxation, and hydration. If I could go back in time, to advise myself at the height of my agony, I’d say, “The key to changing your life is meticulously collecting data and planning ahead.”
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”
I cannot understate the importance of getting to know yourself. Find out everything you can through your medical providers, but don’t stop there. After you give them your blood, urine, saliva, etc., go home and create a spreadsheet. No one is with you 24/7. You’re the one on the front lines, seeing the subtle (or not so subtle) indications of how your choices and decisions are affecting your body.
I wouldn’t worry too much about what to track in the beginning, you’ll figure it out as you go. Once I adjusted to recording what I was consuming, I started tracking my water intake. Hydration affects the consistency of my bowel movements more than the frequency of them.
Months later, I added my menstrual cycle. I’d noticed that things were always “really moving along” the second day of my period. What I ate, on this one day, seemed to have no negative consequences for my digestive process. So, I’d been treating myself to a donut, or mac and cheese, the second I was sure my monthly guest had arrived. Finally, I’d found a reason to look forward to her visits…
If you track something for months on end and find zero correlation to any of your symptoms, delete it. Recording these details takes up precious time, so allocate that time wisely. Think of it as a work in progress, a living document.
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Examples of insights that were brought to my attention through data collection include:
- If I eat a small amount of bread, my morning waist measurement will be two inches more than the day before. But, so long as I don’t consume any more bread for at least two or three days, I won’t be in any pain.
- On rest days, when I am not working out, I need to increase my water intake to have the same level of success.
- My body prefers routine, particularly with respect to my sleep schedule.
Plan, Plan, Plan
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Changing is easy. Maintaining changes, now that is another story. You see it all the time, someone comes out of the gate, ready to tackle the world. They’re going to get fit, start a new diet, spend more time with loved ones, or save more money. Everything seems to be on track, and then suddenly they hit a wall. The steam runs out. Most concede defeat and return to the status quo. They simply weren’t prepared for predictable barriers and obstacles.
Preparation might come in the form of:
- Packing lunches for the week every Sunday
- Scheduling fitness with a friend to make it more difficult to push back or blow off
- Drinking a glass of water with each meal
- Getting up an hour before everyone else to meditate while the house is silent
Planning should include preparing for moments when one is lacking willpower.
Traveling is always a test of my willpower. I’m in a car for long, sedentary stretches. And because I need to stay awake, and aware of my surroundings, I’m more likely to grab a coffee than a bottle of water. I typically struggle to sleep in strange places. And as lovely as traveling is, there may be stress involved in getting there, or in the amount of work that piled up while I was gone. I try to plan for all of these obstacles, but just in case, I bring MiraLAX packs.
If I fall (or jump) off the “FODMAP train”, I write it off as part of being human (with no guilt or judgement). I assume moving toward my goals will involve occasional slips, stalling out, and a setback now and then. These are not failures, or reasons to give up trying. They are inevitable and educational. How we handle setbacks determines our long-term success.
Although I understand that what will help those who suffer from IBS symptoms is unique to the individual, by utilizing the same processes and techniques, we can all find and implement what works best for us. I hope sharing my journey, knowledge, and insights will benefit others, if only by letting you know you’re not alone.