Be cool with your stool: how to talk about your symptoms
Vicky, over at The Flourishing Pantry has kindly written this fantastic blog post to help us all be about more at ease when talking about our digestive symptoms with others. It’s something I can take advise from as well. I’m not so bad at talking about it on social media, but seem to have difficulty discussing it in social situations.
Over to you Vicky…
DISCLAIMER: Title borrowed from nutritional therapist Eve Kalinik, it’s just too brilliant not to use!
I often refer to the IBS symptoms that I suffer from in my blog posts. But until now I have struggled to find the right vocab for… you know… the old bowel movements department.
As a healthy eating food blog I want to inspire people to cook and share recipes and think about delicious ingredients and homemade meals to put on the table. I don’t really want you all thinking about what those meals are going to look and feel like when they come out the other end!
But on the flip side that is kind of why I’m writing my blog and I know why Sarah writes hers too. And perhaps it’s why you’re here reading this.
Everyone eats, everyone digests their food and everyone poos (there, I said it!). But how often and how easily this all happens varies enormously. And for people with food intolerances, these unavoidable parts of life can become quite a big deal and sadly sometimes are stressful and uncomfortable.
So, in a bid to find the right words to encompass everything I went through, here is me describing the symptoms which prompted me to change my diet.
Sometimes I could go weeks, if not months, with no bloating at all.
And then, seemingly randomly, I could get a day or sometimes several days in a week or month with unbearable bloating.
The bloating would feel a bit like someone had pumped up my intestines. Gradually my belly would become distended and I sometimes had to loosen belts or undo trousers to try and get more comfortable. This was super embarrassing when it happened in restaurants or when I was a guest at people’s houses and I had to hide it under the table.
Sometimes the bloating was so painful I struggled to stand up straight or walk. If I stood I would have to lean against my desk or hold myself up on things to try and find some way of easing the pressure.
Rather than standing all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and rub my bloated tum. I would go to the toilet repeatedly, hoping that it would pass out of me and I could go back to normal.
Only after a few hours would this subside. I tried peppermint oil, recommended by the doctor, but all I found it did was give me minty burps. Not helpful. The only other solution the doctor offered was prescription tablets Mebeverine which did ease the bloat. But I didn’t want to be reliant on medication.
This was the worst for me.
After some meals within 40 mins to an hour I would need the toilet. And I mean really need the toilet. Nasty, uncontrollable diarrhoea as your body violently tries to eject whatever it is you’ve just consumed.
I don’t need to go into too much of the minutiae as it’s happened to all of us I’m sure. The worst for me was after a delicious and rich lunch with my family for my 30th birthday. After three courses and wine we headed home, stuffed with great food and looking forward to getting onto the sofa and opening some presents.
But I could tell within 20 minutes of leaving the restaurant I was going to be in trouble. Bubbling away inside me I knew I had turned into a ticking time bomb. By the time we were stood waiting for a bus I got to make-or-break point. I quickly explained to my boyfriend what was happening and then bolted for the nearest restaurant to duck into their toilet.
This happened on a number of occasions over the years. Sometimes I was somewhere ‘safe’ with a toilet nearby. But other times I was out and the problem was much more evident and embarrassing to people I was with. Travelling a lot with work meant I was terrified this would happen when I was overseas, with sometimes no toilet nearby.
So this is why I got to “enough is enough.” My family, horrified to see first-hand the extreme reactions I could have to food at my birthday meal, bought me my food intolerance test for Christmas (more about that on a recent blog post here). And really I’ve not looked back. With the food I now reduce in my diet I feel much more in control knowing what I am eating that will have these kinds of effects.
This is the moment I read back over the gory details I’ve just written and hope my boss and colleagues aren’t reading this! But actually reading a piece recently on irritablebowelsyndrome.net made me think again: why are we so afraid to talk about IBS? Why are we comfortable to tell people we had a bout of the flu but not about our bloating?
Here’s a quote from the article:
“Talking about poop, gas, bloating and pain may cause embarrassment but it may also cause a positive ripple effect. Many people may have IBS and not even know it because they think that their symptoms are normal. The more IBS is talked about, the more people can understand their own bodies and what is considered normal and when someone should be seeking help.”
So that all sounds great right? Hooray! Let’s all start talking about IBS more and it will become normal!
The problem I have with talking about IBS though is that it’s still very much an unknown entity. The NHS Choices website states “the causes of IBS are still unknown” and that’s what makes it difficult to talk about.
If I was a coeliac or had a peanut allergy I could tell people “I’m allergic to that – that ingredient will make me ill / kill me.” That’s clear cut.
But IBS isn’t. And because everyone’s gut is so different (current science tells us “people probably have somewhere between 30-50 TRILLION bacteria in and on their body”) it’s never as simple as “I can’t eat that.” Some days I react, others I don’t. Maybe one day I’ll have a slice of cake and be fine, others I’m running for the toilet.
For me I’ve found this inconsistency is what makes it so difficult to talk about. I think people are probably judging me, though I am almost definitely overthinking it: “well last week she was fine to eat a slice of toast, what changed?” “I think she’s just being fussy,” “I think it’s all in her head.”
As trendy as gut health has become in recent months, for the general public IBS is also still very mixed up with other confused messages like gluten free and what is “clean”, “healthy” and “good for you.” When I started to tell my mum about my change in diet she bought loads of gluten free products from the free-from aisle. It was a really kind gesture, but she didn’t realise that lots of those products often still have other trigger ingredients in them.
I definitely think it’s important that people who have IBS talk about their experience, particularly if it’s going to help others who have felt unable to share or have suffered in silence. But it needs to be done carefully and to the right audience.
So whilst I am not a perfect example of how to do it, here are four tips I would keep in mind when talking about your IBS:
- Be clear with your message.
Like everyone tells you for your career – have a “lift / elevator pitch.” Find a really succinct way of summing up your IBS and diet choices in a way that’s easy to understand. Then if you find yourself in a situation where you do want / have to share, you can do it as neatly as possible.
- Your bowel problems are not a reflection of you as a person.
Remember having IBS doesn’t make you weak or pathetic – in fact quite the opposite. You’re taking control of your symptoms and making changes rather than putting up with them. Most people will listen and be supportive.
- You know what’s right for you. No-one else.
If you do encounter negativity (though I really hope that’s rare!) then just remember, you are in your body, not them. You know what you experience on a daily basis and what works and doesn’t work for you. Don’t let anyone else’s misconceptions muddle you.
- Know where to direct people for more information
If you do encounter curiosity or even a potential fellow IBS sufferer, have a little set of articles or experts to direct them to. Qualified dietitians and nutritionists would be top choices and would get someone off to a good start on their own journey. As well as of course recommending they see a GP in the first instance.
Some other bits to read: