Food is foundational to our lives. What do we do when our food is causing us problems? With my irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), I was always trying to follow my diet and figure out what was triggering my symptoms. The thing was, I wasn’t like others and that was one of the bottlenecks that was keeping me stuck. Also the fact that I had to stay on a specific diet, which as you know is very difficult when you’re in pain and just want to eat your comfort food. From clinical practice and personal experience this is what I found to be the best way to modify your food choices when you are living with IBS.
Food as a Fixation when you have IBS
I know I know, I too was super obsessed with my diet. I definitely googled it a variety of times, ‘what should I eat, what should I do?’
When you wake up in the morning with a flat stomach, put something in your mouth and BOOM!, you are 4 months pregnant, this does not make for a happy life. It’s proven that the quality of life for people dealing with irritable bowel syndrome is truly in the gutter1.
Food – Your Irritable Bowel Syndrome Friend
Food should be our friend. It is supposed to nourish us, help us live well, and give us life. We get protein, fats and carbohydrates from our foods. These give us the building blocks to create the communication messengers of our bodies, like hormones, neurotransmitters, digestive enzymes and immune messengers. These are all created from the proteins, fats and carbohydrates that we ingest. Food is a messenger and it commands and tells our body what to do.
How Communication Works in the Gut
The gut is so genius, that it can function completely on its own if it needed to. It has its own nervous system known as the enteric nervous system that responds to stimulus, like the food you are eating and pressure from volume of the food. It understands the messages because it has endocrine receptors2, yes that’s right, endocrine is another word for HORMONES. These receptors take in the stimulus from what you are eating to help you go about your day in a healthy way.
The only problem is in irritable bowel syndrome, there is likely an issue with these receptors not working so well and this causes issues.
Why Food Irritates your Irritable Bowel Syndrome
If you’ve been dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, you are one of the 14-20% of the world’s population that may blame it on the following foods:
- Spicy Foods
- Milk and Dairy Products
- Wheat and Gluten Products
- Meats (but not all meats)
- Cabbage and Cruciferous Vegetables
- Onion Family Vegetables
- Peas and Beans
- Fried Foods
- Smoked Food
This is just to name a few. But there has been some kind of correlation to food3.
Why should Food be One of the First Things you Address in IBS?
Believe it or not, food is a strong messenger. It commands what our body should and shouldn’t do. It also provides antioxidants, nutrients and everything that we need to have our system working well and being protected. When you’re dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, part of how you’re feeling, (the fatigue, the stress) is because your body isn’t being nourished properly. You are feeling the backlash of that.
Food – Your Irritable Bowel Syndrome Foe
As much as food is the ultimate giver of life, it is also the ultimate stressor. If there are foods that you don’t do well with, then instead of giving you life they take it away. They are like a poison. If you haven’t been able to figure out what your aggravators and irritants are, I hope that in this blog you’ll get a good idea of your next steps.
Why your IBS Food Triggers Might be Different than what they Say in the Studies
Your food foe is unique to you. In tummy trials, there is a significant different between scientific validity for foods that cause problems and the patient’s lived experience4. Which means that patients seem to experience food triggers differently than what it says in the studies. I know that for me this was absolutely the truth.
Gluten and Wheat Products Weren’t my Problems? What???!!
Gluten and wheat weren’t my triggers. Ironically, a food that was being highly recommended at the time for cleansing and healthy diets was rice. However, for me being of Spanish origin and genetic background, the over consumption of rice in my family throughout my life had created a sensitivity in my body. I had been over exposed to this “health” food and because of this it was a food foe and not a food friend.
Wheat, on the other hand, the villain of all diets, was well tolerated and I could eat it without experiencing symptoms.
So How Do you Know what your Food Triggers Are?
There are a few ways to figure this out. They include diet diaries, elimination diets or testing of food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances.
It’s incredible that 70% of irritable bowel syndrome patients correlate their symptoms to foods5. Ironically, the most common foods that people avoid, which may be the case for you, are the likely the villains of wheat, dairy, citrus fruit, caffeine and alcohol. But removing these often show little to no improvement or change6.
Do Diet Diaries Work?
Food elimination diets and diet diaries are actually the gold standard to help figure out what foods may be bothering your system. The biggest problem is that they are super hard to follow through on. I have seen this time and time again in clinical practice and in all honesty in myself as well. I attempt to do it, Because it makes sense to do it, but you lose track, you get confused, and you’re unsure what caused what and then it’s just frustrating and a total disaster. Been there, done that, saw too many patients do it too. Plus it’s supported by the literature that it is an ineffective way to do things.
Why? Because you are not a scientist, and you can’t do a scientifically rigorous experiment to actually get it right. Plus there are too many uncertainties in life and this is what the research discloses7. Touché, I’m a doctor and neither can I. I’m human, just like you. So why guess? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve counselled patients to invest in knowing.
This is why for me, when it came to food, I opted to get food sensitivity and allergy testing done. Intolerances you know because it is pretty immediate. Let’s find out the difference and why it’s important to know.
The Difference Between Food Allergies, Food Sensitivities and Food Intolerances
I commonly notice that my patients and I (until I learned better, which took time) really don’t have a solid understanding of the differences between food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances.
What does this have to do with IBS? Well, everything. You see, because food is affecting us in a certain way, the reaction could be immediate, within 72 hours. Or maybe the reaction is so far removed from your gut you don’t even know that you have a problem with it. So we need to figure out the mechanism of action to help improve what is happening.
Food Allergies and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
These typically react immediately. I always explain it as being just like a peanut allergy. These are common in children these days, they can get exposure by touch, air and through food, depending on how sensitive you are to them. Then BOOM, throat closes, hives appear, swelling all around the face, eyes and throat.
This is an outright medical emergency, requiring immediate epinephrine and a trip to the hospital. To a lesser degree, these allergies could manifest within 24 hours with mild to moderate swelling and are less worrisome. Food allergy is commonly tested by the skin scratch test. It is an IgE mediated reaction8.
Food Sensitivities and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
This is my jam, I love food sensitivity testing! I was sick and struggling with food for a long time and this testing was my saving grace. I had visited countless naturopaths and doctors and no one had tested me. I spent thousands, not hundreds, of dollars on supplements and treatments and none were working because I wasn’t doing my due diligence. I was eliminating what everyone else was sensitive to.
However, sensitivities are extremely personal. They have to do with exposure over time as well as cultural and genetic factors. It’s very hard to deduce them until you see them on paper.
Healthy Foods can be Sensitivities
As I mentioned above, rice was my villain, yet it was what I was consuming daily. It’s funny when things are brought to light and they make a lot of sense. I’m Spanish, so rice is a staple in the cultural dishes, such as paella. Needless to say I’m confident that my entire life I likely ate rice with most of my meals, including refried at breakfast. Oy! So when I finally asked a naturopathic doctor that I was shadowing to test me, it all made perfect sense. I was doing these cleansing diets, all laden with rice and feeling like my world was ending. I thought I was never ever going to beat IBS or get better, only worse.
So to prevent this, in my practice I HIGHLY RECOMMEND all my patients get this testing, especially those with IBS. It not only serves to demonstrate overexposure and your immune system’s overreaction to foods (as it tests IgG) but if those foods are eliminated as compared to not, symptoms in IBS can improve9.
Sensitivities are REALLY hard to pinpoint. Very difficult because they are sneaky. They don’t always create symptoms in your gut, they can show up on your skin as eczema or rashes, in your mind as depression or anxiety, or manifest as fatigue or hormone and metabolic derangement. They can create low grade chronic inflammation and directly affect your guts as well with symptoms of loose stools, constipation, nausea and even vomiting.
The biggest issue is that the reaction can manifest up to 72 hours after eating a food, which you can imagine makes it quite difficult to deduce which food could be your personal villain.
Is Food Sensitivity Testing Valid?
Many critics of food sensitivity testing argue its validity10. They say that yes, you can measure your body’s reaction to these sensitivities, but they discuss that an IgG response for food sensitivities is a naturally occuring phenomena and over time creates tolerance and desensitization11 12.
The way I look at it is this, you can be tolerant to something, but that sure doesn’t mean that you are happy with it or that it isn’t doing you any harm. So if you’re tolerant with your husband who is cheating on you, or coworker that is constantly putting you down, or your mother in law that criticizes your every move, is this not causing some level of stress in your system? I do believe so.
Food Sensitivity Testing in Irritable Bowel Syndrome
With irritable bowel syndrome being so complicated and multifactorial, it’s important to reduce and remove as many things as possible so that you can find out what is causing your system stress. Otherwise you’re just gangbusters and in the wild west of craziness.
Your ability to manage stress is like a fine glass of wine, you can fill it up only so much. If you keep on adding wine (or adding stress), guess what? It is going to overflow into a whole bunch of other systems and your gut is the one that feels it the most, as we clearly know the link between stress and irritable bowel syndrome13.
I believe that the validity of critics or those that take food sensitivities as the end all be all of your treatment may be what is causing this uncomfortable reputation for food sensitivities. But I urge you to look at the whole picture, and food sensitivities are part of YOUR picture and your reaction to food.
If you’re interested in having testing done, click here to see a lab I work with.
Do you Have to Retest your Food Sensitivities?
Oh and by the way, everyone thinks that you test this once in your life and never again. This is not the case at all. As with all testing, It’s not perfect. It’s not a one time thing either. You will need to retest, usually in about 1-2 years. If you have been avoiding those foods that marked from medium to high immune reactivity, my experience and others14 has been that it will help a great deal.
Please note that this is not a replacement test for IgE or food allergy testing. If you suspect that you or your child may have severe, life threatening allergies, please always make sure to consult your doctor for all your health care needs.
Food Intolerance and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
As compared to food allergies and food sensitivities, food intolerances tend to be a breeze to deal with. As both food allergies and sensitivities are mediated by your immune system and based more specifically on a reaction to protein in your foods, food Intolerances are an inability to absorb carbohydrates. As an example, lactose intolerance is when your body is missing the ability to digest the carbohydrate lactose, found in milk15. You are more than likely familiar with dairy intolerance.
Fructose intolerance is also common. The popular Fodmaps diet, which up to now has shown evidence of improvement in short term for irritable bowel syndrome16, is based on an intolerance or avoidance of carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that aggravate digestive symptoms.
The issue with intolerance is if it can’t be broken down and absorbed, then it stays in the intestine and becomes fermented by bacteria and yeasts as a source of food. What should be feeding you, feeds the dysbiosis in your intestine. This is a major aggravating factor for pain and bloating in irritable bowel syndrome.
Where to Go From Here? What Would be the Best Strategy to Take?
The number one strategy that is the most important is to try reducing as much stress as possible that is occurring in your gut and in your life.
1. Skip Breakfast! Intermittent Fasting
Yes, that’s right! Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. In fact for those with irritable bowel syndrome, since they already have a high level of cortisol in the a.m., higher than healthy subjects, it could be very beneficial to fast. This is a practice known as intermittent fasting and a staple in my clinical practice and personally.
Firstly, skipping breakfast avoids many common supposed irritants of the digestive tract because most breakfasts are a combination of dairy/wheat/egg.
With intermittent fasting you eat less times per day, and only eat within an 8 hour period. Eating less frequently equals less reactivity when you do eat. So this is one way to reduce the irritation on the gut mucosal membrane.
2. Drink Green Tea Instead of Coffee
During the morning fasting period, it’s ideal if you ditch your coffee. Coffee promotes the stress response, which is a no-no for those with irritable bowel syndrome. Switch it for green tea! Green tea heals the gut lining, improves the microbiome and stimulates you like a coffee, but relaxes you at the same time, negating the cortisol spike that may occur.
3. Castor oil Packs For Stress Reduction, Absorption, Reduced Inflammation and Better Bowel Movements
This practices not only calms the nervous system so that you can heal17 18, but also helps with reduction of inflammation19 in the intestine. Castor oil packs help with improving your microbiome20 and regulation of your bowels21, so if anything is irritating them, it helps them to come out. More importantly, it helps to improve how you digest and absorb. In terms of food, this helps to reduce the irritability of the foods you may be eating that can affect you negatively.
Buy your castor oil pack here.
4. Fix your Sleep Patterns
Your natural rhythm is extremely important to your healing and to the health of your gut. My first prescription is to get your body to produce its own factors for sleep. It’s so easy to do. Wear an eye mask to bed that support an increase in melatonin22 in the body and better hormonal, immune and nervous system balance. Castor oil packs help to also promote great sleep so get into a pattern of putting your pack and eye mask on before bed.
Buy your Beauty Sleep Eye Kit here.
4. Start Investigating Diets Beneficial for IBS
Fodmaps, my Dysbiotic Diet (otherwise known as the Fermentation-Free Diet and Bloat Be Gone Diet) are all excellent ways to address your food dilemma. I would personally investigate what you feel would be best for you. Each of these work significantly better if you know what you are allergic, sensitive and intolerant to because then you can pick that which is suited best to you. Later on you can get into other more specific diets, after you have your food sensitivities tested.
To access this testing, click here.
5. Before You Eat, Be Grateful
Be grateful, like saying grace. Use our grateful dung bracelet as a way to learn how to relax before you eat. Just relaxing your system and having a calm body before you accept food will significantly improve your digestion and the amount of stress that food causes to your body.
Get your Grateful Dung Bracelet here.
6. Find Out what your Poo Says About you
Download the first step to understanding the weaknesses in your body, the 50 Shades of Poo. Getting to know how to analyze our stools for signs of nutrient deficiencies, digestive issues and hormonal imbalances is one of the easiest ways to figure out what’s going on inside our bodies.
Keep on following me and reading my blogs. Follow the links above to get more in tune with what is occuring in your body. I promise to continue helping you on your journey to regain your life, free from an irritable bowel, indigestion and problems going to the bathroom!
Let’s start a movement so together we can all have an improvement.
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