This is something I’ve been dreading writing. Not just because it’s embarrassing to talk about poop and all the other fun stuff that years of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) involves, but because when I think about how it affected my life in the past, I realize it’s been a really emotional thing for me and was impacting parts of my life that I didn’t even realize at the time, or just accepted as part of what it was like to be me. Not until I started feeling so much better recently did I realize how much I really struggled with this.
I have to do the story in 2 parts, because it’s a long one that begins before I can remember. I’ll try to keep it as uncomplicated as possible and just stick with what can hopefully provide valuable information for people, or experiences that others may be able to relate to. Since I’ve never really talked about my IBS with anyone in real detail and certainly not in timeline form, it might get a little messy, no pun intended.
I also want to preface the story by telling you that the only diagnosis I have ever received from a medical doctor is “IBS” and “lactose intolerance” and because I’m feeling so much better after changing my diet, I am choosing not to go through any medical testing for celiac, gluten intolerance, or anything else. There may in fact have been other things I was dealing with in addition to IBS but I’m going with this diagnosis since it’s the only “official” one.
One of my first food memories is eating cheerios and “twig” cereal with apple juice in it. Can you see why this might have made an impact? My mom reports that at some point when I was a baby I developed persistent diarrhea, and my pediatrician diagnosed it as lactose intolerance and told my mom to stop giving me dairy, and to use lactase enzyme drops if I was going to have it. I remember being 2 or 3 and my mom telling me milk bothered my tummy and also that my dad had the same problem. I don’t remember having stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhea until I was older. By the time I was about 5 or 6 I could swallow the lactaid pills myself, and took them whenever I was going to eat any dairy, like pizza or ice cream.
When I was 6 or 7 I also started getting heartburn and reflux, bad enough that it would wake me up at night. My parents took me to a GI specialist who did a basic exam and said everything looked fine and that I should avoid apples and other fruits with a high sugar and acid content. Apples were my favorite but I remember avoiding them entirely, and also elevating my mattress to help the reflux. It definitely improved enough where it didn’t wake me up anymore.
In elementary school once I became more social I remember being worried about my stomach while on playdates and sleepovers. I always brought lactaid pills with me in case dairy was served (I don’t think food intolerances were talked about back then like they are today) and Immodium in case of diarrhea. Sometimes I would notice that my stomach was okay for a period of time and sometimes I would alternate constipation and diarrhea on and off for a period of time. In middle school my diet got pretty unhealthy with even more processed foods, fast food, candy, iced tea, and general “junk” food and I started getting really unpleasant episodes that eventually became a family joke (we’re strange, yes) with a term coined “explosive diarrhea.” As much as my family joked about this (my dad and sister were familiar with it too) it was terrible. An episode for me would start usually after I ate something – but nothing specifically junky necessarily and certainly not just dairy – and would begin with gripping pain all around my abdomen and back that would progress in intensity to stabbing, doubled over pain, followed by extreme urgency and finally, the explosive diarrhea. I might go 3-5 times before it was done with, and afterwards I’d feel nauseous, achy all over especially in my stomach, back and legs, and would stay that way for the rest of the day. I remember telling doctors about this and also telling them I was lactose intolerant and it was mainly disregarded. I also know that I wasn’t giving all the details, and, because this would only happen maybe twice a month randomly, it was easy enough to ignore.
Through middle school I also developed regular sinus pain and congestion and I’m not sure if any of it is related but I have a feeling it might be, since those symptoms have disappeared since eating Paleo as well. Since I never knew when an “episode” would strike I carried Imodium with me everywhere including school and friends houses. If my stomach felt off I would take it right away just to hopefully prevent bad things from happening. I eventually realized it wasn’t helping to do that because I would become constipated and then get terrible cramping and diarrhea once I didn’t take it. At that age my goal was just to avoid embarrassment so if it happened at home, that was okay with me.
In 10th grade I was learning about healthful eating in health class and decided to change the things I was eating to include more whole grains, veggies, fruit, etc. I immediately started getting terrible NEW symptoms – bloating and bad gas along with severe constipation. I definitely told my parents and my dad gave me fiber supplements and that just made things even worse. I don’t have clear memories of how those symptoms progressed but I became obsessed with how everything I ate affected my stomach. It was really psychologically unhealthy and I always felt frustrated and angry with myself for not understanding how and what to eat to make it better.
I was very self-critical and remember feeling “different” because none of my friends seemed to have any of the same problems as I did (of course I was 16 so I would’ve felt this way anyway probably.) It became a great source of shame for me which was another reason I tried to avoid talking about it and tried to deny it was a problem. On the weekends when I would eat junkier food like pizza, fries, whatever, I would have episodes in addition to the bloating, constipation and gas when I tried to eat healthy. There were a few times I remember desperately calling my dad to pick me up from my boyfriend’s house because I had to use the bathroom. That was just a little traumatic!!
The same symptoms continued on pretty regularly for the rest of high school and became worse in college, most likely due to the inclusion of alcohol in my diet as well as tons of diet soda. I also developed increasingly painful headaches that came on randomly as well. I remember calling my parents a couple of times because of bloody diarrhea, not sure what to do. I never saw a doctor for it and my dad, having dealt with all the same things himself, would assure me it was just an annoyance. I can’t blame him because I think he had given up on trying to figure out what the problem was for himself and accepted the symptoms. All the research I did on my symptoms pointed me in the direction of eating several small meals a day, low in fat, high in fiber which meant a lot of whole grains, fruits and veggies.
Through college and after college, during the week I ate a lot of whole grain cereal, whole grain bread with peanut butter and jelly, apples, pears, broccoli, TONS of Kashi products (I still miss them!) Lean Cuisine or other microwave meals, skim milk (I was unconvinced that lactose intolerance was my only problem) and diet soda and the weekends consisted of junk food and alcohol.
My problems went in a cycle: episode on Sunday, increasingly gassy and bloated Mon-Thurs, episode on Thursday, partying Thurs night – Sat night. I felt like my diet during the week was working for me, despite the terrible gas, because it was preventing constipation which I thought led to the diarrhea since it seemed that they alternated.
I had a million ways of being in denial that I had a problem that might have a solution. I had been told to “play with my diet” after telling doctors about some of these “annoyances” and I was just sick of it all and settled for what it was, which was “predictably painful.” I remember avoiding social situations if I knew my stomach would probably act up and I avoided exercising at a gym in favor of home workout videos because any type of exercise could bring on symptoms. Remember, I was not even close to being a runner yet!
To be continued in part 2 tomorrow! Part 2 will follow me through my pregnancies (rough times!) and running, right up to the point I’m at now.
Have you ever struggled with persistent and mysterious gastrointestinal issues?