I’ve struggled with IBS for over 20 years. IBS was the first condition that became a chronic issue for me. And, it’s the one condition I’ve continued to struggle with since it first hit me in my early 20’s. Although, at the time I didn’t realize what I was dealing with. After over 20 years with IBS, I feel I’ve finally gotten the symptoms of IBS under control.
IBS: The Beginning
IBS first became an issue for me in my early 20’s when I took my first desk job. I went from a basic retail job that kept me busy and caused me little to no stress, to a desk job where I spent most of my days fighting boredom. A couple of months after starting this job I began having stomach problems. Eating almost anything would result in an upset stomach. Soon, my diet became little more than wheat thins and grilled chicken. When I began losing weight it was time to see a doctor.
I’d spent very little time with doctors up to that point. Growing up, we didn’t have health insurance and this was the first time in my life that I did have health insurance. My then husband encouraged me to see a doctor so I did. I don’t recall if I saw a specialist or if I just saw a general practitioner at that point. I had very little experience with doctors. The doctor ran several tests. Looking back I feel that there were many basic tests missing, but at the time I had no idea what tests to expect and just trusted that the doctor did his due diligence. The tests found nothing and the doctor asked me if I wasn’t possibly stressed out, implying that this was a stress-based issue and nothing more.
I didn’t think I was stressed out. Why would I be. I had a boring office job where I sat and surfed the internet most of the day. I was bored, I wasn’t stressed. Or, was I?
The more I thought about it the more I realized that I was stressed. I was stressed about working a job that I felt was a waste of my time. Sure, I got paid to do nothing, but what’s the point of that. I wasn’t learning or growing. I wasn’t busy. I was bored. Evidently, boredom for me is a cause of stress. Soon after that last doctor visit I found out that a management position at my old employer was coming available, and I took the opportunity to leave my boring desk job and return to an employer that I enjoyed. My digestive symptoms disappeared almost immediately.
Chronic IBS is chronic
I don’t recall at what point the chronic IBS symptoms started. Looking back I don’t recall ever having regular daily bowel movements. But, I know that shortly into my second marriage, around the same time many other physical issues arose, I began having more and more bowel issues. Not only was I not having regular daily movements, but I seemed to cycle between constipation and diarrhea. I might go days with no movements at all, then days, weeks, or even months where every movement was soft to the point of being practically liquid.
I saw several GI doctors over the years. After my gallbladder was removed the issues seemed to only get worse. Again, after fibromyalgia entered the picture.
I remember seeing a new GI doctor about two years into fibromyalgia. It was at the point when I was just beginning to ask the question of whether my diet might play a role in the symptoms I was experiencing (both digestive and fibromyalgia related). The GI doctor flat out told me that food didn’t affect your gut. What?!!
Thankfully, I followed my gut and instead of listening to him I did two things. 1. I sought out food sensitivity testing and 2. I found a new GI doctor.
The food sensitivity tests showed mild sensitivities to a handful of foods. I opted to remove those foods to see what would happen and found that some of my symptoms (specifically related to fibromyalgia) almost disappeared. My energy returned, my pain levels dropped and I could function again. However, I continued to struggle with digestive issues and with sleep.
My new GI doctor was great. He checked everything to make sure that there were no functional reasons for the issues I dealt with. He listened (and continues to) and works with me on any treatment or even testing protocols. I always feel like part of the team. And, over several years he ran about every test possible on my digestive system. We found little.
That said, he was the first doctor to suggest that some of the abdominal pain I was struggling with might be endometriosis (he was right). He’s also suggested other outside the GI box things like hormone treatments. When I’ve encountered potential treatments I have always been able to discuss them openly with him. So, when I was approached by Visbiome several years back to try their high-potency probiotic I asked him about it before doing so. His response was that there isn’t enough data to say that one probiotic is better than another. I’d been taking probiotics for years. It wouldn’t hurt to try this new one and see what happens.
So, I tried the Visbiome probiotics expecting that they would work about as well as any other probiotic. I’d taken a handful of different ones in the preceding years and while I felt they helped enough to continue taking them, they didn’t really put a huge dent in the IBS symptoms I experienced.
Visbiome was different. Within a week of starting the product I found that I was having regular bowel movements (both daily and in form). Things finally seemed to be moving correctly. The longer I’ve taken it the more benefits I’ve seen. It’s now almost five years later and I’m still taking Visbiome regularly. And, I can tell if I miss more than a dose (as sometimes happens when one medication lives away from the others (most probiotics need to be kept refrigerated).
These days I rarely have stomach problems, or irritable bowel. But, that’s not to say that I never do. What I’ve learned is that, as was the case with that first experience of digestive distress, STRESS is a key player in my stomach. I’ve had a few incidents since taking Visbiome where my stress load increased to the point that I felt it in my stomach. I’ve found that I will notice a change in my bowel habits when that happens, but it’s much less than it used to be.
The role of stress in IBS
So many times in the last few years I’ve been reminded of that first experience with IBS. I’ve learned that my stomach is usually the first place I feel stress. It might just be those butterflies that we all feel from time to time. But, if that stress is not dealt with, it grows and grows and the butterflies turn into nausea, a lack of appetite, and increased IBS symptoms.
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction helps some. The focus of MBSR is on staying in the present moment. Often when we are stressed or anxious it is because we allow a past or future moment to dominate our mind and heart. Since taking the 9-wk course in MBSR back in 2017 I’ve continued to use it when I feel my stress rising. MBSR allows me to remove myself from the stress, so that I can work towards understanding the source of it.
Too often, I feel the symptoms of stress before I understand the cause of the stress. In other words, that upset stomach and butterfly feeling is the first sign that I’m stressed. Before I would feel those physical symptoms and get stuck in a loop, becoming anxious and trying to solve the symptoms, creating more anxiety and stress. MBSR has allowed me to learn to identify those first signs of stress and take the time needed to find the source of the stress, rather than getting stuck in that loop.
MBSR doesn’t make stress go away. It just allows you to focus away from the stress so that you can allow your mind to meet your heart and understand why you are stressed and work towards a solution. So, when those butterflies appear I have learned to stop and take time to meditate rather than getting focused on the physical sensation, and potentially falling into a stress/anxiety loop. Over time, mindfulness and meditation can help change how you perceive stress, allowing you to manage it and cope with it better.
If you’re curious, there have been several studies regarding the potential use of MBSR as a treatment for IBS, and the link between IBS and stress. Here are just a few links for you:
- Reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and irritable bowel syndrome following mindfulness-based stress reduction among veterans
- Perceived stress in patients with common gastrointestinal disorders: associations with quality of life, symptoms and disease management
- Mindfulness‐based stress reduction improves irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms via specific aspects of mindfulness
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as Adjunctive Therapy in Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- The effect of emotional stress and depression on the prevalence of digestive diseases
I really do feel that both MBSR and Visbiome have played major roles in controlling my IBS symptoms. IBS is really no longer a major issue for me. It is one more symptom I’ve managed to check off my list as “under control.” It’s still a chronic condition and it’s still there lying in wait should I falter from the treatments I’ve found to control it. But, it is under control and has not really bothered me in several years.
- 6 steps for coping with stress and improving your Fibromyalgia symptoms
- The Overlap between IBS and Fibromyalgia
- 4 Ways I Reduce Stress and Anxiety
- 7 Things to stop doing if you want to decrease stress