During IBS Awareness Month, IBS sufferer and the founder of Gut Vibes reveals the secret to letting the debilitating condition empower us
*This is a guest post.* April is IBS Awareness Month – an annual event during which organisations, charities and health professions work to raise awareness of the condition and to improve the quality of life for sufferers. To mark the occasion, the US-based founder of Gut Vibes, Tiffany Hardman, shares her inspirational IBS journey, how she learnt to let the condition empower her and how you can too.
When my doctor told me I had IBS, I felt my face flush. I tried in vain to get smaller on the examination table. Despite 10 years of living with abdominal pain, bloating, and irregular bowel movements, I’d never told anyone, other than my partner, about what I was experiencing until I plucked up the courage during that appointment two years ago. When my doctor recommended the low FODMAP diet, I knew I couldn’t hide anymore. I was mortified at the thought of telling everyone what was going on in my gut. Stressor: this is embarrassing and I don’t want people to know.
If you’re not familiar with the low FODMAP diet, it can be intimidating to navigate but, essentially, it’s an elimination diet developed by Monash University researchers that consists of 3 phases: Elimination, Reintroduction, and Personalisation. The low FODMAP diet aims to clear your system of FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols) which are a group of carbohydrates that are not completely absorbed or digested when they pass through our system and can trigger symptoms in people with IBS.
Like so many others before me, I was given a non-exhaustive list of foods and drinks I should avoid, but not much guidance for what I could actually eat. So many of the items “to avoid” were things I ate every day. Stressor: how am I going to revamp my diet?
I didn’t know this at the time, but this was exactly the wrong way to begin my journey to better understanding IBS and, ultimately, getting a handle on my symptoms. Stress can cause or exacerbate your symptoms thanks to the gut-brain axis. Studies show an estimated 40-60% of those with IBS also have a psychiatric disorder, such as anxiety or depression.
Stress and IBS
There is a constant stream of communication between your gut and your brain along the vagus nerve. Imagine you need to run away from a bear; your brain would send signals to your gut which would spring into action to help out. In this case, that means stopping digestion so that all your energy can go into running from the bear. Where things can go wrong is when worry about everyday activities, such as deadlines or financial insecurity, takes over. Your brain still sends those panic signals and your gut still responds in the only way it knows how. However, these daily stressors don’t require the same level of sacrifice from our gut, so that communication flow can cause serious problems.
Initially, my diagnosis caused me more stress and, therefore, more symptoms. Learning to not only accept my diagnosis but embrace all the clarity it brought me became one of the most important steps I took in symptom management. Here’s how it happened.
On the way home from that first appointment, I workshopped how I would explain this to my family, friends, and colleagues. I felt embarrassed and worried about what people would think. I was far more concerned about accommodating their needs than I was about my own.
I finally landed on a response I thought would be sufficient: “My doctor thinks I have a food intolerance, so I’m on a restrictive diet.” It was something I could repeat to anyone that asked, no matter our relationship.
The following week, at the office Thanksgiving party, I quietly ate a small lunch before the event. During the party, I ate only fruits and veggies, hoping that with so many people around my light fare might go unnoticed.
But, the next week was my birthday and when I didn’t eat the mini muffins my boss brought in… I was found out. “Have a muffin!” everyone urged. Despite my rehearsed response, I froze: “I… uh… can’t. I’m… watching what I eat.” This led to follow-up questions from all corners of the room.
I tried again: “My doctor thinks I have a food intolerance, so I’m on a restrictive diet.” I felt my face flush. Despite overwhelming me with more questions, my colleagues were genuinely concerned. I shared some of my symptoms, but tried to maintain professionalism by just saying I experienced “digestive discomfort” and “stomach pain.”
I tried to dismiss their concerns while still fielding some of their questions and maintaining privacy. “No, it’s not a trendy diet. It’s called the low FODMAP diet. It’s complicated, but I’m avoiding a bunch of foods for a month to see how I feel. I’m only a week in, but I’ve already noticed a huge improvement,” I explained.
Throughout my elimination phase (late November 2019 to early January 2020), I had a version of this conversation at every holiday gathering I attended, every meeting, every lunch with a friend and every family dinner. I was embarrassed every time I tried to explain it and I was exhausted from trying to play it cool.
With each explanation, I was completely shocked to find that people didn’t respond with disgust as I thought they might. They didn’t seem to regret asking their questions. Slowly and, at first, with only certain audiences, I started to say: “My doctor thinks I have IBS, so I’m on a restrictive diet to see if it helps manage my symptoms.” This tiny voice in my head was telling me how disgusting I was, but I wasn’t seeing that reflected back at me in the faces of my peers. They were supportive and understanding. They were curious. They even admired how committed I was to taking control of my health.
Own Your Experience
At some point, I stopped trying to melt into the wall when people asked questions. I learned to stand tall and speak my truth. When I’m in a meeting but need a snack to avoid feeling sick, I no longer feel embarrassed to pull out a container of grapes to munch. I used to think it might seem unprofessional or that I would come off as unfocused, but then I realised that this was no different from someone needing to put on glasses to see the screen or asking for someone to speak up so they can hear. I wasn’t ashamed that I needed to make changes to help myself, I was ashamed about why. Once I realised the toll that was taking on me, I decided to think of IBS as just a better way to understand my needs.
IBS is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s estimated that about 15% of adults worldwide have IBS, though not all are diagnosed. It’s a chronic condition with no cure; a collection of symptoms; a non-testable, non-trackable disease. Knowing what to call the discomfort I’ve felt for the last decade gave me a new sense of self. IBS isn’t all that I am, but it has helped me understand myself better.
That understanding has empowered me to say with full confidence, “I have IBS” and to make the decisions that are right for me and my gut.
After years of dealing with uncomfortable symptoms, I finally decided to do something about it. I took a huge step toward improving my health and I conquered uncomfortable conversations over and over again in the process.
Tips to Embrace Your IBS
Together we can normalise IBS and lift each other out of the shame and stress spiral it can be so easy to get lost in when you live with a stigmatised condition. We have the power to collectively change the narrative. Here are my top tips for embracing your IBS.
- Practice speaking your truth (no matter how much or little you want to share). You can use some of the phrases below that I’ve found helpful but play around with your own voice as you gain more confidence.
– “My doctor thinks I have IBS, so I’m on a restrictive diet to see if it helps manage my symptoms.”
– “I have IBS and this is what makes my gut happy.”
– “I’m having a flare-up, so I’m eating gentle foods right now.”
- Breathe: triggering your central nervous system with worry or embarrassment isn’t helpful, take a deep breath to calm yourself before you share if you find it stressful.
- Start small by choosing just a single close friend or family member to be your confidante.
- Don’t be afraid to make your needs known and answer questions, but don’t feel pressured to talk about more than you’re comfortable with. This is your story.
- Acknowledge this accomplishment! No matter what symptom management technique(s) you practice, you are making huge life changes and having conversations that aren’t always comfortable. You are actively taking steps to improve your health, happiness and quality of life. You should be proud!
Normalising IBS is good on an individual level because it can positively impact your self-esteem, which can decrease stress/anxiety and improve symptom management, but it can also help everyone who suffers by spreading awareness to change stigma. Let people in on your truth while still telling your story on your terms. Let your IBS empower you.
After battling uncomfortable symptoms and being diagnosed with IBS, Tiffany Hardman founded gut-vibes.com to help people with chronic gut problems learn to listen to their bodies and manage their symptoms. “It’s time to work with your gut, not against it.” Check out her blog for inspiring content and gut vibes and find her on Insta too: @goodgutvibes.
Have you enjoyed reading Tiffany’s story? Do you have any tips for coping with IBS? Get in touch.
The Gut Choice advise consulting a medical professional or dietitian if you think you may have IBS or before taking medication or making any alterations to your diet.