What is IBS?

Heather Carrera, MS, Functional Nutritionist with Lesley James, MD.

Everyone’s IBS story looks a little different, but curiously, when we compare our experiences, there are common threads that look very familiar to anyone who has been told they have IBS, and is still struggling today with how to live with it. Here is my personal story.

Other than a diagnosis of lactose intolerance in high school, my digestive symptoms remained somewhat subdued until college. But around Sophomore year, my GI symptoms of pain, and bloating had progressed far enough for me to seek professional help. After an endoscopy revealed irritation in my esophagus, I was prescribed Prilosec, a common Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI). I remember this is when my problems really began to take off.

The healing process is a journey, and restoring the function of the gut is something that takes time, and patience.A few months later I contracted a horrible stomach infection while interning in a hospital, for which I was hospitalized. It took months for me to be able to tolerate most foods after that, but life moved on. Still experiencing uncomfortable bloating, pain, and now an increasing number of food intolerances, I scheduled another appointment with a gastroenterologist. Another endoscopy and one colonoscopy later, everything came back completely normal. I was diagnosed with IBS, and was told to drink enough water, make sure I was eating enough fiber, offered a prescription for an antispasmodic for the pain, and sent on my way. I remember feeling so hopeless after this final appointment. So this is it, I remember thinking, this is my life sentence.

In the following years, my symptoms only seemed to worsen the more fiber I ate, and every couple of months or so I would mysteriously become intolerant to a new food. First it was soy nuts, then beans, then nuts and seeds, then certain vegetables, and eventually I could not even seem to digest protein. Many times I could not pinpoint what exactly I had reacted to, but I knew I was reacting to something. My mood was unpredictable, my skin was a mess, I was either nauseous or in pain, and I watched as my list of safe foods dwindled down to nothing. Not only that, but every winter I would spend a solid 4 to 5 months either coming down with, actively fighting, or recovering from some infection, and I was prescribed antibiotics more times than I can count during those years.

It wasn’t until years later, enrolled in my Masters program in nutrition, that I learned about things like SIBO, leaky gut, food intolerances, and how to achieve optimal digestion by targeting underlying mechanisms. Functional Medicine seemed to offer concrete causes and even treatments for how I was feeling. I slowly pieced together the pivotal events in my personal history, and the contributing factors that had led to my current state. A lack of stomach acid (from being on a PPI), dysbiosis (from years of chronic antibiotic abuse), a lack of intestinal barrier integrity (from that first infection in college, to later infections contracted while living abroad), and years of university stress, all contributed to the perfect storm that was my current state.

Understanding the root cause of my problem was just the beginning, but at least I had the hope that things could actually get better. After removing the foods that I thought were healthy but were actually contributing to my symptoms, and correcting the dysfunction in my digestive system, I began to feel better than I had in a decade. The healing process is a journey, and restoring the function of the gut is something that takes time, and patience. Just remember, symptoms are the way the body communicates what it needs in order to stay in balance and in optimal health. Functional Nutrition looks at the dysfunction that often goes undetected. It takes the data that is unique to you alone, and based on that information designs a diet that is specifically tailored to your unique biochemical needs. Most importantly, it can make you feel empowered, and more in control of your health. Check back for my next blog post on SIBO.

Top 5 Tips for Gut Health

  1. Figure out what foods/beverages you cannot tolerate at this time, and remove them from your diet. An elimination diet is the best way to identify gut irritants, so that you can live life symptom free.
  2. Identify any essential components of digestion and absorption that you may be lacking, and replace them. This often requires working with a knowledgeable practitioner who can help you identify your individual needs. Some you can try on your own that may help improve digestion include bitters or a fiber supplement like psyllium.
  3. Take a probiotic. Repopulating the gut with beneficial bacteria helps restore the proper balance you need for optimal absorption, digestion, and immune function. Not a fan of pills? Eat fermented foods instead.
  4. Take a gut healing supplement. The best one for you varies depending on your symptoms. Try peppermint oil for IBS symptoms of gas and bloating, aloe vera for heartburn, or glutamine for leaky gut.
  5. Learn ways to manage stress. Stress plays a huge role in gut health, and can negatively affect the environment of the gut. Meditation, mindful eating, and spending time in nature have all proven effective for restoring balance to the mind and body.


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