Noises, cramping and upset – our delicate stomachs are not always very obliging. Around 20% of the population is estimated to suffer from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) – maybe you’re one of them? Unfortunately, many people feel that they are not getting the help they need and that it is difficult to know where to turn. Maybe you’ve considered surviving on cod and potatoes, because then you wouldn’t have the bloated stomach that forces you to undo the button on your trousers or that means you only feel comfortable wearing tunics. Of course cod and potatoes are all well and good – but life must have more to offer than that.

Almost seven years ago, I was diagnosed with IBS. Supplements and medication helped me to some extent, but it was only when I trained as a nutritionist and understood the enormous impact that food has on my gut and learned about the concept of FODMAPs that I really started feeling better.

FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. 

Don’t panic – let me break this down so you understand what that means. These complicated sounding words are all different forms of carbohydrates, and these carbohydrates create a lot of gas in our digestive tract. In a person with IBS, the gas causes bloating and can be really painful. It also affects the fluid balance in the intestines, causing problems such as constipation and diarrhoea.

Which foods contain these gas-forming carbohydrates?

  • Wheat, rye and barley
  • Lactose
  • Onions
  • Pulses (beans, lentils, peas, etc.)
  • Dried fruit and fruit juices
  • Apples, pears, mangoes and watermelon
  • Cauliflower, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes
  • Sweeteners (e.g. Xylitol, Erythritol and Sorbitol), found in chewing gum and throat lozenges.

If you have IBS, it may be a good idea to reconsider your intake of the above foods.

You might be thinking, ‘That’s awful – I love sandwiches!’ And yes, it might be hard to give up eating the things you usually do, but give it a try and see what difference it can make for you.

Besides, you don’t usually have to exclude all the above foods completely – it’s all about quantities and combinations. Eating pea soup one day might be fine and not cause any major stomach issues (OK, maybe some rumbling or gurgling noises), but eating pancakes after the pea soup might mean too many FODMAPs for your stomach to deal with in one go – and that’s when your stomach goes berserk.

I have now found a good balance in my diet and know roughly how much I can eat of the various foods before my stomach starts to ache. Apples on an empty stomach are a big no-no, while half an apple as a snack is fine. I love bulking up my salads with beans, but when I do, I make sure not to include any of the other vegetables that can cause me problems. I can never tolerate raw onion, but a small amount of onion in cooked food doesn’t cause me any issues.

What to eat instead!
Don’t dwell on all the things you CAN’T eat – there are still plenty of foods to base your meals on. Try baking bread with alternative flours such as oat flour, almond flour or buckwheat flour if you don’t tolerate wheat, rye or barley. Instead of using onions and garlic to add flavour to your food, try using herbs, chilli or lemon. Protein-rich foods such as chicken, fish, meat and dairy products (lactose-free) are usually fine. There are also plenty of fruits and vegetables that don’t cause problems such as bananas, kiwis, berries, citrus fruits, spinach, root vegetables, aubergines and courgettes, to name but a few.

You get the point – try things out and see what makes you and your gut feel good. This takes a bit of time, and requires you to record your food for a while and pay attention to what your gut reacts to. But the time you spend will be well worth it – imagine what being symptom-free would mean to you.

You can also get help from the nutrition experts at Trainimal Woman– we are very knowledgeable about what food is suitable for IBS sufferers. As long as YOU do the work of recording your food accurately, we can find a solution together.

Exercise can relieve symptoms

A top tip is also to use exercise to relieve your IBS symptoms. In the beginning, I let my stomach restrict me and my workouts. I didn’t feel comfortable in tight gym clothes when my stomach was sticking out like a balloon, and I had the feeling that jumping and bouncing about would cause more pain. But it turned out that exercise was often a relief on bad stomach days. Exercising gave me something else to think about, and you also let out a lot of gas when you move (the pain is often caused by the gas in your digestive system). Exercise such as going for a run or another workout can also be an excellent way to ‘get things going’ if you’re feeling a little backed up.

What living with IBS is like

My IBS symptoms restrict me and can be a problem in that I have to pay attention to what different foods contain, and I sometimes have to eat things that don’t really make me feel good – like when I’m invited for lunch. ‘I made lentil soup and baked my own bread’ = I know I’ll have a bad stomach ache afterwards, but I’ll probably still eat it out of politeness.

Stress affects me a lot, and my stress levels and stomach issues are closely linked.  If I am going through a stressful period, I am much more sensitive and it doesn’t take a lot for my stomach to react. This means I need to be extra careful with my diet.

When my stomach gets bloated, I usually wear loose clothes that won’t cause discomfort. If I’m in a lot of pain, I tend to take a hot shower, which usually leaves me feeling better.

Travelling can be hard, a) because I can’t keep the same eating routines as at home, and b) because it messes up my toileting routines. You can influence your own meals a lot by trying to stick to your usual routines, even away from home. But to avoid a sluggish stomach that can cause problems for a long time even after travelling, I often need to take a supplement to keep the food moving through my intestines.