By Sue Ingebretson
Personal topics such as bathroom habits aren’t fun to discuss with your doctor or health professional. For that matter, you might not even choose to discuss them with your spouse or best friends.
But, it’s time to get personal.
If we can’t discuss personal health challenges here, with the anonymity of the web, then where can we? As an investigative-type of health coach, I discuss personal habits including bowel movements with my clients every day. You may not. But I do.
It’s common practice in the health world to discuss foods, supplements, diets, and even food-related behaviors. Understanding what we put IN our bodies gives us important clues to why we may experience particular symptoms.
But we may tend to ignore the flip side of things.
It’s equally important to study and gain a better understanding of how our bodies process the foods and nutrients we take in. Do we absorb well? Metabolize well? What’s our transit time? (Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.)
A body that’s experiencing IBS is already compromised to some degree. Let’s take a look at how those compromises may relate to you.
What is IBS (or is it IBD)?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome – IBS (sometimes called spastic colon or spastic bowel) is a common disorder of the digestive system. It’s so common that doctors at Cedars-Sanai hospital in America state that 25% of their patients complain of IBS-related symptoms.1
Hallmark symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain/discomfort
- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal gassiness/bloating
- A feeling of incomplete evacuation
Some with IBS may swing from one digestive extreme to another – from constipation to diarrhea. The frequency of bowel movements is different for every individual. Having a bowel movement after each meal (3x/day) may be common for some and others may tend more toward once a day. It may be considered in the range of “normal” to go less than that (even as few as 3 times per week) but whether or not this is “healthy” depends on other related factors. For example, it would be important to note a tendency toward constipation as well as the potential impact from consuming a high calorie, yet empty-nutrient diet.
If your bowel movements tend to be less often as opposed to more frequent, do you feel pain, discomfort, or bloating on a regular basis? Do you feel the need to push or strain when you do go? Constipation is a common problem in the chronic illness community. It’s a common side effect from many prescribed medications as well as over the counter remedies. Foods that pass through the stomach, yet linger in the colon for a prolonged period have time to ferment, rot, and become rancid. This leads to many obvious symptoms including cramps, gassiness, bloating, and pain.
If your bowel movements tend to be frequent, loose, or even watery, diarrhea is a concern for you. In this instance, the digestive process is shortened which doesn’t allow for proper absorption of nutrients from foods. In advanced cases, the frequency and intensity of bouts of diarrhea may begin to damage the digestive system itself. This may shift the diagnosis of IBS into another category of bowel dysfunction.
For example, IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease) could then be assigned as a diagnosis. This broad term of bowel dysfunction differs in a few significant ways from IBS. The specific symptoms of IBS, while frustrating and debilitating, don’t create physical damage to the bowel itself. But in IBD, damage is present.
Hallmark symptoms of IBD2 include:
- Eye inflammation
- Extreme fatigue
- Intestinal scarring
- Joint pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
Some may suffer the pain and discomfort of any bowel disease more than others. Some feel gassy or bloated all the time. Others don’t. Or, they may only feel discomfort during severe bouts of diarrhea.
Whether the frequency of our bowel movements are too fast or too slow, an additional clue to observe is the phenomenon called, transit time.
What’s Your Transit Time?
In the world of digestive health, transit time refers to the time it takes for your food to go from ingestion to elimination. Generally speaking, it’s thought to take an average of 8 to 14 hours from eating a specific meal to eliminating it through a bowel movement.
How would you know?
There are several ways to test this at home. We can consume foods that may pass through the system undigested, or use ingestible dyes or pellets. For many of us, we don’t need to do that. We’ve had unintentional circumstances where we’ve noticed undigested food in our stools – perhaps broccoli, corn, or beets. The next time this happens, just take note of the time to give you an idea of your transit time. Instances of diarrhea aside, this can give you an important clue regarding the health of your digestion.
Of course, we don’t need to know our exact transit time and neither do we need to track it on an ongoing basis. Just becoming aware now and then can help us gain a better understanding of our colon health and what may need to be addressed.
Why is this important?
A study done for the National Food Institute, Technical University at Denmark showed a correlation between the overall health of the digestive system and transit time. “In short, our study shows that the longer food takes to pass through the colon, the more harmful bacterial degradation products are produced.”3
Understanding our transit time clues us in on our gut health. It also gives us a better understanding about the foods we eat and how our bodies adapt to them. Foods that we’re sensitive to can cause gastric distress ranging in all of the main symptom categories of IBS.
It makes sense, therefore, that for the chronic illness community in particular, it’s even more important to establish a regular bowel movement habits. Allowing the body to eliminate wastes on a consistent basis can help to reduce general symptoms such as joint pain, muscle soreness, and fatigue.
Sometimes, subtle clues can be just as profound as obvious ones. If a food causes any gastric symptom, consider it a clue and experiment with including/excluding it from your diet.
Why is IBS Common for Those with Chronic Illness?
You may have noticed in the above section on transit time that food sensitivities can cause gastric symptoms common to IBS. Both food sensitivities and IBS are common in the chronic illness community.
More than a decade ago, when I realized that my body had a negative reaction to particular foods, I thought it was quite a shocking revelation. As I removed certain foods, my symptoms – digestion in particular – improved very quickly.
I was also pleased to note that my overall inflammatory issues improved. The swollen/painful feeling in my hands and joints diminished as well as the inflammation I felt in my esophagus.
When I discussed this with a functional medicine practitioner at that time, I asked him about his experience. Because he specialized in working with the chronic illness community, I thought my discovery could help shed some light. I asked him for the percentage of his patients (those with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, diabetes, RA, lupus, MS, etc.) who also experienced food sensitivities to some degree.
His response? “One hundred percent.”
I was shocked. I thought it was just me. But over the past 14 years, I’ve seen the same scenario repeatedly. Every client I work with has some challenge with food sensitivities. We’re each different, and the sensitivities affect us to different degrees. But as a community, the health of our digestive systems are compromised by continuing to eat the very foods that cause trouble for us.
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As long as trigger foods are consumed, IBS will be part of our chronic illness experience. Working with a functional medical professional can help you to determine what foods may be beneficial for you to reduce or eliminate.
3 Surprising Connections between Chronic Illness and IBS
I’ve already tipped my hand to one of these connections. And, by now you have a good understanding of how IBS shows up due to an impaired digestive system. Next, you can see how the following factors become problematic.
In no particular order, here are three factors to consider as you try to reduce your IBS symptoms and heal your digestion.
1. Packaged /Processed Foods
Reading food labels on your favorite packaged foods could be an eye-opening experience. Cereals, crackers, chips, packaged pastries, frozen foods, and even beverages often contain an abundance of chemical additives. They list preservatives, sweeteners, thickeners, dyes, stabilizers, and artificial flavors that can irritate and inflame the chronic illness body.
The chronic illness body is already over-sensitive to everything we eat, wear, apply, and breathe. Foods represent the factor that affects us the most, so it’s the first place to look for offending ingredients.
2. Food Sensitivities / Intolerances
I already touched on this above as a potential factor in assessing your IBS troubles. Consuming foods that our bodies don’t “agree with” can contribute to inflammation, poor intestinal health, and either sluggish or overly-speedy elimination. Neither is ideal.
Simply becoming aware of your symptoms after you eat can help to determine potential triggers. Sometimes, when we’ve eaten a trigger food for so long, we may not notice direct symptoms after eating it. However, if we remove it from the diet for a week or so and then add it back in, we can oftentimes notice specific reactions.
It’s important to note that we can be sensitive to just about any food whether it’s considered “healthy” or not. I know people who have food sensitivities to certain spices, some meats, fruits, or vegetables. We’re each unique and it takes a bit of detective work to make an analysis.
3. The Brain/Gut Connection
This may surprise you, but the digestive system is intrinsically linked to the brain. The same tissues are present in each as well as a highly complex system of communication between the two.
It can be said that what the brain (the mind) thinks, the gut feels. This is why stress is such a significant factor in digestive health.
When we experience stress, there’s a direct effect on every function of our digestive system. Under duress, the autonomic nervous system tells our body to slow digestion and move it down the list of priorities. It’s an understatement to say that a stressed out body doesn’t metabolize food well.
I learned this ten years ago after joining a tai chi class. I read that it could help me to deal with stress and thought it was worth a shot. The instructor said that slow, methodical, and intentional body movements were good for digestion. What? How could moving the outside of me help with moving the inside of me? I can’t deny that I thought she was a total nut-case.
Now, I get it.
Body movement helps the body on both a physical and emotional level. Walking, bicycling, and moving meditations (such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong) help to minimize stress and maximize the body’s hormone response that says, “All is well.” Moving the body also helps to build core strength, develop muscle tone, and improve posture – all factors that help support healthy digestion.
What Else Do I Need to Know About IBS?
Now that you know what factors to observe when it comes to your intestinal health, it’s important to embrace this fact.
You need TIME to heal.
It takes time and patience to heal the digestive system.
When I was first diagnosed with IBS, I told my doctor that I didn’t digest veggies such as broccoli, carrots, corn (back then I thought corn was a vegetable). I noticed that when I ate them – which was a rarity, BTW, – they’d go through my system undigested.
My doctor’s response? “Don’t eat them!”
No, I’m not kidding. My very own doctor told me that if eating vegetables didn’t “agree” with me, I shouldn’t eat them.
It’s a good thing that my common sense told me otherwise.
Healing my digestion was a slow process. I added healthier fare a little at a time and monitored my progress. I removed all processed beverages and switched to drinking mainly water and tea. It made sense to me that my body needed hydration and healthy fiber to heal.
I did some research and made lists of whole, natural, nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods. I added them to my diet and removed suspected problem foods.
Some symptoms disappeared relatively quickly. The amount of pain and swelling diminished in a matter of weeks. My gastric bloating, gassiness, and cramping went away fairly soon, too. Over the following few months, many other symptoms slowly ebbed away.
It wasn’t an overnight process, but the improvements were dramatic. Not to mention, worth it.
I’m grateful to say that chronic IBS is a thing of the past for me. And, it’s my hope that you’ll soon see improvements in your IBS symptoms, too.
Sue Ingebretson is becoming a most sought after symptom-relief expert in the fibromyalgia and chronic illness communities. She’s known for getting to the root of her client’s health challenges and delivering long-term results using a light-hearted approach without quick-fix remedies that only mask symptoms. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com
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