By Sue Ingebretson
More than two decades ago, I knew nothing about healing IBS. Instead, I sat on a doctor’s exam table telling him my tales of woe regarding my painful digestive symptoms. Back then, of course, I didn’t have a diagnosis. And, I hadn’t even heard of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I simply had “ahem, embarrassing digestive problems.” I’d had them for most of my life.
I believed that’s just how my body worked, and I had to live with it.
My doctor agreed.
When I told him that foods, especially raw veggies such as carrots, corn, or broccoli, would pass through me partially (or wholly) undigested, he said, “Well, then, don’t eat them.”
It sounded logical to me at the time. (And, now I’m even in agreement about the corn, but that’s a different story.) However, before I tell the rest of this story, I’d like to hear yours.
What Does Your Doctor Tell You?
Have you ever had a doctor or medical professional tell you to avoid vegetables (especially raw) and/or anything with too much fiber?
Perhaps your doctor has even been specific. If so, you may have been given a list of foods to avoid. Many such lists include cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale. Carrots are often added to the list, too as they’re particularly hard and dense. This list might also include tough to digest foods such as popcorn, nuts, and seeds.
In the traditional medical model, a digestive system that’s dysfunctional stays dysfunctional. The best that can be hoped for is to adopt a strategy of symptom management. In other words, a plan to keep the chaos down to a dull roar.
Not eating veggies is an example of the “management” approach to the problem. Your doctor may leave it at that.
If there’s anything else added, he may prescribe medications to deal with either constipation or diarrhea depending on which end of the spectrum you reside.
You’ve probably been instructed to limit particular foods and that’s it. No other options. No other solutions.
What Does Your Functional Medicine Doctor Tell You?
You’d hear a completely different story if you visited a functional or integrative medicine doctor for your IBS symptoms.
The goal of functional medicine is to get to the root of the problem. Rather than applying symptom management remedies, they’re looking for the root cause or triggers.
When it comes to bowel health and IBS, there are Five Main Areas of Bodily Dysfunction that contribute to the problem.
- Food sensitivities
- Poor gut bacteria balance/microbes
- Nutritional deficiencies
Interestingly, Dr. Mark Hyman actually identifies these areas of dysfunction as the foundations of all disease.1 This is why, when you heal the gut, you oftentimes heal other areas of dysfunction, too.
That’s what happened for me.
When I began to eat the foods my body needed to restore, I restored my health in so many other areas.
To read more about my healing journey, check out “Why Paleo for Fibro?”
Why is Gut Health Central to All Health?
According to Dr. Ganjhu of the NYU Langone Medical Center, the digestive process provides the building blocks the body needs to live, function, and stay healthy.2
Thousands of years ago, Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Little did he know that there are 100 million bacteria in the body and the majority of them reside in the gut. What you eat determines which types of bacteria are introduced to your gut, and this is a long-term concern.3
You’ve most likely heard the gut referred to as your “second brain.” Your gut and your brain enjoy a unique system of communication that links the two in ways that are just now becoming understood. This new field of research, Neurogastroenterology, has made unique discoveries on how this two-way chain of communication affects the entire body.4 Speed, impact, and pathways are all topics of continued study.
What this means is that if your digestive system isn’t functioning properly, you’ll likely see dysfunction and disease in the rest of your body. In this compromised state, your immune system takes a hit as well as your overall energy levels and vitality.
3 Key Steps to Digestive Healing
Remember earlier when we discussed eliminating certain foods as the only approach to improving digestive health?
There’s so much more we can do.
Foods aren’t the only area to address when it comes to digestive health. After reviewing the Five Main Areas of Body Dysfunction listed above, it’s clear that the digestive system needs more than just a dietary approach to heal.
To summarize what’s needed, here’s an overview. These three general steps give you a good idea of how to go about improving the health of your digestive system.
1. Remove sources of inflammation and irritation
This means eliminating (for at least a limited time) foods that are causing your body to react. Food sensitivities/intolerances (different from food allergies) are common in the chronic illness community. It’s a good idea to work with a trusted health care practitioner to get help in determining what foods are problematic for you. A short list of the most common foods to consider are wheat/gluten, dairy, sugar, corn, soy, nightshades, and processed foods.
You’ll also want to address sources of toxins and pathogens. Do you have an intestinal infection? Perhaps candida overgrowth or SIBO (small intestinal overgrowth). Have you been exposed to heavy metals including mercury, aluminum, lead, and cadmium?
Balancing your gut biome serves as a key step toward healing.
2. Replace what’s missing
A compromised digestive system needs a little help when it comes to healing. Cleaning up the diet allows the gut to rebuild and restore. It gives a little breathing room to the weakened system from the irritants that kept it inflamed.
Swift assistance can come from two simple sources: digestive enzymes and a simple probiotic. Digestive enzymes are relatively inexpensive and can be taken with each meal. Adding a healthy probiotic doesn’t have to break the bank either. While prices range wildly for probiotics, and they’re definitely beneficial, you can also benefit from simple remedies such as pre-meal digestive herbs5 and/or apple cider vinegar (ACV).6 ACV not only acts as a probiotic, it also helps to regulate the bowel creating consistent and healthy bowel movements.
Your trusted health professional may also suggest other supplements and remedies (such as glutathione, collagen/bone broth, and herbs) specifically recommended for gut restoration.
It’s an humbling fact to live in an overfed nation where the majority of people are undernourished. Obesity numbers continue to climb, but levels of healthy nutrition plummet.
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When it comes to nutrition, it’s likely that the chronic illness body in particular is severely deficient. Many key micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are absent or dangerously low in those who suffer from chronic health conditions such as fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, autoimmune disease, and many cancers. This appalling deficit has a direct impact on the immune system as well as overall health.
Consider adopting a healthy diet as a healing tool. Switching from a processed food diet to a whole food diet may be powerful enough on its own to heal your digestive troubles.
Consume foods rich in micronutrients vital to healing and restoring the body. Supplement the body with whole, nutrient-dense, and fiber-rich foods. Look for foods rich in the B Vitamins as well as Vitamin C, A, E, and K. Include foods that are good sources of magnesium, potassium, manganese, calcium (think leafy greens!), and folate to name a few.
Vegetables, of course, are an essential part of a healthy, whole diet. You’ll find a wealth of micronutrients in your grocery store’s produce section or farmer’s market. To get a few suggestions and ideas including food lists, check out these articles: 6 Ways Leafy Greens Pack a Powerful Healing Punch and Phytonutrients Fighting for Fibromyalgia Recovery
As you heal, you may find it helpful to ease into fiber-rich veggies. Cooking or lightly sautéing crunchy veggies can help, too. And, of course, be sure to stay properly hydrated. Drink plenty of clean, filtered water and download this Handy Hydration Tip Sheet to not only discover how much to drink, but also when to drink.
The healthier your digestive system becomes, the better it is at metabolizing, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating wastes. This process takes time and patience.
Even with a healthy food diet, you may need additional supplementation of nutrients. Working with a holistic nutritionist can help you discover your own deficiencies and where you may need extra help.
3. Address the elephant in the room (yes, stress)
You knew we’d get to the topic of stress sooner or later. How could we mention that the gut is a second brain without addressing stress?
You’ve heard of “gut feeling” before, haven’t you? And, what about, “that news was like a sock in the gut.”
Our gut (and by extension our entire body) feels and is impacted by every emotion we experience. If you’re worried, your gut feels the worry. If you’re sad, lonely, frustrated, or annoyed, your gut feels and reacts to whatever thoughts course through your brain.
This powerful communication pathway between the brain and gut plays a central role in directing other reactions in the body. Our emotions create a cascade of chemical reactions that send information to the rest of the body. The study of biochemistry in this area reveals interesting details related to the intrinsic link between the brain and the body.
The term psychosomatic refers to the physiological connection between the mind and the body.7 Unfortunately, it’s often used incorrectly to either state or imply that these feelings in the body aren’t real or are in some way imaginary.
This could not be further from the truth.
Have you ever watched someone or been told to imagine biting into something bitter or sour like a lemon? You most likely cringed or puckered as a response. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that your mouth watered too in reaction to the perceived sour juice.
The body is a mighty reactor. (And take note that the physical reactions you experience are not imaginary.)
Knowing how powerful our thoughts are to our body’s health, consider a body under stress. Not short-term, resolvable stress. Rather, long-term, chronic, and unresolved stress. What does the body do in this situation?
- It slows digestion
- It stays stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze response of the autonomic nervous system
- It contracts muscles causing stiffness and pain
- It experiences slowed or impaired reaction times
- It slows critical thinking and problem-solving abilities
- It experiences sleep disturbances
- It takes short, shallow breaths and forgets to breathe deeply
- It fosters an environment for dysfunction and disease to prosper
These physical experiences of stress are not imaginary. Unless stress is addressed – and that means now – they’ll continue to flourish. The frightening thing about stress is that we can’t outrun it. What I mean by this is while we can implement steps 1 and 2 above and feel that we’re making headway, we’re limited in our ability to take that final step toward the finish line. Stress must be taken into consideration.
For a few tips on how to implement some simple stress-relieving remedies, check out this article, The Antidote to Stress
What’s the Verdict? Should I Eat Veggies if I Have IBS?
We’re now back to square one. After reading the previous several paragraphs, you can probably answer that question on your own.
Knowing what you do now, can you see how it could make sense to simply avoid vegetables if your gut is unhealthy? It makes sense in a world where the digestive system is malfunctioning and will always be malfunctioning to some degree.
I’m grateful that this isn’t the world in which I live. Nor is it the world of functional medicine and natural health. I suffered from IBS for decades and no longer find it a problem. My digestive system is finicky, for sure, but that’s not full-blown IBS. I don’t often experience digestive problems, and if I do, I’m highly aware of the cause. It’s usually because I ate something I know to be problematic – either by accident or on purpose.
The great news I’m fond of sharing is that the body – as a whole – is designed to heal. It’ll do so when given half a chance.
This healing process takes different paths for each person.
If you review the 3 Key Steps to Digestive Healing listed above, you’re reminded of the importance of removing foods that you’re sensitive to. If you happen to have an allergy or a sensitivity to a particular food, then by all means, avoid it – even if it’s a veggie. Nightshades are a good example of this.
But if you’re limiting an entire group of nutritionally-essential foods (like vegetables) because your digestive system is too impaired to metabolize them, then it’s time to dig a bit deeper, to the root level, and start the healing process.
Once toxins, pathogens, and food sensitivities are addressed, healing can begin. Incorporating healthy, whole vegetables is a key part in the healing process.
Word of Caution: Of course, I’m not a doctor, nor do have I any information or data on your specific digestive challenge. It’s always a good idea to review your dietary plans with your personal physician to verify that you’re on the right track. There’s always a possibility for other, more serious, digestive or intestinal problems to exist.
What Does Your (Inner) Doctor Tell You?
If I’d known a functional medicine doctor two decades ago, I could have saved myself a lot of time experimenting with foods. But then I would have missed out on all the lessons I learned along the way. My healing journey had so much to teach me, and I’m grateful for the experience.
One surprising thing I learned is that I know a whole lot more about my own health than I thought I did. I discovered that when I listened and paid attention, my body told me what works and what doesn’t. I found that I have an inner guide or, you could say, an “inner doctor” who tells me what’s best for me and for my overall health.
Sometimes I listen, and sometimes I don’t.
One instance where I’m glad I didn’t listen is to my doctor 20 years ago who told me to stop eating veggies. Even in my complete ignorance of how the body works, I knew that his answer couldn’t be right.
Through my following years of experimenting on my own and completing various nutrition programs and certifications, I learned a lot. (Corn, for one, isn’t a veggie at all. It’s a grain and not even a very healthy one at that. I’ll easily take a pass on that one.) Once I left processed foods in the dust, my digestive system began to heal. I then started to incorporate veggies and grew stronger day by day. The rest is history.
I encourage you to write your own history, too. Once you remove the layers of problematic foods that keep your digestion at a standstill, you can become more aware of the nuances you feel. You’ll notice small shifts in how you feel. You’ll discover an inner knowing of what works best for you and what doesn’t.
What does your inner doctor have to say to you today?
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on August 10, 2018 and was updated on May 30, 2021.
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.