Irritable bowel syndrome, a condition that can often be painful, distressing, and embarrassing, affects a one in six of us.
Despite this, many of us feel uncomfortable talking about our symptoms, which can include stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and excessive gas.
Identifying your "trigger" foods — which set off your symptoms — can make a huge difference, as 64-year-old Sonja Brown discovered.
The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome — namely, constipation and bloating — had ruled the retired IT worker's life for years. “As long as I can remember I’ve had digestive issues and fatigue,” Sonja says. “I always felt so tired and unwell, and I was often in pain and discomfort for days.”
Sonja, who lives in Cheshire in the UK with her husband, Cliff, found that simple pleasures such as going out for a meal became a minefield as the abdominal pain, bloating, and trapped gas she experienced afterward ruined the experience.
“Then I found it very uncomfortable wearing my normal size trousers, so had a bigger pair with a stretchy waist.”
For years she visited doctors but recalls them being rather unhelpful. Despite having a few tests, results came back normal and she was told the symptoms were stress-related.
“They did offer various medications, such as peppermint oil capsules and antispasmodics to ease the stomach pain; plus, I tried over-the-counter remedies, herbal teas, vitamins, minerals, and charcoal tablets,” Sonja says.
Unfortunately, her symptoms were not improving, and Sonja was forced to battle on. Carrying out research online one day, she found references to YorkTest food intolerance testing, so decided she had nothing to lose by trying one.
The process, which involves sending a finger prick blood sample to the company’s laboratory to test reactions to up to 158 foods, revealed that Sonja had reactions to cow’s milk and yeast.
Although she had suspected she had an intolerance to gluten, Sonja was surprised at her results.
Daunted by the prospect of overhauling her diet, Sonja booked a telephone consultation with one of YorkTest’s nutritional therapists, who provided her with support and information. “She gave advice on nutritious alternatives and pointed me in the direction of useful websites where I could buy free-from foods.”
Within a week, Sonja noticed a difference. “The first thing was my stuffy nose clearing up. I had never really associated that with my symptoms. And after five weeks, my IBS became more settled. Now my breathing has improved I find it easier to exercise.” And even though Sonja wasn’t overweight, she ended up losing 2.26kg in the process.
However, the commitment required to give up specific foods is not easy, and Sonja realizes how much willpower she needs to have when eating at restaurants. “The last time we dined out just before Christmas, I ended up with just plain fish and vegetables, with sorbet for dessert.”
She also admits it was initially a battle to avoid foods containing yeast as there were so many to watch out for, and it was in a lot of her favorite things.
Supermarket shopping was laborious as it took a long time to read all the labels. “However, now I have got used to it and it’s no problem. My family and friends have been very supportive and understanding, and my husband now even prefers some of my alternatives!”
Occasionally, Sonja has slipped up and eaten something with yeast in it, but the pain she feels afterward has made her realize it is not worth the risk. “I accidentally had some soup which I later discovered had yeast extract in it and had pain, bloating, and trapped wind for three days.”
No longer ruled by her symptoms, Sonja is enjoying her retirement. “It’s great to be able to travel, exercise and take control of my IBS.”
If you're thinking of changing up your diet, or would like to learn more about IBS, book an appointment with your trusted GP.