The gut-brain connection is real and I consider myself proof.
I had just started to recover from glandular fever, backed up by tonsillitis. Finally feeling myself again, I hit another health hurdle.
I stopped going to the toilet. Completely.
It started with slight stomach discomfort, and ended in crippling spasms in both my stomach and back. I tried everything possible to help myself go and ease the pain, but little worked. It was safe to say my doctor was getting tired of seeing me in her waiting room every day.
After a few visits, she had exhausted her recommended remedies. At the same time, she showed little concern, repeating the old “you need to increase your fiber” line at the end of every appointment. (As a vegan, I can assure you I already eat loads of fruit, veggies, legumes and other fiber-rich foods and I even found that my initial transition to a vegan diet, three years ago, improved my toilet habits.)
Out of frustration, I began Googling home remedies, and eventually found a few tricks that helped me go every so often; but I remained feeling constipated and in pain. And the worst part was, when something did eventually work, it never lasted. It was as if my body caught on to what I was trying to do, and upon realizing, would immediately halt any movement of my bowels out of spite.
Since the constipation started, over a year ago now, I can count my ‘good’ days (no discomfort, pain and at least one toilet trip) on one hand.
After what seemed like an eternity of visits to my local medical center, I was eventually diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), an intestinal disorder which can take the form of constipation, diarrhea, bloating, excessive wind and other stomach pain. Essentially, it is a category of unexplainable long-term bowel conditions or multiple symptoms that, when put together, form this syndrome. If you aren’t diagnosed with any other bowel condition, you’re generally thrown into the group of IBS sufferers, and recommended a management plan of diet, exercise, and pain relief.
It’s currently estimated roughly 10 to 15 percent of the world suffer from IBS. Sufferers range from children to the elderly, though the condition generally rears it’s uncomfortable head in young adulthood; and women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with it.
The exact cause of IBS is still unknown, yet it is the most common disease diagnosed by gastroenterologists, and one of the most common disorders seen by primary care physicians.
Since my own unwelcome relationship with IBS began, I’ve spent numerous days in the emergency department, lost several days off work, and, most disconcertingly, watched my mental health deteriorate. Dealing with constant pain is stressful and miserable in itself, but when you already suffer from anxiety, it can be downright debilitating.
Around three months after my IBS symptoms first showed up, I began finding myself unable to cope with stress. As someone who would have previously described myself as a calm person – having dealt with school and college with very little stress – this was completely out of the blue.
Not long after I noticed this excessive stress, I had my first panic attack. Since then I’ve had multiple panic attacks and anxiety is now something that I have no choice but to deal with.
It took some time to put two illnesses together, but when I stumbled upon the concept of the ‘gut-brain connection’ one day whilst desperately researching yet more home remedies for my IBS, a lightbulb flicked on.
Studies suggest that our gut acts as a ‘second brain’ and thus our digestion impacts our mood, health and even the way we think. That ‘gut feeling’ we always talk about could really just be a signal from our ‘second brain’.
Recent research determined the way we think and feel might be controlled by our gut microbiota. Due to this intricate connection, those suffering from anxiety or depression may develop IBS or another gastrointestinal disorder, or vice versa, as in my case.
Despite how common IBS is, it remains a closet condition. Those of us living with it suffer silently, because talking about our ‘toilet habits’ is considered ‘dirty’. However, the more we talk about IBS and other gastrointestinal disorders, the more we can understand our own bodies and the importance of maintaining a healthy gut.
Fortunately, some celebrities who suffer from the condition have spoken out to assist in making the issue better understood, helping release some of the stigma and embarrassment that surrounds it.
Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy Playmate and host of MTV’s Singled Out, jokingly admitted in her 1997 autobiography that she’s such a nervous wreck living in Hollywood, she has chronic diarrhea and therefore doesn’t need to diet. Tyra Banks also used humor to casually reveal her IBS on her show, Tyra, over a decade ago, commenting, “I’m very gassy. But I feel like I can telegraph my farts… If it is going to be funky, I’ll let it out and I’ll be like, ‘Dang! Who did that?’.” And actress Cybill Shepherd divulged her struggle with chronic constipation and bloating for over 20 years in a 2004 interview, saying, “I kept it a secret because I didn’t want it to interfere with my work”.
Lynda Carter, most famous for her role in the 1970s Wonder Woman television series, became a spokeswoman for IBS in 2002. While she doesn’t suffer herself, she witnessed her mother live through from the debilitating condition for more than 30 years.
“IBS has been so shrouded in darkness. I know the truth about how people suffer. It is just one more closeted condition that we need to shine some light on because it is a very real medical condition and you’re not crazy,” Carter told media.
Unfortunately, while the stigma may be starting to very slowly lift, treatment options for the illness are still incredibly limited. After many frustrating months of unassisted trial and error, I’ve found sticking to a clean diet, removing processed foods, and incorporating regular exercise into my day, along with increased water intake and stress management, generally keeps my symptoms to a minimum. But for now, my IBS is still something I deal with on a daily basis.
The most important advice I can give is to never get enough opinions (I’m still going through this process after being unsatisfied with previous doctors), don’t be embarrassed to talk about your problems with others, and always prioritize your own health (aka: don’t be embarrassed to embrace nature’s calling).
The discovery of the link between our gut and brain health has revolutionized the way we approach gastrointestinal disorders, and will hopefully continue to introduce new treatment protocols for sufferers. IBS may have ruined my mental health for now, but knowing that when one improves, the other may eventually follow helps to keep me going. In more ways than one.
Images via giphy.com and unsplash.com