I’ve suffered with my digestive system for more years than I can remember now and annoying delayed my diagnosis by thinking that my cramps were caused by my stomach and not my bowels. Finally I have been diagnosed with IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome – which isn’t really a victory as there is no cure for this condition, but it explains the symptoms that I have been living with and gives me comfort in knowing that I can take actions to reduce, but not remove, them.
I hope in sharing my health journey with you all that I may identify similar symptoms that you’ve been given, share tips and advice to coping with this condition and give you hope that your quality of life can improve even if your symptoms have hit rock bottom now.
I guess the confusion over getting diagnosed began in my childhood when I used to literally cry my eyes out and freak out when my parents would feed me anything meat or dairy related. I very stubbornly became a vegetarian at the age of five years because I point-blank refused to eat or drink anything from an animal. Not so much a fussy eater as I loved every plant, fruit and vegetable I could get my hands on but felt physically sick over meat and dairy.
I was the first ever vegetarian in the family and believed that as I grew up that my offence felt towards consuming animal products was purely down to my love of nature and nurturing others – the inability to eat a dead animal or cause suffering to others – whilst this may have been true, in later years I discovered that I am in fact diary intolerant which explains why I always felt so sick when consuming animal products.
Avoiding meat and fish entirely and dairy as much as possible, as a teenager I developed pretty awful periods when I hit puberty. My mother used to get violently sick during her periods, vomit and fall into cold sweats so I only knew of periods being an awful hereditary burden – although I was thankful that I just suffered an immense pain without throwing up or sweating. But hey, it made child birth a breeze to have such a high tolerance to pain after all of those years menstruating!
Symptoms Of Menstruation (Periods)
The symptoms of having a period include:
- tender breasts
- bloating & fluid retention
- muscle aches
- joint pain
- abdominal cramps
- diarrhea or constipation
I faced all of these symptoms each month with the preference being towards loose bowels rather than constipation, I also generally get a breakout of spots around my chin as hormonal acne that flares up a few days before my period is due and subsides once it’s over.
In a nutshell I would have a sore, tender, cramping twisting feeling in my stomach, go to the toilet more often, feel weak and bloated for around 7-10 days each month. As well as bleeding during my period of course! And this is where the confusion begins because I have always had irregular periods, some lasting for weeks on end requiring medication to stop my blood loss, others not showing up for several months at a time without a pregnancy.
Whilst most people are as regular as clockwork with their cycle, mine appears to be like buses – nothing for months then three turn up at once! So each time my stomach would cramp, bloat and I’d feel sick I’d tell myself that my irregular period must be due. If I’d already had my period then I’d tell myself the next period was coming super fast again and my cycle was unreliable. The doctors have never been able to explain my periods and no form of contraception can ever seem to force it into a regular pattern, it’s just something that I have to accept.
Symptoms Of Bowel Cancer
Seeing as I followed in my mothers unfortunate footsteps of irregularly painful periods, every time that I came to her for advice to ask if how I was feeling was normal she would say “the same thing happens to me but nothing that the doctors have ever tried has helped.”
I resigned to my fate of having to put up and shut up and not complain about the pain and discomfort that was impossible to avoid. Until my mother was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer because her symptoms and concerns had been passed off and silenced as a gluten intolerance following stomach pains, loose bowels and bloating. An aggressive cancer tumour that had spread from her bowels to her womb was clearly not just a gluten intolerance!
The symptoms of bowel cancer include:
- bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
- persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit
- unexplained weight loss
- extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
- pain or lump in your tummy
I had all of these same symptoms as my mother who had bowel cancer, although with my irregular periods I didn’t know where the blood from the toilet came from between periods as it wasn’t there every time that I went.
I also lost large amounts of blood spontaneously like a glass of wine had been thrown onto my clothes without warning which turned out to be precancerous cervical cells at stage two which I had removed following a routine smear test picking up an abnormal change to my cervix.
Finally, my lymph nodes in my groin have been swollen for two years continuously which my doctor had monitored and couldn’t explain the cause of, other than suggesting that something was attacking my immune system from the waist down to active the nodes in my groin – instead of those in my underarms or neck as the location is relevant to the cause. Somebody mentioned having tattoos could cause lymph nodes to Harden, for which I have a fair few tattoos, but nothing recent. Others suggested the body gets confused sometimes and it would naturally just go away. Either way I have hard lumps like frozen peas on either side of my groin and they are very tender.
My mother had the lymph nodes in her groin removed because her cancer tried to spread to them, along with her bowels and a hysterectomy which has left her with a lifelong colostomy bag – her bottom redirected to her stomach wall – but after multiple surgeries, two rounds of chemotherapy and one round of radiotherapy she is now thankfully in remission from cancer.
Seeking A Medical Diagnosis For My Symptoms
The first thing that I asked my doctor when I staggered into her office, shaking, weak and washed out after several months of explosive and uncontrollable diarrhoea, severe cramps that kept me awake all night every night and hideous bloating that made me appear nine months pregnant by at least lunchtime every day was “could this be from something that I’ve eaten?” Umm… no!
Given my previous abnormal cervical cells, and now a family history of my mother having bowel cancer before the age of sixty, my doctors first objective was to rule out any diseases or life-threatening conditions that may be causing my severe symptoms. Obviously up against an NHS waiting list which means that answers and solutions are few and far between, but nonetheless the wheels were put into motion.
Diagnosis Attempt 1: Cervical Scan
The first test that I had was an internal cervical scan. After an initial bi-annual checkup of my cervix following a loop diathermy treatment I was put back onto the all clear register and seen once a year for testing which has now returned to once every three years like everyone else because my previous abnormal cells thankfully haven’t returned.
The purpose of the internal cervical scan was to check the condition of my womb, which is also where my mothers cancer had spread to, noting my abnormal bleeding outside of my period, severe pain in the tummy and bloating. All that was found during the scan were fibroids in my uterus which are abnormal growths that are considered to be tumours which can become quite large and cause severe abdominal pain and heavy periods – ah ha! However, sometimes they cause no signs or symptoms at all and can disappear just as soon as they appear, everybody is different. These growths are typically benign, or noncancerous and the cause of them is unknown.
The scan involved inserting a rod-like hand piece into my vagina, much like having a smear test, so that measurements and visual readings could be taken, monitored and retested in several months time. I was informed that if my fibroids still existed at my next scan then they could be removed, but in the meantime I had to wait to see if my body would naturally destroy them.
Diagnosis Attempt 2: Blood / Urine / Stool Test
Following the results of my cervical scan my doctor requested a blood, urine and stool test to check for bacteria or infections causing my symptoms. Blood was taken from my arm which is rather routine for me after having my two children and something I’m comfortable about having.
I urinated into a sample cup in the doctors bathroom which she labelled and sent off, and she gave me a stool cup to gather my diarrhoea to be sent to the laboratory for analysis. Collecting a sample in the small container was interesting to say the least, as explosive diarrhoea has no aim, but the analysis provides a microscopic examination, chemical and microbiologic tests, measuring the pH level and identifying if a bacteria may be causing infection.
Despite my many symptoms, all three of these test results came back as normal. The plot thickens…
Diagnosis Attempt 3: Colonoscopy
The first part of this next process involved going to hospital to have a rectal examination. Laying on my side on the consultants bed I was asked to bend my knees as my anus was examined. It was picked up immediately that I had internal piles which may explain the abnormal bleeding and pain during toileting.
A finger was inserted into my anus to feel for any immediate lumps before air was blown into my bowels which was an unusual sensation but nothing too painful. The consultant couldn’t feel any hard lumps by fingers alone, but could tell instantly that I suffered from diarrhoea and that my piles were causing me a great deal of discomfort and needed banding – tying off so that they would shrivel, die and drop out. To have a better understanding of the condition of my bowels I was told after my initial examination that I would require a colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy or coloscopy is the endoscopic examination of the large bowel and the distal part of the small bowel with a camera or fiber optic camera on a flexible tube which is passed through the anus into the bowel. To do this the bowel must be empty for better vision so I had to fast on a special diet that only allowed a handful of foods – the majority of which were not vegan friendly! The fasting was therefore extremely difficult and caused me to lose almost several pounds in bodyweight within just a few days, as for my already restricted dietary requirements it was almost starvation.
I returned for my colonoscopy after fasting for 3-4 days and remained awake throughout the procedure which took place in a medical room within the hospital much like a surgery. In a hospital gown I again laid on my side as the camera was inserted into my anus and pushed into my bowel. I was medical for pain relief and to relax my muscles the make the procedure as comfortable as possible, but due to my bowels being so twisted the examination had to be aborted part way through because the camera was unable to get past a bend and was causing a great deal of pain despite two doses of pain relief.
My consultant, whilst wonderfully professional and highly skilled, explained that twisted bowels happen sometimes after pregnancy where internals are pushed out of position by growing babies. Often it can be the case that pushing a rod through the bowels can straighten out the kinks, with fasting to empty the bowels allowing the digestive system to empty and reboot starting up a fresh and behaving themselves.
The results of the biopsies taken within the initial part of my bowels, before the largest twist that it couldn’t get past, were then sent off to be tested in the laboratory and my piles were banded and would die off and drop out naturally over the next few days.
To start with, my stomach cramps and diarrhoea improved momentarily after having my colonoscopy but it turns out that it was just because my digestive system was empty and within a week of eating food again I was back to the same symptoms as before. The results of my colonoscopy showed that my twisted intestines may be causing my stomach pain but didn’t explain my diarrhoea, and a slight increase in lubrication within my bowels wasn’t normal, yet it wasn’t exactly abnormal enough to cause a problem in itself.
These factors explained discomfort and bleeding from the anus being piles but not the cause of my symptoms. The plot thickens…
Diagnosis Attempt 4: Food Intolerance Testing
Feeling disheartened from no clear reason for my suffering, and between waiting for my various scans, appointments and results, exhaustedly I booked myself in for a private food sensitivity test. Rather than taking blood for analysis against the most common trigger foods, this programme identifies food sensitivity by painlessly combining electro-dermal testing with homoeopathy.
Once a specific food is identified as a potential problem it can then be removed from my diet for a period of time before being re-introduced to see if the same symptoms return. This test identified that I have an intolerance to peas, wheat, oats, barley, rye, vodka, whiskey and beer which I must now avoid indefinitely.
The biggest changes that I made to my diet were to avoid peas, only consume gluten-free and vegan-friendly foods and not consume alcohol as if I do then my symptoms become very severe.
Keeping a food diary, noting what I ate and how it made me feel afterwards as well as knowing my trigger foods from testing made a huge difference to my bowels. It was a very softly softly approach at first as I think my digestive system had to calm down and recover from the battle it was facing, but within a few months I stopped having diarrhoea and could actually sleep through the night again without stomach cramps keeping me awake.
I returned to my doctor and informed her of the positive change to my bowel habits…
Symptoms Of IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Upon updating my doctor of my self-appointed food sensitivity test she provided me with the diagnosis of having Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which I have being told by others with IBS that it is basically what doctors say when they can’t find the exact medical cause of generic bowel problems. The equivalent of have a glass of water and take some paracetamol if you still feel bad in an hour. It’s not in any way a criticism of my doctors professionalism as she has ruled out any cause or disease, but it’s frustrating knowing there is no cure or treatment for my potentially lifelong symptoms.
I have since discovered just how many people suffer silently, some diagnosed others not, with IBS and the chaos that it unleashes onto millions of lives without a known cure. The mistake that I made for such a long time was to tell my doctor that my stomach hurt and cramped severely when in actual fact it was my bowels that were causing my pain; waving my hand across my abdomen area didn’t define this clearly and may have speeded up the diagnosis process if I could have told or known the difference.
The fibroids in my uterus remained at my next scan but had shrunk slightly so the decision for them to remain untreated was taken as my body showed positive signs towards dealing with them. My internal piles dropped out and bleeding abnormally on the toilet stopped but I still suffer intermittent cramping which I put down to periods, stress, motherhood and age.
99.9% of the time I am certain that I haven’t been spiked by a trigger food as I prepare all of my meals from scratch, at home with fresh raw ingredients and rarely eat out because very few places cater to a vegan gluten-free diet. But I do still get outbursts of diarrhoea, severe bloating and cramping without warning, it’s just not as often as before now that I’m literally avoiding everything.
The symptoms of IBS include:
- Pain and cramping – abdominal pain is a key factor in finding a diagnosis
- Diarrhoea – this is one of the three main types of the disorder
- Constipation – another of the three main types of the disorder
- Alternating constipation and diarrhoea – the final of the three main types of the disorder
- Changes in bowel movements
- Gas and bloating
- Food intolerance
- Fatigue and difficulty sleeping
- Anxiety and depression
Personally for me, my symptoms include/d daily pain and cramping in the bowels which I thought were my stomach similar to really bad period pain. Whilst I didn’t suffer from constipation I found it impossible to form stools, it was a constant vomit-like diarrhoea which left me weak, pale, shaking and unable to sleep from the cramps and constant need to rush to the toilet 3-4 times throughout the night and all throughout the day,
My bowel movements changed by passing fluid stools far more frequently from a couple of times a day with soft to medium stools without pain to several times a day and all night with liquid stools and constant cramping and bloating. I discovered many food intolerances, not allergies, which have made a big improvement to my life to avoid these trigger foods but I still struggle with symptoms of IBS despite this – they are much more mild in comparison to how they were at their worst.
I felt constantly weak and exhausted, had no energy, wanted to sleep but couldn’t, found it difficult to think clearly and became anaemic and malnourished because nothing would stay inside of me for long and my body couldn’t absorb the goodness and nutrients from my food. Whilst I wouldn’t say it made me depressed because I still functioned in life, worked and raised my children, it certainly made me feel very stressed, anxious and unhappy because I lived in daily pain and discomfort and couldn’t get any relief from the relentlessly severe symptoms.
I would say that at it’s worst my IBS was 10/10 similar to childbirth exasperation and pain and has now settled to a 5-6/10 as it’s still a very major part of my life but I have become accustomed to living with the discomfort and changing my lifestyle to minimise the symptoms where possible. I now live feeling like I’m constantly about to have my period rather than forever being on my period if that is in any way an indication of the discomfort.
If you experience these symptoms then I highly recommend that you visit your doctor who will be able to diagnose IBS and also rule out any other diseases that may mimic it. IBS is diagnosed by recurrent abdominal pain for at least 6 months, combined with weekly pain for 3 months and a combination of pain relieved by bowel movements, changes in frequency or form of bowel movements.
How To Reduce Symptoms Of IBS
The best way to reduce symptoms of IBS is to make lifestyle changes such as:
- following a low-FODMAPs diet
- managing stress levels
- increasing exercise
- drinking plenty of water
- taking over-the-counter laxatives when constipated
- identifying food intolerances and keeping a food diary of trigger foods
- taking probiotic supplements
- avoid digestive stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, sugary drinks
I lead a very healthy active lifestyle, train at the gym 6-7 days each week as a way to destress and keep active, drink between 2-3 litres of water each day and avoid my food intolerances. Sometimes when I’m out to dinner for a special occasion and gluten-free options aren’t available (it’s hard enough finding vegan friendly options), or if it’s a birthday and everyone is drinking alcohol then I have a small amount of my triggers knowing I’ll pay the price for it.
The way I see it is that the majority of my life is led reducing my symptoms of IBS, and much like going to a party and drinking you do so happily, fully expecting to have a hangover in the morning because of alcohol. The same way we make judgements to eat junk food as a treat or alcohol and face hangovers, I allow myself small amounts of my trigger foods as treats or when it’s totally unavoidable and I deal with the consequences which last the rest of the day or so because of it.
I also take probiotic supplements which really help to restore a healthy balance of gut bacteria which cuts down my cramps and bloating. Some have been sachets which stir into a glass of water whilst others have been tablets. Some you take each day and others you do a course for several days or so as maintenance, it’s really down to what works best for you.
If you have or haven’t tried food intolerance testing it’s still a good idea to keep a food diary of what you’ve eaten and how it made you feel along with any symptoms of IBS that happened. It makes it easier to identify your individual triggers which vary from person to person and may also help your doctor to form a diagnosis with this information.
What Are FODMAPs?
A diet low in fermentable carbs is known as FODMAPS and is clinically recommended for the management of IBS. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo- di- mono-saccharides and polyols and this is used to classify groups of carbs which are most notorious for triggering digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas and stomach pain.
FODMAPs are found in varying amounts within a wide range of foods, some may contain just one type whilst others contain several. There are four main groups of FODMAPs dietary sources which are:
- Oligosaccharides: Wheat, rye, legumes, fruits and vegetables including garlic and onions
- Disaccharides: Milk, yogurt and soft cheese – lactose
- Monosaccharides: Fruit including figs and mangoes, sweeteners such as honey and agave nectar – fructose
- Polyols: Fruits and vegetables including blackberries and lychee, low-calorie sweeteners such as those found in sugar-free products
FODMAPs Foods You Can Have Safely
- Vegetables including: Alfalfa sprouts, bean sprouts, bell peppers, carrots, green beans, bok choy, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, zucchini, bamboo shoots, eggplant, ginger, chives, olive, parsnips, potatoes and turnips
- Fresh fruits including: oranges, grapes, honeydew melon, cantaloupe melon, bananas, blueberries, grapefruit, kiwi, lemon, lime, oranges and strawberries
- Dairy that is lactose-free, hard cheeses, ripened/matured cheeses, brie, camembert and feta cheese
- Beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs
- Soy products including tofu, tempeh
- Grains including: rice, rice bran, oats, oat bran, quinoa, corn flour, sourdough spelt bread, gluten-free bread and pasta
- Non-dairy milks including: almond milk, rice milk, oat milk and coconut milk
- Drinks such as: tea and coffee with non-dairy milk, pure fruit juice not from concentrate, water
- Nuts and seeds including: almonds, Macadamia, peanuts, pine nuts, walnuts and pumpkin seeds
My food intolerance testing identified that I cannot have gluten, dairy, brewers yeast and peas so I switch my pasta and porridge oats to the free-from range of gluten free and avoid all dairy and pea products in exchange for rapeseed oil for cooking and fresh vegetables instead of peas.
FODMAPs Foods To Avoid
- Vegetables including: onions, garlic, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas, asparagus, artichokes, leeks, beetroot, celery, sweetcorn, brussel sprouts and mushrooms
- Stone fruits particularly, but fruits including: peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, prunes, mangoes, apples, pears, watermelon, cherries, blackberries, dried fruits and fruit juice concentrate
- Beans and lentils
- Wheat and rye including: breads, cereals, pastas, crackers and pizza
- Dairy products containing lactose, including: milk, soft cheese, yogurt, ice cream, custard, pudding, cottage cheese
- Nuts, including cashews and pistachios
- Sweeteners and artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, honey, Agave nectar, Sorbitol, Xylitol, Maltitol, Mannitol and Isomalt
- Drinks including: alcohol, sports drinks and coconut water
- Additions to meals such as breadcrumbs, marinades and sauces and gravies may also be high in FODMAPs
Fascinatingly, when competing for a bodybuilding contest and having to restrict my diet and calorific content for prep-week I consumed a lot of broccoli, pea (protein shakes), asparagus, beans and sports drinks which are all FODMAPs foods to avoid (and my pea intolerance). Speaking to others in the fitness industry it has become apparent that after competing on a restricted diet many athletes go on to struggle with symptoms of IBS which wasn’t present beforehand and symptoms can become lifelong.
The FODMAPs diet works by keeping a food diary to severely restrict or eliminate certain foods and drink for a short period of between 3-8weeks, but this is not as a permanent diet. However it is advisable that you always check with your doctor before making any restrictive food changes. After avoiding DOFMAPs food for this period of time you can gradually introduce items back into the diet one at a time to monitor how your body responds with your food diary. If an item of food or drink causes symptoms to resume then it needs to be avoided still, however if symptoms do not return then it can be eaten safely as normal once more.
Symptoms from a trigger food can last between 2-4 days at a time before improving or subsiding; these can be constant or intermittent and flare ups can happen unexpectedly after a long period of no symptoms at all. Knowing how to minimise and manage these symptoms is the best way to lead a healthy, happy and active life with IBS.