I still have IBS, but I am in control of it. I know my triggers and I have made peace with my life.
— Marie G.
My family moved to the United States from France when I was 10. My parents spoke very little English, and we ate a lot of pizza and fast food, which were easily recognizable in a sea of supermarket labels they couldn’t understand. Fast food became a dinner staple.
The stress of moving, first to the U.S., and then back to France, and back again — three times in all — took a big toll on me. I developed asthma, anxiety and allergies to dust and cats.
As a teenager, I struggled with self-esteem. My mother obsessed with dieting (despite feeding us junk foods regularly), and I unknowingly, developed an eating disorder to cope with everything I had no control over. At 17 an acupuncturist friend told me, “You know, allergies often indicate a deeper problem. You should try a gluten-free diet or stop dairy. You may have a food intolerance your body cannot handle and are showing other symptoms instead.” How I wish I had listened.
I went to university in Canada and was able to ignore my allergies by living in a cat-free house. I continued frequent gorging on junk food, which I would later learn, was associated with Binge Eating Disorder. That’s when I started experiencing serious intestinal problems.
For Me, Stress + Anxiety = IBS
My anxiety worsened. I developed nervous stomachaches made worse by binge eating and stressful relationships with my mom and my boyfriend. During my last semester at university, I planned to move in with my boyfriend and my intestinal problems intensified. I endured months of pain and went out only if I knew there was a restroom nearby.
I saw a doctor who told me I just needed to eat better. He referred me to an allergist and a gastroenterologist. The scratch tests the allergist performed did not detect food allergies, but showed I was very allergic to dust and cats. The gastroenterologist did multiple tests and finally, his suspicions were confirmed: I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
By then, I felt like my body hated me, was just hypersensitive, and that there was no cure. After a period of self-pity, I decided I had to take matters into my own hands.
The first step was to overhaul my diet. I tried to eat healthier, but I was unaware that I had an eating disorder. I wanted to lose weight and be healthy, and would manage to eat salads for a few days. But then I would succumb to bingeing and the self-hatred that followed.
When I opened up to friends, things became clearer: I had an eating disorder. Without knowing it, my mother was fueling my toxic behavior, and my relationship with my boyfriend was contributing to my anxiety. I realized then that I could take control of my own life and body. Through lots of trial and error, and paying attention to my body, I realized coffee, and all caffeine-containing foods, caused the worst flare-ups.
I eliminated processed foods and experimented with a vegetarian diet. My stomach began to heal. I also took up yoga. At the end of my first class, during a guided meditation of the ocean, the tears began to flow. For the first time in my life I felt my body was not my enemy. It was just trying to send me an important message.
The Key to Healing: Accepting Myself
My next step was group therapy for my eating disorder. Acceptance was the most important part of the process. As I accepted everything about myself, I made peace with the IBS instead of denying it or being angry, and my healing progressed.
Diminishing bouts of bingeing and transitioning to a vegan diet worked wonders, for a while. The day I stopped dairy, I was able to breathe while running without using my inhaler. Exercise definitely helped. My allergy to cats disappeared, and dust barely caused symptoms.
I broke up with my boyfriend who was unsupportive of my new diet. I began to mend the broken aspects of my relationship with my mother. I decided I would never be scared of doing anything ever again. I would also never let my stomach stop me.
In 2012, I moved back to the United States to find a job that would work better for me than being a packaging designer for home textiles made in China. I felt I could do anything I wanted, and was eager to explore new opportunities and take control of my life. So I did it. I quit my job, packed my bags, got on a plane, and moved to San Francisco.
It was a tough transition. At first I worked nights, and didn’t have my own kitchen, so I gained weight. Human beings are not meant to live at night! The night job not only affected my weight but also my stomach and my joints. Everything was inflamed, and the allergies came back with a vengeance.
The Last Leg of My Healing Journey: A Healthy Diet
Once again I first focused on my diet to heal. I got tested and found I was deficient in B12, so I gave up veganism. I knew I needed to remove gluten and dairy and focus on vegetables with a significant amount of protein to keep me well nourished, and to help me avoid excessive hunger, which once triggered bingeing. Then I got a day job, and started eating eggs and fish again.
And something amazing happened: my daily IBS pains were so mild it was almost like not having it. I just needed to stay away from caffeine and minimize stress to feel well.
I still have IBS, but I am in control of it. I know that lack of sleep, skipping a meal, or overeating and drinking alcohol can all trigger an episode. Even wearing a tight belt or sitting in tight pants can be a trigger.
Finding the correct foods for my body was key to my healing. There are certain foods that within a few days will make me sick for several days. Yoga and daily exercise have been amazing therapies for me. And forgiving myself, dropping expectations and choosing to smile every day have all led to minimal – if any — discomfort because I discovered what works for my body. I have a chronic disorder but it is completely under control.
By not relying blindly on a conventional doctor’s advice, I have discovered the lifestyle that enables me to be symptom-free, without any medication. Through my experience with IBS, I have gained a deep understanding of my body and my needs: Healthy food, healthy relationships, forgiving myself for abusing my body with disordered eating, getting enough sleep, remembering to take time for myself, and — most importantly — accepting that it will always require some “effort” to feel great, but it is a small sacrifice for a healthy and happy life.
I hope you enjoyed Marie’s personal story of healing and acceptance. Comment below with your personal recovery experience, or share your story here.
Take good care!
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For more personal stories, check out Romy’s experiences in 14 Year Old Romy Conquering MS
Image Credit: Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash
- IBS is not recognized as an autoimmune disease, but it can often be managed with similar lifestyle and dietary interventions.1Irritable bowel syndrome defined by symptoms, relieved through trust, patience; Chey, W.D., et. al., University of Michigan Health System; JAMA, 2015; 313 (9): 949 DOI: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2174034
- IBS may, in fact, have autoimmune origins in that it shares antibodies in common with celiac and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).2Does Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Dysmotility Have an Autoimmune Origin?; Shin, J.E., J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2012 Jan; 18(1): 104–105. Published online 2012 Jan 16. dpi: 10.5056/jnm.2012.18.1.104; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3271243/
- Interesting to note that recent research shows a correlation between eating disorders and later development of autoimmune disorders. 3Patients with eating disorders have increased risk of autoimmune diseases, Anu Raevuori, A., et. al.; PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (8): e104845 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0104845