Recent Blog Articles
My Gluten-Free Thoughts as an IBS Sufferer
Written by Sophie Lee. Wednesday, February 29th, 2012
When I was 12 years old my life changed forever. A ferocious attack of food poisoning made me extremely ill for 24 hours and then left me with varying degrees of digestive misery for the next 20 years.
I suffer from what’s known as post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which means that I experience constipation, diarrhoea, severe abdominal pain and bloating. At times in my life the symptoms faded into the background and hardly affected me at all, but at other times they were so severe that I struggled to cope.
IBS is often seen as a mild condition, something that is labelled as “not serious” when compared to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. That’s the doctor’s way of saying that it doesn’t kill you if left untreated, which is true, but it’s misleading, too. A couple of days of diarrhoea isn’t serious; a couple of decades of diarrhoea can ruin your quality of life.
Fortunately for me, during one of my worst ever periods of IBS I found out that many fellow sufferers were cutting out gluten from their diets in order to tame their symptoms. I had started a website called IBS Tales http://www.ibstales.com which let people share their personal stories of living with IBS, and a gluten-free diet kept being mentioned. I also spoke to a nutritionist who said that many of her patients found a GF diet very helpful, so I decided to try this approach.
Firstly I cut out all the obvious foods like bread, pasta and biscuits, and then I started on the less obvious thing – processed foods made with gluten as a filler, sausages with breadcrumbs, crisps containing wheat flour.
It wasn’t remotely easy, but as my symptoms gradually began to improve I became determined to see it through. One strategy that served me well was to keep things as simple as possible. If I used foods that were processed in any way I always had to check them for gluten, but any meat, fish or vegetable that was in its most basic state was always safe.
As long as I stuck to the diet my symptoms continued to improve, and with the addition of fibre supplements and magnesium supplements for the constipation, I found a routine that made me feel like I had returned to the land of the living!
I made full use of the gluten-free ranges that were springing up all over the place. I can highly recommend Genius bread, and there are some excellent pizzas and cakes available too. The ready meals from Amy’s Kitchen are a new discovery that I love, especially the macaroni cheese. I’ve never quite found a biscuit that doesn’t fall apart before I’ve had time to dunk it in my tea, but that’s a small price to pay for a working bowel.
As an IBS sufferer rather than a coeliac patient, I will not actually damage my body if I accidentally eat some gluten, or even if I eat my bodyweight in bread. I’ll feel like death warmed up, but I won’t be physically injuring myself, and I do feel lucky in that respect. What I feel less lucky about is the fact that, for me, going gluten-free hasn’t got rid of my symptoms completely. I’m certainly much better than I used to be, but I still have gut problems from time to time.
I also get worried when I hear about some of the attitudes that have sprung up towards people on exclusion diets. The majority of people have heard of IBS and of coeliac disease and know roughly what a gluten-free diet involves. However, some people unfortunately see free-from diets as part of a ‘fashion’, as if it’s the latest trend.
These people seem to think that gluten-free dieters who are not genuine coeliacs are either attention-seeking types who like to ostentatiously refuse food at dinner parties just to be the centre of attention (“Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat that, I’d get very badly constipated, let me tell you all about it”), or mindless slaves to fashion who have jumped on the free-from bandwagon because they were experiencing a tiny bit of bloating after meals.
Now, maybe there are some very strange people who are using a free-from diet for reasons other than pretty major health problems. But I think it’s fair to say that most of us take on a challenging, limiting diet like this for one reason only – to feel better. If I got a mild stomach ache for 10 minutes every time I ate a doughnut, I’d still be eating doughnuts.
I do realize that there isn’t currently a significant body of research which proves that a gluten-free diet is helpful for IBS sufferers. The trouble, of course, is that there isn’t really a significant body of research that proves anything is helpful for IBS sufferers, except perhaps for drugs that have never been available in the UK where I live.
I also know there’s a possibility that I don’t actually have a problem with gluten. Perhaps, for example, my gluten-free diet simply contains more soluble fibre than my old diet, or less additives, or less MSG, or it just means that I don’t eat as much junk as I used to.
But it works. And after so many years of suffering, of agonising pain and a digestive system that was permanently battered and broken, that’s all I really care about.
Sophie Lee is the author of Sophie’s Story: My 20-Year Battle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, http://www.ibstales.com/sophies-story.htm
Follow Sophie on twitter: @ibstales