Do I Look Bloated in This?

Basket of basil leaves with rustic wicker chair.
Basil harvest, summer 2019

Did you know that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects 1 in 5 people? That’s a lot, yet mostly it’s not talked about…. You know, coz of the poo and the gas and the cramps and the bloat and the nausea. Ewww. In my case, also because of the difficulty breathing, the coughing, the waking in the night gasping for breath, and the difficulty swallowing. I thought I must have had cancer or something equally as dire. But no, all that was ruled out with my GP, leaving only IBS as the probable culprit.

I was gobsmacked! Literally! I exclaimed to my doctor ‘But I love food!?!’ I was truly incredulous. I thought IBS was something that makes you rush to the toilet like an incarcerated stick figure – which it can – but it turns out that’s only one of many possible manifestations.

It causes pain in the gut in various places and to varying degrees. It can cause chronic diarrhoea. It can cause chronic constipation It can cause the two at turns. It’s really on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff for many people! For me it was the breathing – the heavy weight on my chest at night in particular, which was relieved for a while by an asthma inhaler, and then by an antacid – but then the nausea that developed and hung around for days finally led me to the mysteries of FODMAPs.

Yes, thanks to Australia’s own Monash University and their ground-breaking research on IBS treatments, I’ve been able to eliminate FODMAPs from my diet for the last month or so and my symptoms have all but disappeared. I don’t need the antacid, I don’t need probiotics like I have for the last twenty years, and I’m sleeping better and have more energy. It’s really been life changing.

So, what are FODMAPs, I hear you say. They’re fermentable carbohydrates (sugars) which the small intestine can’t digest. When they reach the large intestine, they ferment causing more water to be brought into the area and more gas is created. The subsequent bloating and stretching of the large intestine can feel uncomfortable and in people with IBS the aforementioned symptoms come out swinging too!

It’s not properly understood why some people develop IBS. There are links with the nerve endings of the gut, with the nervous system, stress and trauma, and also with food poisoning and high volumes of antibiotics, but none have been shown to be a sole or definite cause of IBS.

It’s much more common in women than men, but it’s not yet understood why; there might be links with hormones. With 20% of the population affected let’s hope the research continues and finds some more answers!

A low FODMAP diet is not too difficult at home, but it did require a restock of some alternatives to our usual foods. My family being keen cooks and eaters, this wasn’t too difficult for us but eating out has proven very tricky! So often everything on offer is ruled out for one reason or another: this one has lactose milk, that one has mushrooms, this one has onions, that one has beans. It’s not readily explainable to people what you can and can’t eat – it doesn’t follow any really predictable rules – you’ve really got to communicate with your hosts (whether friends or a venue), and direct them to a FODMAP resource. It’s either that or don’t go out or bring your own!

I’m through the elimination phase where you’re 100% low FODMAP and I’m feeling so good. Now I’m beginning to reintroduce foods that aren’t low FODMAP but I know already from some lapses in the elimination phase (oops), that I’ll probably never have a number of different foods and drinks because they’re trigger foods for me.

Monash recommends working with a dietician through the elimination and reintroduction phases[i] but I’ve been flying solo so far with the help of online resources and cookbooks, which I’ve listed below. Everyone’s different, so there’s a fair degree of trial and error and symptom relapse when you reintroduce foods, but it’s definitely worth it to be able to expand your food options into the future. At the very least, you’ll know what you can tolerate and what to avoid completely.

The saving grace for me though is that dark chocolate is very much ok! And I’ll sleep well tonight because of that!

Resources I’ve found helpful

  • Monash University FODMAP
  • Monash University FODMAP app – great when you’re out and about and wondering whether you can eat something or not! AUD$9.50 well spent.
  • The Gut Foundation
  • Blog: Tips on Tea for the FODMAP Crowd
  • FODMAP Friendly
  • The FODMAP Friendly Kitchen by Emma Hatcher, Great Britain, Hodder & Stoughton, 2017
  • Calm Belly Cookbook by Cecile Agotnes, Great Britain, Modern Books, 2018
  • The Low FODMAP Recipe Book by Lucy Whigham, Great Britain, Octopus Publishing Group, 2017
  • Well and Good gluten free flour
  • Cobram Estate Garlic Infused Olive Oil

© Palitja Moore, text and image, 2019

[i] Consult your doctor before you decide you’ve got IBS. There are a bunch of conditions which can be responsible for the symptoms mentioned here so you should have the necessary tests to rule them out first. If you get a medical diagnosis of IBS, the low FODMAP diet is likely to help.

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