My IBS Diagnosis Was the Key to Alleviating My Stomach Issues

This student tried all kinds of remedies, but nothing eased their chronic constipation and bloating until they decided to take charge of their health.

It started when I was 18, during my first year of college. Instead of a regular bowel movement, I began spending long periods in the bathroom, straining with little output. This would happen daily, and what came out was probably no bigger than a pebble.

Even more alarming was that I was often only passing mucus. I'd never heard of that being possible, but it was frustrating and also scary. I also started feeling bloated, and my belly became distended (enlarged), which worsened over time.

The next three and a half years of my life were a constant battle to find out what was causing these symptoms and what I could do to alleviate them. I spent lots of time and money, and I pretty much tried everything.

Working Through Remedies

I cut gluten and dairy from my diet and put them back in. I spent $16 at a time on charcoal drinks and kombucha, trying to overwhelm my stomach with probiotics—the good bacteria proposed to improve gut health.

I reduced my coffee intake and pumped it back up. I ate lots of vegetables for more natural fiber. I drank apple cider vinegar with ginger, which is supposedly really good for you but is also disgusting.

I also had a colonoscopy, or a colon examination, which my gastroenterologist ordered to rule out anything physically wrong with the structure of my colon. I believe that healthcare providers do this before they can move on to considering more systematic things that aren't caused by a physical defect. But everything came back normal.

The nutritionist I then began seeing told me that consuming lots of protein would help "heal my gut." So I upped my protein intake to 90 grams a day. (The recommended daily allowance for someone my age is less than 50 grams, according to 2019 research published in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism) I drank tons of water and digestive tea. No change.

As time went on, I became more desperate. I spent extra cash for one-day shipping to get psyllium husk—a type of fiber derived from a herb called Plantago ovata—which was supposed to work miracles but left me $20 poorer. I bought colon health prototypes of fiber made from biotics, antacids, laxatives, suppositories, and anti-gas medications.

I became despondent, thinking I'd never be in harmony with my body. No matter what I ate, how much money I dropped on pills and products and probiotics, my stomach bloated quickly after I ate and remained that way for days. I never felt good in my clothes. My constipation was ridiculous and relentless, sometimes even intolerable. I resented my body.

Seeking Medical Attention

Finally, I decided to consult my gastroenterologist again. Of course, I should have done it sooner, but I held off for two reasons. One, the healthcare provider who performed my colonoscopy years earlier had already told me there was nothing wrong with my colon.

Second and most importantly, I was too proud to admit that I couldn't deal with my stomach problems. I read numerous stories online about people who were able to heal their digestive issues through their research. I tried hard to do that, and I felt like a failure.

But after I graduated from college earlier in 2017, I decided to start acting like I was an adult. Three and a half years of chronic constipation—nearly my entire college career—was enough. In this spirit of forced adulthood, I finally made an appointment with my gastroenterologist.

I was prepared for battle when I went into the exam room. I was ready with a mental list of every symptom, everything I'd tried, all the healthcare providers I'd seen—everything this undiagnosed issue had cost me for the last three years. When I saw my healthcare provider a few years ago, I wavered more about my complaints.

Now I was pretty forceful about saying that something was wrong and I needed help. I was ready for paper gowns and lubricant. I was prepared to do what needed to be done.

Finding the Answer

But all my preparation was unnecessary. Once I told my healthcare provider my primary symptoms, they looked at me like I had three heads and said, "Well, you have IBS [irritable bowel syndrome]," as if I had overlooked a huge neon sign flashing those three initials.

I was taken aback. My healthcare provider wasn't puzzled? I didn't have to undress and get in a weird position? They weren't going to give me some wishy-washy answer about a possible non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a "twisted" colon, or maybe say I should drink more water? No, my healthcare provider was resolute.

IBS is not a disease but a collection of symptoms. It tends to strike people before the age of 35, and cisgender women are more likely to have it than cisgender men, according to the Office on Women's Health (OWH).

Additionally, constipation is a hallmark sign of IBS, or IBS-C, to be precise—a form of irritable bowel syndrome in which abdominal discomfort or bloating occurs with constipation, according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

When you think of IBS, you may imagine diarrhea or stomach cramps, but constipation can also be a sign, especially for women. According to a 2018 review published in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, women are more likely to have IBS-C than men.

To treat what I had always experienced as an infuriating and mystifying problem, my healthcare provider recommended a regimen of non-prescription medications available in any drugstore.

I take a fiber pill and a laxative with a full glass of water twice a day. Then before bed, I take a probiotic supplement and mix a different laxative into a glass of water. My evenings are very well-hydrated. This regimen works for me, but it may not for others. It's always best to consult a healthcare provider before starting any regimen.

That's it. It's not invasive and started working within a few days. Without being graphic, I can say that in the last few weeks, my time in the bathroom has become much more productive and much less time-consuming.

I still have to watch what I eat. I try to avoid gluten (I was never diagnosed with a gluten allergy, but I find that the less I consume, the better my digestive system works) and dairy unless there's a special occasion or there's cake in the office.

My belly bloat is mostly gone too. As dramatic as it sounds, thanks to this experience, I feel more in control of my body and life.

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