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Diagnosis: IBS (Where to go from here, and with diagnoses/labels in general)

Posted Mar 19 2012 10:31am

In regards to feeling good, I’m one of those people who will continue to experiment until I feel the best I could possibly feel. Or till I die, whichever comes first.

I didn’t realize that I felt crappy for the first 24 (or so years of my life) until I started to feel better. I had headaches, skin issues, anxiety, brain fog…blah blah….all this stuff I could medicate, push down, and cover up. And I did for a long time—because I was athletic and intelligent (at least in school) and at a “healthy” weight by height/weight chart standards. My first experience with experimenting with health was when I was 23, living in Boston alone for the first time, and I asked my doctor if cutting sugar out of my diet may help some of the health problems I was having (I had already consulted Dr. Google).

She shrugged and said, “I dunno. You could try it.”

I tried it. Without her help, with a few tears (stevia was so gross and licorice-y tasting back then), and without any support (except long distance from my Mom and Sister). I also will admit that I went in streaks with this at first—maybe I drank too much alcohol sometimes, maybe I had a few mocha thing-a-majigs from Dunkin Donuts on base (my civilian boss sent the airmen on dunkin runs each morning—great use of appropriated funds, I agree. I wouldn’t support that nowadays–I’m older and wiser and more responsible, and I am not scared to stick my neck out anymore. But that’s a different story).

I don’t intend to go over my health history and exploration here again, but I have been contemplating the process recently. Clients at all stages of exploration (and readiness) enter my life all the time. One of the most interesting exploratory paths I’ve encountered is the ultimate example of the misuse of Labeling and Diagnosing…..


In all seriousness, IBS is not an actual real “Thing,” but rather, it’s a category of conditions related to the digestive system. I’m encouraged that there’s hope for health improvement when a person who has been “diagnosed” with IBS comes to me for help because I know we can then begin down the road to exploration.

We’re taught to feel comfort among our labels and diagnoses. They often become a part of our identities. But, IBS is similar to labeling ADHD and autism in children, diagnosis-wise. A child’s ADHD can be caused by many different things, some dietary and some not. The label may give us a starting point for exploration, but it is just that—-an umbrella term and A Starting Point.

With Irritible Bowel Syndrome, the cause can be any one or more of the following (and it’s usually a complicated matrix of interrelated things):

1. gluten, grains, sugar, other food sensitivity or allergy (pretty much anything you could think of!)

2. stress

3. bacteria imbalance in the digestive tract (and this can/will manifest in multiple mental/physical ways)

4. alcohol

5. gall bladder or other organ problems

6. toxin exposure/processed food

7. hormone imbalance


One of the most common frustrations for my clients is in regards to the IBS diagnosis, because it is presented as if it is one thing.  The benefit to the diagnosis is gaining a starting point, and a feeling of hope can be reached by understanding that in most cases (1) we don’t have to start with a knowing of what thing(s) cause the issue and (2) we have a great effective way to explore further.

The problem arises when the diagnosis leads to a person discontinuing the exploration.

The truth is that your intestines actually serve as a second brain, based on the way they’re “wired” and connected to your physical body, chemistry, and brain. In fact, your intestines are more in control of your mental health than your brain chemistry—if they’re not happy, they will not function well, and this trickles upward to your actual brain chemicals. Garbage in (mentally and physically), garbage out. We just usually start our exploration downstream from the real issues—if your problem is anything from bloating to anxiety, we have to take several steps upstream to leave the arena of symptoms and find the roots of the problem.

The interesting part is that your Garbage does not equal my Garbage. So you can’t just copy what someone else does with her diet/lifestyle and expect success.

The first phase of exploring a diagnosis of IBS (or of any instance of feeling unexplainably crappy), is to do an elimination diet .

When in doubt, Treat the Gut.

I recommend getting the help of a doctor (functional medicine focus is best). I’m always sad and frustrated when an “IBS” client comes to me and says the doctor is having them live on white pasta and white bread—because it calms the symptoms of the IBS. Short-term this can make you feel better, long-term it will only hurt you and make things worse.

My favorite stories are those of women I worked with after 10+ years of IBS frustration. They felt crappy, bloated, stressed, sad, frustrated….for more than 10 years. That’s the bad part of the story. The good part occurred when they finally did an elimination diet for real—Focused, documented, organized, assisted elimination diets—where they didn’t  cheat, bargain themselves out of parts of it, or sabotage themselves.

One of my clients lost 22 pounds in 4 weeks—most of it puffiness and inflammation, caused by ingestion of foods that had been irritating her system for more than 10 years. She subsequently lost 10 more pounds, and had her thyroid function normalize (not to mention she felt like a new person).

Another client was saved from hormone replacement therapy after losing 10 pounds, cutting certain foods, and went into remission from Grave’s (thyroid) Disease. She had been seeing several specialists—for thyroid, hormones, and IBS—and medicating each one separately, but not treating her body as a whole unit. We discovered a link between gluten intolerance and her other thyroid/hormone diagnoses (which damaged her intestines over time, leaked into her blood stream, and as it closely resembles thyroid hormone, caused her immune system to attack that AND her thyroid). We cut the gluten, repaired the gut, replenished and revitalized the intestinal bacteria, learned stress management techniques….and she no longer sees a single specialist.

On paper, it’s easy to quantify results. In conversation and stories, the really important part occurs when someone tells you how they feel.

Even if you don’t have IBS, my personal and professional standpoint is that you should never stop exploring. My understanding of nutrition and health has evolved over the years, and it will continue to throughout my entire life. I’m open to it. Your health might be my full-time job, but my health will always be at least a part-time job for me. I expect my clients to take a similar self-invested self-care approach. It’s hard work. But it’s worth it.

What have you explored in regards to your health?



It’s a wonderfully sunny Monday in NY. I’m basking in Starbucks right now, and looking forward to spending time outside later. Yesterday did not turn out to be as productive as I had planned, but it was an OK day anyway. Maybe it’s because of St. Patrick’s Day, but I’m feeling especially lucky right now. I am working at taking a view of things as not bad or good—just taking the “Be” approach… I make mental lists of things that I’d like to focus on: being honest, not judging people, working hard, playing hard… and really, right now, I’m trying not to rush through things that feel like “chores.” It’s easy for me to get caught up and think about how I have to clean the kitchen and I want to do it as quickly as possible so I can get done and do something that’s not such a “waste” of time… Instead of that, I’m trying to be more methodical about it, treating every task as a meditation. I was always horrible at meditating when I approached it as an “empty your thoughts” kind of task. Now, I just focus on breathing deeply and really seeing what is in front of me, noticing thoughts but not trying to change or analyze them, being so inside my body that I become hyperaware of it. I’m learning how to sit with thoughts and feelings—and that it’s possible to have opposite feelings at the same time. I can be happy and sad, busy and relaxed, all at once… but that’s a topic for another day.

I hope your Monday is amazing. 

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