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Top tips for managing IBS – holiday edition

December 20, 2011

Eating with IBS and/or a food intolerance is tricky all year round. However, it is especially tricky when traveling, when stress levels are high, when staying with people or eating at other people’s houses, when going to restaurants, and when going to parties or dinners. I love the holidays, but at least for me, all of these things happen at once this time of year.

Luckily, my IBS is very well controlled now so I don’t need to be nearly as careful as I had to be a year ago at this time…but I still follow some definite guidelines. My top twelve tips for managing IBS are:

1) Never get too hungry. If you allow your stomach to become empty, then it becomes far more sensitive, so almost anything you eat can give you a stomach ache. Holiday parties can be tricky because you never know how much food will be available (and how much will be IBS friendly) so I always have a snack before I go, and I sometimes also bring a granola bar I can eat on the way home in case I am starting to feel hungry.

2) Never get too full. You also don’t want to over-eat because that can trigger IBS pain. Therefore, eat little and often.

3) Eat your oats. It seems like managing IBS is largely dependent on balancing soluble and insoluble fiber. More specifically, it is important to eat lots of soluble fiber and limit insoluble fiber. For me, having oatmeal every morning is an easy way to make sure I get more soluble fiber, and especially in the mornings when my stomach is more empty, it is the easiest thing for me to eat and not get an upset stomach. On a related note, one of the most important things I have learned is to eat soluble before insoluble fiber. I am very happy that I now seem to be able to eat things like salad (and most other insoluble fiber foods) but I can only do this if I have soluble fiber before or alongside it. For example, I have a piece of bread with olive oil and vinegar before having my salad, or I just eat the salad alongside my main meal rather than as a starter.

4) Drink peppermint tea. This could be passed off as just a festive holiday drink, and I have always loved peppermint tea, but strong peppermint tea also works wonders for IBS. I won’t go into detail here, but peppermint helps to calm contractions of the colon (a primary cause of abdominal pain in IBS), and although it is probably a very small amount of peppermint in the tea, it definitely helps me if I have a stomach ache, and I have a cup of peppermint tea most mornings just to help settle my tummy and prevent a tummy ache before it begins. I did try taking peppermint oil supplements, but they seemed to be too strong and they were actually hard on my tummy.

5) Find ways to exercise. This helps with stress relief and it also helps digestion, so exercising is very important for managing IBS. It can be as simple as going for a walk around the block, walking to explore a city, going for a run, doing a yoga class or video, or around my parents’ house, maybe splitting firewood. 😉 Anything you can do to fit a little bit of exercise in will help.

6) Drink plenty of water. I am not sure if drinking water specifically helps my IBS, but I know I feel better if I drink more water. It works best for me to fill a reusable water bottle and keep refilling it when it is empty. This way I can keep track of how much water I am drinking, and it makes it easy to take with me and I can set it down next to me without worrying about knocking over a glass.

7) Limit alcohol, or at least drink with food. A year ago, I was almost guaranteed an upset stomach if I had even a glass of wine. Now I am very glad that I can indulge in a drink now and then, but it is much easier if I have a drink with dinner (or lunch for that matter ;-)) rather than starting off with a drink before I have food. If I am going out for a drink after work or to a party where there are just nibbles, then I make sure to have a snack (preferably soluble fiber-based) before I go.

8 ) Limit dairy products, meat, and high fat foods. I can’t have any dairy products, but I know dairy products are generally hard for people with IBS to tolerate in any large quantities anyway. You may also have noticed that I don’t cook with a lot of meat. I do eat meat, but I find that if I eat a diet which is heavy on meat consistently, I have more stomach aches. In addition, I find that I can tolerate some high fat foods, but for some people, these need to be avoided completely. I probably couldn’t eat french fries on an empty stomach, but I can have a few alongside my main meal.

9) Plan ahead and bring snacks with you. As I said earlier, an empty tummy is an irritable tummy. Part of not getting too hungry, especially when traveling, is to bring plenty of food with you. This is especially important because when  you are traveling, the food which is available on the road is usually limited and high fat (and for me, it’s also difficult to know for sure whether fast food contains dairy).

10) Be honest. At least partly. There is no need to go into great detail about your digestive issues, but if someone is making dinner for you or you are staying with people, I have found it is best to tell them if you can’t eat (or shouldn’t eat) certain foods. When I first realized that I couldn’t have dairy products, I felt really awkward telling people this when they would invite us over for dinner. However, I think it would be far more awkward to turn up and not be able to eat any of the food. I now just say that we would love to come for dinner, but I’m difficult to cook for because I can’t have any dairy products at all, and that I’m happy to bring something with me, or that I can bring a dish to share which is non-dairy, and that it’s okay if there are things I can’t eat (as long as there is something which I can eat).

11) Limit caffeine and artificial sweeteners. Both of these things have been found to trigger IBS, and I know that they definitely give me a stomach ache. I can have a bit of caffeine (like a cup of tea) once in a while, preferably not on an empty stomach, but I don’t risk having anything high in caffeine. And I try to avoid artificial sweeteners as much as I possibly can.

12) Take deep breaths. The holidays are a magical time of year, but it can also be a stressful time of year due to the traveling, the time pressures, and the financial pressures. IBS can be triggered by stress, so if you feel a stomach ache coming on, take some deep breaths or maybe go for a walk around the block. Also, don’t panic if you get a stomach ache due to stress. This is difficult because the abdominal pain of IBS actually becomes associated with feeling stressed, and therefore, having a stomach ache (even if it is from something you ate) can make you feel stressed. I definitely have this problem. Therefore, when I get a stomach ache, I try to have a cup of peppermint tea, relax or get some exercise, and try to think about things which are not stressful.

I hope these tips are helpful! However, I think the best tip I can offer is to find what works for you and actually stick with it. When you are feeling well, it’s easy to get lazy, but it is far easier to prevent a stomach ache than to get rid of one, so it really is worth the effort.

Wishing everyone a very merry, and tummy ache free holiday season, and year ahead!

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