'I looked pregnant every day' - nutrition expert shares her experience of IBS
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We’ve all felt mild discomfort perhaps after eating a large meal, or something that didn’t agree with us. But what about if you felt that pain every day, after every meal?
Meet Emma Jamieson, a registered nutritional therapist and health coach based in East Anglia. Specialising in digestive health, she’s long helped women find freedom from their symptoms of IBS and other digestive troubles through dietary and lifestyle changes.
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
Following years of battling IBS, she explains what led her to train as a nutritionist, and why a happy gut is pivotal to our overall health and wellbeing.
“I had daily pain and discomfort, and the big thing for me was bloating. By the end of the day, I couldn’t stand up straight” she says.
And it wasn’t just her physical health IBS affected, but also her mental health. “I looked like I was pregnant by the end of every day, so I couldn’t ever wear what I wanted to, and I always felt so uncomfortable.”
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IBS – which stands for irritable bowel syndrome – is a common digestive problem that affects around 17% of the British population.
Common symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, and bloating. Sufferers can experience ‘flare ups’ that last for days, weeks or months at a time.
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It is thought to affect around 11% of men, and 23% of women.
“Like with many people, mine just came on by itself. Something must have triggered it, but I’ve never been able to find out what it was,” she adds.
After many trips to the GP, and unable to find relief from her symptoms, Emma took it upon herself to seek a solution, eventually training as a nutritionist at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition for three years.
“I started reading books and just went from there really. I spent a few weeks trying various elimination diets, as I was always under the impression that it was one food that was triggering my symptoms, and that I needed to find what that one food was. But I always ended up as confused as when I started, as I’d never get to the root of my problem.”
It wasn’t until Emma realised that it wasn’t eliminating foods that would help her – but instead adding new ones to her diet.
“I eventually saw that what I had to do was make a handful of changes to my diet and lifestyle, which over time have managed to resolve the issues around my IBS. For me, it wasn’t cutting down foods, but rather introducing new ones.
“For example, I now know that our gut loves having a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. So by giving my gut more food to live off, it gets a better diversity and quantity of that bacteria which is so important to its health.”
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Emma also found that by adding fermented foods to her diet such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and live yoghurt, those made a huge difference to her day-to-day life.
Fermented foods have been proven to travel through your digestive system, supporting the millions of microbes inside and helping you have a happier gut. “Think about giving your gut bacteria a wider range of foods to enjoy - ideally aiming for 30 different varieties a week,” she adds.
“And there’s also things you can do such as reducing stress and eating mindfully that will also help. Don’t just grab your lunch and eat it while you’re scrolling through your emails – take the time out to enjoy your food and chew it properly, to the point where it resembles baby food. Little things like that really can make all the difference.”
Emma also suggests having breaks between meals, and cutting down on snacking as these can both give your digestive system plenty of time to process each meal.
Since adjusting her lifestyle and diet, Emma has noticed a drastic change in her day-to-day life – and could not be happier.
“I just completely overhauled my digestive system and I’ve finally found relief – it’s been amazing. I don’t consider food my enemy anymore, and I know that other people with IBS feel that food is working against them - whereas actually I now know I can use it to my benefit.”
With gut health so intrinsically linked to the body’s overall health – a happy gut is especially important for women, as Emma explains.
“We know there’s a gut-brain axis, whereby our brain has an influence over our digestive health. For example, if someone’s stressed, they may have a bit of a bad stomach.
“But gut bacteria are also known to have a direct impact on our mood - it’s a two-way pathway. Once you detoxify any excess oestrogen, it has to leave your body through your stools, but if you’re constipated that doesn’t happen as efficiently as it should. So what happens is that gets recirculated around your body, and you can end up with high levels of oestrogen, leading to worsening symptoms of PMS such as mood swings and anxiety."
In order to help restore and maintain that balance between the body’s gut and brain, try having fermented foods every day – whether that’s a kombucha drink with dinner, or a side of sauerkraut with lunch.
"I would also like to add that it's incredibly important people contact their GP if they notice any sudden change in bowel movements, any unexplained loss of weight, severe pain in their abdomen, bleeding in their stools, or persistent diarrhoea. These could all be signs of something much more serious than IBS, and would need a GP to check it.”