IBS and the Sensitive Gut
Do you remember what it was like when you last spent the afternoon in the sun and then tried to put your top on? Your skin felt like it was burning. Exposure to ultraviolet light had made it exquisitely sensitive to anything that touched it.
Well, your gut can become sensitive too. It has sense organs just like the skin; only these are likely to respond to stretch and distension or to the chemical composition of your food as well as the texture and touch. And when these sense organs are stimulated, they cause a diffuse abdominal sensation of pain, fullness or bloating.
But they can also result in gut reactions. These may be local spasms, secretion, or peristalsis. Or they may stimulate reflexes that slow the way the stomach empties, encourages evacuation from the colon, or even affect other more distant bodily functions, such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, alertness, and bladder function. So depending on you and what you have eaten, a sensitive gut can make you feel sick, cause diarrhoea, make you constipated, induce bloating and abdominal distension, give you stomach ache, backache, breathlessness, faintness and cause all sorts of other symptoms in many different part of the body.
Does this sound familiar? Well up to about 30% people suffer from their sensitive gut. Many are diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Functional Dyspepsia (indigestion) and given pills that rarely work. A few have coeliac disease or colitis and will respond to specific dietary or medical treatment. But for most the sensitive gut does not indicate a specific disease. It is more a state of being that needs to be understood and managed in the same way as the sensitive skin and the sensitive person.
What makes the gut sensitive?
Almost anything that affects the gut can make it sensitive. This includes any disease process, infection, tumours, poisoning, inflammation and allergy. People with colitis, food allergy, food poisoning, diverticulitis and coeliac disease can show all the symptoms of the sensitive gut. These type of diseases diseases are uncommon and are readily diagnosed by doctors, who are skilled at detecting signs of disease by symptoms such as fevers, blood loss, anaemia and weight loss and by conducting further tests.
Most people, who have long term symptoms of a sensitive gut, have no evidence of specific disease when examined medically. Instead, they may tend to be dismissed by doctors with reassurance and a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome with very little support on how to manage it.
Managing your sensitive gut
Most people with a sensitive gut find eating problematic. It is not just one food that might trigger a problem but groups of foods such as those containing fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs). Foods containing these fermentable carbohydrates can be adjusted in the diet to reduce symptoms. To find out more about how fermentable carbohydrates can trigger symptoms you might be interested in watching this video produced by scientists at Monash University.
Fat in the diet can also upset the gut as can coffee, chilli and insoluble dietary fibre. People react individually to food so it is not possible to dictate the food you should eat but steer you in the right direction so that you can learn for yourself what upsets you.
Another very important thing to note is that having IBS and a sensitive gut means you are intolerant of many foods not allergic to them. Everybody’s level of tolerance will be individual and so it is important to find out what your level of tolerance is by careful trial and error.
We have created a list of foods which you can safely eat in small portions here.
We advise preparing food yourself because you can choose the food and ingredients that suit your sensitive gut and not have to worry about ‘hidden’ ingredients in industrially or commercially prepared food.
Eating as close to nature as you can is a good principle to follow and learning kitchen and food preparation skills that will help you to prepare food quickly and enjoyably is a very good investment of your time. We also encourage people to eat a varied diet to ensure obtaining the correct balance of nutrients for health. Over restriction of the diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies such as B12, iron, vitamin D and calcium. These nutrient deficiencies can have a serious effects on your overall health.
Other lifestyle factors trigger gastrointestinal symptoms including stress, emotional upset and travel. So be mindful that food is not the only thing to trigger symptoms.
If you would like more advice about what makes the gut sensitive and how to manage it have a look at The IBS Network website.