When you have an ongoing challenge like IBS, being vigilant and restricting your triggers is a never-ending task. Some become second nature, but others require constant thought. Yet every time you make a decision in your day, whether it’s for work, family life, personal reasons, or your health, it drains your brainpower. And when you need to be constantly questioning ingredients or other choices to keep your IBS under control, your ability to continue making good choices dwindles quite quickly and you can get to the end of the day feeling like your brain is completely fried.
The impact of fried brain isn’t something to be scoffed at. Mental energy is in relatively short supply and when it’s exhausted, even the simplest of tasks can seem insurmountable. Whether that’s cooking dinner at the end of a busy day or choosing whether to exercise or do something else to look after your health. And when you get to that point, something has to give or you end up sprawled on the couch in a mindless stupor and not making the best choices for you.
So what can you do to prevent this?
The value of loosening the reins on your IBS restrictions
One way to prevent overload is to remove nearly all of the other choices from your day except the ones that benefit your health and your IBS. Which of course, isn’t even slightly realistic. Could you imagine rocking up to work and telling your boss that you’re not going to make any decisions today but you still expect to be paid? Hah!
Another way is to loosen the reins on your vigilance and see what happens to your IBS. I mean who knows, maybe this time your body will be able to handle it?
Would you believe that even after 25 years of IBS, I still think that occasionally? Of course I do know better, but sometimes when my brain is beyond fried, normally when work is requiring me to make lots of little decisions throughout the day, I come to the conclusion that loosening the reins is the best option.
And for a short while it is the best option. It gives my mind a break that creates space and allows me to settle back to a point where I can start to think clearly again.
But please notice that I say “loosening” the reins, not throwing them away altogether.
I never remove all of my food restrictions – that would land me in a heap. Instead I allow myself to make choices that aren’t as good for my health (veggies anyone?), allow my treats and caffeine to slowly increase (sorry poor little gut), or push the boundaries on my FODMAP intake to their limits.
Other times I remain quite vigilant on my food choices, which generally means my freezer is well stocked, but let other things slide. That includes exercise, meditation, or the other calming strategies that help to keep me on track.
The choice on what to let go of depends on how I’m feeling at the time and what’s going on in my life to contribute to the problem, so I never loosen the reins in quite the same way each time. Sometimes it’s food, sometimes it’s the other stuff, sometimes it’s both.
But eventually, it comes back to bite me unless I tighten the reins at the right time.
My recent experience with loosening the reins
Recently I’ve had a couple of things to contend with that led me to loosening the reins.
First, I had a seriously nasty bout of reflux in early January that burnt my throat and vocal cords, affecting my ability to talk, eat, work and act like a normal human being for over a week. This was highly unusual for me and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was also bad enough that I required strong reflux medication to heal the damage and it’s likely I’m going to need it for another month or so.
This really affected my ability to exercise because of the phenomenal burning sensation in my chest and throat that would reappear with any sort of moderate exertion. So that removed one of my key IBS modulators.
Then at the same time, I was working hard on the changes to this website, which combined with other work deadlines had me making so many decisions each day that I could barely keep up. My brain was usually fried before lunch time. Cooking dinner was not high on my agenda and it was only my freezer stash that got me through, until of course it ran out.
I got tired, which made it exercise even less appealing, even when the reflux started easing. And to counter the tiredness I ate a lot more sugary treats and bread. Yes, a lot more! And because they filled me up, I ate less fruit and veggies. So my diet became less healthy and my body started to suffer. Not just my gut, but my whole body.
Then almost two weeks ago I noticed my warning signs appearing, those little cues that tell me that all hell is about to break loose if I don’t start taking care of myself. For me, this was wheeziness for no apparent reason (which is my asthma being triggered) and my skin breaking out pretty badly. Whenever these things happen, I know it’s time to put my health as an absolute priority. Because if I don’t, then things will get truly out of control and my IBS will flatten me.
Tightening the reins back up again to prevent your IBS getting out of control
Tightening the reins will mean different things depending on how you loosened the reins, but also on what you personally need to do to keep your IBS under control. You don’t need to get everything under control instantly, which is almost impossible to do anyway, but instead focus on two aspects:
- The things that have the biggest impact on your IBS.
- The things that are most likely to keep you on track.
For me, food and stress are the things that impact the most on my IBS, but exercise is what’s most likely to keep me on track. Here’s how that works for me…
Stress is my ultimate IBS trigger, so I need calming techniques in my day, every day, to prevent stress from triggering my IBS. Or I need to remove the stress, which isn’t always possible.
When it comes to food, FODMAPs are crucially important and almost as important as stress. Making healthier food choices (that are low FODMAP) are necessary too, but not quite as crucial as the FODMAP content. Although I do find that prioritising healthier options, such as veggies and fruit, naturally lowers the FODMAP content of my diet because they make me eat less bread and grains.
But exercise is my circuit breaker, the thing that keeps me on track. It does help the IBS directly by keeping the gut moving well; it also decreases my stress by getting me away from the computer and by reducing stress hormones. But most of all, when I exercise regularly, it makes me want to be healthier and look after myself. Everything feels easier, healthy food is more appealing, and I crave less treats and bread.
So for me, as long as FODMAPs are under control, exercise is the crucial thing for me to focus on.
Note: for you, the factors to focus on may be different, but that’s something you’ll need to think about and consider what affects your IBS the most.
When tightening the reins, it’s best to take it slowly and focus on one thing at a time. At first, my exercise goal was a 20-minute walk every 2 days. Now my goal is to do it every day. Then I’ll step it up gradually until I get back to where I was. I’ve also added in a 5-minute meditation at the start of the day, which creates headspace before I start working.
Not surprisingly, my food choices have naturally changed too. Yesterday I only ate half a square of chocolate – yes I was stunned too – and ate lots more veggies. And I’m prioritising cooking earlier in the day and restocking my freezer, so that way if I do have a doozy of a day that fries my brain, there’s still healthy low FODMAP food available.
Now here’s the key point I want you to remember…
It’s okay to loosen the reins when it makes things better, but you have to know your warning signs that tell you when to tighten the reins again.
And then when you do start to tighten the reins, it’s okay to take things slowly. This is something I tell my clients over and over again. It’s okay to focus on one thing at a time. But you do need to find a way to look after yourself if you want your IBS to stay under control.