Ah the glamour.
No, it’s not a made up disease which you can deep breathe away. Unfortunately it’s a very real, very debilitating issue which can ruin days of your holiday. From my calculations I’d say I’ve been dealing with IBS for around 17 years now. While it’s definitely not completely under control, I have far fewer ‘episodes’ (episodes: hospital trips, x-rays, cramping to the point where I can’t stand up, breathing hurts, lower back ache, nausea, fatigue, multiple trips to the bathroom) than I used to have when I was less aware of the food I was putting in to my body. I’ve read so many books and blog-posts on this topic now, taken so much advice from every. single. person I know (really something I don’t love to share about myself!). I’ve taken stock of what happens when I eat certain things and I thought if this could help somebody else then I should share. I’ve just put together some tips I use both at home and when travelling and although every individual is different, hopefully this helps somebody out there 🙂
IBS is more common in women and from my experience there does seem to be a link between IBS and the menstrual cycle. Here’s some of the most useful information I’ve come across on the gut, menstrual cycle and hormones:
I picked up this book and basically swallowed it whole. Logical and relatable, Giulia, a German microbiologist, provides a detailed look at the gut, the brain-gut axis, and the world of gut bacteria. We went to see speak at the Sydney Opera House a couple of years ago and she just seems like the nicest person in the world too! There are plenty of videos out there of Giulia talking about her work but I like this one.
The first I heard about WomanCode was from health blogger, Lee from America, on her post about Cycle Syncing. Honestly, it’s like the penny dropped for me. Lee explains the theory behind Cycle Syncing very well so I’d advise having a look at that post (or this one) but the piece that resonates with me is incorporating particular foods during each given week of your cycle which can help your body function optimally by getting it the right micronutrients at the right time. My copy of WomanCode is highlighted, pages cornered and looks about a million years old but the information in there is so helpful. I’ve posted a copy of the foods Alissa suggests incorporating in each week of my cycle on my fridge so it’s easy to refer to when I’m whipping up a meal 🙂
This one is a recent addition to my collection. It’s an odd feeling, but I don’t think I know quite enough about my hormones. They say PMS doesn’t actually have to happen – I WISH! This book, from naturopath and nutritionist Belinda, and food stylist and recipe developer, Ainsley, walks us through the menstrual cycle, offers practical advice for dealing with common symptoms, provides a huge selection of recipes and a section on supplements – what they’re used for, how much to take and usefully, where you can get these naturally in the food that you eat.
Steps I take which seem to help:
- Arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Elevated stress and anxiety levels definitely don’t help IBS. Actually deep, controlled breathing can help if you’re stressed or anxious and want to just slow your body and mind down.
- It’s especially difficult when travelling but the thing that works most for me is a food routine. Rain, hail or shine at home I have porridge/oatmeal (made with water and oat milk) with chia seeds (soaked overnight), cinnamon and turmeric warmed up in the morning. I top this with different nuts/seeds/nut butters (desiccated coconut, almond butter, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, walnuts or pecans) depending on what’s on the cycle syncing list that week or what I’m feeling. I don’t tend to top with fruit as I rather fruit on it’s own. If we’re staying in a hostel or airbnb it’s pretty easy to make porridge but if we’re out and about I’ll try to order something along these lines from a cafe. I love using Instagram to find new foodie spots to try.
- Water, water, water. That age-old trick that helps with everything. Drink way more than you think you need. If you’re thirsty it’s already too late and you’re dehydrated. I wouldn’t recommend drinking local tap water and I do. I only drink the tap water at home. If we’re abroad we’ll pick up a huge bottle of water and fill up our S’well bottles for days out and about exploring. I won’t drink ice-cold water if possible though as it’s a little too harsh.
- Very little dairy. No cow’s milk. I usually drink oat milk (Oatly), but I’ll also have almond milk or coconut milk. It’s pretty rare that I’d have yoghurt. I do like butter though. I love ice-cream but have it on very rare occasions as it really is an aggravator. Also, no soya milk – it’s a known hormone disruptor.
- No coffee. Very difficult for most of the world I know, but it just instantly upsets my tummy. I ADORE the smell but I just cannot deal with the taste. My husband on the other hand travels with his Aeropress, grinder and weighing scales 🙂
- Tea. I’ve cut way down on black tea – it’s quite caffeinated so if I fancy some I will still have it but I’ll make it very light. I tend to stick with herbal teas now – Spearmint is my absolute favourite and it really seems to help with hormonal (cystic) acne. Peppermint tea is good for cramps and Ginger tea can help with nausea. Chamomile tea is supposed to be good to help relax you in the evenings but I haven’t really taken to the taste of it. I like light Earl Grey or Chai tea. I always pack tea-bags in my suitcase. Must be an Irish thing as most people I think bring a box of tea-bags even if they’re just going to Spain for a week’s holiday!
- Hot Cacao – I warm up oat milk and then add raw cacao, cinnamon, turmeric, a little black pepper and a little maple syrup if I need something chocolatey. I’ll often add spirulina to this for a little green kick too. Such a cosy, hyggelig drink.
- Fizzy drinks – I don’t drink them – too much sugar. Also, 0range juice – it’s very acidic so if I wasn’t feeling well I’d steer clear.
- Greens – baby spinach is my holy grail. I love, love, love it and would eat it for every meal given half a chance. Lambs lettuce is a close second. I think greens play a huge part in keeping IBS at bay so I try to incorporate some with both lunch and dinner.
- I don’t eat white bread. Yes, I eat brown/wholemeal bread – love it. I’d been missing Irish Brown Soda Bread in Australia but now that we’re back living in Dublin I’m really getting back in to it!
- I also don’t eat most breakfast cereals. Cornflakes are like mini blades in my tummy.
- No potatoes. So sad for an Irish girl and I don’t know what it is about them but I’ll eat one and instantly look about 6 months pregnant. Sweet potatoes all the way for me. Pop one in the microwave for c. 3 minutes, top with anything (butter, salt and pepper or shredded chicken with spinach, sweet pointed red peppers and an egg. Perfection!)
- Probiotics. I always travel with a probiotic. Digestive enzymes before a meal also help. I’ve tried out a lot of different brands and not all of them had an effect so I think this is a very individual decision.
- I try not to eat on the aeroplane. Easy when the flight is under 5/6 hours but obviously I’ll eat if it’s long-haul. If we go on long-haul flights we always request the vegetarian meals – you’re given your meal first so you have time to go to the bathroom and brush your teeth or change or whatever before everybody else finishes their meals and starts queueing. You’re nestled back in ready for your movie or sleep. Pre-ordering vegetarian meals for the flight is my number 1 travel tip!
- No packet food – none of those sauces from packets or those ready-made frozen meals.
- No smoking. Zero interest.
- Red meat – there’s a huge amount in the media about red meat all the time. I choose not to eat red meat but I will eat poultry – chicken and turkey are staples for me.
- Fish – I eat most fish – salmon topped with chia seeds and popped into the oven – so delicious. There’s always a fish dish on a menu!
- No big meals – yes, we go for dinner when we’re travelling but we never order 3+ courses as it’s just too much food. Little and often 🙂
- Exercise – it’s actually easier for me to get exercise in when we’re travelling. John and I love to walk and rarely take public transport in a new city. We love to get lost and luckily, we always happen upon a must visit site! Some airlines have seated yoga sequences in the on-board entertainment system so I highly recommend doing those!
Foods I don’t touch (no matter what):
- Onions, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale – that brassica family and I just do not get along.
- Carrots. I’m sure some people are fine but nope, can’t even.
- Chinese or Indian cuisine – from takeaways. We were only in China for a short amount of time but I ate rice (white rice. Brown rice has too much fibre for me) with vegetables and no sauces and I was fine. I’m honestly put off going to India because of the food. It’s supposed to be a must-visit destination but it is one that scares me a little…
- Fast Food – McDonalds, Burger King, Hungry Jacks etc. Not worth it!
- Risotto – the actual devil.
I don’t think any of the drugs out there do much to alleviate this condition. I keep Buscopan in my wallet all the time just in case of cramps but it’s really a last resort – I’d much rather deal with my symptoms with food. Also, if you’re packing a suitcase – add a hot water bottle 😉
What it boils down to for me, is hydration, movement and 90% good decisions.