Just a Gut Reaction
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.John Muir
Simply put: mamma nature knows what we need, and being active outdoors is just plain good for us. I recently read an article on Huffington Post that touches on the health and mental benefits of hiking (scroll to the end of the post for the link). Based on the social media reaction to the story, I think it resonated with many-an-outdoorsman – myself included. And why shouldn’t it? Successfully completing a hike (or climb or ride) is a definite ego boost. Activity of any kind in combination with sunlight stimulates the brain and body in ways that an indoor gym could never hope to.
But for me, the benefits of mountain sports (and lifestyle) go beyond happy feelings and sparking of brain wrinkles. It helps me to control my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which in turn allows me to explore life more fully.
I’ve had a bad gut since I can remember. Growing up, we thought it was just a phase. Striking more at night than during the day, there didn’t seem to be a pattern or common food that would cause the bloat and eventual bathroom time (sorry TMI). I drank more barium than I care to think about, as I underwent tests to determine if I had a perforation somewhere or a kink in the hose. No dice. Throughout the latter part of high school, I just assumed that this was something I’d have to get used to, something to live with. I always had a backup plan (location of nearest bathroom, a way to get home, etc…) incase I had an “episode” during a social outing.
That was back in the early 2000’s. “They” didn’t know what they know now. Back then, they told me Crohn’s wasn’t hereditary, that if I didn’t have Crohn’s or Colitis then I didn’t have anything at all or maybe just had a nervous stomach. In hind-site, I give them props for the latter statement. As little kid, I was prone to crazy bouts of anxiety. But the gut issues didn’t always happen when I was feeling anxious, so I poo-pooed that idea all together. Today, doctors know that there are varying degrees of IBS, IBD (Inflammatory bowel disease), and celiac and that heredity is a possibility.
As recently as two years ago I had more tests and blood work done to try to ascertain the culprit of my problem. Still nada. I was in my mid-twenties, and knew that this wasn’t a “phase”. I was frustrated, but refused to accept that I had to constantly live with the pain (and sometimes embarrassment) of this problem.
So I began to research. I found that there seemed to be a lot of people (a lot of women) who were in the same boat as I was. Some mentioned that they found meditation to be helpful. Others said exercise seemed to help them. Still others said diet was the way. It was too much information for me to handle, so I started back at the beginning and began listening to my body – really listening. For a few months, I would take note when I had an episode: how was I feeling? What had I eaten? Then, I met the man that changed everything.
I had the pleasure of working with him on a re-branding project, he was hired by an investment team to assist and manage parts of the marketing strategy. He was (and presumably still is) very knowledgable in the art of alternative medicine and the effects surroundings, foods, and mindset can have on a person. He was a great litmus test for air quality in a room or presence of additional chemicals in food – a bit like the “canary in a cave” (and so he earned his nickname). I told him of my woes after a particularly bad two-day episode and he essentially gave me a lifestyle-changing, life-improving prescription that I still use to this day – though not as often as I should. Within a month of sticking to his regimen, I felt better than I had in years.
You’ll see below that meditation and exercise are two large components of assisting in control. Meditation is a challenge for me – my brain is too loud. But the mountains, and hiking, help me to quiet down, live in the moment, and exist outside myself. I still have episodes, especially at times of stress when my eating habits are awful and I’m not sleeping much. But now I know my triggers; I make my life choices accordingly.
In this case, knowledge of self truly is power.
Taking Control of IBS
(disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, nor do I present myself as one. This is simply a description of lifestyle changes I’ve made to help control my own IBS)
- Briefly eliminate and identify possible food triggers (dairy, gluten, refined sugar, caffeine, alcohol) from your diet and after a month or two add them back in one at a time to see if anything causes an episode. In my case, I react to bread products (gluten), caffeine and alcohol. I still eat bread, still drink coffee and alcohol – moderation seems to be the key for me. Isn’t moderation really the key for life? I say yes.
- Exercise. A lot. So as it turns out, sometimes my episodes aren’t caused by eating pizza and ramen – which I do far more often than I’d care to admit – but by stress. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t recognize stress because I thrive in a pressure cooker type work environment. But realized or not, the stress is there. Exercise helps to alleviate it. Truth.
- Meditate. This one is hard for me, and as I said above, why the mountains are so helpful. The idea is to calm your mind so it isn’t stimulating the receptors in your gut. I generally tend to have an episode if I’m really excited about something or really anxious. Meditation can calm my brain to the point where I can actually stop an episode from happening. Crazy, I know. But it works. It just takes practice.
- Take some supplements. The Canary sent me a care package of supplements. In it was fish oil, Chia seeds, and probiotics. I took them each daily for a couple of months and man-oh-man did I notice a difference. Fish oil helps to reduce gut inflammation, Chia is a soluble fiber that is easy for folks with IBS to digest (it is also full of omega 3 and potassium), and the probiotics are good bacteria that live in our guts and help to break down foods. There is more science to these supplements than I’m comfortable discussing, but I’ll post some information links below.
Useful Links and More Information
- Huffington Post Article: Hiking Makes You Happier
- Fiber for IBS
- Chia Seeds and Why They’re Amazing
- Fish Oil for IBS
- More on Fish Oil