IBS: “I finally managed my gut health – and it did not involve a restricted diet”

Posted by for Nutrition

For years, fitness trainer Tally Rye thought she was doing all the right things to help her IBS, but her restrictive diet was causing its own problems. Here’s how she finally learned to manage her gut health. 

In late 2012, I started experiencing severe cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and trapped wind regularly. As a second year student at drama school studying musical theatre – singing, dancing and acting every day – it was getting in the way of being fully present and participating in class. Clothes became uncomfortable to wear as my tummy would expand and be tender to touch. One day when I was in voice class, I vividly remember being unable to fully stand up due to the cramping. I had to take frequent trips to the loo throughout the day, which was disruptive and honestly embarrassing. I finally decided to go to the doctor.

My hometown GP told me he thought it could potentially be Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), although he wasn’t certain what caused it and recommended that I try cutting out certain foods to see if it made a difference. I left the appointment feeling like so many of my questions were unanswered, so I did what anyone else would do: I got a second opinion from Dr Google. Okay, probably not the wisest decision, but we’ve all been there right? 

Soon enough, I found a blog post from a famous wellness guru who opened up about experiencing similar problems to me. As I read about her familiar experience of the cramps, bloating and discomfort, I felt seen – this is what I had been feeling too! The blogger then said that by cutting out gluten and refined sugars, and eating “clean” and unprocessed foods instead, they were able to manage their IBS. Amazing news! So naturally, I started implementing this to my diet also. 

Side note: I was particularly drawn to this blogger as they were friends with celebrities who had endorsed her work. It was implied that if I altered my lifestyle, I might look like them and get their same glow.

This was a significant part of my introduction to health, fitness and wellness. I already enjoyed the physical side of my musical theatre training, working out and pushing myself in our body conditioning classes, but this was the first time I decided to seriously alter my eating habits. It started with cutting out gluten, something I had never been aware of previously. But now, somewhat suddenly I (along with health and wellness journalism) decided it was the enemy.

The label of “enemy” that I attached to gluten meant that if I knowingly ate it, I would pre-empt my body’s reaction. I remember once that my boyfriend at the time made me a chocolate Gu pudding. However, I was in the mindset of eating clean- and gluten-free, so I reluctantly ate the pudding, telling myself it was unhealthy and would make my IBS symptoms flare up – and it did. My tummy expanded and the bloating was extremely painful. I vowed that going forward, I would be more diligent with the food I ate.

At this time in 2012-2013, the gluten-free market was nothing like it is today – so I had limited options. Add to that my quest for “clean” gluten-free food and my choices became severely restricted and rigid. 

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It was around the same time that I started to share my health and fitness journey on my Instagram – which was called @cleanfitlifestyle at the time. My IRL friends were not into my workouts and gluten-free eating, so through my Instagram account I found an online community that I could be a part of. I shared my picture-perfect breakfasts and overly complicated recipe alternatives – and watched as my following began to grow.

My online persona seeped into my everyday life. Friends thought of me as Tally – the gluten free, health-focused, fit one. I liked that. That new identity was so important to me at the time. That personality felt like it set me apart from my peers at drama school as we worked to get ahead in a notoriously competitive industry. That identity outlined the box in which I had put myself – and it also  pushed me to develop a disorder with food, fitness and my body. But my identity was my coping mechanism. 

In subsequent years, as I graduated drama school and made a career shift to qualify as a personal trainer and enter the fitness industry full-time, I inhabited that box. But increasingly, it began to stifle me. 

On the one hand, I wanted to go out for dinner with friends and enjoy eating all the wonderful foods, but my self-imposed labels of gluten-free and what I deemed “healthy” meant that I often ate what I thought I should, rather than what I actually wanted to. I was becoming more fearful of food and how it might impact my body, weight and particularly my IBS symptoms. Having a more socially acceptable label of gluten-free also allowed me to maintain my self-imposed, rigid food rules.

This came to a head on the first holiday with my current partner. We went away after I had spent the previous 12 weeks dieting for a photoshoot (that ultimately I was unhappy with, but that’s another story). Life was particularly stressful at that time, as it was during my first year working full-time in fitness. I was working six to seven days a week in two gyms in different parts of London, juggling my social media world, dieting for a photoshoot that involved exhaustive nightly meal prepping and working out religiously. Not to mention that I was trying to fit in a social life plus having a boyfriend.

I. Was. Stressed. So, I went on an all-inclusive holiday. For the first time in years I didn’t work out, I let myself eat freely and I just relaxed in the sun while having a great time. Yep, for the first time in years I let myself eat gluten, processed foods, cocktails, ice cream and all that other good stuff. And despite my previous fears of foods like this causing my IBS symptoms, I actually experienced none – at all! Bread didn’t leave me with cramps. Pastries didn’t cause me to bloat. Pasta just tasted really good. 

Woman holding her stomach
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This is when things started to unravel for me and I had questions – a lot of them. If I was able to eat gluten and feel fine, then maybe I wasn’t gluten intolerant after all – despite the doctor (and Google) suggesting it was the cause of my gut issues. Could it be that my IBS was caused by stress instead and not even food? 

For the last five years, I have slowly been answering these questions while simultaneously making peace with food by removing my self-imposed rules and restrictions. I currently suffer with relatively mild IBS-like symptoms – perhaps a handful of times a year – but now, I have a much better understanding of why that is.

Here is what I’ve learned and I hope it can help shed some light for others suffering from IBS and gut health issues. 

1. IBS is a stress-sensitive disorder, and chronic stress is a key component and risk factor. This is due to the Gut Brain Axis, and the Vagus nerve that runs down your torso and connects the brain and your gut. This explains why at some of the most stressful points in my life, my IBS symptoms were much more present and when I was more relaxed (like on holiday), my gut was much happier.

2. The wellness world and Google searches made me think that the root cause of my gut issues were solely food-based, and that if I just eliminated things such as gluten, it would make me feel better. However, years later after therapy and reflection, I realise that food in and of itself was not the sole trigger, and that the root cause went much deeper than that. My body and mind had experienced chronic stress years prior to drama school through the loss of my father. This trauma was compounded with stress during my time at a competitive drama school – as I suppressed my grief, my body responded in the only way it knew: to sit in fight or flight mode (or the Sympathetic Nervous System). I have since learned the importance of rest, and recently I have started to introduce a ten minute lie down where I do absolutely nothing (not even phone scrolling) each day, as a way to relax my mind and body as recommended by Psychologist Kimberley Wilson. Rest, sleep and relaxation have helped my body to shift into a “rest and digest” mode, known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System – and so I aim to incorporate it more into my life.

3. Years of rigid food rules and dieting attempts meant I had anxiety about eating certain foods, which would then manifest itself in my body through IBS symptoms. Ditching diets and neutralising food by no longer considering certain foods “good” or “bad” and instead as food that serves different purposes (comfort, nourishment, pleasure, energy, etc.), meant that I was able to digest foods much easier, rather than feel anxious about how my body would react. 

4. Another bonus of ditching diets is that I am also no longer depriving my body. Instead, I’m listening to it more and letting how it makes me feel guide me. I’ve learned to build trust with myself and with my body so that I can honour my hunger and enjoy foods without guilt and fear. By no longer having a calorie deficit, ignoring my hunger and trying to eat “clean”, my tummy is full and my body is nourished – which has had a positive impact on my gut and has helped to massively reduce the frequency of my symptoms. There’s a lot to be said for an adequately fed body and mind. 

    going plastic free
    IBS: "I neutralised food by no longer considering certain foods 'good’ or ‘bad’"

    This has been my experience. It is important to note that this can be different for each individual, but my hope is that by reading this, that you don’t automatically cut out food groups and demonise gluten just because a blogger online told you to. Instead, become more aware of how your brain and body are connected, and know that gut health and IBS are multi-factorial.

    This journey has been about way more than just the food I’m eating. I’ve learned to improve my relationship with my body and am understanding how to acknowledge and process my stress and emotions. A lot of my learning over the past five years has been from listening to gut health specialist Dr Megan Rossi, author of “Eat Yourself Healthy”, and Kimberley Wilson, author of “How to Build A Healthy Brain”. Both books are a must read and have been a massive help in allowing me to put the pieces of my own puzzle together. 

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    Images: Getty, Unsplash

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