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Despite What You Were Told, Diet DOES Impact IBS and IBD

In this blog post, I want to touch on the topic of despite what your doctor said, diet does impact IBS and IBD. I’m someone who has lived with the struggle all the way back to childhood on some level. This has really has given me an appreciation for how challenging both of these conditions can be, and also how tricky they can be to work with from a functional perspective as a practitioner. It is possible to get the symptoms under control with a holistic and nutrition based approach, as long as you're truly identifying the biggest factors impacting why those symptoms are manifesting in the first place. I’d like to touch on how I work with these conditions from a functional perspective, and what I've seen happen in terms of success stories with some of the clients I've worked over the course of time.

Even though IBS affects up to 10% of the world's population, and IBD affects less people than that, I would argue both of these conditions, especially IBD, is quickly growing. The numbers are only getting bigger and bigger as we kind of head into the chronic health crisis we're in in the United States. 

I feel like this can be a tricky population to work with because a lot of people struggling with either IBS or IBD tend to be quite reactive to a lot of foods and supplements. From a functional perspective, one of the ways we try to help support the body back to good function on its own is through supplements, which have to get processed through the digestive system - the very system impacted in these conditions. Because of that, it adds an extra layer of difficulty because the very things we're trying to do to help the body will sometimes trigger symptoms to a greater extent. This can be very hard, especially for a practitioner that's not well-versed in how to work through these types of challenges, or who hasn't personally struggled with IBS or IBD. Therefore, in the functional space the majority of people invested in helping the population struggling with IBS or IBD have gone through their own struggle with one of these two conditions and have a greater degree of confidence in helping this population because they had to personally learn to troubleshoot their own reactions and understand the emotional challenges around just being able to conduct a life in a normal way when symptom flares are happening.

And so that's a very big part, I feel, of working with this population because it can be so devastating and so limiting in a lot of ways. But I also feel like, especially in my own experience as a client and even a patient navigating this journey years ago, there were practitioners that actually turned me away. I think they didn't tell me this, but I think it was because of the IBD label and just probably not feeling comfortable with working with that type of thing because it can be so tricky.

Let me just start by briefly speaking on the disconnect that I've come across time and time again in conventional medicine when it comes to the role diet plays in helping these different conditions. I've always thought it's really absurd to think that the types of food that we eat would have no impact whatsoever on digestive symptoms, given that conditions like IBS and IBD affect the very system that processes our food.

In my mind, even before I became trained as a practitioner, it just made intuitive sense that what I ate would absolutely have an impact on what was going on with how my tummy felt or the type of bowel movement I was going to have. It just makes intuitive sense. And I think for most people on that journey, sooner or later, they're going to start to get to their own sense of, “yes, I think diet is playing a role. I may or may not know what to do to help myself, but I've gone to my doctor and that hasn't been much help.”  And also speaking from just both my personal experience as a patient in the system and what I've noticed through working with lots of clients who have been through the conventional system and then elected to work with me, is that often the dietary tools are given when they go to see their GI doc or someone in that system are very limited. And a lot of times those dietary templates may have some research showing that they can be helpful, but in my experience, they're not often going to be enough to get that person over the hump and get them truly on the path to feeling well again. 

The conventional system as a whole is not designed to take the time to sit down with patients and really teach them which dietary strategies could work well for them, which foods might be their biggest triggers, and take a look at what each patient is eating and really give good feedback on that. That's just not the way the system is designed. And on top of that, most doctors and nurse practitioners working in conventional gastroenterology don't have a deep understanding of therapeutic diets as they are applied to helping people with IBS and IBD. And it's just the way the system is designed.

Unfortunately, we are very much at a place where most conventionally trained practitioners are often time constrained in their ability to work one-on-one with their patients. They want to offer them quick fixes, which often come down to drug-based solutions. No judgment on that. If that works well for you, great.

But I'm guessing you're reading this blog because you've already been down that path and you feel a lot of reservations about this being the end-all be-all solution for you. And you're hoping to figure out a way to help your body get back to health so that eventually you can get off of those meds. Or if you have never gotten on them, you don't have to opt into that type of method.

With drugs, the mechanism of action is often to block something the body is doing. By contrast, functional medicine practitioners operate from the philosophy that the body has its own innate intelligence and wisdom, and all of the symptoms we experience, whether they're gastrointestinal or something else, are really a means to try to deal with an imbalance. The body is doing the best it can to try to reconcile what's going on. And so, although it's playing out in a way that feels very uncomfortable and painful and interferes with your quality of life, your body is really doing the best it can to try to keep itself in balance. And so, what we try to understand is what might be going wrong beneath the surface that's driving the symptom expression.

And that could be so many things. But in the world of conventional medicine, they're less concerned and interested in understanding the “why” beneath the symptoms. They really are just looking for a way to quickly get it under control for you. There is a time and place for that. What I'm seeing more and more, however, especially with the people that approach me that are interested in doing this type of work, is that people are no longer satisfied with bandaid solutions. They really want to understand what happened that led them to this place of chronic health issue. And again, there's no simple silver bullet answer to that question often. But I will say it is possible to troubleshoot this. It is possible to restore health through natural means. You need a good plan and a good way of assessing what might be at play.

What I can say is that I absolutely have been in the chair of the patient who was told after their IBD diagnosis by the nurse practitioner I was seeing at the time, "I don't think you should even worry about what you eat. Just go on the drug.” And I remember thinking to myself, “Are you crazy? That is not going to work for me.” In that moment it was almost like being told, “Don't think about this any deeper than what it is. Just accept it. Take this drug and go live your life.”

In the beginning, I did try the drug therapy because I was so desperate for relief. However, it was a blessing in disguise that I didn't respond very well to the drug therapy I was offered. This encouraged me to keep going on and not settle just for an easy type of solution that was going to, at the surface, get rid of the symptoms. If you are in that boat where you've tried a medication and it's maybe helped a little bit, but there's still this little nagging thought kind of bothering you that is saying “I know this isn't actually the solution” - that should be your sign to keep going on the journey. This should be the push to keep trying to really get to the root of what might be driving your symptoms in the first place. 

What I can tell you is I've had success both personally and with a whole boatload of people I've worked with using diet to really calm down gut symptoms. And of course, using it strategically, using it in a very sort of almost prescriptive way, like really looking at what a person's eating and trying to discern what are the probable foods that are really triggering your symptoms. And now I'm not going to say that staying on a restricted diet forever is the approach to resolving IBS or IBD. But what I am saying is there's absolutely a connection between gut symptoms and diet, and there things we can do right out of the gate to reduce trigger foods.

And in fact, with the whole gamut of tools that I work with as a functionally trained practitioner, the thing that I really lean on hard in the very beginning with a lot of my IBS or IBD clients is taking a really good look at their diet and helping them start to make some strategic changes to get symptom relief. From my perspective, one of the best methods to get the needle moving in the right direction is to start with diet. 

So if you feel like you've been told by a just take the drug, eat what you want to eat, and there’s nothing you can do about this, I want to inspire some hope in you that that's not what I've seen. That's not what I've personally experienced. There are things you can do about this. You are definitely empowered to explore your health challenge at a deeper level and connect the dots. And having a trained practitioner who looks at things from a holistic functional perspective is going to be huge for most people who are trying to piece this together on their own. But needless to say, it is possible to manage and even reverse gut symptoms through a nutritional and functional approach.

To listen to my podcast episode on this topic, click here for Spotify and here for YouTube.

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