Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Overshare: IBS and Yoga

Overshare alert. Again. (sigh, I am a sucker...hah) I have IBS or 'Irritable Bowel Syndrome'. Lots of Type A people do actually and according to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, IBS affects approximately 13 to 20% of Canadians. So I know that in this overshare I am not alone. Trust me though, my stomach issues are definitely not something I like talking about.

Ok, first things first. I need to clarify what it means for myself as each and every person may experience similar symptoms along with very different results.

IBS is basically an array of symptoms that some researchers think is linked to improper motor-sensory neurological signals sent from the brain to the stomach. Instead of telling the stomach to process food as it normally would, these signals will tell the stomach and intestines to process food NOW. The typical peristalsis (squeeze-push through) muscle movements are changed to sporadic and intense muscle spasms. The opposite is also true, at times inhibiting food digestion.

Sounds wonderful eh? There are many possible triggers for IBS, from certain foods, lifestyles, antibiotics to hormone fluctuation. The management of IBS is equally as vague and unique to each individual.

For myself, I can say that for as long as I can remember I have struggled with digestion. As far back as clutching my belly on the way home from elementary school. I was a picky eater (still am) and from my clinical experience and education (SLP's work with individuals who have eating and swallowing difficulties) I can confidently say that my food anxieties most likely stemmed from digestive struggles as early as infancy. Eating has always been painful.

My main triggers are stress and dairy. But honestly anything under the sun could do it if my stomach was 'in the state'. During my undergrad and graduate degrees the stress was high and I lost a *lot* of weight coupled with a few trips to emergency. (Side note, breads with whole grains and seeds are NOT a good idea).

Practicing Yoga with IBS poses some pretty significant challenges and benefits. First the good stuff:

Yoga has become my main source of stress management (along with music). Although I have been pretty fantastic at pranayama and correct breathing since I was 13 (singing lessons), Yoga has allowed me to focus and calm my anxiety ridden mind. It wasn't an overnight miracle, or lightbulb moment (far from it!) but after 5 years of practice I can firmly say that Yoga keeps my stress under control. The journey has slowly allowed myself to explore ways to peace, acceptance and letting go. And continues to do so.

Yoga has also allowed me to find physical activity in relative safety. Planning events and sport activities can be stressful for individuals with IBS. Planning the yoga class around MY schedule allows some sense of control. Also, I could simply take a class in the safety of my home.

Staying physically active also helps with body health and ultimately digestion of food. Although the 'twists' and such to help improve digestion really have no relevance for me (as I have doubts they would for most sufferers, if my stomach is hurting twists are NOT going to help), simply being active helps.
The tricky parts of Yoga and IBS:

Attending class can be ridiculously stressful. Although I am now at a point that I'm managing my IBS, flare ups happen and often without prediction. Going to yoga classes is an anxious event for me. Showing up, hoping the teacher will be good, trying not to let the whole 'lulu' atmosphere of the other yogis affect me, what if I can't find a spot? What if the teacher makes me have a panic attack (like last time?)... All internal to my own issues, but all pretty effective at worsening an already delicate balance.

Cuz once you're in that class, running full out to the bathroom while clutching your stomach WILL get noticed. It's really a pretty big etiquette no-no.

Many Yoga postures can actually be painful and counter productive for IBS. Such as any sort of chest opener or back bend. Stretching out and moving around when all you want to do is curl up in a ball really isn't ideal.

Not eating before yoga class is actually the best way I can stave away any risk of 'bad times'. However, we do need to eat and sometimes 2-3 hours digestion time, for someone with IBS, doesn't cut it. The doshas are great guidance systems, but really were not created for an individual with IBS in mind. I say this because I would have some serious health consequences. This isn't to say they aren't appropriate for others, I would simply caution anyone with digestive concerns from taking on an Ayurvedic diet without first consulting their medical doctor AND more importantly Dietitian-Nutritionist.

Here are some things that I have learned that work for me. (please note the 'me', they may not be best for you. Please consult your doctor and Dietitian).

Vegetables: essential for good health but dangerous suckers. Eating raw vegetables may be tasty (I *hate* cooked vegetables) but our stomachs are not geared to digest and break down plant cell walls. Steam your vegetables- this will break down the cells while retaining most of the nutritional value. I once had a Dietitian tell me that if I wasn't steaming my vegetables than I shouldn't complain about stomach pain and bloating.... (right).

AVOID whole grain bread, sharp seed-y things, granola with whole flax seeds etc in your regular diet. Remember the spastic muscle thingys?? Imaging a sharp seed ripping through there. Yeah. Not so great. Imagine where the bleeding would end up.... Whole wheat bread is fine. Really.

Certain fruits definitely contain a LOT of acid and can cause a lot of pain. Like strawberries and apples (ok strawberries are berries, but ya know). I still eat them, cuz eating local means eating apples, but I deal with the pain. If you have alternatives, research them.

Probiotics are great, but in the form of Yogurt can be scary (ahem, dairy). I have slowly accustomed my stomach to Yogurt and have felt better from my homemade live cultured yogurt than ever before. Honestly not fool proof though... :S caution is warranted.

Eating smaller portion sizes, regularly. This one is really hard to accomplish with my work, and has slipped. But I notice a definite improvement when I eat more often in smaller portions. This allows me to eat more sketchy veggies (ie that cause pain and bloating) in smaller bits, getting nutrients without shocking my belly.

Please avoid 'restrictive' diets such as internal 'cleansings'. Your intestinal and digestive system is sensitive (and we know that fruits and vegetables can be harsh on your stomach). Changes should occur gradually and in a manner that they can be incorporated into your life. Not a two week 'cleanse' that may upset an already unbalanced system. Should you really want to try a system cleanse- please please consult a Dietitian. Eating healthy isn't about restriction.

My favourite soothing remedy is definitely not Yoga but Peppermint tea. Yoga is preventative and not remedial to symptoms. But Peppermint tea? THAT can help keep my belly calm.

Coffee and alcohol are bad. Coffee especially. I love coffee. Each season around this time I start drinking iced mochas. My stomach rebels for the first... oh... four. And then succumbs by sheer WILL I tell you. Or brute force. Not sure which one. For myself coffee is worth the pain. But trust me, there is pain.
Andrew's birthday present from friends H. and K.: his favourite book ever. Although I don't tell him about my poo, is it weird that he wishes I did?? lol

If you're having a bad 'stomach' day, maybe a public yoga class isn't the best idea for you today. And that's ok. Acceptance is key in letting go of expectations of what you 'should' do and how you 'should' be. Simply ignoring your IBS won't make it go away. Your friends, family and partner will still love you (if they are of any value) and have accepted you for who you are.

Manage your stress. This is the number one issue. I use Yoga and music. Find what works for you and that will be the single most momentous realization of your life. Seriously.

And to end with my friend Margaret's book title quoted to me many moons ago: 'Lisa, Everybody Poops'.


article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. I feel you! This is a great post. :)

    I have IBS and coeliac disease so I have made trips to the ER for dehydration, as well as facing the frustrating and embarrassing issue of my guts controlling my life (during a flare, although to some extent they really do effect everything I do!). For me, stress and emotional upset will trigger an extremely nasty bout of digestive distress. Obviously, accidentally consuming gluten will do the same thing, usually resulting in depression, which in turn leads to more 'toilet woes'. What a pain!

    I do think this is a big part of why I still haven't attended a yoga class. I am happy practicing at home for now. I actually had to quit bellydance because it was too harsh on my stomach, and I would be humiliated if I had to run out of a yoga class because of my IBS. I'd still like to do a class one day but considering finance is also an issue, I feel better staying at home.

    Glad I'm not alone in this, though!

  2. Don't be ashamed about talking about IBS, by the way. Many people suffer with all kinds of illnesses and so I'm sure your sharing will benefit other people.

    A good friend of mine has been battling with colitis for many years now. It's not easy! But yeah, everyone poops and it's not a big deal. Really.

    Also, I saw your comment on Emma's blog, and I would actually say you are a vata-pitta dosha, and that that *is* reflective of your issues with IBS, anxiety and stress - all classic vata disorders. Also, too much pita has an adverse effect on IBS too, because it's an inflammatory disorder.

    The doshas aren't just about your 'basic' metabolism diagnosis - you can also have all kinds of disorders that affect any/all of the doshas - we actually might be predominate in one or two doshas, but most people have all three, although it might be like 3(P), 2(K), 1(V). I'm no Ayurvedic doctor, but I do know a little bit about it...

    And Ayurvedic medicine predominately focuses on digestive issues, so you might actually benefit from going to see a Ayurvedic doctor. It can be quite a revelatory experience.

    I understand your concerns with being 'different' in a yoga class, but I'm about to write a post about how I burst into tears at the end of a class on Monday night. Why? Because I needed to. It had to come out. I wasn't overly concerned with what other people thought even though it wasn't the ideal time/place.

    As long as your teacher knows what's going on and what you need, then do what you and your body require to be okay in a class. That's way more important than anyone else's thoughts on the matter!

    Sounds like you understand what to avoid and how to manage your condition fairly well. I think you've written a great post here, don't consider it an overshare!

  3. I do get a dodgy stomach sometimes, but so not on the level of IBS. I can be extremley funny about food though.

    Just to make you feel better for oversharing once when I was in a yoga class at university I let out a GIANT vagina fart. Honestly everyone was on the floor in hysterics. It sounds very different to a normal fart. *GRIN* so there, beat that with your overshare!


  4. IBS is another fun side effect of Fibromyalgia. I feel your pain, I truly do. And like you I think peppermint tea is the best, I drink cold peppermint tea in my waterbottle all day over water. However, have you tried peppermint oil tablets? For really bad flare ups the work a treat, as though mainlining peppermint!

    I wish I something amazing to add or offer. The only thing I can think of is what is your dairy intake like. It's hard for me to say because I don't eat dairy anyway but I know cutting down on dairy helped my mum's IBS.

    And for what it's worth, if someone ran out clutching their stomach in my yoga class I woudln't consider it bad etiquette at all. I'd be a bit worried but not cross. After all, I've done it myself :)

  5. Thanks for your overshare Lisa. I agree, it's nothing to be ashamed about. I know a few people that I'm close to that are dealing with Chron's or Colitis. I never even heard of it or knew what it was until 6 yrs ago. I believe it's more common than I realized, it's just that most people don't talk about it.

  6. I find downward facing dog good for easing the cramps, but only as long as I stay in it! lol. For me, when the pains come, I have to lie down and not crunch over my belly, that makes it worse. Lying with my back on an excerise ball works. I've also been known to drap myself over the edge of couches and stairs to "open" up my stomach area.

    I just want to add that if there is any bleeding, go to the doctor asap! And don't let the doctors brush you off with "it's just IBS." Insist on getting tested for IBD.

  7. I'm a fellow IBS sufferer along with having coeliac disease. Nightmare. I often find my IBS unpredictable which deters me from a lot of exercise. The only exercise forms that suit my system are walking and yoga. Like you, peppermint tea and eating little and often works for me. However, I'm prone to major attacks of guilt and anxiety if I skip a yoga class or haven't done much yoga in a while. I'm attending an all day yoga event on Saturday and the thought of this, whilst I'm excited, is making my IBS go a bit crazy.

    Thank you for posting this, it's so great to know that there are other fellow sufferers. x

  8. Thanks for the overshare. I think I just broke back into the blogosphere with a few overshares of my own. I like them. They're kind of therapeutic.

  9. Although I have a stomach of steel, my husband has IBS - it only really appeared during university, and it was really, really bad for awhile before we figured out what was going on. Now he's managing it extremely well, and as you mentioned, probiotics have made a huge difference for him - a 6 billion cell capsule 3 times a day almost immediately improved his symptoms by about 8000%. It took some trial and error with different brands, but the Shoppers Drug Mart ones have worked wonders for him. For which we are very, very thankful. It's really nice to hear about someone else's experience, too!

  10. I also have IBS, although I consider myself in 'remission'. I have 2 things to thank for helping me - 1. Yoga and 2.Fibresure which is a prebiotic and source of soluble fibre (different from probiotic like yogurt).
    Getting out of bed early each morning to practice yoga was the start of my road to recovery.
    As you mentioned there are some yoga poses which may be uncomfortable, however I found that doing poses gradually and little by little such as backbends and twists, are actually helpful. I believe that by working on the abdominal area *gently* can help by massaging the internal organs. I know everyone is different, so what works for me might not work for others. A big hurdle for me was also just going to yoga class, and not worrying what others thought if I had to go bolting to the toilet...I would say to myself "So what!" or in the words of nike "just do it".

  11. I just recently discovered your blog. Interesting post. I have often thought about signing up for a yoga class in Halifax. One of my anxiety triggers, and therefor IBS attack triggers, is doing group activities by myself. Or really any "new" experience can cause me ro become ill. Sometimes I'm ok, sometimes I'm not. I also worry about what all that moving around will do to the gas that I have! Haha. I'm bloated and gassy a lot, which I'm sure is part of my IBS and also my diet. I'll be honest, I haven't been eating very well, and I know things will not get better until I take my diet more seriously. The only thing I know for sure I should avoid is corn.

    I still would like to learn yoga, just don't know if I can learn by myself. I quit my job (a huge cause of stress in my life) so I have no income for a while.

  12. I used to have problems with my digestion, and what worked for me was removing all grains/beans/lentils, cutting down fibrous vegetables and nuts to tiny servings, avoiding dairy... Avoiding insoluble fiber and dairy, put simply. And no margarines or oils like soy oil, canola oil, corn oil.

    What's left is basically a lowcarb diet, unless you eat starches like potatoes and other vegetables. It has worked wonders for me. I eat meat, fish and eggs though, a vegetarian might find it challenging to avoid all grains and legumes.


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