Gut feeling

If you are very British and prone to squirm at the mention of bodily functions, this post is probably not for you.

And I’ll be honest, this is not something I’ve thought about talking so candidly about previously. Or at least that was the case until I started listening to the Ben Greenfield’s podcast. If there is anything that will kick to the curb your squirmishes surrounding conversations about poo it’s Ben Greenfield explaining, in detail, the ins and outs of a coffee enema, or the efficacious properties of baking soda and water to ‘clear you out’. Add to that a recent reading of Chrissie Wellington’s autobiography, in which she talked pretty frankly about her bouts of explosive diarrhoea in the sea before her ironman races, and any idea about what it’s socially ok to mention broadens somewhat.

And this week, when Tim Dowling discussed his colonoscopy in his column in the Guardian Weekend Magazine (the final bastion of middle-class, left-wing respectability) I felt that a rubicon had been crossed and it was time to talk gut health.

It’s not just toilet talk that’s got me interested (I use interested here in its absolute broadest sense) in digestive issues. A number of the podcasts that I listen to have been discussing digestion lately, from so-called ‘leaky gut’ syndrome, to SIBO (small intestinal bacteria overgrowth), with interviewees claiming they had never realised what good digestion was until they undertook an elimination diet and discovered a whole new bout of energy and a reduction in GI discomfort. Moreover, the more you chat to people about tummy troubles (especially runners – although that may be based on my skewed social group), the more you realise how many people are struggling with some kind of digestive disquiet.

The thing is, a disruption in gut health doesn’t just leave you toilet bound or deprived (depending on the nature of your issue) it can leave you grouchy, lethargic, irritable and generally feeling less than ideal.

My stomach has its own idiosyncrasies – I can handle the hottest of the hot foods, but put me within biting distance of some white bread and my stomach will inflate like a balloon and be total agony for hours afterwards. In my pre-vegan days dairy had the same effect, something which I didn’t realise fully until I’d given up cheese and milk completely.

While I’ve generally learned to gravitate towards the foods that serve me well and away from those that leave me bloated and uncomfortable, I do still go through patches of real stomach upset. With a history of ulcerative colitis in the family (a type of Crohn’s disease) I’m hyperaware when I start to feel awry. Which is why, when I found myself in so much discomfort this week that I had to go home and huddle around a hot water bottle for the evening, I took a serious look at the elimination diet.

A week ago the idea of cutting out nuts and seeds, nut butter, tahini (hence hummus), soy products (including tofu), nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, aubergine), cayenne and chilli pepper would have been anathema. These are basically my main food groups. But with that amount of pain still fresh in my mind I felt willing to give anything a shot.

The elimination diet also requires the removal of dairy, eggs, sugar, meat, wheat and gluten products, which I generally avoid anyway, and demands 2-3 weeks sans allergens to allow any ‘inflammation’ and allergenic response in your body to subside. You then reintroduce foods one by one and see how your body responds.

While for socialising, staying with friends and generally eating anything that you’ve not meticulously prepared yourself makes this a tricky diet to follow to the letter, I’m taking a less extreme version of cutting back on potential triggers, diarising what I eat and recording how I feel as a result. I already suspect too many soya products as being the main issue, but as a friend pointed out, too much of anything really isn’t good for your body, and I know I can get hooked on one or two food stuffs and then tend to include them in everything, which is probably also causing some of the problems.

While ‘banned’ and ‘permitted’ foods seem to vary depending on which source you read, commonly accepted low risk foods include oats, rice, quinoa, fruit (except oranges), veggies (except potatoes and nightshades – sweet potatoes are ok), olive and coconut oil, rice milk, pine nuts and flaxseeds, herbs and spices (excluding chilli and paprika). If you are a veggie beans (except soya) and lentils are also allowed in moderation. For a reasonably comprehensive list see:

Day-to-day for me this translates to fruit or oats with apple or blueberries, cinnamon and fresh grated ginger for breakfast made with water and a dash of brown rice milk (I’m taking a break from the green juice powders just in case they are causing some of the problems), a big salad of carrot, cucumber, courgette, avocado, spinach and fresh basil with olive oil, or a homemade squash or parsnip soup for lunch and butternut squash and sage risotto, or courgetti with mushrooms and homemade avocado and basil pesto for dinner. Plus snacks of nectarines, bananas, blueberries and peaches in between. The main thing is trying to keep changing up which fruit, veggies and pulses I eat so I’m not bombarding my gut with one thing.

Although I’m not being as militant as I might, I am being more respectful and wary of what I’m putting into my body, slowing down my eating and taking time to consider how it is impacting on me. A couple of days in and my stomach is starting to settle. There is still a long way to go, but I’ll be interested to see if these changes have a positive impact in the longer term. If nothing else the last few days have proven that I can survive without a jar of nut butter, lashings of humus on everything and a slab of tofu at the ready!

I’d be interested to hear if others have had similar issues and how they have resolved them. In the meantime, some podcasts on this issue if you want to learn more:

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