The link between mindful breathing and my IBS.
Marko Milanovic / Stocksy
I have a bit of a poop obsession.
As a child, I was blessed with what my parents called a "sensitive tummy." I was prone to stomach aches, bloating, and stress-induced diarrhea (when I was nervous, I didn't get "butterflies"; more like a pack of lions pouncing at my gut). But it was after a trip to Florida in my 20s—in which I didn't shit for a whole ten days—that the obsession began.
Anyone who is chronically constipated will tell you that pooping becomes the absolute focus of your life. I became fixated with eating foods that would help my bowels move. I was never into medical laxatives, but super-strong coffee was my friend. I found it hard to poop outside the comfort of my home (hence the ten days of constipation while vacationing in Florida), so I'd obsessively time my coffee-drinking with when I'd be home and relaxed enough to go.
At 28, I became a mom, which sent my bowels in a totally different direction. I'm not sure it if was the sleeplessness, hormone fluctuations, or the fact that I'd pushed a baby out of my vagina, but something shifted in my body then, and I spent the first few years of my son's life dealing with chronic, painful diarrhea. Let me tell you: Locking yourself in the bathroom while basically throwing up from your butt is no picnic, but it's especially traumatic with a screaming toddler on the other side of the door.
It was during this time that I finally began to seek professional help for my "sensitive tummy." After a series of test, I was officially diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Upon the suggestion of my gastroenterologist, I tried making dietary changes, most of which did nothing, or made my symptoms worse. Finally, after days of obsessive googling, I found the low FODMAP diet, (FODMAPs are a group of fermentable short-chain carbohydrates that cause gastrointestinal hell for IBS sufferers) that which alleviated many of my symptoms, especially the bloating and painful diarrhea.
But even after many of my most troubling symptoms disappeared, I still struggled with frequent, loose poops, and was still totally and completely obsessed with my bowels. I couldn't shake the fear that diarrhea might strike again at any time, and these worried thoughts would go straight to my gut, where things would become exacerbated again.
The mind-gut connection is very strong—in fact, some have gone as far as to say that there is a second brain in your gut. Referred to by scientists as your enteric nervous system (ENS), this "brain" responds to emotional stimuli like your actual brain does, manifesting as physical symptoms in your digestive system. It is further theorized that what goes on in your gut's brain can affect your actual brain, which might explain why IBS suffers are more prone to anxiety and depression.
Christopher Willard, a lecturer of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and author of Growing Up Mindful, explains to me that it is common for IBS sufferers to get caught in a cycle of stress, just like I had. Willard describes it as a "cascade effect, where IBS causes stress and exacerbates itself."
After I shared my woes with a good friend (who also happens to be a psychologist), she suggested that I try meditating, reassuring me that even a few minutes a day of meditation would work wonders. As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I had tried meditation here and there, but the truth was that it felt too hard to quiet my buzzing mind, and I usually gave up. But I had to do something about my jumpy gut and the unrelenting worries I had associated with it, so I was willing to try again.
I downloaded a five-minute meditation app to my phone, and started using it daily. The app was called "Simply Being" (by Meditation Oasis), and had options for 5-, 10-, 20-, and 30-minute meditations. I almost always picked the 5-minute one. Taking my friend's advice, I didn't put too much pressure on myself to do it perfectly. I just needed to show up, and hope against hope that it would help.
"Simply be aware of what's going on right now, in this moment," a lulling female voice began, ocean surf rushing in the background. "There may be lots of thoughts going on. It doesn't matter. Just let them go the way they come…effortlessly," she continued. The "It doesn't matter" approach put me at ease immediately, and after a few weeks of using the app, I came to look forward to my mini escapes.
A pilot study from 2015 was one of the first to look at the effects of meditation on IBS symptoms. The researchers found that after just nine weeks of meditating, IBS sufferers had drastic reductions in their symptoms—and this continued for three weeks after the meditation program ended. I'll be honest: It took me quite a bit longer to notice any tangible difference in my IBS. What I noticed first was that I was just less stressed overall—less likely to panic over the little things in my life, as well as the rumbles and punches that happened in my gut. This, in turn, made my bouts of stress-induced IBS less frequent.
Willard describes to me how meditation works to quell some of the worst symptoms of IBS: "One way certain meditations 'work' is by inducing the relaxation response, which effectively gets the body out of the fight/flight response to stresses," he says. He explains that when we are in a state of stress, "our body is prepping for short-term, rather than long-term survival, which shuts off energy to the digestive system and the immune system." This is what causes some of the IBS symptoms.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of meditation for me was that I was able to see more clearly when my body was flooded with those "fight-or-flight" hormones, and how my gut reacted. I became more mindful of adopting small self-nurturing habits—cutting back on busy-ness, and making sure to eat foods (i.e., garlic, onions, apples, dairy) that wouldn't additionally exacerbate my symptoms. I learned that it would sometimes take my body weeks to flush out the stress hormones, even after the initial stressor was gone. In turn, I became more proactive about eliminating unnecessary stress from my life—at least as much as I could control.
It has been five years since I started meditating, and I have meditated between 5 and 20 minutes each day since. It's taken me this long to let go of my poop obsession—and I'm close, but not 100 percent there yet. My IBS is much more in control than it ever was, but it still stresses me out sometimes, and my gut will start to act up, seemingly out of nowhere. But I have learned to accept that IBS is a lifelong disease, one that I will always struggle with. Through meditation, stress reduction, and the fine art of not giving a fuck, I'm learning to accept that this is just part of who I am, poop and all.