If you or a loved one are suffering from severe stomach pain and other symptoms related to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), there is help. This post talks about actionable steps you can take today to manage your symptoms and ways to help a loved one who is suffering.
What is IBD?
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a condition when some or all of the digestive tract becomes chronically inflamed. The most common inflammatory bowel diseases are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Ulcerative colitis is inflammation that is generally restricted to the large intestine, but Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract and is inflammation that can penetrate deeply into the walls of the intestines.
Both diseases share similar symptoms, including:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Urgent need to move bowels
- Feeling incomplete evacuation of bowels
Other symptoms can include loss of appetite, loss of menstrual cycle, and malnutrition in children.
How to manage IBD
Fortunately, there are some lifestyle changes that you can make to help manage your inflammatory bowel disease symptoms at home. Here are nine of our favorites.
1. Eat fiber, but the right kind
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber attracts water and is thus more easily broken down in the digestive tract, while insoluble fiber can be harder for intestinal flora to digest.
Those with inflammatory bowel disease need fiber in their diet but should stick with more soluble types such as oatmeal, flaxseeds, and beans. Fruits and vegetables are a great source of fiber, but avoid insoluble types in large amounts (such as lettuce and other leafy greens) in favor of those with soluble fiber such as strawberries, apples, oranges, pears, dried peas, blueberries, cucumbers, celery, and carrots.
It is understandable that nausea, fatigue, and other symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease may make it difficult to get motivated to exercise, but adding even just a short period of daily walking can make a big impact on symptoms. Exercise is healthy for all systems in the body, including the digestive tract. Start slowly and add time and intensity gradually to get all the benefits of added activity, including a boost in mood and general stress relief.
Never underestimate the benefits of a glass of water. Whether your inflammatory bowel disease symptoms include diarrhea or constipation, water is an important part of a healthy management plan. Diarrhea can deplete the body of water, and constipation may be a sign that you aren’t getting enough fluid in your body daily.
Either way, keep a glass of water handy and drink throughout the day. Water lubricates joints and helps all organ systems of the body to do their jobs. You may notice a change in not only your IBD but also your level of fatigue and general achiness or stiffness in the body.
4. Enjoy fermented foods
There is rising evidence of the gut’s importance in overall health. Our stomachs are hosts to over 100 trillion bacteria. Maintaining a balance of good bacteria is important, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, and pickles can help promote beneficial bacteria while aiding in digestion.
5. Eat regularly
Maintaining regular meal times helps your body (and your digestive tract) to stay on its own schedule. Skipping meals or eating at irregular times can wreak havoc on an already delicate system. Even if you are not hungry, having a small snack, such as a handful of nuts or a cup of kefir, can keep your body on a proper schedule.
6. Eat smaller meals
It can be difficult for anyone to digest a large, heavy meal, but for those with irritable bowel disease too much food in the gut can be painful for days. Aim for smaller, more frequent meals instead of three squares a day. This also helps maintain a stable blood sugar level, which can help boost mood in general.
7. Eat peacefully
Stress can trigger irritable bowel disease symptoms, yet many of us still insist on grabbing a quick meal on the go, eating standing up, or snacking in the car. Whenever possible, make meal times peaceful. Sit down, set a place for yourself (even if you are eating alone), and take your time. Don’t eat in front of the TV. Focus just on your meal, and enjoy every bite.
8. Learn which foods don’t work for you
The most common foods that can trigger irritable bowel disease syndrome are certain types of dairy, chocolate, fatty foods, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, unsoaked beans, and alcohol. Some people may have trouble digesting wheat and should avoid that as well. Keeping a food diary can help to determine which foods may trigger symptoms.
9. Find help
Irritable bowel disease isn’t often the subject of dinner party chatter or other polite conversation, but support is essential to managing this disease. There are many websites and support options online. If you cannot find good support in real life, there is a large online community available around the clock, ready to offer advice or a listening ear.
Regardless of how careful you are and how many lifestyle changes you make, some cases of irritable bowel disease require additional medical treatment. A new treatment called fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is showing promise in treating symptoms of ulcerative colitis. In this treatment, fecal microbiota from healthy people without irritable bowel disease is transplanted via enema into the intestines of those with ulcerative colitis.
In a small-scale study out of McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, 75 patients were recruited to assess the efficacy of this treatment. Half received a fecal transplant; half received a placebo. Only 5% of the control group receiving the placebo saw improvement in symptoms, but 25% of the transplant group saw total remission of symptoms.
How to help a loved one with IBD
Those with irritable bowel disease often find themselves staying home, withdrawing from friends and family, and struggling with mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Family and friends can help patients with irritable bowel disease to better cope with their symptoms so that they can get out into the world and enjoy life. Here’s how.
1. Educate yourself
As more people get comfortable talking about inflammatory bowel disease, more and more organizations are promoting education and awareness to help make this diagnosis less stressful and embarrassing.
If your loved one is diagnosed with IBD, knowing a few simple facts can help you to better understand what they are going through:
- Inflammatory bowel disease has a genetic component, but it is not 100% hereditary. It can be triggered by the environment, another illness (such as an autoimmune disorder), or a combination of all three.
- Symptoms vary widely but can include stomach pain and bloating, an uncontrollable urge to move the bowels, constipation, nausea/vomiting, and fatigue.
- Those with inflammatory bowel disease may go through a period of remission followed by a flare-up.
- There is no cure for this disease.
This is just the beginning of a wealth of information to help you learn about inflammatory bowel disease. Caring for someone with inflammatory bowel disease becomes much easier if you know what to expect.
2. Listen to your loved one
There is no getting around it: in the U.S., we don’t love to talk about bodily functions, especially about those concerning our bowels. With inflammatory bowel disease, there is really no way to avoid this discussion.
Your loved one may be reluctant to confide in you about symptoms or flare-ups because the subject is generally taboo. Let them know that you are available to listen to as much or as little as they have to say, whenever they are ready. If you are squeamish or uncomfortable, do what you can to mask those feelings while you are in conversation. It is hard enough to go through a chronic illness like this without a family member saying that it’s gross or makes them sick.
Try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes and imagine how you would feel if you needed to talk and felt no one would listen, then proceed accordingly.
3. Accompany them to appointments
As with any chronic illness, a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease can be confusing, especially if it is unexpected or sudden. Patients who receive this type of diagnosis may be confused and unable to retain all of the new information they are receiving from their doctor, specialist, or clinician.
Offer to accompany your loved one to the doctor to take notes. This allows your loved one the time to ask questions and listen to the answers without having to really attend to every detail. This may also help if your loved one is seeing multiple doctors. A record of what each doctor has said or recommended can be a valuable tool when putting together a treatment plan.
4. Know where to go
This may just be the kindest, most loving thing you can do, and the easiest one to accomplish.
Whenever you and your loved one go somewhere new, discreetly locate the restroom. You don’t need to tell them you have found it, but one of the most potentially embarrassing symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease is the urgent and uncontrollable need to move the bowels, a need that can strike suddenly. Often those with inflammatory bowel disease limit their activities to familiar places for just this reason. Help them get back to exploring and seeing new things by working on their behalf to locate the facilities wherever you are.
If you want to take this one step further, a change of clothes and appropriate hygiene items (e.g., wipes) can be stowed in your car for emergencies.
5. Work with your loved one to reduce stress
Stress can trigger a flare-up of inflammatory bowel disease. While a certain level of stress can be healthy to help deal with a crisis, a prolonged level of stress can be damaging on many different levels in the body.
Work with your loved one to find a stress-relieving activity that you can both enjoy. Yoga has many beneficial poses for stress relief and digestion, including a special type of guided meditation called yoga nidra. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to relieve emotional and mental stress. It can be extraordinarily helpful to handle depression or anxiety that can come with a chronic illness. Even a daily ritual of short walks in nature can help to relieve stress.
6. Take care of yourself
Helping a loved one deal with a chronic illness is a marathon, not a sprint. Caregivers often neglect their own needs while attending to the needs of their loved ones. It is important for caregivers to take time to care for themselves, whether that is through exercise, relaxation, or participating in activities they love.
Caregivers may feel guilty for leaving their loved one, especially if they are symptomatic, but as flight attendants always say before the plane takes off: it is important to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Think of the care you give yourself as putting on your oxygen mask. This small time out will make you a better caregiver for the long haul.
Living with inflammatory bowel disease can be life-changing for both patient and caregiver. What has helped you cope with IBD as either a patient or a caregiver?