April is IBS Awareness Month and I recently realised there wasn’t a lot about my own personal journey with the diary on this blog.
That had been pretty intentional at first, but the more I’m part of this incredible community, the more I see the benefit of sharing personal experiences. Knowing there are others out there experiencing the same issues with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Coeliac Disease is such a happiness boost. You get to say, oh thank god this isn’t just me. You’re not the only one in the restaurant feeling awkward about your ‘special’ order. You’re not the only one at home instead of Soon I’ll share my diagnosis journey, and some tips on getting the most out of your diary. But for now, here are the 7 ways I used my food diary to heal and manage my IBS…
1. I committed
I get it. You’re tired and you’re sore, and you don’t know what is causing it. Maybe all you’ve got is a sheet of paper from the GP about the FODMAP diet and how it can help people with IBS. Maybe you also got a diary print out, but it’s just for a day and you need to do this for a few months (hi, that happened to me). But you’re also determined because you really want to feel better. Good! Channel that determination. Commit to finding out what’s wrong, and sticking the course. This isn’t going to be an overnight miracle, and improvements might be incremental, so you need to be absolutely unswerving in your resolve to find out foods and triggers are making you sick.
2. I stayed consistent
When I look back at my first diary attempts, (drawn in a standard notebook every day!) I can see how inconsistent my attempts to track things were. One day I wrote down my sleep, but not the next. One day I tracked my drink intake but not the next. Eventually I hit upon the exact things I wanted to track and these are what made it into the diary. The more data you have about your health, the better your overall picture will be. That’s why having a printed diary like this is so helpful: you won’t forget to record it if the prompt is right there in front of you!
3. I didn’t bite off more than I could chew
Don’t change five things at once and hope you can tell which has made you feel better! Start from your current diet (or, if you’re brave enough, go full elimination diet – this post from Precision Nutrition is a great primer for doing that) and monitor how you feel on your current diet for one or two weeks. Note down everything you can – symptoms, time you ate, how much of each thing you ate/drank, and how you felt. Then change one thing at a time. Keep this change consistent for a week or so, and note how the change makes you feel.
4. I paired it with something pleasant
It’s a bit of work, sitting down and looking back through a month’s worth of tracking data. But if you pair* that time with something pleasant, you’ll enjoy sitting down and figuring things out. Try each month making a date for yourself: if you sit down and look for potential triggers and pressure points in your life/diet, you get a [____]. Insert treat of choice here. (For me, it’s a cup of tea and a nice homemade bun, like this gluten free banana bread with some chocolate chips thrown in).
*By the way this technique of pairing is one of the habit-forming helpers Gretchin Rubin talks about in her book Better than Before and this book and her podcast are my favourite things!
5. I carried it everywhere
Can you tell me, right now, in detail, what you ate over the course of the morning yesterday? Are you certain? How much did you drink? Can you remember? I don't know about you, but my memory is definitely not that good. I carried my notebook everywhere - and now I carry my gorgeous diary everywhere - and I write things down as soon as I eat or drink them (or as soon after as is possible, when I have a second to myself). At A5 size, it fits in most bags, and you'll have peace of mind that you're definitely tracking all possible allergens or trigger foods.
6. I was honest
The diary won’t help you if you’re not being honest. You have to write down every little thing you ingest, do, and feel. Here’s how it helped me in this way: I never used to think I got ‘stressed’. I was so certain I was handling every thing that came my way. Every time a GP asked me at one of my many, many appointments if I was stressed I simply shrugged and said ‘no!’. I felt I had to be infallible, that somehow being ‘stressed’ meant being ‘weak’, and it wasn’t until the question was asked again in one of my final appointments that I burst into tears instead. Yes I was stressed actually. I was stressed out by never knowing what I could eat without hurting. I was stressed by having to appear happy and healthy and ‘fine’. I was stressed by trying to keep up at work while feeling constantly sick. I was very, very stressed. And my diary gave me a private place to admit that to myself – and once I started to admit it, I could try to change it. I noted every time I felt stressed (even minutely) and it helped me understand I had way more anxiety about eating out and eating at other people's houses than I had previously admitted. My diary helped me change my behavior in relation to stress (and that’s another blog post for another day!)
7. I had reasonable expectations
Throughout the pre-diagnosis days all I wanted was for someone to turn around and say “oh, this is what you have: it’s very simple to treat, just take this pill and you’ll be fine by Friday!” What I got instead was a diagnosis of something that takes lifelong management. You want to believe I cried about that! But then I dried my tears, put on my big girl pants and got to work. I was tired, but determined. I knew this wasn’t going to be fixed in a week, or even a month. The journey from ‘sick as a dog’ to ‘normal life’ took me a solid year. But I mentally prepared myself, armed myself with a diary and my incredibly supportive family, and got to work.
8. I had professional help
The final point and probably one of the most important: if you can get professional help to go through the FODMAP diet: do it!! I had the help of an NHS dietitian to help with my diet after my diagnoses, and checking in with her each month kept me on track, especially in the beginning. Additionally, if you notice symptoms that are unusual for your IBS, please go back to the GP and insist they take notice.