For those who don’t know, IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS is a functional bowel disorder, meaning it has no known apparent physical cause. People with IBS suffer from gastrointestinal pain, gas and bloating, and exhibit altered bowel habits of different types. IBS-C means you exhibit Constipation, everybody’s favorite sexy word. There’s also IBS-D for Diarrhea, another really sexy situation. And IBS-M for Mixed, an awesome combo of C and D. (IBS-M is also known as IBS-A, for Alternating. The naming experts haven’t decided which they like best, so you might see either in print.)
Anyway, I've suffered from IBS-C since I was a young woman. Sometimes it’s gotten better, sometimes worse. I’ve dealt with it in different ways, applying all my knowledge as a lifelong natural foods devotee and alternative health seeker, an armchair (lay) herbalist and, finally, after earning a Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition in 2002, a bonafide clinical nutritionist.
My gut got really bad in the spring of 2013. I was constantly bloated, my pants didn't fit, I felt like I couldn't eat anything. So one morning, while writing about all this in my journal, I decided to put on my Tireless Investigator hat and try to figure it out.
What I did was to think about different foods and imagine how they felt in my belly when I ate them. I'm a sensitive person, highly empathic. I've known for a long time that even just by holding a food in my hands, say, a bag of Red Hot Blues organic corn chips (cue salivary glands) I can sense how it will feel in my body, which is often: not so great.
So, sitting there that day, in the throes of an IBS flare, I tuned into myself and imagined different foods—how they looked, smelled, tasted. Some food thoughts made my innards clench. A very few caused no response at all, or an actual sense of comfort. Our mind-body connection is very strong. Even in response to a thought, the body knows.
After imagining lots of different foods in my mind, I came up with a short list of foods that I knew I could eat without causing myself more pain. Foods that wouldn't make me bloat or feel like I had a bunch of sour puke rotting in my gut all day long.
The short list looked like this:
three safest foods
spinach • broth • eggs
It's a very short list, true. But I knew it was super safe. I could eat anything on this list and not feel sick! Hope glimmered. It was a beginning.
From spinach with eggs poached in broth I spread out. Here's my expanded list from that same day:
my safe foods
salmon, shrimp, fish
raw goat cheese
raw f & v
fresh ripe tomatoes
sweet red peppers
carrots, carrot juice
very dark chocolate
One problem I had with my list was the protein section. Back when I was doing this tuning-in exercise in early 2013, I was a strict vegetarian. Had been for a full year. In fact, I was coming off of several years of eating a plant-based, pescatarian (i.e. vegetarian + fish) diet and for much of that time, a high raw food diet with plenty of green smoothies, salads, raw vegetable juices, nuts, seeds and dehydrated delicacies.
I was very reluctant to put chicken on the list. Even the fish and shrimp was a concession. But I could tell, in my gut, that chicken would digest. It was a sad moment for me. I would really rather not eat animals. This is still true. It was a big coming to terms.
I realize now that because of my particular IBS-C situation (think slow transit time and a redundant colon) eating so much fiber and complex carbohydrates was a bad idea. Fiber and complex carbs, as well as fructose and other simple sugars, are highly FERMENTABLE. Inside your warm, dark, juicy intestines these carbohydrates get digested by bacteria that make GAS.
Most of these bacteria are supposed to just hang out in your large intestine where they belong. In fact, we need carb-fermenting bacteria in our large intestines, so much so that in the colon, these little guys are even affectionately known as friendly flora
But after a while, if the large intestines don't empty out regularly, the semi-digested foodstuff in your small intestines backs up. And when those fun-loving, friendly colonic bacteria sneak on up the road to party in the small intestine, whooping it up and replicating themselves into millions of bacteria babies, it’s a bad situation. Then you’ve got SIBO.
The only way to get those microbes out of there is to kill them off, either by drugging them (with antibiotic herbs or drugs) and/or by starving them. Which brings me back to my safe food list, and another really interesting thing.
Soon after I came up with the above list (which, by the way, has been added to, subtracted from and refined over time since I created it in 2013) I started doing a bunch of research online. First I found out about FODMAPS: Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, i.e. gas-producing sugars and starches. Then I learned more about GAPS (and it's older cousin SCD, which I'd heard of before but mistakenly thought was just for celiac disease). When I put the two diets together, low-FODMAPS+GAPS, there was my list!
I knew I was on to something.
Right around that time, an article came out in the Townsend Letter that recommended the same crossover diet for treating SIBO: a low-FODMAPS, grain-free, broth-based GAPS/SCD-style program. I was so excited when I found that article, written by naturopathic doctors Alison Siebecker and Steven Sandberg-Lewis.
The Siebecker-Sandberg-Lewis article confirmed that people with my kind of gastrointestinal symptoms seem to be okay eating only the foods that are allowed on both diets (low-FODMAPS and GAPS/SCD), because these foods don’t feed the bacterial overgrowth. In fact, eating this diet can even heal the problem, provided the underlying cause (in my case, C) is also addressed.
Since those days, more research has been done on SIBO, more people are writing about it and more food lists and dietary interventions have been proposed. Dr. Siebecker, for instance, has created a detailed, color coded downloadable list that is fabulous. (Click on the “learn” tab at the top of this blog for link.)
It’s very helpful to read other people's legal/illegal food lists but if you have IBS or SIBO, I strongly encourage you to do what I did:
Sit quietly with yourself. Access your inner wisdom. Honor your intuition. And make your own list.
In other words: Trust your gut.
There might be some foods on someone else's list that won't agree with you. Others that are missing from their list that don’t bother you at all. The bottom line is this: Only you can know what your own personal safe foods are.
Your short list of truly safe foods, the ones you’ll go to during a flare, is likely very short. Any expanded lists will only be accurate sometimes, depending on whether or not you are flaring, and to what degree. But the short list - that's your go-to. And boy is it nice to have a safe place to rest!
For me, a medium poached egg, cooked in broth, on a soft green bed of wilted spinach is calm belly heaven. What’s your pleasure?