I was about 14 years old when I first went to the doctors complaining about being chronically bloated. I sat with my GP and explained how my stomach would balloon after each meal, how I looked like I was 6 months pregnant (having now had 2 children, I can confirm that is not an exaggeration!) and often felt horribly uncomfortable. Sadly, my GP at the time dismissed my “teenage concerns” and suggested I spend less time comparing myself to pictures of celebrities in magazines. Whilst I think she was trying to be kind and express concern that perhaps I just had low self-esteem, dismissing my symptoms in this way really angered me. I clearly remember feeling both angry and helpless at not having been listened to and to be so profoundly misunderstood.
Fast forward a few years, more doctors appointments and zero improvement in my symptoms, I now had a diagnosis of IBS, or “Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” just the sort of label every teenage girl wants to have and a diagnosis that is given to thousands of people each year who seem to have unexplained, but very real, difficulties with their digestion. I was given a prescription for tablets that promised to ease my digestive cramps and that was about it. It seemed as if this was an all too common complaint with no real treatment, that stress played a big factor and that handing over a prescription would at the very least put a plaster on the problem for now.
But the problem hadn’t even remotely been solved, nor would it be for many more years to come. Several years later, again fuelled by a desire to really get to the root of the problem, I went back to my GP and pushed for a referral to Gastroenterology. Now in my early 20s I underwent a whole host of less than pleasant tests in hospital to try and establish why I looked and felt so chronologically bloated, why I suffered from painful and frequent stomach acid flare-ups (I would be doubled over in pain for hours and was now taking more medication) and what was causing me to, um, let’s say, always have to know where the nearest toilet was!
As I looked at the long list of tests and procedures I was about to go through, I was so hopeful for answers that would finally change my life. Surely there must be an answer! I longed for the day that I no longer had to wear baggy clothes to hide my massively bloated tummy, take anti-acid medication each morning and never be able to make it through a trip anywhere without dashing off to the loo. TMI, I know, but I also know that this is a far more common problem than people often discuss! I was fed up of coming home early from nights out because the pain in my stomach from acid reflux was so severe and the only thing I could do to help was to lie down and go to sleep. Ironically the advice I was given by my doctors for this was to drink glasses of milk before meals. Cow’s milk, of course.
Sadly, the results of the tests were all fairly inconclusive and as is the case when expectations are high, my disappointment at not having the doctors declare that they’d solved the issue, was palpable. Following the specialists’ advice and willing to try anything, I started on a low FODMAP diet under the guidance of a Dietician. I cut out wheat, lactose (not dairy), onions, garlic, broccoli and all sorts of other things. To say I felt restricted was an understatement. I kept a food diary and slowly re-introduced foods that are considered to be “triggers.” It was then decided that due to some family history of coeliac disease, that it was most likely to be gluten causing my issues (something I’d been told countless times before) and that I should consider going gluten-free. So I did! For years I ate a gluten-free diet, assuming that I had a fairly severe intolerance when all other avenues had been explored. It wasn’t much fun!
Then one day, I guess temptation and curiosity got the better of me and I ate some gluten, probably in the form of a decent piece of toast or a crumpet. Surprise surprise, nothing drastic happened (as it would do for people with Coeliac disease) and my symptoms were unchanged. By this point, I just felt a little bit done with it all. Nothing was working, I felt like I couldn’t go back to the GP again and I had run out of steam.
In 2015, unrelated to these health issues, or so I thought anyway, I stopped eating meat and fish having become more and more aware of the ethical and environmental impacts of eating animal products. In 2016 I ditched eggs and dairy and adopted a fully vegan lifestyle and I’ve never looked back! In the early days of being vegan, I was also a sleep-deprived first-time mum caught up in that transformation more than any other. I certainly wasn’t bursting with energy all day long as many new vegans claim to be but a year or so into being vegan, I realised one day that I hadn’t experienced my “IBS” symptoms for months. I hadn’t had a single flare-up of stomach acid (and haven’t once to this day), I hadn’t taken any IBS related medication for as long as I could remember and the concerns I now had about the appearance of my tummy were down to very weak muscles and a lot more stretch marks, more so than anything else.
I feel very fortunate that adopting a vegan diet has had these dramatic effects on my health and in many ways I really do feel better than ever, although I’m still a sleep deprived Mum, that’s for sure! I never really considered myself “unhealthy” as a meat eater and being “vegan for health” was last on my list of reasons for going vegan. But over the years, I’ve furthered my learning and research and I’m now sure that cutting animal products from my diet has had profound effects on both my physical and mental health. As the slightly sarcastic but also very true saying goes, “you’re not lactose intolerant, you’re just not a baby cow!”
There are still days when I look and feel very bloated and days where my digestion feels “off” but now I can rule out what I’m eating as being a cause and think more about how I’m eating. Off days are usually a sign that I’ve eaten too quickly, I’ve eaten too much or too little or that other things such as lack of sleep, stress or hormones are the bigger factors at play. In these moments I’m reminded of the importance of slowing down, making time to eat meals without rushing and fuelling my body with all the good (vegan) stuff.