In this article, I discuss 10 myths that have been popularized in the media that pertain to your gut health. Get cozy folks, this one’s another long one.
Throughout my experience with IBS, I have come across some information that when put into practice alleviated, worsened, or had no effect on my symptoms. In my post My Journey with Gut Health, I discuss some of the diet and lifestyle choices I employ to manage my IBS symptoms.
I thought I would take a moment to dispel some common misconceptions about IBS that I see floating around the internet. Hopefully doing so will save some of you some time and pain. The biggest takeaways I hope you get from this post is you aren’t alone, it’s likely not all in your head, and you don’t have to live with IBS forever.
Before we start, please do keep in mind I have no medical training or formal background in nutrition. Everything I share is based on podcasts or articles I have read by qualified professionals, and my own experience.
Always proceed with caution when making any change to your diet or lifestyle. The last thing you need is to go down a rabbit hole from which emergence is difficult.
Let’s get in there. Here are 10 IBS Myths worth debunking.
1.) IBS IS ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Many doctors in the Western medicine field have reacted to the SIBO and Candida craze with the same opposing force with the opinion that IBS is a made up illness by those who need attention. For some people, maybe.
The consensus in the alternative healthcare field (and is becoming more widely accepted in the Western medicine world) is IBS often stems from a bacterial, mold, yeast, fungal, or parasitic infection. It can also be caused by food intolerance or stress (we’ll get to that in a second), but in many cases where symptoms are chronic, the root cause of the issue is an infection.
The exact type of infection can be difficult to pin down and they can also be difficult to treat depending on the source and severity of the infection. The best way to go about treating IBS is to go to a doctor who specializes in gut health and focuses on discovering and treating the bugs causing the symptoms.
While Western doctors do use some lab tests to test for various types of bacteria, yeast, fungus, and parasites, the tests used don’t cover a whole spectrum of pathogens. In addition, the sample often falls in the hands of a lab technician who isn’t specifically trained to look for GI pathogens. In this sense, lab tests can be extremely inaccurate…to the extent that you can hand a lab a parasitic tapeworm and test negative for parasites and ova. It really is that bad.
My recommendation to anyone with IBS or even non-GI related mystery health ailments is to see an alternative or functional medicine doctor who is skilled at uncovering the root cause of the disease. If you’re like me, and you require ultra science in order to believe anything, you can still see a GI specialist in addition to a functional medicine doctor. There is no harm in tackling your health from all angles so that you gain a sharper understanding.
IBS Symptoms Can Be Caused By:
- Gut Dysbiosis (a bacterial, fungal, yeast, or parasitic infection)
- Stress and emotional trauma
- Food intolerance
- A vitamin/nutrient deficiency
Is there a psychological and mindset component to IBS? Absolutely. Those who are chronically stressed or carry emotional trauma often have chronic gut issues. Chronic duress puts your body in a continuous compromised state where healing from physical ailments is challenging.
Here’s where things get tricky. What came first – the chicken or the egg? Is it the chronic stress that welcomes and harvests the infection? Or, is it the infection that causes the emotional and psychological stress?
All this to say, IBS is often the result of an infection or food intolerance and is very much real. IBS can be a manifestation of emotional issues in the cases where patients convince themselves they have unwanted visitors when comprehensive lab results from a well-qualified doctor confirm there is no infection.
There is a known link between the state of your gut and the state of your mind. Information is passed from gut to brain stem through the vagus nerve. In this sense, those who have chronic gut issues often have low energy or depression, which can then affect behavior.
The goal of all lifeforms is to stay alive. The harmful bugs in your gut will send information to your brain, telling you what to feed them. This is why those with gut issues often need to go against their intuition when it comes to food – what their body is telling them is actually coming from the pathogenic visitors in their gut. Those with IBS or autoimmune disease (myself included) often yearn for sugar and carbs when the gut visitors are fighting to survive and thrive.
If you’re interested in this topic, listen to THIS PODCAST from Dr. Ruscio.
The best way of going about IBS is to see a doctor who is trained in discovering and treating harmful gut visitors in order to uncover the root source of the symptoms.
HORMONES AND GUT HEALTH
What is so interesting is hormonal imbalances and gut dysbiosis often work in tandem. Why? If your hormones aren’t working the way they should, you may be chronically constipated (even if you’re pooping every day!), which means you aren’t properly eliminating bad estrogen. When estrogen is reabsorbed in your body and your gut creates a breeding ground for bacterial, fungal, yeast, or mold overgrowth. Once your balance of hormones is thrown off, it is easy for a cycle of GI symptoms to perpetuate.
Women who make a point of balancing their hormones often find relief with GI symptoms. If you are a female who is experiencing GI issues, depression, anxiety, low energy, low libido, and/or skin issues, it is worth seeing an endocrinologist to have your hormones tested.
2.) SUGAR ALCOHOLS ARE “HEALTHIER” THAN REGULAR SUGAR:
The sugar alcohol industry has blown up in tandem with the keto diet. In theory, because there is no actual sugar in sugar alcohols, they should not feed gut bacteria, right? In theory, because there is no actual sugar in sugar alcohols, they shouldn’t raise your blood sugar, right? The real answer, like so many answers, is it depends on who you are.
Sugar alcohols can be one of the worst non-food foods you can put in your body if you have gut dysbiosis, and even if you have diabetes. And it isn’t the sugar (or lack thereof), it’s the composition of the food.
People who have a compromised gut lining or autoimmune condition have a difficult time properly breaking down sugar alcohols. Part of the sugar alcohol may be digested, whereas the indigestible portion putrefies in the already inflamed gut lining, thereby causing gas, bloating, diarrhea, or an autoimmune flare.
What I have found to be fascinating is although sugar alcohols are by design not supposed to raise your blood sugar, they can cause blood sugar spikes in those who have a difficult time processing them. I fall into this group of individuals. My blood sugar spikes when I consume sugar alcohols to the extent that I’m better off consuming raw organic cane sugar or pure maple syrup.
Some folks do fine with specific types of zero-sugar sweeteners, trulia and stevia being two that have been generally accepted as somewhat okay for the majority of people without gut issues. Some folks find they have a sweet spot where they can consume a certain amount of any sugar alcohol but anything beyond that specific amount breaks a threshold and then they experience gas. Some people (like me) can’t touch any form of zero-sugar sweetener at all, period end.
I want to be clear: The sugar alcohol craze is not Keto’s fault. If you’re going to do keto, be sure you’re still making wise choices, like not over-doing it on dairy (which is highly inflammatory for many individuals) or leaning on non-nourishing non-food foods like sugar alcohols.
If you have a sensitive GI or suffer from chronic gut dysbiosis, do yourself a favor and stay away from sugar alcohols entirely.
Want to learn more about sugar alcohols in general? I found this article from The Healthy Home Economist to be helpful.
3.) BANANAS. A CAUTIONARY TALE.
Bananas have been a recommended cure for stomach ache for decades. Some folks find a lot relief after eating a banana. In fact, with the right individual, bananas can help form healthier stools; however, with folks who suffer from constipation and gas (IBS-C), bananas can cause flares.
During the times my gut health is great, I can put ½ a banana in my smoothie and feel just fine. But if I’ve been eating other foods that are high in FODMAPs, I can’t get away with this. Bananas happen to be one of my biggest triggers of gas, so while unripe bananas are considered fine on a FODMAP elimination diet, I steer clear of them regardless when my GI is upset.
If you are sensitive to sugar or fructose specifically, it’s best to avoid the high sugar fruit like bananas, peaches, apples, etc.
4.) THE MORE FIBER THE BETTER
Those of you have IBS are always told to eat a ton of fiber. In theory, maybe! Fiber encourages water to enter the gut and adds bulk to the stool, both of which are helpful for regular digestion. But if you have gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of bad bacteria in your gut), even the healthiest forms of fiber will kick up IBS symptoms and can cause fatigue, gnarly gas and bloating.
Some folks are so sensitive to plant matter, in fact, that they eat a primarily carnivorous diet. In Robb Wolf’s podcasts with Amber O’Hearn, and Mikaila Peterson both ladies discuss how they found relief from autoimmune symptoms by eating an entirely plant-free diet.
Fiber feeds both good bacteria and bad bacteria. If you have bacterial overgrowth, be mindful about the amount and type of fiber you consume so that you aren’t giving the bad bacteria the upper hand. You’re aiming for Low-FODMAP sources of fiber, and even still make sure you limit the amount you eat. I find too much fiber, particularly on an empty stomach, can cause gas for me.
In the last decade or so, there has been an uptick in folks who experience IBS symptoms who have transitioned to a Paleo Diet. Why? When you eat Paleo, you by default consume more plant matter, including high-FODMAP vegetables. While most people feel amazing on a Paleo diet, some folks (myself included) must stick with the lower FODMAP whole foods to keep their gut bugs under control.
During the times you’re going through an IBS flare, you may find some relief if you avoid eating raw vegetables. Instead, go for bone broth and Low-FODMAP cooked vegetables, like zucchini, carrots and spaghetti squash. Because they are tough and fibrous, raw vegetables irritate your gut lining and can worsen your symptoms.
Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale, are highly fermentable, so it is best to avoid them. When going through a flare, aim for soft, bland foods. Think steamed or sauteed or steamed Low-FODMAP veggies, or a brothy soup.
When I have a flare, I make soup with chicken bone broth, chicken, white rice, carrots, and zucchini. That’s it – no onions, garlic, or celery. I love the way it tastes and it seems to soothe my GI every time.
5.) CELERY JUICE CURES ALL WOES
If you’re experiencing IBS symptoms and you read an article that suggests celery juice is the alpha omega for good digestion and stellar health and longevity, HALT! Proceed with caution. Celery is one of the highest FODMAP vegetables and for many people causes IBS flares. Sure, the juiced version removes the fiber, but the basic fermentable carbohydrate remains.
The worst IBS symptoms I have ever experienced came after drinking celery juice. I, too, read the research, thought celery juice would cure me of all my woes, dove in head-first, drank my 16 ounces, and proceeded to have the worst gas of my life. Seriously, people…I wanted to escape my body. Giving the celery juice the benefit of the doubt, I tried again on multiple occasions in lower amounts with the same result.
If you have IBS and want to try it, go for it…just please do me a solid and test it first by drinking 6 ounces instead of the recommended 16. If you feel incredible, up the ante to maybe 10 ounces and go from there. You don’t need to go balls deep in celery juice just because the rest of the interweb is.
6.) ALL GRAINS ARE ALL THE BAD
Some people have a strong digestive aversion to all grains. Some folks tolerate specific grains, some folks can pound basically all the grains ever and feel like the champion of the universe. Grains are arguably the most controversial and also highly individualistic food groups.
Not all grains are created equally, not all grains are high in FODMAPs, and not all people react adversely to grains.
I find white rice or sprouted brown rice to be completely fine with my digestive system. If I eat too much rice, of course I’ll see the same response anyone would after eating too much carbohydrate (water retention, puffiness, brain fog).
A little rice actually seems to help my digestive system move things along due to the resistant starch. I am sensitive to all potatoes, including sweet potatoes, so rice is my choice source for starch and carbohydrate.
Learn more about rice in my recent blog post, Is Rice Paleo?. I discuss the difference between white and brown rice, how your body processes it, and who rice may be ideal for versus who should avoid it.
In my cookbook, Paleo Power Bowls, I include recipes that contain (queue scary horror flick music: rice). I was concerned about doing so, because some paleo purists say ALL GRAINS should be avoided ALWAYS. In my personal experience, rice can be very nourishing when prepared properly. But that is me.
In general, most grains (particularly gluten-containing grains) should be avoided by those who have IBS, IBD, or other autoimmune disease. And not necessarily because of the gluten! For some who have a wheat sensitivity, the sensitivity is not with the gluten (protein) it is with the type of carbohydrate. I fall into this category, as my digestive issues are exacerbated by food that are high in FODMAPs.
To summarize, not all grains are created equally, and which grains work for you is a matter of your unique DNA and gut microbiome.
7.) THE MORE EXERCISE THE BETTER
Should everyone, including folks with IBS prioritize exercise? Absolutely! I highly, highly recommend you get some form of exercise daily, even if it’s just a 20-30 minute walk. Exercise increases your body’s mitochondria and also enhances mitochondrial function. Mitochondria transforms food energy into cellular energy, thereby improving your body’s ability to produce energy.
This not only makes you feel your best but also increases your energy level, decreases your body’s inflammation, decreases your brain fog, increases your lifespan (so long as you aren’t an ultra athlete), detoxifies your body, and so so much more.
Where I caution you with exercise, is if you have an obsessive personality like me, and tend to exercise too vigorously. Continuous vigorous exercise in and of itself can cause IBS symptoms. Like all things in life, work smarter, not harder.
If you exercise too much, your body is in fight or flight mode and isn’t able to put energy toward healing your GI. In addition, if you sweat profusely regularly, you may be depleting your body of electrolytes, causing dehydration, which in turn can cause constipation. So make sure you’re getting adequate sodium, magnesium and potassium, and drinking enough water.
Find your sweet spot. Blood flow is important. Over-exercising can lead to chronic stress on your body, which prohibits it from healing. The goal is to stress your body out just enough to where the proper signals are being transmitted to heal and repair.
If your body is already fighting a condition, you don’t want to be in a state of constant damage where your body can’t keep up with the amount of chronic stress you give it.
8.) YOU SHOULDN’T EAT A LOW-FODMAP DIET LONG-TERM
I can’t even begin to tell you how much anxiety this one has caused me in the past 6 months. I have read article after article and listened to podcast after podcast that purported a Low-FODMAP diet should not be your long-term solution to alleviating IBS symptoms.
To make a very long story short, you can breathe easy, because it is fine to eat a Low-FODMAP diet long-term.
And here’s why.
The concern about eating a limited diet is in turn having a limited gut microbiome. The thought is you want your gut microbiome to be as diverse as possible. YOU GUYS, THIS IS TRICKY.
On the one hand, it is important for your gut to be colonized with a wide array of bacteria (this is why you should take a probiotic that is rich in many, many types of good bacteria, not just one or a few strains). HOWEVER, on the other hand, you can have an incredibly diverse gut microbiome and still suffer from health issues, AND you can have an incredibly diverse gut microbiome and eat an incredibly limited diet.
I had a conversation with Robb Wolf on this topic, and the two biggest takeaways were 1.) Some of the healthiest tribes in the world eat very little variety, and yet their longevity is through the roof and they’re largely disease-free. and 2.) Folks with celiac disease have very diverse gut microbiomes, and yet: they’re celiac.
In addition, during a recent visit to my GI doctor, I asked if eating a low-FODMAP diet long term would cause problems for me and the answer was absolutely not. There is no problem with avoiding foods that cause fermentation in your gut, which causes IBS symptoms.
Again, refer back to the two ladies I mentioned earlier who eat a carnivore diet and yet have superb blood work.
To summarize: It is perfectly fine to eat a Low-FODMAP diet long-term, and it is perfectly fine to eat a diet that is low in variety. The things you want to pay attention to are they way you feel and your blood work.
9.) NUTS, SEEDS AND INFLAMMATION
In theory, nuts and seeds are very nutrient dense. They contain protein, healthy fat, and minerals. The trouble is, the phytates and lectins in nuts and seeds (which are designed to protect them through digestion so that they can continue to thrive when pooped out) make them very difficult to digest.
Those whose digestive systems are ironclad may not notice any belly upset, but those who have a damaged GI (leaky gut) will notice pain and inflammation when they eat nuts or seeds above a certain amount.
All flours, including gluten-free and grain-free flours can be particularly tough on those who have compromised gut lining. Flours can irritate an already inflamed lining and can also seep through the intestinal wall in those with leaky gut. Those who have digestive issues will find some relief when they avoid all forms of flour. Additionally, those with autoimmune disease may find less inflammation or flares when they limit their intake of nuts and seeds.
In general, if you’re going to make nuts and seeds a regular part of your diet, it is best to sprout them first. The sprouting process removes most of the phytates and lectins and makes the nutrients more bioavailable.
10.) CALORIC INTAKE, FASTING, AND A WORLD OF “SHOULDS”
For decades, a 2,000 calorie diet with 3 meals a day has been what is considered “normal” and recommended in the healthcare community. This isn’t just an IBS myth, it’s an overall myth. Everyone’s caloric needs are different, just as everyone’s macro needs are different. Bodybuilders need upwards of 5,000 calories per day. Someone like me needs closer to 1,500.
Similarly, intermittent fasting can be incredibly healing for those with gut issues (it is a regular part of my gut health practice), but does not bode well with everyone, and also may be something you can only do – well – intermittently.
Don’t glue yourself to intermittent fasting if your body is screaming at you. Don’t feel like you HAVE to eat when you aren’t hungry.
Suffice it to say, there is a large disparity in the way of caloric and macronutrient requirements. Both overeating and chronic under-eating can cause digestive issues. The key is to pay attention to your body’s changing needs and not try to out-smart it.
In a society where people are constantly feeling anxiety about food and are micromanaging their diet and bodies, there are two sides to the Volume of Food Consumption coin. Those who believe they need to constantly under-eat in order to be a valuable human, and those who constantly eat too much because they worry if they don’t eat enough they will be seen as having an eating disorder.
Remember to fuck the noise and find a sustainable lifestyle that works for you. My humble opinion is the worst thing the wellness community does for people who have a “healthy relationship with food,” is turn healthy behavior into neurotic behavior.
Stay true to yourself…all opinions be damned…including your own.
I discuss Intuitive Eating at length in my cookbook, Paleo Power Bowls, but I thought it appropriate to touch on it here.
The concept of intuitive eating and food freedom has become the new buzz over the last couple of years. Should you listen to your body? YES! However, most people must eliminate processed foods (primarily refined high carbohydrate food and sugar) before the gut can send accurate signaling to the brain.
As mentioned before, sugar and carbohydrate feed gut bacteria, which are vying for survival. Not to mention, sugar is one of the most addictive substances on the planet. Without healing your gut and ridding your body of reliance on sugar, your body’s intuition becomes skewed.
The great news is your body is incredibly smart. Once addictive and inflammatory foods are eliminated, your body does really know what it needs. I can’t stress the importance of forging your own path when it comes to diet, exercise, and wellness. Your health and wellbeing lifestyle will look entirely different from most people you know, because everyone’s wellness path looks different.
I hope this helps! Trust your instincts. Do your research, listen to the qualified voices. Build your team of healthcare professionals who are constantly researching and adapting their treatment plans according to good science. At the end of the day, only make changes when they are right for you.