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Looking Beyond Food Triggers for Healing the Gut & IBS.

Updated: May 28, 2023

When you are struggling with gut problems like bloating, gas, pain, and heartburn, it's normal to start to evaluate what you're eating and if it's causing problems. Most of these symptoms are triggered around meal times so it makes sense that food might be the culprit.


Food triggers are also commonly listed causes for all sorts of gut problems from IBS to heartburn, yet the specific triggers are vastly different for each condition and even each person. Food triggers seem to range from gluten to dairy to various high FODMAP fruits and vegetables.


This can leave you feeling overwhelmed with what you should or should not be eating to support your gut.


The answer is simpler than you think.


Food is not the problem.


Food triggers are generally effect, not cause. This means that generally food reactions are happening because the gut is not functioning optimally rather than because the food is harmful. This is why you likely can't find a pattern to your "triggers." Sometimes a food is safe and other times it leaves you hurting.


When we try to label food as "good" vs "bad" or "inflammatory" vs "anti-inflammatory" we make this problem worse. These labels are arbitrary and damage our relationship with food by creating guilt and shame every time we choose to eat them.


This fear and guilt activates our sympathetic nervous system or "fight/flight" state which completely shuts down our digestive process. This will ultimately cause that food to trigger an uncomfortable reaction - a self-fulfilling prophecy.


In the gut healing world, we need to be mindful of how we talk about food. Food sensitivities tests and the low FODMAP diet are really common treatment strategies that are supposed to be short-term but often end-up long-term because we end up believing that these things are bad for our gut. This is not true.


High FODMAP foods are actually ALL prebiotics. This means that technically they are the best food sources for the gut. Cutting them out forever is only going to create more problems.


Eliminating foods may provide some relief in the short term, but in the long run, it will only make your gut weaker. The key to healing your gut is not eliminating food but building a strong digestive system.


I'm not saying that food is not important, it's just not the only important thing to look at. You also don't undo hard work because you ate a few or even a lot of cookies.


When we get stuck looking only at food, we often miss the bigger picture.


There are many factors that affect how well the gut functions, especially with IBS, that have nothing to do with what you are eating.


Here are 4 other things to consider for your gut that are not related to what you are eating:


A women with her eyes closed who looks very calm and is holding a fork with food on it

Eating Hygiene


Eating Hygiene refers to our practices around eating.


This includes how often or not often you eat and how fast you eat.


Eating hygiene profoundly impacts activation of our digestive system and how well it functions and it is also the premise of my No-Bloat Checklist which you can grab for free here. Eating Hygiene is usually one of the first recommendations I make in my practice.



An unmade bed with white sheets and duvet and the room is dark

Sleep quality


Getting adequate sleep is essential for a healthy gut. Our digestive system goes through a process of repair and regeneration during sleep. So, not getting enough sleep can disrupt this process and weaken our gut health.


When we don't sleep well, we impact our poop schedule, our mood, our energy, and our hungry cues.



If you're interested in learning more about improving your sleep, check out my previous blog post on sleep



A women who's face is obscured by the laptop in front of her and she is writing in a notepad beside the laptop

Stress & Mood


I mentioned the impact of our stress response (fight or flight) on digestion above - it shuts it down. Digestion is a resting action


When we get stuck in states of high stress, we stop sending proper signals to the gut which means we won't digest well. When your stress is high or mood is low, your gut is not going to be happy no matter what you eat.


Chronic stress can also disrupt our gut's microbial balance and increase inflammation, which can lead to gut-related problems.



a red popsicle that is starting to melt at the top against a peach background

Hormones


If you are a menstruator, you have different hormone levels at different points of your cycle. When your levels are high, you'll feel pretty great. When they are low, your gut becomes especially sensitive. Our natural low points are roughly mid cycle and the week before your period.


If you're noticing this pattern, your focus should be on your hormones and not simply what you are eating.


Hormones can also play a role in non-menstruators too, it just might look a bit different.


The Take Home Message


Look beyond food when it comes to your gut and remember that any food restriction plans should be with the intention of short-term and be paired with other gut support for them to be safe and effective.


So give yourself a bit of ease and grace when it comes to what you are eating. I promise you it's not worth the stress



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