The human body is beautiful, complex…and weird. I predicted that age and stress would bring changes to my muscles and mind, but I never expected them to drastically alter my gut. By 28, my digestive health was a mess, and I had been diagnosed with IBS. I attributed all of my stomach problems to anxiety and OCD, and since I didn’t know how to control the worry, I had all but given up on trying to fix the pain. Thankfully, an appointment with a new primary care practitioner brought light to the subject. She introduced me to the gut-brain connection and the term FODMAP, two concepts that have made an incredible difference in my life.
The gut holds millions of neurons. Some even refer to the enteric nervous system as the body’s second brain. So, while anxiety can worsen IBS symptoms, my doctor explained that it could also work the other way around. Basically, the gut-brain connection can flow in either direction. Gastrointestinal problems send signals to the central nervous system, triggering worry and mood changes. Stomach problems can therefore result in anxiety. To my surprise, my physician felt that if I could learn to manage my digestive issues better, I could improve my overall mental health.
To do this, my doctor suggested I start by implementing a diet low in FODMAPs. (If you’ve never heard of the acronym, don’t worry. You’re in good company!) FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols-a chain of carbohydrates the body does not naturally digest well. These sugars can upset the digestive system, disrupting the gut-brain connection.
Like most elimination diets, a low FODMAP diet starts by taking away all irritants. Once all possible trigger foods have been removed, they are added back in, one by one. If the body does not tolerate the food, it may be something a person chooses to eliminate for good.
High levels of FODMAPs can be found in many everyday, healthy foods, such as garlic, onion, legumes, apples, wheat, and lactose products. Removing them or lowering their intake can therefore be difficult. (Take garlic and onion, for instance; these seasonings can be found in powdered form in almost any sauce, dressing, and broth.) Thankfully, many helpful resources categorize foods by their FODMAP levels. The Monash University app is my personal favorite.
I have been following a tailored low FODMAP diet for almost two years. While it took a bit of time, I feel like I finally understand which foods work for me and which cause digestive distress. The change in diet has improved my IBS symptoms exponentially, but the lowered levels of anxiety bring the most relief. When I fuel my body with foods that work with, instead of against my gut, my thoughts are stable. I rationalize easier and worry less.
I never expected a change in diet to play a key factor in improving my mental health. Understanding and appreciating the gut-brain connection has helped transform my quality of life.