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Are my stomach problems really all in my head?

0 2 years ago

Eli, trying to be patient, ploughed down Interstate 40 as daylight dimmed and I scrolled through my phone searching for a restaurant or dish that would not cause me pain.

After years of carefully navigating dinners out and meals in, it had finally happened: There was nowhere I could eat.

“I’m so sorry, honey,” I said. “I feel really, really bad.” And I did. I was on the verge of tears, as much out of self-pity and shame as any maternal concern.

Eli shook his head. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s not your fault.”

But it was. Because of me — or, to be precise, my digestive system — we would not eat until we reached Amarillo, Texas, at 10 pm, and bought frozen food from a grocery store near our Airbnb.

My gut is not a carefree traveller. Ingest the wrong items, and my stomach feels as though someone’s scoured it with a Brillo pad.

For the next few hours, I may also experience migraines, achy joints, and a foggy, feverish sensation as though I’m coming down with the flu.

My doctors call this irritable bowel syndrome or IBS. I call it a terrible shame.

IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, a so-called functional disorder scribbled in your chart only after every test and examination has come back normal.

Simply put, there’s nothing wrong with my stomach that our current medical tools can detect. Some physicians and researchers have described this condition in terms of a mind-gut connection.

“Everybody has contractions in their gut,” said Dr Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices and Our Overall Health.

The same contractions that go unnoticed by most people cause pain in IBS patients, who have become hypersensitive to sensations in their gut, he said.

Calm the mind, the thinking goes, and the gut may follow.

Fair or not, I hear this prescription and think: “Oh, so this is all in my head?”

Then I fear that my stomachaches are my fault, the product of an anxious mind that I cannot tame into submission.


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