I’ve been doing a fair bit of contemplating over the last week…

I think it’s partly because it’s super chilly and a touch on the grey side in the UK, which makes me want to cocoon up inside. Also with all the excitement of the new year and January planning waning, February almost lends itself to a bit of introspection.

On top of this, I was asked to write the story of my tummy as part of something that’s coming out later in the year. What surprised me was that it was kind of confronting. There were many things I thought I’d dealt with in relation to my digestion, and body, and how it makes me feel, but actually they were still a few old anxieties lingering around. But the positive thing is that I now have a set of tools that help me both recognise and manage this a LOT better.

The reason I was writing about my tummy troubles (as I’m one of the many people who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, aka IBS) is that they were ultimately what led me to setting up my business and wanting to support people in similar situations.

It therefore felt appropriate to share a bit more about some of the tools I use as part of my Feelgood February month; when your stomach’s not in a good way it’s kind of hard to feel good. And although February can feel like a bit of a flat month, ut it’s actually a really good month to think about small positive changes and, dare I say it, resolutions, without all the pressure of “New Year, New You” campaigns.

 

Cultivating belly calm

The particular tools I want to share are in relation to managing stress triggers and cultivating belly calm rather than focussing on foods you should or shouldn’t eat – which is where a lot of discussion around IBS seems to focus. It is of course important to think about types of foods, but I’d love to hear more conversation on the how (not just the what) of eating and also the how of managing lifestyle triggers that can cause flare ups of conditions like IBS. And these hows are relevant even if you don’t have digestive problems!

My tummy was a bit of a battle ground for many years. Although it was my early warning signal when I was working a bit too hard or things were generally out of kilter, I was pretty good at ploughing through. I did a few things to help, like many years of tai chi, and I was eating well, as I always have done really. But I wasn’t really addressing some of the underlying issues that were causing my problems.

 

Getting to the root of my tummy troubles

I’m naturally quite a high energy person and this is what most people would see in the public version of me – but on the other side of this I’d have crashes in private that mainly only my husband and family were privy to. I was a bit embarrassed to share this with other people as it made me feel weak and like I was somehow failing. I didn’t want to be seen as complaining too much, especially in “stiff upper lip” UK. Plus I had SO many things in my life to be grateful for, so it felt like in comparison to what other people were going through I didn’t have any right to be feeling awful.

It was the final crash about 4 years ago that eventually made me sit up and listen to myself. There was no one big trigger, but a perfect storm of a series of events. They left my body in such a bad state that I had to work from home for a week as I wasn’t safe driving my long commute to work. It made me realise I could no longer tinker around the edges of healing and that there were some deep underlying issues I needed to address if I was going to make the most of the life that had been gifted to me.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I didn’t go crazy and resign from my job, sell our house and travel round the world for a year. What actually happened was a year of tests, treatment and therapy to finally get to the bottom of what was causing my issues. This was not about making major overhauls, but small incremental changes and realisations about myself and my needs. The biggest one of these was, finally, the recognition of the need for slow.

I had, without realising, been living in a fairly constant state of low level anxiety. This first came up in the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which was part of the treatment for managing my IBS; I didn’t even want to use the word. Again it felt like “failing”. But I’m now comfortable with recognising anxiety, sometimes even allowing rather than trying to always resist it, and knowing that I can kick my belly calm actions into gear when I need to. (Please note, I’m not talking about extreme crippling anxiety here, but the effects of negative stress that were playing themselves out through my stomach and behaviour.)

There’s now well documented information on the mind-gut connection – and constantly flooding your system with the stress hormone cortisol is not great for your digestion. It puts you in a state of “fight or flight” rather than “rest or digest”. Short term boosts of cortisol can of course be helpful and not all stress is bad, but if there isn’t any relief, well, it’s going to show up in other ways, like your digestion if this is your weak point (which it always has been for me).

And on a slight side note – it goes the other way too. Our gut also has its own neural network, called the enteric nervous system, which sends its own signals up to the brain. So if this is also out of whack, there are extra digestive challenges (see further reading at the end if you’d like to know more about this).

If I had to recommend just one lifestyle-related change to help your digestion, it would be to embrace a little more slow living.

Now, slow living doesn’t mean giving up everything fast and fun, but making conscious choices around fast and slow – and being more aware of being in the state of each. And this includes when it comes to eating. Which leads me neatly on to some of the things I use myself when I need a bit more belly calm…

 

3 tips for cultivating belly calm

Belly Calm Tip 1: Slow Eating

Our distracted and multi-screening behaviour often spills over into the way we eat.

If probably won’t surprise you to know that gulping down food too fast isn’t great if you struggle with digestive issues, especially as you can also end up gulping down air. Eating too fast can also lead you to eating too much, which again can lead to a sore stomach (my belly actually groans on the rare occasion I eat too much).

The enjoyment factor is another reason why I have found eating more slowly is valuable. I taste so much – and it helped me find pleasure at times when I could only eat quite simple foods. I noticed different layers of flavour, texture and even temperature where I hadn’t previously, which allowed me to enjoy food in a new way.

Please note I’m absolutely not suggesting this as a weight loss tip, which is what I’ve seen in other places, but as a mechanism of taste pleasure and to help you work out what is ‘just enough’ for your stomach so that you are comfortable and enjoying your food.

The Japanese have a concept of hara hachi bu, which is essentially about eating until you’re 80% full rather than being stuffed to the brim. This is a little more tricky than it sounds as there are quite a few cues, habits, hormones and distractions that may affect how much you eat – but if you are eating very quckly it’s even more difficult. Most people can, with a little practise or support, start to get a better sense of what feels right for them.

It’s not necessarily straightforward to suddenly change habits of a lifetime and eat more slowly. My starting suggestion is to put your cutlery down between mouthfuls and not to take your next mouthful until you’ve finished what’s in your mouth. Sounds simple right?

It is, but until you start doing it it’s likely that you won’t have noticed how often you already have the next spoonful of food lined up and ready to go while you’re still chewing through what you just put in your mouth. Minimising distractions, such as screens, does help too, but enjoying what’s in your mouth is a good place to start.

 

Belly Calm Tip 2: Mindful Breathing

You’ll often hear me talking about our breath.

It’s something that’s free and everyone has access to, and so often we’re not breathing in a relaxing or enlivening way. This is where daily meditation (and prior to this, tai chi) has been really important for me. It’s made me much more aware of how I’m breathing for one thing. But when I can I feel my mind starting to go off one of its merry dances of worry, I take 3 gentle breaths in and out to ground me. It of course doesn’t turn my brain off, but it brings me back to earth a little.

Breathing is also another layer you can include in slow eating. One of the simplest ways I use it is to take 2-3 considered breaths before I eat, rather than diving straight into my meal. Again this is about a simple awareness.

I’ve also written before about the importance of our breath and smell as part of taste, so if nothing else, it can actually help you taste more in what you’re eating! Yes, it always comes back to taste for me…

 

Belly Calm Tip 3: Gentle Self-Care

I read a really interesting post on Instagram during the week about ‘self-care’ being co-opted as a nice and fluffy marketing message that can undermine the importance of some very basic acts of self-care that are a lifeline for people struggling with mental health issues. While I think this is an incredibly valid point, what I would also say is that sometimes the small “fluffy” acts actually make a big difference to me.

These aren’t done necessarily in the sense of girly indulgence, but, for example, a warm bath full of salts is actually incredibly restorative for me – especially on days when my stomach is uncomfortable or my body is feeling painful.

I guess the word I would apply here is gentle.

Life can be busy – and while a bit of adrenaline and HIIT sessions down the gym can be invigorating – it’s important to have some balance for this. A yin for the yang, if you like. This is particularly important if you have digestive issues as I know from my own experience that too much high intensity is a recipe for disaster.

Gentle can mean different things to different people. It might mean giving yourself an hour in bed on a weekend morning to read. Or a little morning (or evening) meditation. Or a technology-free walk in the woods. Or leaving work 30 minutes earlier a few times in a month to have more time with your partner or family. Or yoga. Or tai chi. Or more sleep. You get the idea – there are lots of options, so find a few that work for you. And this might be through a process of trial and error to start with.

I have a handful of things that I scatter through my week, including, importantly, some that I do daily. One of the things I was previously leaving out of my self-care regime was have daily gentle moments to keep me grounded. And this is not about adding pressure into your day with extra tasks, but find things that become your routine – which might mean having to drop a couple of other less positive habits.

My personal practices include:

  • Daily: 10-20 minutes of morning meditation, 15 minutes of personal writing (with a pen in a notebook – not typed on a screen!) and 1-2 minutes of undistracted tea drinking
  • Across the week: I layer on a gentle outside walk most days and a longer, tougher walk on the weekends with my husband
  • Across my month: warm baths, heat cushion for my stomach or back, and talking to my mum in Oz (and when I can, I add a massage)

This exact mix will not be the same as yours, but if you too suffer from IBS or problems with your digestion, it’s really important to manage stress and find a gentle combination that works well for you. And even if you don’t have tummy troubles, you may also experience benefits from better stress management if this is something you know causes you issues.

I’d love to hear what you do to keep your tummy stress symptoms in check!

 

 

Further Reading

The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long-Term Health, by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, PhDs. Penguin Press, 2015 (you can read an extract here)

Gut Feelings: Using the mind to treat the body in IBS, Kimberly Wilson @foodandpsych, Sep 2017

Hara Hachi Bu: The Secret to Longevity?, Underground Health Reporter