Are My Stomach Problems Really All in My Head?


My I.B.S. journey started about nine years ago, at age 44, when I noticed that my migraines — for decades reliably yoked to my menstrual cycle — were accompanied by a sour stomach, like my gut was sucking on lemons. Cutting out gluten helped, but as the years passed, my gut continued to deteriorate.

I later learned my experience is not unusual. Studies suggest that female sex hormones modulate the brain-gut connection, and as these hormones wane, women may experience more severe I.B.S. symptoms.

Eventually, I dropped 10 pounds because eating had become so painful. That’s why, in 2015, I landed in the office of a gastroenterologist. He ran a bunch of tests — blood, scopes — and when everything came back negative, he diagnosed me with I.B.S.

It could have started with a past infection, he said. Recent stresses in my life probably didn’t help. He had no way of curing me, but he advised me to relax more and manage my diet.

If my I.B.S. was triggered by stress, I thought, “I must be the most neurotic person I know.” Thoughts like these did not help me calm down. But that became my new goal: to relax so my belly would no longer hurt.

I’d download a new meditation app or try a different therapist or attend restorative yoga classes. My list of restricted foods continued to grow though — no more dairy, soy, alcohol, peanuts, garlic, beans or lentils. I avoided wine and cheese gatherings and scoured the ingredients on packaging and menus. When I stayed off problem foods, my stomach felt better.

If I decided I was calmer and began to edge off my strict diet, I’d be miserable again. When I asked Dr. Mayer why no amount of calming would allow me to eat gluten or garlic without pain, he warned me not to underestimate the power of fear.


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