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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Managing Life and Leisure





by Elizabeth Harfleet, Nutritionist

Excerpted from the ebook 'IBS Secrets Most Doctors Won't Know' (2006)



If you’re suffering a bout of IBS, the last thing you probably feel like doing is exercising. We’re not talking marathons or gymnastics, just something to gently boost overall circulation, increase energy, improve muscle tone and encourage elimination.

Walking, cycling and swimming are excellent for circulation and general muscle tone. If you are feeling particularly motivated, you may want to join a gym and tone up with likeminded people. You could even employ the services of a personal trainer, depending on how serious you are.

A good gym should offer an initial assessment, taking into account your own abilities and any health issues. Here are a few tips to help you get

  • Choose an activity you enjoy
  • Start slowly if you’re new to exercise
  • Consult your GP before starting a strenuous exercise programme
  • Work at your own pace; avoid comparing yourself to others
  • Use a home exercise video if time is short
  • Allow 2 hours for food to digest before exercising
  • Start and finish your exercise sessions slowly, allowing muscles to warm up and cool down.
  • The benefits of exercise will last about 2 days so keep at it!

Relaxation and De-stressing

IBS sufferers tend not to be very good at this. They’re often very active people with busy lives – and frequently have a perfectionist streak to boot!

Relaxation means different things to different people, but can often be confused with ‘leisure’, which is similar but not the same: after a busy week at work, we ‘relax’ by going shopping, visiting family, taking the kids swimming etc. None of these are genuinely relaxing; in fact they can all be quite stressful. You have to find a method of relaxing which works for you.

True relaxation is an art to be learned, but here are a few ideas:

  • Stroke the cat — borrow one if necessary! This has a calming and soothing effect on both animal and human and has been shown to reduce stress and help lower blood pressure.
  • Listen to calming music or a CD/tape of music specifically designed for relaxation or meditation.
  • Invest in a ‘relaxation’ CD/tape to guide you through the relaxation process.
  • Join a weekly exercise and relaxation class.
  • In good weather, sit in your garden or a local park and enjoy nature’s sights and sounds.
  • Whether at home or work, allow yourself a 5 minute break twice a day. These ‘micro breaks’ can help renew depleted energy levels.
  • Treat yourself (and maybe a friend too) to a pamper day at a luxury spa or book in for an aromatherapy massage at your local complementary health clinic. You could make this a regular event!

Making Sense of Stress

When we realise we’ll be late for our flight or that presentation we’re delivering in front of work colleagues, we need a stress response to hurry us into action. Without it, the plane will leave without us or we may get fired from our job!

However, for many, the stress response is permanently switched on, resulting in a feeling of constant tiredness. For IBS sufferers in particular, even a small amount of stress can result in worsening symptoms. The sales rep, travelling hundreds of miles each week and living out of a suitcase, will say he feels stress. An elderly person living in lonely isolation might say the same thing; stress means different things to different people.

Stress – anger, fear, excitement, frustration – all stimulate the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. The production of adrenaline causes a high, almost like a drug; cortisone is also produced. These two hormones gear the whole body for action. Digestion shuts down and glucose enters the bloodstream to fuel the nerves and muscles. Breathing, heart rate and blood pressure all increase, ready to deliver oxygen to the cells to burn the fuel and produce energy.

If this process is repeated too often, health can suffer. Symptoms may include fatigue, low resistance to infection, headaches, insomnia and mood swings. Left unchecked, these minor symptoms can become major and lead to more serious illnesses.

Exercise and relaxation, as we’ve seen, are excellent in their different ways for counteracting the physical effects of stress. Try these suggestions when trying to counter stress at source:

  • Limit your working hours to no more than 10 hours a day, 5 days a week.
  • Avoid obvious pressures, such as taking on too many commitments
  • Make time each week for a hobby or sport that you can ‘lose yourself’ in
  • Concentrate on one task at a time and focus all your attention on the present
  • Learn to see when a problem is somebody else’s responsibility and don’t take it on
  • Develop a positive attitude to things that can’t be changed. If change is possible, take action; don’t let things wear you down

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