Are my stomach problems really in my head?

My IBS journey began about nine years ago, at the age of 44, when I noticed that my migraines – for decades reliably linked to my menstrual cycle – were accompanied by a sour stomach, like if my gut sucked lemons. Eliminating gluten has helped me, but over the years my gut has continued to deteriorate.

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

Eventually I lost 10 pounds because the eating had become so painful. That’s why, in 2015, I landed in the office of a gastroenterologist. He did a bunch of tests – blood, scopes – and when it all came back negative he diagnosed me with IBS

It could have started with a past infection, he said. The recent stresses in my life probably haven’t helped. He had no way to cure me, but he advised me to relax more and manage my diet.

If my IBS was triggered by stress, I would think, “I must be the most neurotic person I know. Such thoughts did not help calm me down. But it became my new goal: to relax so that my stomach didn’t hurt anymore.

I would download a new meditation app, try another therapist, or attend restorative yoga classes. My list of restricted foods continued to grow – no more dairy, soy, alcohol, peanuts, garlic, beans or lentils. I avoided wine and cheese gatherings and scoured ingredients on packaging and menus. When I stayed away from problematic foods, my stomach felt better.

If I decided to be calmer and started to let go of my strict diet, I would be miserable again. When I asked Dr. Mayer why no calming dose would allow me to eat gluten or garlic without pain, he warned me not to underestimate the power of fear.

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