1st September 2019
Libby Stonehawk is a traveller, website developer and runner who is determined not to let her condition get in the way of her active lifestyle. She explains more about how she manages her IBS while working and travelling around the world.
I was diagnosed with IBS when I was 25, more than six years ago now. I started getting symptoms in my early twenties. They were subtle at first, but over time they got progressively worse. I felt bloated after meals, and it felt very uncomfortable when my body was having difficulty digesting some foods.
Good digestion was something I had taken for granted before. Suddenly, my mood could be affected depending on the meal I had eaten. It became a real problem and was having an impact on me and my life.
After being diagnosed with IBS I walked out of the GP’s surgery feeling desolate. I had really hoped that all the uncomfortable symptoms I’d been experiencing would be cured simply by medication. But, as people with IBS understand, it’s not that simple. All I had was a long list of recommendations from the doctor – stop drinking alcohol, avoid eating gluten and spicy foods, stop eating late, eat small portions. It just went on. And, particularly at that time in my life, in my mid-twenties, it felt very restrictive.
I worried that I would have to stop socialising in my favourite ways and that friends would not understand. Most of my social interactions tended to either include alcohol or experimental food. I enjoyed eating out at restaurants, trying out new bars and pubs and going to food markets and cooking and baking with friends.
After the diagnosis, I had no idea how to move forward. So, I rebelled and decided to ignore my doctor’s advice. I continued to eat and drink what I wanted, when I wanted, and not exercise. I put on weight and felt lethargic. I was in so much discomfort that my performance at work suffered and eventually, so did my relationships with family and friends. This gave me the motivation I needed to address my IBS full on.
Nowadays, I have a lot more control and patience with my condition. But learning how to manage my IBS symptoms took time. It wasn’t something that suddenly happened overnight. The turning point was taking up running. Sometimes the only way I could get relief was by going for a run.
I slowly incorporated regular running into my weekly habits and now I either run or do another form of exercise every day.
Cutting out coffee was another big turning point, as was avoiding eating late in the evening. Another trigger for me is stress, and that, I must admit, is much harder to manage. Working remotely and more flexibly has helped. If I need a day being very close to a toilet, I can make sure I have easy access to one. I can go as often as I like without feeling watched or judged by colleagues.
I’m a freelance website developer/social media manager. On most days, I can choose the hours I work. I also write a travel and tech blog with my husband where I write about my IBS, and we outline our experience as digital nomads and how we work and travel together.
I have also learned to accept that despite all the precautions I take, sometimes it is just a bad IBS day. This is sometimes the most frustrating thing of all. Keeping to a routine with both my eating times and portion size, as well as being active, ensures I travel with the least amount of discomfort.
Overseeing my working hours has helped a lot with my symptoms, as I can plan work around eating and exercise. I start the day drinking water and then do a 15-minute abdominal workout. To be honest, the motivation to do this every day does differ but the best days are when I keep to a routine. I have a small breakfast – usually oats with blueberries and almond milk. I have cut out coffee (this was so difficult) and only drink water and herbal teas throughout the day. I tend to eat smaller and more frequent meals, and lots of snacks, rather than a big heavy meal.
I am enjoying working remotely around the world as this means after a few hours of work, I can go and explore or be active for a bit.
I am lucky that I have a very supportive and understanding husband. He accepts that I must be cautious with my diet and mealtimes. It can make eating out tricky. He has an iron stomach and loves to eat everything and anything. We compromise on dining options.
I also make sure I have IBS friendly snacks with me, just in case. When dining out in a new country, I make sure I have a translation with me of the foods I avoid, like onions, so I can try and avoid triggers as much as possible. I also make sure I know the word ‘toilet’ in most languages* and if we are going on a hike or daytrip, I research toilet facilities before we get there.
When we are on long train journeys, I book seats near a toilet. When I’m in a new place and there is new cuisine or drink to try, I won’t necessarily avoid it because I think it will cause my IBS to flare up. You only live once! When I do eat food that doesn’t agree with me, I just make sure to exercise, drink water and most importantly, try not to stress about it.
Now that I’m managing my IBS better, I am achieving things I never thought possible. I am training for my first half marathon, travelling with my husband, and developing new skills in tech. I don’t think I would have attempted any of them if IBS had not compelled me to try living my life another way.
*If you are travelling abroad our Can’t Wait Cards include an international travel card with translations of the ‘Can’t wait’ message into 12 languages to help you find a toilet when you most need one.