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Maia Dunphy: 'I’d feel my IBS coming on like a spasm and I’d have to go home'

We need to get people talking about IBS and remove the stigma, writes Maia Dunphy.

Maia Dunphy Writer and broadcaster

IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME is a digestive disorder affecting between 15-20% of the Irish population. That equates to approximately 700,000 people that are struggling every day to manage the unpleasant and bothersome symptoms of this chronic digestive condition.

IBS symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhoea and can mean sufferers have to dash to the loo without warning. All this can take its toll on sufferers, often resulting in sufferers missing work, school or college.

When I was 16, I went to the doctor with crippling stomach pains. It was when I was trying to be healthy and stupidly living on apples and raisins and all the things that now I couldn’t touch with a barge pole.

The doctor said: “When we rule out other conditions, what we deem you to have is IBS.” I went, “Fine how can I cure it?” And she said: “You don’t, you learn to live with it.”

Learning my triggers

Since then it’s mainly been about learning my triggers, which tends to be fruit and vegetables. When I see a raw food diet I curl up into a ball and cry. I can eat everything else. In fact when I live on less healthy food I tend to be better, whereas raw onions in a salad are like garlic to a vampire for me.

The issues for me were bloating and really bad, crippling stomach pains. You really would need an hour to lie down in a darkened room and you feel it coming on like a spasm in your stomach.

I can’t really drink wine. If I’m at home I can have the odd glass with food, but if I was to go out for dinner with friends and have a glass on an empty stomach, it would be crippling. I’d feel it coming on like a spasm, and the pain would be so bad I’d have to go home and curl up in bed.

The part stress plays

IBS can be really debilitating and just grim, and I did worry about getting pregnant as the symptoms can get much worse or disappear. Luckily for me it disappeared while I was pregnant. In the last year I’ve had three or four really bad episodes of chronic pain but now I’m taking Alflorex which really helps.

As I am living in London with my husband Johnny, our 20-month-old son Tom and stepson Michael, I spend a lot of time flying back to Dublin for work on freelance projects.

Life can definitely be stressful, and my doctor told me she’s never met anyone with IBS who isn’t stressed. Professor Fergus Shanahan in Cork said to me: “If you have IBS, it is causing you massive anxiety” and they are not sure what comes first. But there is no denying my default setting wouldn’t be calm. When it flared up again last year, I had been stressed.

IBS is often dismissed. My doctor took it seriously but people don’t often know how serious it can be if you have it severely. We need to talk about it more. People need to be aware. There are wide range of symptoms and each person diagnosed with IBS will experience the disease differently.

Compared to the women that I have spoken with in my video, my symptoms are mild, but I still know the misery of living with the uncertainty, bloating and stomach pain associated with this condition.

We need to get people talking about IBS and remove the stigma and perceived embarrassment. People shouldn’t be suffering in silence or too embarrassed to talk about it to a pharmacist, GP or gastroenterologist because they have heard it all before.

Maia Dunphy is a writer and broadcaster. She set up the instantly successful site “The M Word” – a hub for women who happen to be mums. She is currently working on a book with Gill & McMillan.  ​

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Maia Dunphy  / Writer and broadcaster

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