Nicola Greene resorted to using a tape measure to show how much her stomach bloated when she ate out at Christmas parties. The dress she wore on the way out would no longer fit comfortably when she came home because her stomach sometimes swelled by up to six inches.
She even started wearing maternity clothes or simply avoided festive dinners, socialising, and sometimes even holidays.
When she presented the evidence to medical professionals, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) was mentioned but, for years, she was unable to find any resolution.
Fellow IBS sufferer Jon Mulhall empathises with her experience. In his early 20s, his gut issues were so severe — and unpredictable — that he missed the opportunity to spend a year in Australia with his friends.
“It had a huge impact on my life,” he says, telling Feelgood that on one occasion, he drove across Dublin City to use the bathroom in his own home as he is not a fan of public toilets.
There were times, he says, when he just made it home. It was an awful feeling, he continues, but one he is no longer embarrassed to talk about as he feels many people suffer in silence.
He says many members of his own family had gut issues and his wife Caroline also had trouble with IBS. The Dublin-based couple have a six-month-old daughter, Fiadh, and they hope she won’t suffer, but if she does, at least they will be able to share their own experiences.
For Mulhall, now in his thirties, the solution was a combination of finding his food triggers, taking a good probiotic, and going to the gym regularly.
Christmas can be a particularly difficult time but he has learned how to avoid gut discomfort. He watches his alcohol intake and sticks to gin and tonic. He knows now that gravy plays havoc with his system so he makes his own version with chicken Bovril.
He avoids other triggers too, such as mushy peas and beans. “Gut health is all about lifestyle and your gut keeps the score but I think no two people are the same. Everyone’s journey with their gut is different but you can figure out what your own triggers are,” he says.
Nicola Greene agrees but it took many years of GP visits, tests, and prescribed medication before she was able to get relief from a range of symptoms that included severe bloating, stomach cramps, nausea, constipation, and/or diarrhoea and flatulence.
She eventually began to take the probiotic Alflorex, a Cork-made precision biotic that contains a live culture (B. infantis 35624) which is scientifically proven to help gut health. She also cut gluten from her diet and her health started to improve dramatically.
She still needs to take care not to overdo it, particularly at Christmas. Stress plays a role, too, and her job as a social care worker in Wexford can be challenging.
Now, in her early 30s, she has figured out a number of strategies that help. “Listen to your body,” she says. “It will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t like.”
She can’t recommend probiotics enough and says peppermint tea is very soothing when her symptoms flare.
Looking ahead to the excess that goes with the festive season, Deirdre G O’Donovan, a consultant gastroenterologist at the Blackrock Clinic, Dublin, says it can be challenging to everyone, not just those with gut issues.
“Dietary plans often fall by the wayside as people are faced with a barrage of rich goods, excess alcohol and some late nights. Couple that with the pressure and stress we all put on ourselves over Christmas and you have a perfect storm,” she says.