Have you ever had a run of bad luck? Maybe your furnace broke down on a freezing cold day, you were rear-ended while stopped at an intersection, a hidden leak developed in a shower that caused significant water damage to your home…? That was the month of November for me. But more was to come.
Ever receive a diagnosis that didn’t make sense? My run of bad luck culminated with a diagnosis of IBS in December. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the diagnosis, or the symptoms I was experiencing. How could I get IBS when I had been eating a gut-healthy diet for over 3 years? I was experiencing EXTREME bloating and constipation that came on rapidly, and were affecting my quality of life. Some nights I couldn’t sleep, because my belly was so distended that it was uncomfortable enough to prevent sleep. Most of the time I didn’t want to eat, because putting even a few bites of food into my stomach caused severe nausea and instant bloating and belching.
I needed to start investigating. I work with people suffering from bloating all the time, so I did what I do with my clients:
Week 1: I did a Betaine Challenge, found I was low in stomach acid, and started supplementing with Betaine HCl with Pepsin. This offered a small amount of relief from the bloating. I also took the highest dose probiotic I could get at 500 billion CFU. Each one of these supplements alone should have encouraged motility and helped me poop, but I was starting to become constipated. It didn't make sense. In frustration I went to see my doctor to rule out H. pylori, since my stomach was suffering so much. I got a requisition form for the test and my doctor suggested a low-FODMAP diet to help with the bloating.
Week 2: I started a very low-FODMAP diet, in addition to maintaining my usual gut-healthy diet. It helped reduce the bloating significantly, but it was getting harder and harder to poop. By now I was pooping little pellets with a lot of straining. A low-FODMAP diet can be great for managing symptoms, but I knew it didn’t address the root cause of whatever was going on. The problem was, I still had no idea what that could be. As symptoms moved lower into my gut, I added digestive enzymes, and magnesium to see if they would help with the constipation. Magnesium helps to draw water into the bowels making stools softer and easier to pass.
Week 3: My H. pylori results were in. Treatment typically involves multiple strains of antibiotics. If my results came back positive would I consider antibiotics? At this point I was so uncomfortable that I was definitely considering it. I knew I could go to my naturopathic doctor for a non-pharmaceutical approach, but I wanted to stop my suffering now. My results were negative, which was a relief, but still left me with the looming question of what was causing my symptoms. My doctor asked me how I felt about the diagnosis of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). What did I feel? I was frustrated that there was no further exploration, that I didn’t have an answer to why I had these symptoms, and that I was receiving a diagnosis that was vague. I like my doctor and respect him, but was dismayed when he said I’d likely have ongoing problems for the rest of my life. What the heck? At this point I could hardly poop anymore, and was willing to go on an osmotic laxative that draws water into the intestines, but isn’t absorbed into the body. It felt like my entire digestive system was shut down.
EUREKA MOMENT: 2 days after receiving the diagnosis of IBS I was sitting in a hot bath after dinner when I had my EUREKA! moment. I knew my gut motility was extremely impaired, and was barely responding to any of the supplements I was using. I kept coming back to the idea that it felt like my entire digestive system was compromised. There was none of the usual tummy grumbling or digestive sounds I normally hear between meals, and I was pooping pellets every other day, so clearly things weren’t moving the way they should. I was managing bloating on an extremely restricted diet. If I didn’t figure things out soon I was certain I’d end up with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). About 10 days before my symptoms started I had been in a motor vehicle accident, and had been rear-ended, and ended up with mild whiplash (remember my string of bad luck?). What if the whiplash was at the root cause of my symptoms? It made perfect sense! The whiplash was a direct physical trauma to the spinal column in my neck. The spinal column is part of our central nervous system (CNS), and the CNS has a huge role in gut motility. Within the CNS there are the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” system and kicks in during times of danger or stress. The trauma from the whiplash had put me into a chronic sympathetic state! In contrast our parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” system. You can only have one of these two systems dominate at a time, which means you are either in a “fight or flight” state or a “rest and digest” state. I was now in a chronic “fight or flight” state, which meant I was not able to “digest”. With this new understanding of what was happening in my body, I quickly climbed out of the tub, and called my teenagers to set up the karaoke machine. I was going to sing my gut back to health!
HOW KARAOKE CLEARED UP MY IBS
What a relief! I finally had something tangible I could do that would help. I was going to start stimulating my vagus nerve! The vagus nerve is the nerve that controls the parasympathetic nervous system. It runs from the brain to the gut (along with numerous other organs), where it is involved in signaling stomach acid and digestive juice production, and motility. And guess what? A symptom of vagus nerve dysfunction is IBS. If my vagus nerve wasn't functioning, then it would explain my symptoms.
Singing is one of the ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. I spent the next hour belting out Christmas carols and songs from the 80s with my two teenagers. The next morning I added gargling to the routine, but continued with karaoke. Aggressive gargling is also a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Within 36 hours I was feeling noticeably better. The distention in my belly was going down and I had my first normal poop in weeks. Pooping never brought me more joy, than it did at that moment.
I stopped eating a low-FODMAP diet. With Christmas just a few days away, the timing couldn’t have been better. I also stopped the osmotic laxative that I had taken for a few days.
Over the next week things were up and down. If I forgot to gargle before bedtime, I would still be constipated the next day, so I made sure I didn’t forget. Sometimes I still felt crummy after a meal, but I was improving with each passing day.
Right now, two weeks after my Eureka! moment I still gargle in the shower in the morning, and before going to bed. I’m pooping every morning, and I don’t have to strain. All the bloating is gone. I’m still undergoing treatment for my whiplash, so will continue to gargle (or sing) until I’m confident that things have settled down with my nervous system.
Do you still have unexplained bloating, constipation, IBS or SIBO? Have you had a physical trauma that included whiplash, concussion or a motor vehicle accident in the past? Start adding loud singing or gargling 3 times each day to see if it helps.
Happy, Healthy Singing!