Kindness and IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome may begin with your bowels but in my experience it makes the rest of you pretty irritable before long. We sufferers experience discomfort, sometimes severe discomfort. From time to time your clothes don’t fit and your exercise regime no longer appeals. It’s problematic to enjoy food or your favourite activities and quite quickly your life can feel out of control. This is a vicious circle as we do less of what we enjoy and limit our diet. The more it doesn’t get better the more we search the internet for cures and causes and beat our heads against the indifference of the medical profession.

So I am here today to tell you that IBS can also respond, like the rest of us, to kindness and attention. Imagine your IBS is a friendly message from your gut trying to take care of you.  IBS is a symptom not a disease and it is usually a symptom that we’re overdoing it on an emotional front. It is a message from the gut to the rest of us to lay off the accelerator and stop trying to push through stress.

Sadly when the IBS plays up we treat it like an enemy that needs to be defeated.  When we are suffering we can get caught in an endless round of looking for ’causes’ and things to blame. ‘Maybe if I stop eating wheat? Maybe if I give up meat?’ Before you know it you have a long list of good things that you are not ‘allowed’ in case your IBS plays up. IBS then feels like an enemy – we make an enemy of our own nervous system!

So here’s my suggestion as a fellow sufferer : Try it the other way round. Do the things you like, eat what you like and if you notice your tummy is sending you warning messages, take a little extra care of yourself by making a risotto or a bowl of porridge or some other food that soothes you. This pro-active but positive approach can work absolute wonders and sidesteps the self-punishing avoidance diets that many of us in desperation adopt.

The kind approach is to stop looking for the villains of the piece (so called trigger foods) and to start looking for things that help. If you can feel into the difference in that approach you will already feel the sort of kindness that can help you. One way we feel under attack from within. The other we feel we need to listen a little more to our insides.

What can we do about the stress? Just accepting that something is stressful and that you are not to blame can reduce the symptoms substantially. When you’ve chosen a new job or a new partner or another exciting development it can be easy to blame ourselves when we find it stressful … and the blame adds another layer of stress. My last bout of IBS was associated with moving house and once I’d identified it as IBS (not the 4am bowel cancer) it responded very nicely to a little love and kindness. In fact it responded immediately to the realisation that it was probably about the traumatic business of losing one home and making another. I simply allowed myself to know that I was finding the experience stressful – even though I was moving somewhere wonderful that I had chosen.

So if you are suffering from chronic or acute IBS start by making a friend of your tummy. You are both on the same side! If there are difficulties in your life (if!) start by allowing that they are there and that they are causing you stress. Do not deny yourself things but make sure you do things that you know can help. But it is the allowing that really makes the difference. If you do a yoga class or take a massage to help with the stress it will help immensely if you don’t regard it as a deal : I have to stop feeling stressed after this. Keep an open mind. Allow your body to process all your feelings and your food in its own good time. It has its own wisdom. Treat it with respect and kindness. There is no limit to the amount of kindness you are allowed to give yourself.

Tomorrow a recipe for pasta with broccoli with blue cheese! Watch this space.

 

The Search for Honey

This is another story that tells of turning away from our habitual defences and the courage of trying something new. See what happens when we tread a different path : this is really the whole of psychotherapy.

 

At last I can wait no longer and I put on layers of clothing and open the door. I have to take off my gloves again to force the door which sticks and I hurt my hand getting it open. The wind near tears the door off and outside the bleak landscape is uninviting. My mouth is full of yearning and cursing; the hunger is insatiable now. My house was built long ago with wood from the tree of wilfulness and I leave it as little as I can. The tree still grows outside my door. Its fruits are bitter but I use the wood for the fire. It makes a poor fire but the wood is plentiful.

I venture out onto the hard beauty of the tundra and after a wearisome walk of some hours, encumbered by the thick clothes woven from pride, I find a small parcel of honey in a ruined building. I hurry back to the safety of my mean home where I give the honey to the children of my need and take some myself. The sweetness of giving the little ones honey gives way, when they are asleep, to the relief of filling my own mouth with what is left. The small fire has gone out. I fall asleep in the cold, bundled in most of the clothes I own, with sugar on my lips.

But sooner or later pride and wilfulness are not enough to keep the need at bay and I must brave the journey once more. Each time I must go further. Each time there is the fear that all the honey is gone. Each time the children cry harder.

And then, after years of such journeys a different thing happens. One day the needing takes me further from home, further into the cold than I have ever been before. The fear is great. I may freeze before I get home again to the cold comfort of the drafty hut and the smokey fire. I worry even more about the children.

My steps are heavy in my old boots and I pass the many ruined buildings where I have found sweetness in the past. These ruins are my friends and lovers of old and I pass them quickly for they hold nothing for me now. Their sweetness is exhausted.

After miles of slowgoing I can see another barn or such like ahead. Out here I am so far from the settlement that it is unlikely already to have been raided and my spirits lift with unbearable hope. My breath is short and my steps quicken. I do not feel the cold; I can see already the smiles of my children as I hand them the honeycomb later tonight; I can feel the stickiness on my tongue, the fullness in my mouth, the brief orgasm as I swallow. Don’t think about that.

And I am in luck. In a forgotten corner of this hay-barn is a jar of the sweetness I so badly need, the sweetness I do not know how to make. There is a relaxation within as I know that the need will shortly be assuaged, that my mouth will be full. I secure the jar in my top coat, tighten my scarves around my face, put on my gloves and step outside once more.

This way lies home. But see, the other way, the snows of make-believe autonomy and wilfulness run out and the bare earth is showing. I have never seen the earth before lying naked and unprotected by the snow. Here it is not frozen to stone as it is where I struggle every year to plant the terrible vegetables we must live on. Here there is mud instead. I am fascinated and I walk a little further away from home to see what I can find.

But the mud turns to mire. A man-made hell of unwanted rubble and shit emerges. Junk lies in dark oily puddles and there is scarcely anywhere to put one foot after another. I will never get my boots clean again. This is where I keep my blackest thoughts, thoughts of shame and murder and revenge and hope and self-harm. It is ugly here beyond imagination. This is why I live in the pristine snow where the suffering is less. 

I am pondering this long-forgotten decision when, beyond the mud, I see a fence. It has no doors or gates in it but it is a temporary fence such as builders erect around their work to keep out trespassers. The panels of the fence are not solid, nor are they heavy but every metre or so they are held in place by metal blocks of unimaginable weight. Each panel bears a picture of me and in every weight I see a refusal to forgive. I stand in the black mud and worse and contemplate the fence. Each weight had to be forged from the metal of unforgiveness and dragged into position. I remember each instance with an effort, each instance where I closed my heart with deliberation and turned away from forgiveness, away from the awful suffering of compassion. 

The sad work of erecting that fence took years and I called it growing up. 

Eventually I think to lift my eyes from the ground at last and I am overwhelmed to see, above the fence, the pink and gold domes of San Marco. The warmth, the pleasure, the plenty of Venice awaits there, within sight. I can hear music and laughter, like a party. Venice is like a party and I recognise that this is my heart, my journey’s end. The pink and gold domes sparkle in the sunlight with an inexhaustible supply of honey and I remember that within it is dark and private. Inside the cathedral there is the glimmer of the everlasting flame reflected in the ancient, gold mosaics which celebrate the deeds of the saints. There is the jewelled altar screen and an eternal holy singing and the smell of incense as the Blessed Sacrament is offered for adoration.

I begin to pick my way through the mire towards the singing. 

Gut Feeling

Do you ever wake up feeling like a bad person, full of nameless dread and no idea why? If this happens to you and you are of an enquiring sort, interested in your body and the meaning of life, you may mull over what these feelings mean and get nowhere. If, God help you, you are of a psychological bent, you can spend a lot of time on this and still find out nothing much. Imagine my delight then to read the following passage in a very jolly book by Dr Giulia Enders called Gut, the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ.

‘It is now generally accepted in scientific circles that people with certain digestive problems often suffer from nervous disorders of the gut. Their gut then sends signals to the part of the brain that processes negative feelings, although they have done nothing bad. Such patients feel uneasy but have no idea why.’

So, let’s take it slowly. This doctor is telling us that our brain cannot distinguish between bad feelings that come from malfunctioning digestion and bad feelings that come from having done something we consider morally bad. Signals of uneasiness, the urge to make amends, even the terrible urge we seem to have to punish ourselves, may be a consequence of indigestion! Now you are aware of that, maybe you, like me, can ignore those feelings when they arise. Just say to yourself, ‘I probably ate too much‘ or ‘That midnight cheese sandwich was a mistake‘ and give it no more thought. You may need to take better care of your gut and what you put into it. (Are you drinking enough water? Do fresh fruit and vegetables figure prominently enough etc etc.) But you don’t need me to tell you what is good to eat because every magazine, newspaper and TV programme seems to be full of it. You may need help disentangling the confusion which links what kind of person you are with what you eat and what you look like. You see gut feelings can be very misleading!

Guts

Giulia Enders book was brought to my attention by a friend suffering from diverticulitis (ouch!) and it proves to be extremely entertaining with cartoons drawn by her sister and a determined attempt to demystify the gut and to do away with embarrassment about poo that gets in the way of our health. She tackles insensitivities and allergies and draws attention to the far reaching effects of ignoring your digestion. It’s a great read.

But now we come to Sunday Tomato Eggs which I found in the Financial Times Weekend magazine some months ago and which is attributed to Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a killer when you have weekend guests or when you just want to pamper yourself with a different kind of Sunday lunch/brunch. You can nearly make it with the contents of your store cupboard if your store cupboard contains that minced or chopped chorizo you can buy in airtight packets and which lasts for months in the fridge. Don’t worry about the celery if you have the other ingredients. You will hardly miss it but it is nice if you are shopping specially for this recipe.

Sunday Tomato Eggs

serves 4

115g cooking chorizo chopped

1 onion finely chopped

2 tbs celery finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

400g passata or tinned chopped tomatoes which you have simmered for 10 minutes with some olive oil, salt and pepper

1 tbsp capers

5 black olives chopped

1 chipotle finely chopped or chilli flakes to taste (I recommend 1 level tbsp)

60ml water

1.5 tbsp horseradish (freshly grated or out of a jar)

8 large eggs

 

To serve: 4 slices country bread toasted, formal frais or burrata, basil leave

Saute the chorizo, celery, onion and garlic in olive oil in a large pan until the onion softens. Add the water passata, chilli, olives and capers and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes until the sauce is quite thick. Stir in the horseradish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust the chilli. You can now leave this mixture until you need it.

When you’re ready to eat just heat it up and crack your eggs into it. Cook over a medium heat with a lid on until the eggs are set how you like them, then serve on the toast and add a spoonful of burrata or fromage frais or thick yoghurt to each dish and a few torn basil leaves.

If you don’t eat meat you can add avocado to the toast before you put the burrata on. Surely this will make you feel good to your core.

 

Better Bugs

 

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The Hadza People

with Alice Crittenden, anthropologist

I have sung the praises of Radio Four’s The Food Programme before and here I am again putting their two programs on the microbiome right under your nose. In case you’ve missed it, the microbiome is now recognised to be such an important part of our inner workings that it qualifies as an organ in the human body. And what is it actually, the microbiome? To you and me it’s a fancy name for all the bugs hanging out in our digestive system. Word is there aren’t enough of them and we should be thinking about how to increase the little beasties, in number yes, but particularly in variety.

Two episodes of The Food Programme are devoted to hunting with the Hadza, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer tribes in the world whose world gives us an insight into our ancestry over the last ten thousand years or more. Two things really gripped me as about these ancient people. They have a totally non-hierarchical society (maybe, the program suggests, because food supply is not in the hands of any one section of society). Conflict is handled by moving away to begin another group. The second thing is that their colons harbour roughly forty per cent more friendly bugs than ours do and they don’t suffer from many of the digestive and autoimmune diseases that plague our society. Through this correlation and others it is slowly but surely becoming apparent that the flora and fauna of the gut (the micro biome) are related to our health and longevity. The cancers that kill us, the diabetes that plagues our population, the heart disease that is still the number one killer, not to mention the many allergies and intolerances which come to our notice ever more frequently – all these and more may have some relation to the extinction in our bodies of so many of the bacteria that would once have lived happily with us and us with them.

In visiting the Hadza, The Food Programme team revisit the human race some  thousands of years ago and some of the turnings we have made are thrown into relief. Turnings in our cultivation of food that have led us to our present paradox : societies with the most advanced medicine ever and no idea how to eat. Many of us are killing ourselves with food. As we hear the men of the tribe hunting porcupine and imitating the bird that will lead them to wild honey we get a sense of a time when our relationship with nature, with food and with each other made more sense than it does today.

In addition we learn about out relationship with those long ago human beings and I found it moving to do so. Feeling kinship with the rest of humanity is always enriching but to do so over thousands of years offers an opportunity to touch into the history of our human nature. I urge you to listen to this life-enhancing programme and the other episode on the same theme!

White Fish with Pine Nuts Butter and Steamed Greens

Meanwhile I have no recipe for porcupine but I am lucky enough to be in Venice once more and the supper recipe today is for white fish with pine nuts and butter. I am using sea bream which is easily available here but any white fish will do as long as it is filleted. It looks better without the skin on but I forgot how to ask the Italian fishmonger to skin the fish. (It’s spellare for skinning a chicken, I now know, but it still may be different for fish. Anybody out there know for sure?) TBH I was pretty pleased that I fluently asked him to fillet it and anyway I feel the skin is good for me.

This recipe is from one of my favourite cookbooks, Marie Claire Food Fast by Donna Hay and it’s as simple as they come. If you don’t have access to good fresh fish and you don’t want to use chicken, you can use this recipe for any vegetables that grill or fry well such as courgettes, aubergines but it is also excellent on steamed green beans as a side dish.

Melt some butter in a frying pan and toast your pine nuts in it before adding lemon juice (half a lemon for two people).

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Now take your fresh fish and add it to the pan for three or four minutes each side. Meanwhile steam yourself some French beans or Spring greens or spinach or broccoli. I used my colander with a lid on over a pan of water.)

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Then arrange the fish on top of the greens and pour over the nut butter. You can see how it would look prettier with the skin off but it did taste delicious.

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Afterwards the espresso and some gorgeously bitter Willi’s Cacao Pure 100 Per Cent Gold chocolate which is a new craze of mine. Giving all the health benefits of the cocoa bean and very little sugar, it also supports the Venezuelan people in their attempts to return to a cocoa based economy rather than oil.