After years of stomachaches that sent me into a tizzy of pain more days than not, I endured months of testing and an hour of waiting in the doctor’s office to finally receive a verdict on my condition: a severe case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) with fructose malabsorption.
You might know about IBS, which involves non-damaging symptoms in the large intestine, like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. After ruling out other issues like Irritable Bowel Disease, ulcers or Crohn’s, my doctors had determined this was the reason for the lifelong stomachaches I suffered.
IBS affects roughly 25 to 40 million people in the U.S., and food intolerances are a common subset of stomach issues. Some estimates suggest one in three people may have some sensitivity to fructose, for instance. And if you experience symptoms like bloating, gas and upset stomach every time you eat, you may want to talk to your doctor about testing.
To break fructose malabsorption down into simple terms, it’s my body that does not appropriately break down this simple sugar. For most people, fructose is absorbed completely in the small intestine before food moves through the digestive tract. In people with fructose malabsorption, however, the body cannot entirely handle the fructose, carrying some of it into the colon, where bacteria attack it, causing the intestine to swell. This can be painful, annoying and frustrating, because if you’re not careful, you can end up feeling terrible almost every day. Fructose is in everything.
How do you deal? By having patience with your body, and coming up with a plan.
How I Cope with My Fructose Malabsorption
A dietician helped me with the FODMAPs diet, which is an elimination diet aimed at figuring out which foods are your “triggers” for symptoms. For me, after taking my diet down to the bare bones and easing foods back in, I found out that my stomach did not tolerate items like garlic, onions, green peppers, raisins and pretty much all dairy. Now, I avoid these foods whenever I can. If I can’t sidestep them—like if garlic and onion powder is baked into the main dish at a friend’s party—I try to be proactive about having symptoms. It sounds simple, but peppermints are often my best stomach-soother after an encounter with a trigger food.
In addition to figuring out which foods to avoid, I also needed medication to manage the day-to-day symptoms of IBS and fructose mal because it’s incredibly difficult to avoid all triggers and fructose. Nortriptyline was my godsend. After nine straight months of next-level-terrible stomach pain and bloating, taking just 20 milligrams (as my doc prescribed) before bed completely changed my life overnight. After my first dose, the next morning, I felt tenfold better, and I just continued to improve from there.
Nortriptyline helped me incorporate most foods back into my diet with minimal symptoms. I always have some symptoms like bloating and cramping with eating—that’s just common fare—but it’s barely noticeable to me anymore. That said, avoiding trigger foods is not a perfect science. Some low-FODMAPs foods spark symptoms, and other high-FODMAPs foods do not. I have also learned which foods make me feel worse than others, and it’s a give and take. Sometimes if I’m craving frozen yogurt, I eat it, knowing it might make me feel bloated and uncomfortable later on.
Here’s a list of the foods I generally avoid because they trigger symptoms:
- wheat products
- dairy products (although I sometimes make exceptions for ice cream; I also opt for soy instead of regular milk)
- Brussels sprouts (although I love them and at times make exceptions)
Suffering Doesn’t Have to Be a Way of Life
It’s strange how easy it was to ignore the symptoms of my intolerance. Honestly, eating and getting sick had become such standard procedure in my life over the years that I almost didn’t realize it wasn’t normal to feel that way. Let me tell you: it’s not. And let me urge you: If eating makes you uncomfortable with similar symptoms, see your doctor.
There’s a better life after treatment for a food intolerance. One where you don’t have to worry about getting sick all the time, or suffer with stomach pain after every meal, and relief might be just one test away. I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to seek treatment.