I can remember it as though it were yesterday. Seventeen minutes into my run on the treadmill at Brookfield Leisure Centre. I’m cramping hard. My stomach hurts. I’m now sweating not only from the excursion of exercise but from the onset of whatever needs to fall out of me! I desperately want to get to twenty minutes. I keep pushing myself. People always bang on about twenty minutes of cardio a day (or at least they did back in the early 2000s). I will not be defeated. 19 minutes 39 seconds – I slam on the emergency stop button! Sweating like someone who is about to have a bout of horrendous shits, I jog to the loo. It’s more of a skip really – you know the kind of jog you need to do in small spaces to get somewhere quickly. You’re sort of skipping and jogging around things and through doors. Anyways…
Pushing through the changing room door I suddenly consider what I can do if there’s no toilet cubicle free – this is not my first rodeo! Thank the living God there’s a toilet free! And better still, there are about three women blasting their heads dry with hairdryers so noisy my bowel can really go to town today!
I’m in! Lock door. Peel my leggings and pants down with an enormous amount of difficulty they are so stuck to my saline skin. Quickly tearing pieces of toilet paper to cover the toilet seat I’m finally on the toilet. I cannot stop sweating. My face is getting redder and no amount of toilet paper can wipe the incessant sweat from my brow. What can only be described as contractions are getting worse and worse until finally what feels like a week’s worth of food falls out of me! Still cramping, still sore I begin to cool down now and begin to shiver. The cubicle has become my safe haven. I feel depleted and elated all at the same time. Fuck. I’m breathing deeply in an effort to calm the throbbing in my fragile tummy. My poor tummy. I look at her all blotchy and red not really knowing what to do with herself now that the bloating has gone down. I feel so sorry for her. So sorry for us! What is wrong with me? Why can’t I run for 40 minutes on the treadmill like that lady on the right in her forties. I’m 16 years old. I pull the last few sheets of toilet paper from their roll and give my face one last rub down. Walking back to my treadmill feeling half the girl I was twenty minutes ago I cannot wait to throw my towel over my face. When you sweat that hard from the shits all you want to be again is dry. Dry and clean. The softness of my towel brings comfort and wipes away the crime. I head upstairs to the stretch area and work on my brand new core. Back then I could not understand what was going on. Why couldn’t I poo after a meal or before bed? Why did it have to always explode out of me on a run? I can remember a hundred times I’d be out running by the river lee in my hometown of Cork and that too familiar pain would come on inducing the most excruciatingly, painful sprint home. The older I got, the more questions I asked, I finally began to realise the direct correlation between those stabbing pains and my diet. I thought myself as a healthy eater – everyone did! But healthy is very specific to one’s self and their unique makeup. Sure I was eating loads of plants and wholegrains but my quantities of fibre were off and I wasn’t putting my wholegrains through a process that made them digestible.
Speaking to a young lady yesterday about her own relationship with her gut health and exercise was like looking in a mirror. She too cramps up after about 15 minutes of running. She too suffers with IBS constipation and she too gets heavy periods with bad cramps. She too told me that she was healthy.
Cramping up so hard fifteen minutes into a run that if you take another step, you feel like your guts will rip open is not healthy. Constipation is not healthy. Very sore period cramping is not healthy.
Now, aged 33 and with ten years of scientific research in my pants I can fundamentally say that understanding the role fibre plays in my diet was critical in getting me to a place where my body (both physically and mentally) flourishes from exercise. I adore moving! I love running! But I had to slow down for a while to explore ways I could achieve this healthier cycle.
So I moved differently for a while…Instead of pounding the roads of Cork I got back in the pool. Front crawl but mainly the soothing breast stroke was my jam for a while. The gentle stretching movement you get from swimming in this way is very beneficial to the colon whilst still getting some cardio fitness in. I began to walk the route I normally ran. Not a saunter, more Olympic style walking, arms swinging as though the health of my heart depended on it! This was during a time when access to yoga and pilates classes just didn’t exist! If there had have been a Frame on my doorstep I would have been doing 2 yoga classes a week, 2 reformer pilates a week, 1 swim and I would have walked at a normal pace as much as possible. Living in London I used to adore cycling everywhere but when it comes to rehabbing a sick colon walking is best. And when it comes to gut health management, I’ve noticed that paying particular attention to any kind of core exercise is invaluable longterm. If like me you suffer with IBS constipation or just bouts of constipation definitely do your reformer pilates classes but be sure to balance those out with yoga or some form of deep deep stretching. I like to squat for a few minutes each day as part of my normal routine.
And then there are the few critical changes I made to my diet to better my gut health and ultimately engage a happier physical body:
ONE: I massively increased the amount of fibre I was eating on a daily basis and made sure to eat a huge variety of organic vegetables, grains and fruits to enable a healthier micro biome. If you can, and thousands of my customers will vouch for this, try to incorporate the Soaked Wholegrain Teff Scones into your diet. They are super easy to batch make and a scone a day will do WONDERS for your gut health – trust me! Sign up to an organic vegetable box. I use Riverford and get their seasonal box every Wednesday. Stock up on cans of organic beans. Buy lots of variety. I have about 6 different types of beans in my store cupboard at any one time and add a mix to my bolognese to reduce the meat I’m eating and increase the fibre.
TWO: I made sure that 90% of the organic grains, nuts and seeds I was eating were either fermented, soaked or sprouted. We were not born able to easily digest unfermented grains. Developing and eating fermented breads every day has been my life line. Paying particular attention to this point is very very important and I will be writing about this point in much more detail in another blogpost and discussing it at an event with Frame very soon. There is so much to say about how to eat grains for good gut health and there is no way of synopsising it for all to understand because one size does not fit all. In the interim, get acquainted with how much fibre is in your food. Don’t bother with the calorie count as we all metabolise food at different rates and so calorie counting is a redundant model but looking at how much fibre you eat daily is crucial! You need to be eating 30g plus a day and I personally like to hit 40 – 50g at least. Eating wholegrain with each of your meals is crucial in addressing any gut health issue.
THREE: In the run up to my period now I eat a lot of soluble fibre in the form of beans and legumes on top of all the other plants and grains I already eat. Previously I would have been swallowing six ibuprofen a day for the five days of my heavy period. Now, I might only need to take two ibuprofen on the first day to get me through a work project and for the rest of my period week I focus on my fibre intake and rest.
To say it’s been a revolution would not be an understatement. We each see people around us every day who seem to glow with health and wonder at our own limitations. Fuck em! You do you.
I’m not going to go all appreciative for the number of horrendous shits I’ve had in my life but I will be thankful for this – I now know so much more about my own body and the bodies of others. How to nourish the body, how to understand her, how to talk to her. My intimate relationship with her now feels precious and safe. When she bleeds I feel peaceful, when she sweats I feel free and when she poos after breakfast I feel proud. Proud of the work we put in together to feed her her food of choice and run like the wind!
Karen O’ Donoghue is the Founder of The Happy Tummy Co. which she established in Hackney, East London back in early 2014. Having suffered with chronic IBS symptoms since childhood it was in 2013 that Karen cleared up her symptoms for good through applying 2 years of scientific research on how our gut bacteria like to eat to fermented bread recipes. From her bakery in Hackney Karen sent this unique, gut friendly bread throughout the UK and Ireland to help others eradicate themselves of their IBS symptoms too. It quickly became known as “the magic poo bread”. An activist for fibre, real bread, connecting with the land and teff Karen has now moved to East Sussex where she has opened a bakery school deep in the countryside surrounded by farmland, herds of cattle and sheep and nighttime hedgehogs. Her mission to re-establish connection with the earth and our hands is paramount in her mission to eradicate people of their IBS symptoms.