Editor’s Note: This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to, provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. For serious.
I’ve had stomach problems since I was a kid.
Every morning, I’d get up for school gripped with pain. So many mornings, I’d miss the bus because I was crying in the bathroom. I avoided sleepovers because of it and skipped class trips.
Something was terribly wrong with me, I believed, and the anxiety and shame were sometimes overwhelming. I dropped out of high school, and I dreaded dating as I got older because of it. Uncontrollable gas, cramping, and diarrhea weren’t exactly alluring, if you know what I mean.
Over the years, I’ve been to so many different doctors looking for answers. I’ve had every test, and they all came up negative. I do not have celiac disease, or H. Pylori. I am not lactose intolerant, and I have no food allergies. There’s no Crohns, or colitis, or any other inflammatory diseases. I’m all clear, which was incredibly frustrating, because at least if I had a diagnosis, I’d know and be able to medicate or modify my lifestyle accordingly.
Usually my doctors would just throw their hands up in the air and say I had anxiety. More doctors than I can count diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and explained that it was a mysterious condition. This left me feeling like I was crazy, and it gave me no relief.
I tried a few medications, none of which really worked. My symptoms persisted, so I went on to try every holistic remedy I could find, hoping to find the magical cure to my suffering. I desperately wanted them to work. I even went gluten-free for two years, hoping maybe I was gluten-intolerant even if I didn’t have actual celiac. I was so disappointed when this popular diet failed me. Finally, I gave up. This was my fate, I decided, and I’d have to learn to live with it.
Everything changed when my husband and I decided to start a family. My symptoms disappeared almost overnight, even before I got pregnant, which was a big clue. When I was successfully pregnant, I realized I’d never felt better—but once the baby was born, would my IBS come roaring back? And if so, how would I take care of a baby when I felt sick all the time? Luckily it didn’t, and I was surprisingly fine for the first time in my life.
Had pregnancy somehow cured me? I wondered.
But then, the symptoms came back—full force, and worse than ever—right after I stopped nursing. I was crestfallen and confused. So what was it? I set out to solve the mystery once and for all, and I did so without the help of any medical professionals.
Pregnancy and nursing was not the cure. I knew this because my symptoms disappeared before I got pregnant. They key was figuring out what I’d done differently when we’d decided to start trying to have a baby.
It was obvious—I’d changed my diet.
I didn’t want to put anything artificial in my body that could potentially harm a developing child, so I’d cut out all processed foods and anything with chemical additives. I continued this way while nursing so I wouldn’t pass anything harmful in my breast milk. The thing is, there wasn’t much to cut out, because for the most part, I already ate a really healthy diet of whole foods. It wasn’t like I’d had to make a drastic change in my diet…except for one thing.
I cut out all artificial sweeteners.
I hadn’t even realized how much artificial sweetener I was consuming—and had been consuming since childhood. My stomach problems began around the time that aspartame hit the market, and my mom used it for everything she cooked since she couldn’t have sugar. At the time, it had seemed like a miracle.
Somehow, I never thought about it, because artificial sweeteners were my “normal.” I have two diabetic parents, after all. We always had diet sodas, sugar-free desserts, and all the pink, yellow, and blue sweetener packets you could ever want lying around our house for coffee and tea.
There was a part of me that even believed that these things were “healthier” because we weren’t eating sugar. I used all of these products because I knew I was at risk for diabetes—and because I had a sweet tooth, but was trying to control my weight. I thought I was making a safe choice, but it turns out I definitely wasn’t.
The companies that make these products insist that the sweeteners they use are safe, and for some people, maybe they are. All I know is that for me, artificial sweeteners make my life a living hell. For whatever reason, my body can’t process any of them and responds with gastro-intestinal fury. I have tried all of them and always have the exact same results. None are okay for me to ingest.
I’ve cut them out of my diet again, and this time, I’m even more vigilant than ever. Artificial sweeteners can hide in foods that seem trustworthy. I recently got sick again after unknowingly downing a popular “natural” energy drink that contained a supposedly safe sugar derivative. As soon as I read the label, I realized the problem and switched to a different after-yoga beverage. I’m fine now.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending. After years of suffering and being misdiagnosed with IBS, it turns out I’m perfectly fine. My body cannot tolerate any form of artificial sweetener at all, under any circumstances. I don’t need to know why. I just need to stop consuming them. This simple switch—combined with my otherwise healthy diet and active lifestyle—has resulted in a happy, perfectly-functioning tummy.
Like me, many people suffer from painful and embarrassing stomach problems that doctors can’t explain. It’s scary and frustrating, and I don’t have the answers. I can only share my own experience and hope that maybe someone else in the same situation can try what worked for me and feel better as a result.
Author: Victoria Fedden
Image: Flickr/Aleksander Razumny Nordgarden Rødner
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina