The Poo Taboo – Forget Auld Lang Syne, We Need to Talk About Toileting

Ah Yuletide. A time for chomping your way through mountains of leftover turkey, consuming your body mass in mince pies and washing it all down with a gallon of prosecco. Delicious rich foods: huzzah! Boozey cakes and ALL the biscuits: woo! Stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea and acid reflux: yay! No, wait…

This New Year’s Eve most people’s minds are solely on fireworks, parties and who they’re smooching at midnight. Not me. I want to talk about shit.

One morning last year I had a bowel movement so perfect I wanted to frame it. The size, shape, consistency, colour…my God it was perfect. A textbook, exhibition-worthy poop. Why was I so excited? Because I had suffered from severe IBS for months and my inability to consistently and fully empty my bowels was severely lowering my quality of life. Those who fulfil the NHS-recommended one-to-three bowel evacuations each day without giving it so much as a second thought will never know how truly blessed and lucky they are. I thought about poo constantly. I literally dreamed about shit. Previous life goals had included penning an erotic novel, mastering the nose flute or adopting an ardvaark. Now I was just shooting for ‘normal digestion’.

Forty-eight hours prior to this magnificent dump I’d had my first ever colonic hydrotherapy treatment, delivered by a lovely Indian lady who, when I questioned her on how she had got into this line of work, shrugged and didn’t really have a clear answer. Because in India colonics and enemas are part and parcel of everyday life. She grew up learning that her digestive system was the centre for everything. Got a headache? Clear your bowels. Back pain? Cleanse the poop chute. Acne? You can probably see where this is going…

One of the central tenets of Ayrevuda – the ancient healing system present in India for over 5,000 years – is that a healthy gut is key for longevity, vitality and mental well-being. Western medicine is starting to recognise the significance of digestive health in the treatment of chronic illness and mood disorders, but there’s a long way to go. Happy pills and talking therapy are still very much the mainstays of modern mental health treatment, despite mounting evidence linking gut dysfunction with ailments like anxiety and depression.

Talking is great. I’m a big fan of verbal discourse. If depression, anxiety or chronic fatigue are rooted in bottled up feelings and repressed trauma then of course they’re not going anywhere until the tsunami of confusing and difficult thoughts confounding your grey matter are confronted. Therapy can be insightful and life changing. But what if the primary cause for your strife lies within your gut microbiome? Studies suggest that an imbalance in gut bacteria could be playing an active role in inducing psychiatric disorders – try chatting your way out of that problem.

In this country we don’t talk about our digestion openly. Did you know there’s actually a World Toilet Day? Me neither (November 19 if you’re interested). Pay a visit to the doctor with tummy troubles and you’re likely to simply leave with a prescription. Or well-meaning advice that it’s ‘all in your head’ which, actually, might not be wildly far from the truth as around 90% of the feel-good chemical serotonin is made in the digestive tract. There’s just no denying the brain-gut connection.

So how about this new year instead of signing up for gym memberships that won’t get used, buying vegetable juicers that will lie dormant in the back of a cupboard or writing ANY kind of list, we simply resolve to talk toileting more. Let’s bring bowel movements out into the open (not literally, y’all have a porcelain throne for a reason) and get a dump dialogue going.

The gut is often referred to as our second brain. I think it may actually be my first – sorting out my digestive health has been something of a magic bullet for improving fatigue and mood difficulties. These days I’m certain that a truly holistic approach to good health and mental wellbeing is impossible without considering gut function, and if I have just one hope for 2018 it’s for society at large to stop being prudish about poop and get on board with talking about their rear ends more.

Yep, shit’s getting real – let’s  break the poo taboo.

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Going public about going private

fatigue

“So,” said my GP, peering at me expectantly. “What do you want to do?” in a tone that suggested I might have the foggiest clue as to how my exhaustion and inability to cope should be fixed. It was that precise moment, as I resisted the urge to throw my chair at him, that I completely and utterly lost faith with the NHS’s capacity to deal with mental health issues.

After a further fortnight of sleepless nights and listless, exhausted days I did what anyone who can beg, borrow or steal money off family would do. I sought private health treatment. And that was the day things began to change for me.

Within 20 minutes of meeting a new doctor I heard the words ‘my diagnosis is’ and ‘this is what we need to do’. Someone was finally taking control for me, and I literally wept with relief.

It’s not that she has access to vast libraries of information that the NHS is cut off from, nor that I have three-hour long appointments with her – my new doctor simply takes me seriously and instils confidence in me that she knows what she’s doing. I may have to sell a kidney to pay off her bills but to me that’s a small price to pay for renewed hope.

Depression is a physical illness but I have yet to come across an NHS doctor who even vaguely entertains the idea that it may have physical causes, beyond the bog standard thyroid and diabetes tests that are carried out. I’m currently being treated for poor digestion – something I seem to suffer from that stops my body absorbing essential nutrients and causes me all manner of problems. Don’t get me wrong I’m still taking antidepressants and following all the usual protocol for poor mental health, but this is the first time in four years of suffering that any medical professional has moved beyond throwing pills at me and sending me to therapy. All the CBT in the world won’t get you far when your body lacks the basic nutrients required to fight everyday stress.

It’s not a relief to see a doctor that doesn’t look at me quizzically before muttering “shall I refer you to a psychiatrist then?” when I desperately try to assert that my fatigue has non psychological roots. It’s life saving.

I know that, in essence, our health service does wonderful things and it’s under enormous pressure at the moment. I know that not all GPs are ignorant about mental health in fact many are fantastically clued up. But in an age where stress is such a large part of normal life, the two-pronged ‘medication vs psychotherapy’ approach to depression treatment isn’t always enough. Sometimes we need to dig beneath the surface to seek out the niggly little ailments that are contributing to poor physical and mental health so that we treat the root cause of depression, not just the symptoms.