Irritable Bowel Syndrome is common, but rarely discussed; this Quebec doctor is trying to change that

"I really, really have a big belly pain,” said Eve Tougas, an 11 year-old Montreal girl, describing her day-to-day struggle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

This month is IBS awareness month. The large intestine disorder is common, but rarely talked about, leaving many people to suffer alone.

Among them are children like Eve, who has suffered regular stomach pain since she was just five years-old.

“To see your daughter suffer without having the power to do something about it is distressing,” said Marie-Eve Richard, Eve’s mother. 

But, things began to change for Eve last year after meeting with Dr. Veronique Groleau, a paediatric gastroenterologist at Ste-Justine hospital, who put her what’s called the low-FODMAP diet. 

For two months, Eve had to cut out all sugars from her diet that ferment in the large intestine, causing irritation. 

“Most of the patients during those two months, they'll feel great,” said Dr. Groleau. “They won't have pain, everything is perfect, so we know it's IBS.”

At first, the diet was tough, according to Eve, who was given a huge chart of foods that she would have to review before every meal.

“All the morning I would need to check and say, I cannot eat this, I can eat this, ok I can eat this,“ she said, miming placing an order with her mother, who laughed.

Pretty soon, though, she was getting sick of eating peanut butter on toast, she said.

Then gradually, they started reintroducing foods one at a time, back into her diet, watching for her symptoms of IBS to return.

Eventually, they discovered that her stomach pain was being caused by garlic, onions, and lactose.

“Taking those foods out of her diet, really changed her life,” said her mother, with a look of relief.

“It makes a huge difference,” said Dr. Groleau, who until recently had to rely on medication to treat IBS. 

“We were not doing this like 10 years ago,” she said. “It's been in the last years that we introduced this diet and I see a huge difference in my practice.”

Still, many children continue to suffer in silence, according to Dr. Groleau, often too embarrassed to ask for help.

“I think it's important to hear about it, to talk about it, because it’s so frequent,” Dr. Groleau said. “It effects one out of five people."

For Eve Tougas, just learning that made a huge difference.

"I know I'm not the unique person who has this and I know I can help people to tell them that I have this too,” she said.

Stress and anxiety can make the symptoms of IBS worse, according to Dr. Groleau, who believes the instability many young people are facing in school and with the pandemic has caused an uptick in the number of patients she’s been seeing.

The words ‘we can’t control the winds, but we can adjust our sails,’ are written on the wall of Dr. Groleau’s office. 

She said her mission is to help give her young patients back a sense of control.

“Knowing the disease, knowing that it is frequent, knowing that we can do stuff,” she said. “With that, often the anxiety will decrease. So, just that, it improves." 

So far, its a method that’s working for Eve Tougas. She no longer feels intense pain in her stomach and says she feels free to carry on with the business of being an 11 year-old. 

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