There’s no covering this in icing. Living in South Korea with IBS is no piece of cake, BUT it’s not impossible and it definitely doesn’t have to be thaaaat bad 😉
I’m writing this article to inform more people about IBS in order to hopefully help or motivate those also struggling with IBS. If you have IBS and you’re on your way to Korea or living here, I have a gut feeling you might need this…
What is IBS?
This is challenge nr.1: getting people to understand that your gut hates you. Generally, people are not familiar with the term IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I usually just tell people that I’m gluten and lactose intolerant, because most people understand that. However, although you IBS patients should also avoid gluten and lactose, it is not exactly the same thing.
There are two kinds of IBS: IBS with diarrhea and IBS with constipation. Both kinds are sensitive to certain foods and drinks, especially carbonated drinks, gluten, lactose, fried or spicy foods. These foods can cause excruciating cramps in the abdominal area, either diarrhea or constipation, bloating and gas.
IBS is generally caused by long term stress or emotional trauma. Everyone handles stress in a different way. Some people freak out, some people get headaches, some people eat too much or too little and some people can look all calm and collected, but underneath the surface their gut is freaking out. Your intestines are covered in millions of nerve endings and, thus, if your nervous system is stressed out it affects the gut and can cause irregular and painful spasms. These spasms can range from mildly painful to extremely intense pain (think scratching your eyeballs out kinda pain). This is what an IBS flare up looks like (left is a normal colon, right is an IBS spasm):
IBS is not curable. However, there are ways to alleviate the symptoms. You just need to know what you can eat and what to avoid and then stick to it. Some weeks I don’t even know I have it and everything feels normal and some days I just want to curl up in a ball and scream into my pillow. (Keep on reading, the good news is coming!)
The Downside to living with IBS in Korea
A LOT of spicy foods. I can rarely have lunch with my co-workers as the food in the office is almost always all spicy. Sometimes I wash the spicy sauce off the meat when no one is looking. Weird I know, but when a girl wants squid, she wants squid. Although you will miss out on a lot of spicy dishes, it is not worth the pain to risk it. Only a mouthful of a spicy Korean soup or side dish can viciously disrupt your gut.
Gluten everywhere! The street food is especially built on bricks of gluten. Egg bread is a street food favourite. Then there is also the honey bread at every coffee shop that looks really interesting.
Koreans really like to share their food and dine together. This can sometimes be quite a challenge as the choice of restaurant is often fried chicken, sushi or pizza. Spicy foods and rice will also most definitely show up too. Luckily, Korean bbq and seafood restaurants are also popular choices and IBS safe, so yay! Also, Korean restaurants always serve a variety of side dishes. Although you might not be able to have everything, there will be something you can eat.
Ice Cream Cake
Let’s be honest here, the Korean cakes are mostly bath sponges with icing on top. However, they can really make your heart melt with an ice cream cake creation! Not even to mention the traditional Korean desert Bing Su! Unfortunately, this is a major IBS trigger. If you really can’t resist, take a probiotic or anti-spasm tablet before hand. That might help.
I’ve wanted to hide my head in embarrassment so many times when I had to turn down a food gift from a generous Korean. Koreans really love to give food gifts to each other. Unfortunately it is often spicy foods, rice cakes, cake or something else I can’t eat. The disappointment and confusion on their faces really kills me. It just feels so rude.
However, you have no reason to feel embarrassed. It’s not your fault that you have IBS. Taking care of your body and denying something threatening to your health and well being is a form of self respect. Own up to it and be good to your body, shamelessly.
On the upside, after I told all my co-workers about my IBS, I’ve received some really nice IBS safe gifts like fruit or nuts or seeds. 🙂
The Upside and my advice
Yes, it’s difficult, BUT it’s really not that bad. My first advice is to tell people. Tell your friends and tell your co-workers asap! If they know, they will never frown at you for ditching their birthday cake or skipping their homemade kimchi again. Most of my friends and all my co-workers know and it just makes it soooo much easier. Allow people to help you.
Vegetables and Fruits
Korea really has an amazing selection of vegetables and fruits available. I honestly don’t even miss gluten. I am in love with these superfoods. Just choose fruits and vegetables that are low in FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo-Di-Monosaccharides and Polyols). You can find a really good FODMAP list here.
If you have IBS with constipation, like me, then this vegetable gem is your new best friend. It is very easy to find in Korea and really delicious and super healthy. Eating a lot of Kabocha squash has improved my IBS significantly.
In the country of morning calm, a yoga studio is really easy to find. You will even find various kinds of awesome yoga studios like flying yoga or hot yoga! Yoga really does wonders for IBS. It will reduce bloating, gas and constipation by relaxing your nervous system. I bought a yoga mat on Gmarket and practise yoga in my appartment every morning. This really helps! You can find awesome yoga videos specifically for IBS on YouTube.
This revitalizing tea will aid digestion and help soothe IBS cramps and constipation. Be careful if you have IBS with diarrhea, though, as it might make symptoms worse.
Mild Kimchi and Probiotics
Kimchi and all other fermented foods contain probiotics. An IBS gut is low in these good bacteria, thus adding kimchi to your diet can help repopulate your gut with probiotics. Just be careful of overdoing it as kimchi is also high in iodine which can disrupt your thyroid function. A little bit once a day is enough. Just stay away from the spicy kind.
If you don’t like kimchi or have thyroid problems, get a probiotic from the pharmacy. I always carry a good probiotic with me wherever I go for incase my IBS flares up.
IBS Safe Streetfood
Yes, a lot of the streetfood are spicy, fried or bready no-nos, but there are other delicious options too. Some streets have seafood, grilled chicken, nuts or fruit stalls. I really like the grilled octopus or grilled chicken skewers! Just be careful of the sauce they put on it, as it is often very spicy. I always ask for no sauce.
There are plenty of options at the convenience stores that are IBS safe. You just need to know your trigger foods. I like to go for the dried seafood (non spicy kind, always ask!), eggs (ditch the yolk) or popcorn. I love the Korean style popcorn!
ALWAYS carry pain pills and probiotics or an anti spasm pill with you wherever you go. This is crucial.
Go slow on the soju
I know, I know, the soju is cheap and there’s a Club GS Store around every corner, but alcohol is really bad for the gut as it kills the good bacteria necessary for normal digestion.
Pack IBS safe foods when traveling. I really like to go away for weekends or travel in groups. Unfortunately the food served on these tours often contain a lot of IBS trigger foods, so I always pack some snacks for in case.
If you are living in Korea with IBS, don’t let it get to you. Look on the bright side. You are being spoiled with amazing produce to live a happy and healthy life. There are a few foods you will have to avoid, but there are so many that you can enjoy! Just find out what works for you and then be good to yourself.
The one huge advantage of having IBS is this:
we know even the most excruciating pain won’t last, so we become fearless.
Here is a really helpful video about what to eat for IBS: