Transcript of Interview with Susan Watkins, RD, CDE
January 19, 2018
Martin Carr, M.D.
Good afternoon, it is January 19, 2018, and this is Martin Carr, gastroenterologist. I have been with St. Jude Heritage Medical Group here in the Fullerton, California, area for 24 years and I am interviewing Susan Watkins, Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator who works for St. Joseph Health in the Health Promotions Department, which is a regional department here in Orange County under St. Joseph Health. We are going to be talking about IBS and other things, so Susan, tell me about yourself and you are open about the fact that you have IBS yourself, and that you think that this has helped you as a dietitian helping IBS patients.
SW: Yes, since I have IBS, it has been a passion of mine to help patients that have this condition and I actually have found a lot of misconceptions that come along with people that have IBS. People feel ike if it’s healthy, it must good for their gut, and it can actually be the complete opposite, because some of those foods that we think are healthy are actually hard to digest. Also, people are often told to take fiber, and all fibers are not the same, so we need to know what type of fiber you are taking and also the dosage makes a big difference. So it is important to know what fiber is good for IBS, and which type is not. I think a lot of people are surprised to know that fiber can actually help diarrhea as well as constipation. We always think of it as only helping constipation, so it can actually work on both ends.
MC: Are there any other top insights that you tend to share with your dietitian colleagues to help them do their best when they are helping IBS patients?
SW: We usually start with seeing what the patient is currently eating, but there are a lot of common triggers that bother people such as coffee, raw vegetables, and a lot of pre-packaged foods such as granola bars that have ingredients in them that can bother the gut such as inulin FOS or chicory root. We look for those those outstanding food items right away at the beginning that could immediately start helping provide patients with relief if they discontinue it.
MC: OK, here is another question for you: What training and experience should a dietitian who works with IBS patients have and as part of this, how many visits to IBS patients typically need with a dietitian?
SW: Training and experience—I find a lot of dieticians don’t have a lot of experience with IBS. I feel that you need a lot of experience with patients or shadowing a dietitian who does have experience in seeing IBS patients so you could see all the different issues that people with IBS have. Especially if that dietitian does not have IBS themselves, being able to see a lot of different patients and what their issues are. I also find it’s helpful to see somebody that does not go with one approach, one approach meaning they only give the FODMAP diet, or they only say gluten-free, because there are a lot of other approaches that can work. So I think it helps to find someone that has different ideas in different areas depending on the patient. How many visits? It usually takes, I would say, about three visits, because one visit is going over what the patient currently eats, and going through all of that, but we need several more follow-up visits to make changes and see what is working and what isn’t. So some people are seen a lot longer than that, and some people after 3 visits they actually are on track and they don’t need to see us again. It really depends on the person. I would say usually 3 visits is about right for most people, minimum.
MC: That is not a very long time, not a lot of time to spend to get a lot of information. Here is another question: My patients have been helped a great deal by initially using your IBS Simpler Solutions handout (see end of this transcript to download PDF) and I have tried to hand that out to all of the primary care doctors in the St. Jude and St. Joseph Medical Group offices here in Orange County. That really has helped patients to start sorting out what foods may be worsening their IBS symptoms. My question for you is beyond that handout, and we will make sure that people who listen to this podcast segment will have access to it on our site, beyond using that IBS Simpler Solutions handout, how often do you have to ask the patient to go to that next step and use the Monash University FODMAP charts (see link to Monash University FODMAP site also at the end of this transcript) to do more experiments with diet?
SW: That IBS Simper Solutions handout that you are speaking of, I do start with that and I would say about 80% of the time that works and I do not need to move to the next step. That is just a little bit more simple than something like the low FODMAP diet, cutting out basically hard to digest foods and common triggers–that usually makes a big difference. If it is not working good enough or really not working at all, then my next step in that 20% of patients is typically going with a low FODMAP diet which is a diet that basically cuts out, for a period of time, short-chain carbohydrates which is Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. It sounds complicated but it is basically these poorly digested carbohydrates that could be causing symptoms for people. So I go with it secondary just because it is a little bit more complicated to follow, whereas the Simpler Solutions is a little bit easier, but it does prove to work with those patients that can’t just follow the Simpler Solutions. The part about the FODMAP that people often fail with is they will cut out those foods and they never do the re-introduction phase of it. You are supposed to cut out the FODMAP foods for 6 weeks, 6-8 weeks and then gradually add back 1 food at a time because it is pretty restrictive and you probably do not need to be that restrictive, nor is it healthy to go long-term like that. We do want to make sure you are doing the reintroduction phase of it where you are adding foods back gradually. I have found that sometimes people that think they are gluten intolerant if they follow a low FODMAP diet and they actually see relief even though the low FODMAP diet is not completely gluten-free, so that can be a positive because it gives a little more leeway than a completely gluten-free diet.
MC: That’s very good, I think that working with your handout has actually taught me that it is true that not every patient needs to go to that extent, and I started using the phrase, rather than low FODMAP diet, use it as a guideline, low FODMAP chart or guidelines. I explain to the patients it is an experiment, not meant to be a diet for the rest of their lives. You in your department helped me realize I should say that. Here is another question: Do you think that all IBS patients have some stress factors that contribute to their symptoms? Or is stress not always a problem?
SW: I think stress is a factor with most people whether they realize it or not. Sometimes it is the cause and sometimes it is not the cause, but it worsens the symptoms. Oftentimes people that don’t think they have stress are the ones that internalize it and it causes gut issues. People will often say, “I’m not really that stressed,” but they can be the people that do internalize it and just because they are not showing signs of stress does not mean they are not having any. So once people start to have IBS symptoms that could cause stress also. So even if they were not having a lot of stress before, once they have IBS they get a lot of stress going out to public places, riding in cars, places anywhere where they think maybe they can’t get to the bathroom quickly, so that could cause stress which actually can worsen the IBS even if it was not the initial cause of it. I think it’s really important to deal with that aspect of it or people will not get complete relief. Food makes a big impact but the stress portion can get us to that almost perfect area where we are feeling better.
MC: That’s certainly my experience too, that people shouldn’t be given the idea that is all in your head, and that the symptoms are imaginary. Some doctors apparently make the mistake of making patients think that. Certainly I think you are right that whether they start off with it or not that the stress is most often a factor and exacerbates their symptoms. Here is my next question for you: In your experience which prescription medications seem to help IBS patients the most with their pain symptoms and also which non-prescription medications or herbs in your experience seem to help?
SW: For prescription medications, there are a lot of people that do not have just diarrhea or just constipation, they have a combination, or there are a lot of people with IBS that suffer from severe cramping. Anti-spasmodics such as Levbid, Levsin or hyoscyamine often help patients on an as-needed basis. They don’t have to take it every day, which is nice, because IBS tends to come and go. When they are having symptoms, they take it and it can actually relieve stress knowing that they have the antispasmodic medication in their bag or in their purse will help relieve that stress because they know they have something to calm the cramping and the pain pretty quickly. I think that is a great one for those that have that cramping. Also there are medications that just can help the diarrhea and constipation as well. For non-prescription medications or herbs for pressure, bloating and gas, this would not be preventative, but once it already starts, Phazyme works really quickly, which is just over-the-counter at Rite-Aid, Savon, Walgreens. It is simethicone which is the same ingredient as in Gas-X but stronger, so I find in lot of people that Gas-X is not working for, Phazyme will work. You could take a couple of those and it pretty quickly can relieve that pain, pressure, gas and bloating that people often suffer with. There is also something called complete digestive enzymes. There are enzymes that help you break down carbs and protein and fat, so complete digestive enzymes have a little bit of everything in it. Usually we do not know what the (digestive) problem is. You can take it 20-30 minutes before you eat and it can help to break down the food and it can help prevent gas, bloating, even heartburn for a lot of people. That’s one of those things that you will usually know pretty quickly if it is working for you or not. If you are taking it and you are finding you are still having the problem, that might not be working for you. But a lot of people will find it a nice, more natural way to prevent problems especially if you are having a big meal, or some people take it before every dinner, because as your metabolism slows down as the day progresses, people tend to have more issues later in the day. So that’s also a good one. But my top favorite for any patient is soluble fiber. A lot of people are scared of fiber that have IBS, because they’ve been given the wrong type of fiber, or they weren’t taking the right dose so it actually worsened symptoms. But if you take pure soluble fiber, such as Heather’s Tummy Fiber they sell at Mother’s Market, or there is a website called helpforIBS.com, and that fiber is made specifically for people with IBS, it does not have colors or other ingredients. You could also get Benefiber or Clear Fiber as it’s called at Sprout’s or Mother’s Market. We have you take it, especially if you are having cramps, before breakfast and before dinner about half teaspoon if you haven’t been taking fiber, and gradually increase the dose every couple days. You can take 1-5 tablespoons. Usually people that are constipated need a higher dose and people that have diarrhea need a lower dose. But everybody needs a different dose, and it’s not dependent on your size. A small person could need more than a larger person. It more depends on your digestive system. Usually you know you have got to the right dose when you are having more consistent bowel movements. You may never have a bowel movement at the exact same time every day like some people do. But you’ll notice you are going more frequently and have more normal formation of your stools. This helps prevent some of the gas and bloating pressure because you are digesting your food and excreting it the way you should. Some people usually after they get to the right dose start noticing they are not getting the cramping and they are also not getting the gas and pain that they normally were getting. I tell people to take it just like they would a prescription medication. You do not want to be, like “I forgot it for 3 or 4 days,” because then you are not going to see the results. But I would say most patients, once they get to the right dose, will come back and really notice relief with the soluble fiber for diarrhea, constipation, and also cramping, gas, bloating.
MC: Great, thank you very much. If the patient has been following the IBS Simpler Solutions handout guidelines to figure out some dietary triggers to stop, and perhaps they have found some prescription medication or some nonprescription thing or some soluble fiber—I think a lot of our patients have not often had the chance to get really expert assistance to deal with their stress and many patients could really use that. What role do you think Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has in treating patients with IBS?
SW: I think diet has a big role, but if you do not learn to manage your thoughts and control your stress that you probably still struggle somewhat with IBS symptoms. So even if you eat right, IBS can trigger colon spasms and gut pain when you are under stress. So I think mindfulness based stress reduction therapy, or a lot of people will do even yoga or meditation, can make a big difference. I find a lot of people actually do need to learn how to reduce stress and control thoughts. It often does not come natural for us to control our thoughts and reduce our stress. We are really lucky here at St. Joseph Health, at the St. Jude Wellness Center, which was formally known as Synergy, we actually have Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs that can be a great therapy for people with IBS. Usually we start with looking at your diet and then we like to have you do that phase of it because that can help provide the best relief if you are controlling both aspects of it. I have had the pleasure of being able to sit in on some of those classes, and it actually made a big difference for me. I started noticing my stomach would start hurting, but I learned how to control my thoughts to prevent it from getting a lot worse. So now it will hurt, but it never gets to the point that it used to just by learning to manage and control my thoughts and my stress. I think that that plays a big role, and that’s an area that I think a lot of people do not think about when they think about IBS.
MC: Great, thank you and I will be also interviewing Kimson Johnston, who is at the St. Jude Wellness Center. She is the therapist-coach for that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. There are other excellent staff who help with that program too. Patients also could look at their insurance website or call the customer service for their insurance. They might be able to find a list of psychologists with whom their plan contracts, and they could get some appointments with a psychologist to deal with stress and go through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or what’s referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy. That kind of professional help is also available. So here’s another question for you: What advice do you have for primary care physicians and GI physicians when they are caring for IBS patients? What you think is the most important advice you can give them?
SW: One you actually mentioned–Be open to the fact that it’s not all in the patient’s head, and there are things that do work for IBS patients. Because I know a lot of times we think that there is really nothing we can do. Refer patients to the www.helpforIBS.com website if there are not a lot of other resources. Here at St. Joseph Health we have a Center for Health Promotion that has a lot of educators specialized in that area. We also have a gastroenterology department where the GI docs can help manage IBS as well as the Wellness Center, formerly known as Synergy, that has programs for the stress reduction. Really depending on where the doctor is, looking at what are the resources in these areas: diet and diet education and also stress therapy is important but I think the main thing is not giving up and not thinking it is in the patient’s head, which I have seen happen a lot.
MC: I think you are right about that. A lot of physicians have only 15 minute visits with their patients. I am asked to see patients sometimes as a second opinion. I will look in the chart and I will see that a busy physician noted that the colonoscopy looked okay and asked the patient to eat more fiber and see him in 5 or 10 years. A lot of patients need quite a bit more than that. Thank you for that advice. My final question for you, and thank you very much for this great interview, what final advice would you like to give for IBS patients?
SW: Don’t give up, and don’t just live with it. There are a lot of therapies and strategies you could do to make a huge difference. I have seen people go from being homebound to not having any restrictions at all, which is amazing. So there is a lot you can do. Like I mentioned for St. Joseph Health, we have a Center for Health Promotion department. Some of the services are actually free depending on your insurance. Our number is 714-618-9500. You can call and talk to one of us about how you can come in and see a registered dietitian. Sometimes you need to see a gastroenterologist because they specialize in that. Your primary care physician may not have other solutions for you, so that’s another idea. We do have a gastroenterology department and Dr. Carr specializes in this area as well. Like I mentioned, the St. Jude Wellness Center, known as Synergy, also has a lot of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs. Their number is 714-578-8770. I really want to say don’t give up, because I have seen so many people turn their lives around by getting the help and the therapy that they need.
MC: Thank you very much. I would like to reiterate that it is very easy for physicians in the St. Jude- St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group to put in that order for a patient to get a health education or dietitian visit right through the electronic medical record. The patient can talk with the physician and ask for that. They can get 30 or 60 minute visit, and it has been extremely helpful for my patients. Thank you very much, Susan, I think that this will be helpful to some patients. I hope any of you who have listened have enjoyed it. Watch for some other interviews that will have available for you to listen to as well. Thank you, and good luck in 2018!
Transcript of Interview with Susan Watkins
For personal use only, patients may download IBS Simpler Solutions by Susan Watkins, RD, CDE-2017
Link to find out about low FODMAP diet, books, and the smartphone app from Monash University: