Actress Lynda Carter, still beloved as America’s reigning, female TV superhero, is taking on a new foe: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The ’70s star of “The New Adventures of Wonder Woman” watched her mother suffer from symptoms of IBS for years. Now she’s speaking out about her own digestive issues and offering women help to make healthy changes in their diets and lives…
More than 30 years ago, actress Lynda Carter fought the forces of evil as TV’s Wonder Woman.
Now, the 59-year-old star is using her power and fame to protect women from another formidable foe: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder of the large intestines (colon) that affects as many as 1 in 5 adults – most of them women, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
Carter is well acquainted with the misery of irritable bowel symptoms. Her mother had IBS that wasn’t diagnosed or properly treated for decades.
“She suffered with symptoms of IBS – constipation, diarrhea, bloating and pain – for nearly 20 years,” Carter says. “She began having symptoms in her early 40s and wasn’t diagnosed [with] IBS until she was 60.”
One risk factor is a family history of the disease, and Carter also has digestive issues.
“I have food sensitivities to dairy and a little IBS too,” she says.
Symptoms of IBS can be triggered by stress or diet, but its exact cause is unknown. Like many women with less-serious symptoms of IBS, Carter has been able to manage her digestive issues with lifestyle changes.
And neither her food sensitivities nor IBS have stopped her from acting, building a second career as a country recording artist or enjoying time with her family.
In this exclusive Lifescript interview, Carter reveals how she manages symptoms of IBS.
Your mother’s irritable bowel symptoms were undiagnosed for almost two decades. How did that happen?
She suffered [with] symptoms of IBS before it had been classified as a “real” disease.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, IBS – and digestive issues, in general – wasn’t as well known or talked about as it is today. So when she was at the doctor’s [office], she didn’t ask why she had such terrible pain and bloating.
That was a big mistake.
If you’re having discomfort or trouble going to the bathroom – or anything that’s not quite right – you should speak up.
And if you don’t get answers from your doctor or a diagnosis that leads to a clear-cut IBS treatment plan and possible resolution, you should keep asking questions – or get a second opinion.
Did you encourage your mother to get a second opinion?
Absolutely and she did. She went to many doctors, toting stool samples with her. She had blood and other tests. But because little to nothing was known about IBS, she wasn’t diagnosed.
Part of the trouble was her doctors didn’t look for IBS, because they didn’t know about it. Instead, they looked higher up – to her head.
Did the doctors tell her she was imagining the symptoms of IBS?
Yes, doctors told her it was all in her head and her symptoms were just stress-related.
Was she under a lot of stress?
No more than any other mom of that period. It’s not like we had a tumultuous family life or she was strung out.
Did she think stress affected her symptoms of IBS?
She believed what the doctors were telling her, but still worried about her symptoms since nothing seemed to help.
How’s your mom doing now?
She’s great. She takes medicine, follows her doctor’s advice and is feeling good. It’s also very helpful that she knows she’s not crazy.
Now that IBS has a name, women with IBS feel validated. That’s one reason she encouraged me to talk about this. We both want women with symptoms of IBS to know they’re not alone.
What did you do when you started having digestive issues?
Thankfully, when I began having troubles about 10 years ago, I already knew that so many people suffer from [IBS symptoms]. So I prodded my doctor for all the information and best treatment available.
That’s the key to IBS – and any health issue. You need to talk, talk, talk to your doctor.
Why is communicating with your physician so important?
IBS isn’t easy to talk about. It’s an uncomfortable, taboo topic because you’re mentioning bathroom habits.
There’s a reason we close the door when we go to the bathroom – no one wants to share what goes on in there. But even though poop is extremely personal, it needs to be discussed.
Talk about family history and [symptoms of IBS] with your doctor, as well as your loved ones. That’s the only way to know if it runs in your family and if you’re having the same symptoms as someone else.
It’s also the only way your doctor will be able to treat you and get you on the road to a life not chained to the bathroom.
How do you suggest women begin such an uncomfortable discussion with a doctor?
Try “Is it normal to...” and mention the symptom that bothers you the most.
Once you’ve broken the ice and see that your doctor is a partner in your health, you’ll probably feel more at ease to list the rest of your symptoms or concerns.
Your doctor needs to know everything – the good, bad and the bathroom – about what’s going on with you. Never be embarrassed, because they’ve heard and seen it all. They won’t judge you. They’re there to help you.
What questions should a woman ask when talking to her doctor about IBS?
You should ask about each symptom. Be specific. Don’t just say, “I have a stomachache.”
Ask what you should expect from your IBS treatment, the side effects of medicines you may be prescribed, how soon you should expect results, and how effective the medications are at sending the disease into remission.
Ask about any dietary changes [you should make] too.
Have you given up any foods because of digestive issues?
Packaged foods like macaroni and cheese, frozen dinners and tubes of cookie dough aren’t allowed in my kitchen. Processed foods like that don’t agree with me. The preservatives and additives in packaged foods can also be irritating for some people with symptoms of IBS.
And I can’t digest American cheese slices. That’s really no surprise. Doctors say dairy products, like cheese, often result in constipation, bloating and pain.
I’m also very careful to avoid eating a lot of fried foods and junk. A few minutes with French fries isn’t worth a day or two of discomfort.
What do you eat instead?
My body reacts much more favorably to healthy food, so I stick to whole grains, organic fresh fruits and vegetables.
But a cheeseburger tastes really great once in a while. So I give into food indulgences, but still try to make them healthy.
How do you do that?
I make everything from scratch instead of from a box, bag or tub. I even made my kids’ baby food when they were small.
I use organic ingredients and add oats or whole-wheat flour in baked-goods recipes whenever possible. Getting the proper amount of fiber is essential to keeping my digestive system running smoothly.
And in place of sliced cheese in grilled-cheese sandwiches, I’ll treat myself to a small piece of high-quality cheese that’s not made with fillers and preservatives.
Overall, I eat so much healthier than during my “Wonder Woman” days. I didn’t eat very much or well back then.
Did you make food mistakes to fit into that tiny costume?
I was under a lot of pressure to be a certain size, so I would forsake my health for crash and fad diets.
I’ve always struggled with my weight, so I tried every diet imaginable. I was on an all-grapefruit diet, one where you eat just one food all day, and those that slashed whole food groups.
All those did was make me hungry and mess up my digestive system. I didn’t notice that these would lead to occasional bouts of symptoms similar to my mother’s.
(For history’s wackiest diets, check out our 10 Crazy Fad Diets slideshow.)
What made you give up the fad diets?
Once I started thinking of food as fuel – not something just for my taste buds – I stopped eating empty calories. And I felt much better.
What dietary changes did you make?
I completely cut out soda. In fact, I wish I could convince my grown children [James, 23, and Jessica, 20] to kick carbonated colas to the curb – especially since IBS may be hereditary, and digestive issues can be aggravated by carbonation.
What do you drink?
Water and organic juices are the most kind to my body.
There’s nothing like good ol’ H2O to quench thirst and stay hydrated. I love a glass of water with a lemon wedge, slice of orange or lime instead of popping open a soda.
What were the results of changing your diet?
My body reacts to healthy food very differently than it ever did to junk and fad diets. I have much more energy, because my blood sugar is on an even keel. I truly feel wonderful.
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