Jennifer Slack

Dr. Stephen Wangen of the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle: An Inside Look

by Jennifer Slack on September 7th, 2011


Gluten Free Works Author Jennifer Leeson

I have had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Stephen Wangen, the founder of the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle, WA.  Awhile back, at a CSA (Celiac Sprue Association) meeting I had the pleasure of helping Dr. Wangen with his book signing.  He had flown in to Denver to speak on his books, Healthier Without Wheat and Irritable Bowel Syndrome Solution. There was a full audience of folks, just like you and I, who were able to ask personal questions and learn more about living with Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance, as well as exploring other areas such as food allergies.

Since that time, Dr. Wangen and I have had the chance to talk about what the IBS Treatment Center does to help people really understand their bodies and how food can be affecting them.  He explores the possibilities of Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance and food allergies and helps people to develop a healthier lifestyle tailored to their specific needs.  At the same time, Dr. Wangen has observed the emotional affects these conditions can have on people and understands that not feeling well emotionally has an affect on how people take care of their physical well being.  What makes his practice so fantastic is the positive nature.  Dr. Wangen helps people view the changes by looking at the benfits and the gains and focusing on what people can have, rather than on what they can’t.  Here is what Dr. Wangen had to say when I asked him about his own experiences.

Dr. Wangen Q&A

1. I read on your biography that you were diagnosed with Celiac Disease while attending medical school and that this had been contributing to your IBS symptoms.  How common do you think it is that someone who has been diagnosed with IBS also has a diagnosis of Celiac Disease?

Research has shown that only about 1% of people with IBS are found to have celiac disease. But I’ve found that many more experience non-celiac gluten intolerance, and there are hundreds of other causes for IBS. Regardless, the diagnosis of IBS rarely has much value.  All that it tells you what you already know, that your bowel irritates you. What we really want to know is why you have a digestive problem.

2. I also read on your website that many people suffering from IBS may have food allergies that they are unaware of.  How common are food allergies?  Do you know what percentage of the population is likely suffering from some form of food allergy that they may be unaware of?

I find that food allergies are extremely common. Most of my IBS patients have at least one food allergy, although it’s certainly not the only cause of IBS. I estimate that half the population suffers from some form of food allergy. Food allergies, as with celiac disease, can cause or contribute to many of the most common health problems known.

3. How has being diagnosed with IBS and Celiac Disease helped you work with your patients in a more effective manner?

Of course I can often relate to what my patients are experiencing. And I know what it’s like to have to change the way you think about food. But it’s primarily the comfort that patients have in knowing that their doctor isn’t so different than they are that helps us to build a trusting relationship. That is very important when I ask them to remove a food or foods from their diet. I think they are more likely to do it when they know I’ve done it too.

4. What can a new patient of yours expect in their initial evaluation with you?

In the first visit, I want to hear their whole story. Everyone has taken a unique path to get to me, and they’ve experienced and done things that are important for me to know about in order for me to help find the best approach to their problem. During that visit, we also implement unique testing to help me better focus on the proper treatment. Everyone is unique and has a different cause or combination of causes for their symptoms.

We typically run a large multiantibody food allergy blood test, and do DNA stool analysis in order to get a better understanding of the ecosystem in their digestive tract.  More information about these tools is available on my website,www.IBSTreatmentCenter.com.

5. What recommendations do you make to newly diagnosed patients of IBS, Celiac Disease and/or food allergies to help them in the beginning stages of changing their diets?

Once I know what foods (based on the lab results) are likely triggering their symptoms, I review with them the many hidden sources of those foods and how to read ingredients.  After that, I begin to introduce them to viable alternatives and replacements.  I provide a lot of education as well many handouts and resources on the relevant food allergies for my patients so that they have a good idea about how to get started with the diet.  This part is crucial. They need practical information in order to implement the treatment plan and see improvement in their health.

6. What were the biggest challenges you faced when having to change your own diet? Did you experience a “grieving” period and were you resistant at all to the changes?  If so, what helped you to make the changes you needed to make to be healthier?

I was thrilled to finally discover the cause of my health problems. I’ve always been keenly interested in optimizing my health, so I didn’t see it as a burden at all. All I needed to know was that gluten and dairy were bad for me. The biggest challenge for me was dealing with everyone else. They either didn’t know anything about gluten, or didn’t care, or cared but didn’t really understand it as well as they thought they did. Or they felt sorry for me, or thought I was imposing on them, etc.

7.  How long after being diagnosed with Celiac disease do you actually think it took you to eliminate gluten from your diet?  It seems that there is a big learning curve, and I find that people get frustrated with themselves if they mess up.

There is obviously a big learning curve, and I made mistakes. But when I made mistakes I got sick, so I tried to figure out where I made the mistake. I did it fairly well right from the beginning, but it’s always a learning process. I don’t think that there was any point at which I can say, “That is when I truly eliminated gluten from my diet.” I’ve been gluten free for about 16 years. But about once a year I still manage to get exposed to it somewhere.

8.  How do you address a person who has a diagnosis that requires a significant dietary change, but the person is really struggling to make the changes, resistant to change, or just emotionally overwhelmed by the process of change?

I really try to focus on the positive aspects of the diet change. Sometimes people only see what they are losing rather than what they are gaining, and they are much more familiar with the former. They may not have experienced good health for so long that it’s hard for them to perceive the amazing potential that they have to control their health. If you can get people to make the dietary change long enough to get positive feedback from their body, then they are much more likely to stick with it.

And honestly, I really like them to work with someone like yourself. Many people need more than nutritional support, they need emotional support as well. I wish that they were more people who did what you do! Thanks for carving out a new niche.

9.  Do you ever get “glutened” now, and if so, how do you typically know this has happened and what is your emotional reaction to this?

I had a patient today who experiences exactly what I do. I get sick to my stomach, develop gas and abdominal pain. I have diarrhea. Sometimes I get really bad belching. Those are my classic symptoms. I can’t sleep that night. The next day I have a terrible headache. I’m exhausted. My joints hurt. And I’m really ticked off because I know that I’ve just lost a day or two out of my life, and I figure that I should have been more careful. Fortunately, I bounce back fairly well after a couple of days.

10. How did changing your diet improve your quality of life?

Most notably my energy is better as is my clarity of thought, and I’m not as irritable. I have much more endurance, I don’t get hungry every two hours, and I don’t have bad gas or unpredictable bowel movements. All of that has been a nice improvement in my quality of life!

11.  How can making dietary changes based on dietary need improve your patient’s quality of life and be viewed as a positive gain rather than a loss?

Many people are pretty happy to have more energy, fewer health problems, a better social life, weight loss (or gain, depending on the need), and all of the potential positive side-effects that can come from removing an inflammatory food from your diet. And I think that connecting them with others who’ve gone through this is important as well. But it can be challenging for others. I’m curious, how would you answer this question?

In response to Dr. Wangen’s question, I see that making these changes can improve quality of life in numerous ways.  It gives people back a sense of control over how they feel and the ability to choose to feel well.  Also, when we feel better physically, we feel better mentally.  I believe that the mind and body are connected and we have to nurture both to be balanced.

12. Is there anything else that you would like to share with my readers about you or the IBS treatment center?

It has been so rewarding to work with patients who come to us from around the country. I have learned a great deal from my patients, and I certainly appreciate that there is not just one answer that will solve every problem. Gluten is only one potential problem. I’ve had many patients who eliminated gluten but still were missing pieces to their health puzzle.

Don’t get caught up in diagnostic labels or let them define you, and don’t let peer pressure or cultural pressure make you eat things you shouldn’t. Trust your instinct. Being healthy is a good thing!

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Author Information: Jennifer Leeson, Denver, CO
Denver Gluten-free Examiner at Examiner.com
Jennifer is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and an expert on changing negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. After being diagnosed with Celiac Disease last October, she learned there was more to transforming her life around food beyond knowing what to eat and what not to eat. There were unexpected social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that arose. Since learning how to cope with these obstacles herself, she has begun teaching others how to cope effectively with the barriers that interfere with successfully changing one’s entire lifestyle around food. You can reach Jennifer at her e-mail address


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