Growing up, eating was always pretty easy-breezy for me. I didn’t suffer from any digestive issues and could basically eat whatever I wanted without experiencing any complications. Because I had an interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as a general rule of thumb, I worked to sustain a ‘healthy’ and ‘balanced’ diet throughout my young adulthood. But, overall, I didn’t need to worry about any negative repercussions, digestively speaking.
Well, I guess I should have knocked on wood or something, because about a year and a half ago, that all changed.
In September of 2013 I began to experience chronic symptoms of digestive discomfort. Every day, around 2 or 3pm, my stomach would become extremely bloated and crampy. This discomfort was generally accompanied by excessive gas (for the sake of transparency, I felt it was necessary to include that). This would last until I went to bed at night, but I would usually wake feeling like my normal self again. My symptoms persisted for several months. And I mean persisted. Every single day, like clockwork. I always described it as my stomach being angry with me. I was stumped as to why this was happening. Nothing significant had changed in my diet, or my life.
The only time that I would experience some relief was on the weekends. That was the first indicator that whatever was going on was agitated by stress. Now, I don’t mean the heavy stress that we experience from traumatic life events. I’m talking about the normal, every-day, work week kind of stress. I hadn’t moved schools, nor was I teaching a new grade. Everything was as it should be. If anything, my work life should have been more relaxing than it was the year prior!
My first thought was to try to sort this out on my own. I decided to eliminate all gluten and dairy from my diet--common causes of gut inflammation. Perhaps, for whatever reason, I had developed an intolerance of sorts. In about two weeks time, my symptoms had completely disappeared. I had done it! I felt like a normal person again. It was something I hadn’t experienced in months. It may not sound like much, but I was on cloud nine! I had forgotten what it felt like to make it through an entire day feeling well. Slowly, I started to reintroduce a limited amount of dairy (mostly yogurt), and found I could tolerate it just fine. So I pinpointed gluten as the culprit. Yes, I jumped on board with all those gluten-free hippies that annoy everyone so much. But whatever. I felt great and was ready to ride that wagon, front row, for the rest of my life if I had to.
I maintained this diet to a T. But, three months later, I slowly felt all of my symptoms begin to resurface. Every. Single. One of them.
I was back at square one. I didn’t know what else I could do or change. It was time to call in the professionals. I decided to visit my family doctor. Now, I would like to state that I absolutely love my family doctor. I find her kind, intelligent, and thorough. However, after visiting her clinic, she was quick to diagnose me with the ever-so-popular Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Now, if you don’t know much about IBS, it’s really just a blanket label for problems within the large intestine. This is ironic, as gut issues are so complex and individualized, that they require anything but a blanket label. She prescribed her preferred probiotic supplement, and sent me on my way.
This treatment plan just did not cut it for me. Was I supposed to accept a lifetime of chronic discomfort just because I could now give it a name? This seemed ridiculous. I needed answers! What was happening inside of me? Why was this happening? This was my body and I was determined to understand it. And so began my journey. I needed to know more, and I went looking for answers.
I decided to try out naturopathic care. Dave had recently met a local naturopath and recommended that I schedule an appointment with her. Dr. Fitzgerald worked to understand my lifestyle and any internal and external factors that could be influencing my gut health. We experimented with various probiotics and other natural supplementation, aimed at increasing my healthy gut flora. I completed food sensitivity testing (confirming a sensitivity to gluten and dairy, among other things), and we examined the health of my hormone levels and organs. Testing also showed that my liver was stressed out! The liver is a filtering organ, but mine wasn’t doing so well in this department. So Dr. Fitz recommended that I complete a short-term, natural liver cleanse. This entailed ingesting a tablespoon of disgusting brown liquid every morning—something that still haunts me to this day and that I never wish to experience again (a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture. Gross).
A lot of good came from my work with Dr. Fitzgerald. By May of 2014, I was feeling much better and I started to feel confident that I could fix whatever was going on inside of me (although, at this point, I still wasn’t exactly clear on what that was). As some of you may know, naturopathic care can be quite pricey. I was very fortunate to have coverage through my employer. But it didn’t take long for that coverage to run out. However, by the time summer rolled around, I felt that I could manage my digestive issues through clean eating, proper supplementation, and a watchful eye.
Then approached September 2015. And, yup, you guessed it: my symptoms returned. Except this time I felt like they were even worse. It didn’t matter how careful I was with my diet, I could not generate a happy gut. Again, I worked for months at taking everything I had learned in the past year about maintaining a healthy digestive tract to determine my food choices and apply these lessons to my current lifestyle. Alas, I rang in 2015 fed up and without any answers.
With a new round of benefits available, I decided to head back to naturopathic care. Unfortunately, Dr. Fitz had taken on new endeavors and her limited clinic hours forced me to seek out a new ND. Enter Dr. Katherine Kremblewski. Katherine and I actually knew each other from our pre-career/poor-student days, working part-time at Lululemon (ya, that’s right. You should see my workout wardrobe. It’s basically the best, due to irresponsible spending habits as a Lululemon employee). After explaining my long, drawn out story to Katherine (much like the one I’ve told here), she began by asking me one question: “So what happened in your life a year and a half ago?” I honestly couldn’t tell her. So we looked back a little further and began to dig. And I mean dig. Katherine pinpointed two experiences that had taken place in 2013 that appeared as red flags: 1) Dave and I had returned from a trip to Mexico and instead of bringing back a conch shell, I brought back a killer stomach virus; 2) four months later, I was put on powerful antibiotics for a tooth infection that resulted in a root canal.
Now, considering events that took place months prior to the symptoms rearing their ugly heads was not something I had thought to do. But it’s important to remember that the gut is a powerful place—more powerful than most of us give it credit for. Read the book Clean Gut by Dr. Alejandro Junger and you will understand what I mean. Dr. Junger describes it as our second brain. So don’t underestimate the influence of gut health. Even after a year and a half of learning, it still manages to blow my mind.
This brings me to present day. I am now about to complete a candida screen (keeping my fingers crossed that I dodge the candida bullet), and a parasite screen (I mean, this doesn’t sound like a walk in the park either, but beggars can’t be choosers). We are also taking steps to examine the functioning of my adrenal glands. Tuckered out adrenals have been known to cause many of the symptoms I have been experiencing. Although I still don’t have the answers I am hunting for, I walked out of Katherine’s office feeling confident that we are going to find them. However, it’s important to note that something like this takes time and a serious commitment to your personal health.
This brings me to my final point. Although, at times, this journey has been an all-consuming battle and has even left me in tears, many positive things have come from the experience. I have never been more in tune with my body than I am today. I have learned to listen to my body and respond accordingly. I am dedicated to a gut-friendly diet that promotes intestinal health and provides me with a myriad of other health benefits. I have completed countless hours of reading and research surrounding gut health and the implications of it. I now believe in dedicating yourself to achieving and maintaining personal health and wellness. If I have taken one thing away from this experience, it is this: you deserve to spend time on you. Understand that only you can decide to be dedicated to your health. No one else will do that for you. And know that you deserve to feel well. Chronic discomfort of any kind should not simply be accepted as a new way of living. Start digging and, in time, you can find the healthiest version of you. This is the greatest gift you can give yourself.