If you spend any time around me, then you've probably asked me this question: "So, what can you eat?" There was a time when I would pretty much eat anything and I thought being healthy meant not having seconds, but nearly four years ago the power to eat whatever I wanted was swiftly taken away.
It was November of my second year of teaching. My job had shifted this year from teaching 10th grade at the high school to teaching 8th grade at the junior high school and 10th grade at the high school. I ended up bouncing from school to school at least once a day. Luckily the schools were close, but I knew, and felt very guilty, that I could never be in two places at once and was rarely available to either group of students. The month before, in October, I was stunned and shaken by the sudden and tragic death of one of my high school homeroom students who had died, with another student, in a car accident. It rocked me to my core -- why bother to teach students if they die?
So, I was already really stressed. Then we went out to dinner one night in November of 2012. The next day I woke up feeling like I had the stomach flu. Little did I know I would feel this way for nearly a year and have symptoms well beyond that.
I'm not the type to seek a doctor but after a few weeks of feeling like I had the stomach flu I left work in the middle of the day and went to walk in care, since my doctor was still an hour away. The first doctor wasn't sure what was wrong ( this would be a recurring theme ) and put me on prednisone, which did not sit well on a stomach already in turmoil. I called my doctor in Bangor and got an appointment for the next week. She ran many tests but was also not sure what was wrong. Since she was an hour away, communicating with her was very difficult and ultimately very inefficient. So, after a lot of phone tag, it became clear I needed a doctor closer to me. My new, local doctor basically saved me. She's a nurse practitioner and spent lots of time getting to know me and was like, we're going to help you; it was the first time I felt like things could get better. This was already several months into feeling terrible and my symptoms had not improved. I was still teaching, still going between schools, and still stressed, even more so now that I had an illness no one could identify.
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My new doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist to try to get a better handle on what was happening. They ran a million tests as well-- I will spare you the details. At this point I had spent more time in doctors' offices and doing lab tests than I ever had before and we were no closer to finding out what happened. At my second, or maybe third, meeting with my gastroenterologist, she laid it out for me: The most likely scenario was that when I went out to dinner that night I came in contact with a nasty bacteria of some kind. ( We still don't know how this happened as my family and I all shared the same food. ) This bacteria created a (giant) disruption in the delicate balance of my gut bacteria. ( I learned a lot during this time about gut health and now find it super fascinating.) Basically, you have good bacteria in your intestines, or gut, and bad bacteria. When you're sick, or take antibiotics, your good bacteria gets depleted and your bad bacteria takes over, and this makes you more susceptible to other illnesses (colds, flu, stomach bugs, etc.) and not feel well. So, when that bad bacteria hit me, it wiped out nearly all of my good bacteria and my immune system couldn't recover and repopulate the good bacteria -- so my gut was still, months later, out of whack.
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I was put on several medications to try to get it under control but, while they reduced some of the symptoms, they ultimately weren't a lot of help. Throughout this time, I experimented a lot with my diet. The first thing the gastroenterologist suggested was recording everything I ate and my symptoms. The first doctor, from walk in care, said to eat lot of carbs ( dream come true? ) to keep my diet basic so that my body could recover. After this there was probably a period of six months where the only thing I could really tolerate was bagel thins and dairy free cream cheese. Just thinking about that makes my stomach turn and I don't think I'll ever be eating that combination again.
I started to wonder: What is healthy? I didn't feel like a bagel thin was healthy but then again if that was the only thing I could stomach then maybe it was. Next, the gastroenterologist suggested it might be a gluten allergy or intolerance so I was instructed to eat a lot of gluten ( yay bread! ) and then to stop and record my symptoms for both. What happened was that my body was overwhelmed at both extremes ( lots of gluten and no gluten ) so this proved more frustrating than helpful.
I started to wonder: What is healthy?
I got so fed up with not knowing what to eat and trying to eat the "right things" --and then still feeling absolutely terrible anyway. I am a true food lover and not having control over what I ate-- or being able to eat what I wanted-- was so hard for me. One night I basically threw the adult version of a temper tantrum and went to the store, bought a frozen pizza with cinnamon sticks, and ate a ton of them. No, really. I threw caution to the wind and had like half a pizza and about 5 cinnamon sticks. ( Spoiler alert: It was a bad idea. ) The subsequent pain was some of the worst of my life. I sat, rolling in a ball on the bathroom floor for nearly an hour crying and begging to go to the hospital. My then boyfriend -- now husband -- reminded me that I'd have to get up to do that, which didn't sound appealing. He ended up calling my mom, a healthcare professional, who assured us both that the searing pain and burning sensation going through my insides would pass. It did eventually but let's just say it's been three and a half years since I've eaten frozen pizza or cinnamon sticks and I don't think I will ever eat them again.
These restrictions and adjustments to my diet caused me to do a lot of research on types of eating. My gastroenterologist was amazing and gave me a lot of literature on various diets that had helped people like me. Many of them seemed impossible to me -- no gluten? Dairy? Sugar? WHO ARE WE KIDDING. A life without bread isn't living! Yet, slowly I started to adapt. I found blogs like Minimalist Baker, Real Food Whole Life, Paleomg, and others that helped me see that eating cleaner and healthier with more whole foods was possible -- and even delicious. It wasn't something I changed all at once: I held onto that bread, cheese, and pasta for all my life, but over time I realized what foods made me feel better and worse.
Also during this time I got engaged and my fiancé moved in, which as an introvert was also a big but wonderful change. In preparing for our wedding, not feeling sick on our wedding day and feeling good about how I looked was really important to me.
Feeling great on our wedding day.
I found Barre3 and their nutrition philosophy showed me how eating healthy could be possible and delicious. Between the strengthening workouts and whole foods, my health dramatically improved.
picture source: Barre3.com
I never thought of myself as an unhealthy eater ( I ate my veggies, didn't drink soda or alcohol, and almost never had fast food ), but I realized that didn't make me a healthy eater either. I had been eating a lot of simple, white carbs and these ( more than the actual gluten ) didn't make me feel good.
Seeing how much my diet could change my life, I stopped seeing my illness as restrictive and started to seek out foods that made me feel better.
Changing my diet was the one thing that really helped and was in my control. Seeing how much my diet could change my life, I stopped seeing my illness as restrictive and started to seek out foods that made me feel better; after a string of doctors and appointments and medications that did very little, I felt empowered that simply changing what I ate could transform my physical and mental health. So, I'd like to say that I woke up one day and just said, "I want to be healthy!" but I didn't. I resisted it, actually, but was hooked when I figured out the power it held.
Years into my stomach issues, I was desperate for answers. My new gastroenterologist told me about a study that was done on people like mine; he said that most of them had reduced symptoms over five years. And, what about after those five years; did it ever go away? He said, "well, the study ended." That's where my story is at today: Has it gone away? No. Do I feel better? So much so.
In the beginning I was really only eating bagel thins. Now, I eat most things. When someone asks me what I can eat, it's a hard question to answer since there aren't specific food groups I don't or can't eat. I eat some dairy -- yogurt, for example -- but other dairy ( namely milk ) is truly awful for me to ingest. I eat gluten but I also try to limit while starches since those generally aren't healthy and don't make me feel good. I eat meat, though less so if it's fatty or harder to digest, like steak. I eat rice, though I prefer quinoa which provides more protein. I eat fat if it's from nuts or avocados but I really can't tolerate much fried or things like mayo in larger quantities. Today, healthy means that I mostly eat whole foods -- fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, mostly unprocessed, and not much from a box.
Most of all, my illness means that I don't know what any given day will be like. One day, I will be fine and have zero symptoms. Another day, I won't feel well. Sometimes, this is because I splurged a bit and ate things I don't usually: a night or two out to dinner, or a cheese plate, or some ice cream, etc. But, the hardest part is that some days I won't feel well for no reason at all. That's what this illness means to me now: Life and how I feel is out of my control. For a type-A person, this has been a real lesson: You can't control everything. When I first got sick, the one thing I really wanted to know was if I would wake up feeling like I had been repeatedly punched in the stomach after eating a bag of hot peppers every single morning, but that's not how life works: Sometimes you just can't know what's going to happen.
In many ways, this has been a blessing: I've learned to let go ( a little! ), to eat healthier, to listen to my body more, and to be mindful about how my actions affect my health. This is something that has changed my life so you'll be hearing a lot more about it; if you have questions I'd love to hear them!
Having a stomach illness is often stigmatized and even more often humorized
Having a stomach illness is not something I usually talk about or go into much detail on since, much like mental illness, it is often stigmatized and even more often humorized, like in Along Came Polly. It's not socially acceptable yet to talk about your stomach problems or gut health so I generally try to avoid the topic, but the truth is it's worth talking about: 60-70 million people are affected by digestive disorders. I've learned a lot about the power of food, what it means to be healthy, and how my choices affect my physical, emotional, and mental health and that's one of my main reasons for this blog: to help you learn about those choices and find your joy, too.