Around this time two years ago, I called my parents after work in total, incoherent tears.
I had just canceled my plans for that Friday evening because I was so overcome with digestive distress, yet again, that I could barely sit upright comfortably, let alone go out in public.
“I feel like I’m losing my mind. I can barely get through my workouts anymore, almost everything I eat makes me feel sick. I’m so bloated that I look like I could be freakin’ pregnant. I have no control of my body anymore.” I rambled in-between sobs. I was past the point of loved ones or Doctor’s telling me we would figure it out, I wanted — no, I needed — answers. I needed my health and my body back now, not later.
I needed my gut to start cooperating.
Sometime after turning 20, I had transformed from someone who could eat mostly anything without experiencing any specific digestive-related despair, to someone who was suddenly sensitive or intolerant to (seemingly) almost everything. No matter the meal, I felt like my stomach was conspiring against me at every turn. I was constantly exhausted, nauseous and fighting bouts of dizziness while working out. And once the digestive issues began, they seemingly manifested into other internal issues as I came to know daily migraines, skin trouble, infections and a lacklustre immune system. And as symptoms became more extreme, my mindset started to fall apart, creating a vicious mental and physical cycle where I was, more often than not, left feeling helpless and sorry for myself.
Soon I was tested for Celiac disease, Crohns, IBS, Colitis and everything else under the sun. I was relentlessly examined, poked and prodded, only to be met with the same puzzled look from each Doctor. “Try a Paleo diet”, “You likely have Leaky Gut”, “Maybe try the Candida diet” or “You’re showing symptoms of IBS, we think”. It was more or less a dressed-up way of saying, “We aren’t sure what’s wrong with you. But your gut is definitely not healthy.”
And I’m not alone in my experience. Over the years, a number of my friends have developed moderate to severe intolerances to various food groups, forever doomed to tread carefully around restaurant menus while avoiding dairy, gluten, meet, additives and more. In fact, 60 to 70 million people are affected by all digestive diseases in the U.S. alone, and researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies.
So if a happy gut means a happy life, what do we do when our gut health takes a turn for the worse?
While my journey can’t precisely mirror that of everyone else who has felt the wrath of food intolerances and gut distress, I can offer insight to what I learned along the way and the information I’ve received from various nutritionists and experts, as well.
1. Process of Elimination
Out with the bad and in with the good, they say. But what if you aren’t sure which food staples are the culprit? This is where an elimination diet comes into play, a short-term eating plan that eliminates certain foods that may be causing digestive reactions – then reintroduces said food (one at a time) in order to determine which foods are, and are not, well-tolerated.
Majority of diet-related allergies are linked to the following foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, nuts, wheat and gluten, soy, fish and shellfish. While every elimination diet can be different, most will focus on the food groups mentioned above with the addition of refined sugar, alcohol and packaged, processed or fast foods. An elimination diet will typically last around 3-6 weeks in order for your immune system to recover from any sensitives experienced, allowing you to recognize improvements in your symptoms.
By strategically eliminating (and slowly reintroducing) certain foods from my diet, I was able to pinpoint exactly what meals and specific ingredients were causing especially bad flare-ups (even if they were seemingly healthy) and effectively steer clear of them. In my case, the main culprits seemed to be gluten, dairy, sprouts, refined sugar, most protein powders and quite often, meat.
2. Stock Up on Anti-Inflammatory Food and Healthy Bacteria
It’s no secret, inflammation is at the root of countless diseases in American culture. Anyone struggling with bouts of digestive discomfort, IBS, leaky gut etc., is likely experiencing symptoms of digestive inflammation. With this in mind, as you steadily remove problematic foods from your diet, work to add-in foods that are noted for their anti-inflammatory qualities. These include (but are not limited to): Green Leafy Vegetables, Bok Choy, Celery, Beets, Broccoli, Blueberries, Pineapple, Salmon, Bone Broth, Walnuts, Coconut Oil, Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds, Turmeric and Ginger. One of my favourite digestive remedies? Cold water mixed with a teaspoon of Swedish Bitters (to help with digestive complaints like bloating, flatulence and sluggish digestion), 2 slices of fresh ginger and freshly squeezed lime.
Also focus on adding healthy bacteria back into your body to restore your internal balance, by taking probiotic supplements that contain high dosages of healthy bacteria (look for bottles that offer 25-100 billion units a day). You can also supplement with prebiotic foods such as raw or cooked onions, raw leeks, raw dandelion greens, garlic, asparagus, under-ripe bananas, Chicory root, oats, Konjac root and more.
3. Always Read the Label
This may sound overly straight forward, but labels at grocery stores quite often aren’t. As a general rule of thumb, if I flip a product over only to read an overwhelming list of ingredients I can’t even pronounce, I put it back on the shelf. Less is always more. Also, don’t assume that products labelled as “healthy”, are actually healthy. Remember that these companies are in the business of making money — if they think ‘health food’ is the trend, they might try to hop on board, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee their product truly has the ingredient list to actually back it up. Try to worry less about calories, and more about the specific ingredients (unnecessary additives and chemicals), refined sugars and sodium etc.. Typically, ingredients are ordered by how much is in the product, so look for products that list real, whole foods and ingredients at the top of their list.
Another trick? When grocery shopping, try to (mostly) stick to the outer perimeter of the store. This is usually where you’ll find your produce, meats and essentials of your diet, while you’ll find the bulk of packaged snack foods (and general crap) within the isles in the middle of the store.
4. Farm to Table Living
Now, I realize it’s not always possible to eat locally, but I’ve found that opting for locally-sourced, organic produce when I can, has made a big difference in my relationship with food. Local food is fresher (you’re cutting down on the time spent from farm to your table, meaning less nutrients are lost), it’s seasonal (helping you to avoid artificial ripening), it’s better for the environment, it’s less likely to be contaminated and it also happens to support the local economy. Win win, am I right?
5. Intermittent Fasting
As aforementioned, fasting isn’t for everyone. Whenever a friend or a client asks me about my diet regime and subsequent suggestions, I lead with the same cautionary statement: “What works for me, or the person next to me, won’t necessarily work for you. The absolute most important thing you can ever do for your body, is listen to it. This is the only way you will find a diet regime that truly works for you.”
Now, in the case of intermittent fasting, I’ve met a number individuals who experienced symptoms similar to mine (or suffered from Celiac) who found that fasting helped make their lives easier. I’ve also come across some incredibly compelling bits of information and studies surrounding the effects fasting and ketone supplementation can have on one’s health or while dealing with disease (for anyone interested, I highly recommend you check out Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris — a ton of the experts he interviews in this book speak to this topic).
There are a number of documented health benefits to intermittent fasting, which make it a common recommendation in the effort to heal one’s gut. Fasting helps to regulate Insulin, activate beneficial genes (SIRT genes) that aid in metabolic repair, reduce the risk of cancer, turn on antioxidant systems, activate the growth hormone, aid in micro-biome, improve cellular repair, reduce inflammation and give the GI tract more downtime to recover. Personally, allowing my GI tract more time to cool down and recover each day has made a huge difference in my experience with gut health and tempering daily dietary aggravations.