First and foremost, this is not a how-to-blog post on how you can lose weight or manage your food allergies/sensitivities. I am not a doctor, dietician, nutritionist or naturopath. Simply put, I’m a woman who’s dealt with many food sensitivities and weight ups and downs for the past seventeen years and want to share my story. Take with it what you will, but I implore you to consult a physician or nutrition expert before drastically changing your own diet program.
That being said, this is how I took my health into my own hands.
My first experience with stomach pain came at the age of 19. Like any normal college student, I wasn’t exactly coming back from class pining for fruits and veggies. A good part of my college diet consisted of salads drenched in ranch dressing, pretzels, beer, pasta, beer, pizza and-did I say, beer? I wasn’t unhealthy. As my roommates slept in after a late night out, I’d go to the gym in the morning and sweat it all off. At this time I was of the mind that whatever I ate I could burn off- intake and outtake. Like many girls my age, I thought in calories and not necessarily the content of the food. How little I knew back then. If only I had known that it’s all about the quality of your food-not always just quantity.
Nevertheless, from freshman to sophomore year of college, I started getting extreme bouts of constipation (yes, we will be talking poop in this story). This left me irritable and ten pounds heavier than what I was high school. Doctors said it was Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), or as I like to think of it, I Call Bullshit Syndrome (ICBS). IBS is a general term used by doctors when referring to abdominal pain, cramping, constipation, diarrhea and other digestive issues. It’s not specially known what causes IBS. However, in my experience, this is what doctors say you have when they have no fucking clue what’s going on in your belly.
Over the next six years, my stomach issues continued and my weight soared up yet another ten pounds. I was beyond frustrated yet I summed it up to, “this is just how it’s going to be.” I was just going to be one of those people who had constipation, diarrhea, vomiting and acid reflux. I’d been tested for Celiac Sprue disease nearly five times and all blood tests came up negative. Celiac Sprue is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation to the small intestine. The inflammation is an allergic reaction to gluten which is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and other foods. Symptoms include, but are not limited to; diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, eczema, rashes, fatigue and depression. While I was suffering quite a bit from digestive “traffic” as I’d grown to call it, I wasn’t exactly ready to cut out my pretzels and beer either. As I learned much later, blood tests are not always a definitive way to determine if one is actually allergic.
By the time I moved back to Chicago in 2003, I had gained thirty pounds since I first began having stomach issues. The number weighed more on my self-esteem than my physical body. It pissed me off. There below my feet was a number I had never seen and a number I swore I would never see again until I was pregnant. I didn’t want to be defined by what this fucking scale said. Even still, I became fairly closed off and continued to do what I thought was right. I spent an unbelievable amount of time doing cardio (just cardio) at the gym. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t losing any weight. I even became a fitness instructor in hopes that it would teach me something I didn’t already know about how to shed the pounds. Thankfully, it did. But it wasn’t what I thought it would be.
My first milestone came when I started regularly teaching a strength class at a local gym. In three months I lost twelve pounds. Who knew that lifting weights could have such a dramatic effect? I was shocked. The five and eight pound weights I used in class were extraordinarily heavy at the time. And I never really wanted to lift heavier since I was afraid of “bulking up.” I can laugh at this now. Like, rolling on the floor laughing. Women can’t “bulk up.” We typically have less that 10% testosterone which makes getting bigger incredibly difficult.
Still, you could not pull me away from an elliptical machine even if it meant winning the lottery or landing a hot date with Chris Hemsworth. But it was one long, cold, wintery week in February 2007 that would change my life forever. My body hurt. Bad. I had all the classic symptoms of overtraining: soreness that wouldn’t go away, moodiness, insomnia, weight gain and more fun digestive issues. I wasn’t sleeping, my shoulders hurt like someone had given them a beating and my emotions were all over the place. So, I decided to reach out to my primary care doctor who referred me to a nutritionist. This woman changed everything I knew about food and my relationship to numbers on a scale.
After hearing my story, the nutritionist suggested I go off all gluten, lactose, sugar and caffeine for one week. I thought, are you fucking kidding me? What was I supposed to eat? After about ten minutes of me whining and attempting to negotiate what I could and couldn’t eat, I gave in. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Not only did my muscle aches and pains go away, I was able to sleep and I stopped crying during commercials. This all happened in less than one week. But at the end of that week, I thought I’d just have a little-ok maybe a HUGE, Carol’s Cookie. An hour later I had to run to the bathroom to get “sick” (you got it, poop).
At the time, my nutritionist labeled it a high food intolerance to gluten/wheat but said that it might not be an actual gluten allergy. She also ran a blood test to see what other foods I was reactive to. This test showed I was intolerant to roughly fifteen other foods. Still new to what intolerant meant, I learned that just because you have adverse effects from certain foods, it doesn’t mean you are allergic. For those with food intolerances, you might need to eliminate certain foods permanently or take them out briefly to be reintroduced later. The latter is referred to as an elimination diet. An example of this is the fact that this test showed I was intolerant to eggs. Eggs! I took them out of my diet for a little over a month and then slowly reintroduced them back into my diet. I now eat eggs daily with no problem whatsoever. This was not the case with gluten or lactose. These things I continue to have issues with.
Utterly grateful to have found the reasons for my stomach issues-and to also have lost six pounds, I thought I was all good to go. See you later nutritionist! Sadly this was not the case.
In July of 2011, my Grandpa had a stroke. We had always been extremely close. He was extremely supportive of my budding career in fitness and would call me to chat every Wednesday night. His stroke was a surprise but we were hopeful. I’d visit him almost every day in the hospital and sit by his side. One of my last memories of him was when he reached over and brushed my bangs behind my ear. He nodded and his smile said he was proud of me. His passing was hard on me. I had never lost anyone that I was that close to. I had no coping skills and was so emotionally drained I began cancelling on clients within an hour of their appointment. While I soon gained strength and found the support I needed, this grieving period also lead to a drastic change in my health.
In the three years after my Grandpa’s death, I gained seventeen pounds and couldn’t take a single one off. Fed up, I consulted with my gastro and he suggested we test for Celiac Sprue via an upper endoscopy. This test is more precise at diagnosing a gluten allergy than a simple blood test. While my biopsy tests came up negative, I found out afterwards that prior to this test I should’ve been told to eat gluten for up to a month before the test. That way, when they go in, they can see if there’s an allergic reaction or not. I had not consumed any gluten before my test so I have no clinical evidence of an allergy. Only an educated guess.
Seven months after that test in October 2013, my stomach issues worsened far more than they ever had. My stomach actually distended to look like I was five months pregnant (no exaggeration). Everything I ate hurt my stomach and I caught the noro-virus flu (worst flu….EVER). All of this came to a head when in one week, my Aunt,
Mom and Uncle’s health were all individually compromised, I had a TV appearance and was about to take a four-hour flight to L.A. in the infamous middle seat. The combination of events caused me the worst stomach upset I’d ever had. I may look happy in the photo with P90X Creator Tony Horton but I can guarantee you I wasn’t. I was fairly sure that at any given point an alien would jump out of my belly-or I’d at least have to excuse myself from Mr. Horton to make a beeline for the bathroom. Thankfully I rallied.
Your gut is full of good and bad bacteria. When the bad overpower the good, doctors typically will put you on a probiotic. My doctor prescribed Xifaxan, a drug that is normally prescribed to those people traveling to and from foreign countries and as a result suffer from “traveler’s stomach.” While this helped get me through the L.A. trip, it didn’t end my new issues. So my physician put me on medical grade probiotic-450 billion good bacteria. This helped was immensely. She also suggested I find better ways to handle stress since stress itself can break your immune system down.
When I came back from California, I reached back out to my primary care doctor since not everything was 100%. She said that it’s possible I had candida overgrowth. Candida, or yeast, is in everyone’s gut. However, if you’ve taken a lot of antibiotics, birth control or other medications in your life, they can cause an overgrowth of candida. This overgrowth can break down your immune system and cause digestive issues. She also said that because the Xifaxan and probiotics helped to some degree, it was possible I had an overgrowth of bad bacteria as well. We know that some bacteria ride along on fruits, veggies, meats and my favorite sushi rolls. Well, a stressed gut is like an invitation to bacteria and candida to stick around rather than pass through. In order to survive and thrive in your gut, candida and bacteria need sugar to feed on. A huge help to me was also learning about Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). Reading about how I likely had little bacterial aliens in my gut suddenly didn’t seem too far off.
I began what turned out to be a four-month long process, by turning to the paleo diet. Already off gluten, lactose and caffeine, I added grains to the list. From there, I singled out certain veggies that had a higher sugar count and eliminated them one at a time. I did this because if you take out too much too soon, you don’t know what’s working and what’s not. Through this process I found out I was highly sensitive to nightshade vegetables, soy, garlic, almonds and salad dressings. I also learned that I was not necessarily just intolerant to lactose, I was also intolerant to lactase. This means that even hemp or coconut milk products are off limits. So, what could I eat? Here’s my list:
Green onions (not the white part)
Carrots (A little)
Dates (A few)
Yes….That’s basically it .
Luckily, thanks to the elimination diet, I’m now able to incorporate a few servings of nightshade vegetables in a week. Yay! Variety! I can handle not eating a wide variety of foods. I was never a big foodie. Going out to dinner was and still is all about the people I’m with. But does my limited diet make for a few awkward and difficult situations? Totally…
Sports arenas, theaters and concert halls don’t always have grain-free and healthy gluten-free foods. And since I can’t go four hours without eating, this often means me eating a chicken breast out of a baggie in the bathroom. True story. The other issue is that these events also don’t have gluten-free beer-only liquor or wine which can be expensive, (and I’m a beer girl).* Case in point, I went to a concert this summer at Northerly Island that didn’t have gluten-free beer. They did however, have Bud Light. While Bud Light has some gluten in it, it is made from rice and not wheat. So, drinking one won’t always have a severe affect on those who are just intolerant. Drinking it was like saying hello to an old friend. It was a beautiful summer night and I was having fun so I ended up having four…tall boys. Bad Lisa. Bad! But rather than having a stomach upset-apalooza, I awoke the next morning with very different symptoms. My eyelids were swollen shut, my seasonal allergies made my face puff up and my eczema itched so bad I broke capillaries from scratching so hard. The scratching left bruises on my skin and my allergies screamed at me for three days. Just intolerant, huh? ICBS.
It has been quite the long road. I cannot eat very many foods but I continue to work at it. Looking back, this process has taught me so much. In times of transition and stress like that of going off to college, starting your first job or handling a death in the family, your body can go a little haywire. Because of this, my gut becomes inflamed and it holds on to excess bacteria/candida causing an upset stomach, bloating, distention and “traffic.” Since figuring this out and changing both my diet and my stress managment, I’ve lost over 6% body fat and eleven pounds. I no longer care about my high school weight. My immune system is my priority. I feel good in this body and have never felt stronger. My stomach has calmed down, my muscle recovery is much smoother, I have more energy and I sleep like a baby. Workouts have also gotten far more productive since starting to lift heavy weights. No bulking here!
These things are the quality of life.
So if there’s something that you’ll take from reading this, I hope that it’s faith. That whatever you are struggling with when it comes to your body-keep searching. Ask questions, consult your doctor and be patient. Your health should always be your top priority. Demand the best and never stop trying!
*Despite the sugar content, I do drink gluten-free alcohol in moderation. Sanity, please!
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