My Gut Health Journey Intro - How Did I Get Here?

Gut Health Journey -- HOver the past few years, I've had increasingly worse digestive issues that all came to a head last summer when my symptoms got to their worst. I have since been dealing with ongoing symptoms that I am working to figure out and address, but the process has been a slow, painful, and frustrating one. I'll start a few years back and bring you to where I am now to give you some context and so you can understand the process I went through, so you can, if nothing else, learn from my own personal experience. I'm not here to provide medical advice (I don't have any authority or credentials to do so), but I can offer up my own story so that you can hopefully learn some things to help guide you on your journey, or at least help you feel less alone in your struggle.

Disclaimer: This story isn't pretty, and there's a lot of talk of bodily functions. But because we're all adults here, I hope this is cool with you for the purposes of accurately telling this story.

Early 2015

I remember my first symptoms going back to early 2015 when I would feel really bloated after eating, and had daily abnormal bowel movements. To address some of my digestive symptoms, I started taking digestive enzymes with everything I ate, and actually noticed a big difference in my post-meal symptoms. Eventually, though, they stopped working as effectively.

I was coming off of a season training for a marathon pretty intensely, and had unintentionally dropped a bit of weight in the process. This also coincided with a change in my diet -- I went from eating plenty of meat to going mostly plant-based, rarely eating meat at all (maybe once a month, and maybe fish once a week). I felt like my running was improving and felt like I was less weighed down and had more energy. Plus, I really do love vegetables, and I was enjoying getting creative with plant-based dishes while putting meats and fish on the back-burner for the time being. I felt good and was enjoying the new change of diet. I didn't think of it as a Diet with a capital "D" but it was a change in the way I was eating. I was not doing it to lose weight, but moving to a primarily plant-based diet, along with marathon training, I did lose a bit of weight. I still felt stronger than ever though, so I wasn't worried.

After a few weeks after the marathon in fall 2014, I registered for my first triathlon -- a half ironman race for the following September 2015. A half ironman race is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike leg, and 13.1 mile run. I had been swimming a lot as cross-training for running and had really come to love being in the pool, and I had the running down, so I figured I was two-thirds of the way there, and if I worked hard for the next several months, I could finish this race as a huge accomplishment.

Spring/Summer 2015

So, I started training. And I trained hard -- twice a day on some days. I would swim multiple times a week, take high-intensity spin classes twice per week, and ran 4-5 days per week, with a long run or two on the weekends. This level of training lasted about 7 months. Amidst all of this, I was working a full-time job, commuting 3-4 hours everyday for work, planning a wedding, taking a nutrition program, and hunting for a house with my now-husband. If you asked me then how I was doing and feeling, I would have told you that I had a lot going on, and I was really busy, but I was doing great and enjoying the everything I had going on.

What I realize now in retrospect was I think I was literally internalizing the stress of these intense several months, and my health eventually paid the price. Ironically, I thought I was doing healthy things for myself. After all, I was exercising (a LOT), and eating super clean (practically all plants!). But what I didn't realize was that I was taking things to a bit of an extreme, at least for me and my body, to a point that my health became compromised. I had dropped even more weight than I had in my previous marathon training cycle (which isn't surprising considering my diet was plants and my workout regiment was insane), and my digestive issues weren't getting any better.

Through all of this intense training my digestive symptoms were still there -- bloating and abdominal distention after eating, and sometimes just all the time, and abnormal bowel movements. I was feeling tired most days, but I figured that was because I was waking up super early every day to get a workout in before work. But in retrospect I think it could also have been fatigue setting in from my dwindling gut health, in combination with under-nourishing, over-working my body physically, and having way too much on my metaphorical plate.

September rolled around and I finished my triathlon. I was thrilled -- what an accomplishment! And boy did I need a break. So I took one. A week. I took one week off and thought that was enough. Hah! I had gotten into these habits of working out each day, and felt a bit lost without it. So I was back on the workout train -- either running, spinning, and/or swimming every day of the week, rarely taking a day off.

Meanwhile, my symptoms persisted. I was moving into our new house, starting a new job, and getting close to our wedding date (which, while wonderful, comes with its own set of stresses). Plus, I physically felt awful every single day and couldn't identify why. I was eating super clean and what I thought was a healthy diet. This went on through the winter and into the spring of 2016.

Late Spring/Summer 2016

I remember going to fittings for my wedding dress and just feeling so horrible. The dress should have fit, but felt so tight around the midsection because of my abdominal distention. I was devastated and worried that on my wedding day, all I would be able to think about was how uncomfortable I felt because of my bloating, and stomach issues.

On June 4, 2016, I got married, and it was the most perfect day. I avoided eating too much knowing that my stomach would "explode," as I had been calling it, but there was not a whole lot of time for eating anyway that day, so it wasn't an issue. I had a great time, I married the love of all of my lifetimes, and I was surrounded by incredible friends and family.

Once the wedding was over, I was relieved that I would have that planning stress off of my plate. One less thing to have to do and worry about. However, even with less stress in my life, my gut issues persisted. And only got worse. I had awful reflux all the time, couldn't eat anything without severe discomfort and my abdomen getting so bloated that all I could wear was extremely baggy tops. I was getting so frustrated and miserable that I finally decided it was time to see a GI specialist.

The first GI doctor I saw, I didn't particularly like. She ordered me some tests as a starting point because she really didn't have a concrete direction for me and my symptoms and how to proceed with making me feel better. These were stool tests testing for ova and parasites. Surprise! I had 2 parasites -- one that is relatively common, I've been told, and the other was one that doctors were asking me what kind of foreign travel I had done lately (none!) because it was so rare. Where I picked up these parasites, I'm not sure. But it was time to treat them.

I had moved onto my second GI doctor in hopes for better care and someone who would listen and respect how I wanted to move forward with treatment, and whose values and philosophies aligned with mine. This doctor prescribed a specific course of antibiotics, so I took them. We re-tested after the antibiotics, and the parasites were successfully eliminated.

However, my symptoms, even after a month or two after the antibiotic treatment, were still present. I will say that they were improved slightly (i.e. the severe reflux was gone), but most of my symptoms were still present. I had been so optimistic that treating this concrete thing (parasites) would help me feel better, but I still felt so sick. So I was discouraged again. When my GI doctor said that I likely just have IBS and should eat according to the FODMAP diet (without giving me any context or prescribed length of time for it, or anything else helpful), I was unwilling to resign myself to having this thing that I had never had before and will just have indefinitely until the end of time.

I wasn't always this way, and I didn't have to be going forward. I wasn't willing to accept that.

I practically had to beg him to test for bacteria in my gut (tests that he deemed "voodoo medicine" -- I kid you not, those were his words), so he ordered a lactulose breath test for me to test for SIBO -- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. When he received the results of this test from the lab, he said the results were negative -- I say this because other doctors who have looked at the results of this test since then have been confused by the results and have even said it looks like a poor test because the control line did not look typical, therefore my negative result wouldn't be certain either way.

So, because he deemed me without SIBO, he recommended I just try the low FODMAP diet (with no guidance to speak of) and hope to feel better. This was not good enough for me. So for the time being, I didn't start the low FODMAP diet, and was on the hunt for my own information and better, more focused and compassionate treatment for cases like mine.

Over the summer, I did my own research based on my symptoms and what I knew about my own symptoms, and thought I might have leaky gut, which is basically hyperpermeability of the lining of the gut, which can be caused by sustained physical and/or mental stress -- both of which I can say I had for a few years on end. It can also be caused by other things like SIBO, eating foods that are inflammatory to the gut such as gluten and dairy (both of which I had been eliminating for years, so that wasn't my issue here), and other triggers. So I reached out to people I thought could help, and gathered as much information as I could.

Using an Instagram friend's advice, I started taking a supplement called GI Revive, which is an herbal supplement made up of things that are intended to soothe, calm, and heal the gut. This made me feel so much better. I was thrilled that finally something seemed to be working. After a while, however, my symptoms would rear their head again, and I felt like I would take several steps back. I believe the temporary relief I felt from the GI Revive was from some of the ingredients soothing my inflammation, but the root cause was still not being addressed.

I also started supplementing with L-Glutamine, an amino acid found in things like animal protein (something I had virtually eliminated from my intake for about 2 years), which is supposed to help with rebuilding the lining of the gut.

I started using collagen in the form of collagen peptides (my go-to being Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides) adding it to my oatmeal, smoothies, and baked goods. Collagen is filled with so many gut-healing properties, including a plethora of amino acids that our tissues are comprised of.

I was taking holy basil leaf to try to aid with stress management, in hopes of getting my stress hormones back in balance (after a sustained period of time with a whole lot of physical and mental stress), which I hoped would help with my symptoms and unexplained rapid weight gain.

I was also taking magnesium powder every night before bed to help with stress hormone regulation, and bowel movement regularity.

I was taking probiotics and eating fermented foods -- because everything I read suggested that incorporating this beneficial bacteria into my system would populate my gut with the good stuff so that the bad stuff couldn't flourish.

I felt like I was doing everything I could given what I was feeling and the little I knew with certainty about my condition.

But still, I felt horrible. I felt like my efforts, for the most part, aside from the occasional good days thanks to some of these things listed above, were futile.

In a lot of ways, I was shooting in the dark and just trying things I thought would be helpful. But I'm not a professional. I'm not a doctor, and I was getting more and more helpless and frustrated. I needed more help and guidance. It was time.

Fall/Winter 2016

So, thankfully my husband found a functional medicine practice that I was able to afford (insurance companies, unfortunately, don't often work with practices like this, but this particular practice had a membership system I was luckily able to work with). I saw the practitioner there for my first visit, and finally felt like these were the people who would be able to guide me through this process in the way I needed and felt most cared for.

Beginning of 2017

We started with a barrage of tests. Tests that I hadn't yet taken. Yes, they tested again for parasites because I had a history, but thankfully those came back negative. I took blood and urine tests that were analyzing the levels of certain vitamins in my system, and stool tests that were testing for all sorts of things, including undigested fats, enzyme levels, and other fun things. Additionally, I had an abdominal ultrasound done.

Here's what these tests were able to tell us:

  • Deficient in Vitamin D and Iron. Also low in B12 and B6.
  • Low levels of Secretory IgA. Here is a definition of Secretory IgA from my test results: it is "the first line of defense of the GI mucosa," and is "the predominant antibody or immune protein in the body that manufactures and releases in external secretors such as saliva and tears. It's also transported through the epithelial cells that line the intestines..."
  • Sub-optimal levels of pancreatic elastase (a digestive enzyme)
  • Low levels of beneficial bacteria
  • Signs of chronic inflammation
  • Potential SIBO (not confirmed because the breath test was inconclusive, but also the low levels of Secretory IgA can sometimes be an indicator of SIBO as well, in addition to the painful under-arm welts I would get when my gut would get super inflamed).
  • Gallbladder sludge (also known as biliary sludge, is basically particulates of cholesterol and bile products that have built up in the gallbladder. It can sometimes be a precursor to gall stones).

So what are we doing with this information? We're finally making changes.

First off, even though I had a SIBO test come back inconclusive, based on my symptoms, we're beginning to treat as if treating for SIBO just to see where we end up. Treating for SIBO is a two-pronged approach: eliminate the source of food for the bacteria to feed on (this is where the low FODMAP stuff comes in...details in the next paragraph), and kill off the bacteria using an anti-microbial treatment (I am going the herbal route).

So, I've been on the low FODMAP diet for about 2 months (+ depending on when you're reading this). What is low FODMAP? Well, it's essentially a way of eating that eliminates certain categories of fermentable carbohydrates (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols). There are things on the list of high FODMAP foods that you're supposed to steer clear of while on this diet that are healthy, amazing, nutrient-rich, whole-foods. So, this is not a diet that is healthy, good-for-you foods versus unhealthy foods. It's simply one that eliminates a certain category of foods (or a few categories), that bacteria like to feed on. The idea is that in removing these foods, the bacteria that has overgrown (good or bad bacteria), will not have a lot of sustenance and will start to die off.

So I've started with this diet and started the herbal anti-microbial treatment called GI Synergy, which is a 6-week treatment. While on this regiment, I am also supposed to avoid probiotics. This is because, while probiotics are designed to add beneficial bacteria to your gut, when you have SIBO, there is an overgrowth in bacteria, and taking a probiotic can actually help that overgrowth to flourish.

To address the gallbladder sludge, which has causing me horrible pain in the upper right abdomen, that wraps around my ribcage and goes all the way to my back between my shoulder blades (I get this pain every few weeks), I'll be taking a few things that are designed to dissipate the sludge and buildup that is currently in there, and also flush the gallbladder. The following are what I'll be trying to remedy the gallbladder sludge:

So this is where I am today. Treating for SIBO and gallbladder sludge.

In terms of exercise, I've changed that up as well. I've significantly cut back on the amount of cardio/high-intensity exercise I'm doing. I am focusing on more gentle movement and strength-building by way of lifting (strength training), swimming, and a once-a-week higher intensity spin class at my favorite studio. This change in exercise (and thereby physical and mental stress that can sometimes come with getting too intense with exercise), will be really important for me in my healing process, and you know what, I've really been enjoying it.

This is an ongoing journey, and I'm working closely with a functional medicine practitioner, dietician, and acupuncturist to figure out what's going on and how to treat it. I hope what I share in these posts are helpful to you, or at least give you some information that you might not have had before. I want to reiterate that I am not a health professional, so I advise you to see a health professional if you feel like you've got issues similar or dissimilar to mine. If you don't feel well, you don't need to suffer, and it can get better. Just be proactive and don't stop until you've got answers and relief. I'm in this with you, and I'm definitely not giving up until I'm feeling 100%.

Symptoms Snapshot:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal Distention
  • Abdominal Discomfort
  • Reflux (burping after eating, and that feeling of regurgitation in the throat)
  • Poorly formed stools
  • Undigested food in stools
  • Fatigue and brain fog
  • Painful welts under in my underarms that would flare up when my gut is particularly inflamed
  • Occasional foul-smelling breath
  • Occasional severe pain in my upper right abdomen that wrapped around my ribcage to the back between my shoulder blades that would last 24-48 hours at a time.
  • Weight gain

I'll be posting updates about my treatment, journey, and how everything is going periodically. 

This post has links to some products I’ve tried and love, so that you can easily find them if you’re also interested. Thanks for reading!