I’ve been talking about, ruminating over and writing about my gut health journey. I’d experienced adrenal fatigue without knowing it, been “dealing with” (aka ignoring) bloating issues, constipation and pain in my gut for over a year, and recently began suffering from anxiety as what I believe to be a product of the aforementioned things going on in my gut. It wasn’t until the anxiety worsened that I knew something needed to change.
In the beginning stages of my quest to find better gut health, several practitioners said things like “fodmaps are bad,” I’d read that “fruits cause constipation,” “fats are important ” and “fats are bad.” Thus, I lived in great fear around random foods like mushrooms or onion for a while.* In order to combat the food anxiety, the discomfort and the quest for knowledge, I needed a strong mental game.
What I was about to tackle– the highs and lows, the confusion and more– was going to be mentally taxing, emotionally draining and very frustrating. I knew about this grim road already, after having two doctors tell me I was “fine.” After years of “dealing with it,” by last August my mental power and my sanity, was waning. I’d experienced some of the things listed in Part I, and mood swings on top of that. Before I could shift my diet, or rather, in order to shift my diet, my mindset had to shift first.
I’m going to walk you through some things I purposefully changed in my perspective to get through this journey and onto better gut health.
***Disclaimer, I’m still on that journey! There are highs and lows everyday; rereading this actually helpful for myself!
You have to be willing to do whatever it takes
When it comes to doing “whatever it takes,” this can mean starting over a million times, if need be. If you’ve had gut health issues, you know that it’s very hard to pinpoint the exact problem or problems; on top of that, there’s numerous strategies to employ for whatever it is you *think* you have.
For instance, before I found my amazing Functional Nutritionist, my gastroenterologist had me try a Low-Fod Map Diet. IT SUCKED! I couldn’t eat any of the things I loved and regardless of what I took out; (for the record you take out like 100 things a week, then 100 different things another week). After six weeks of trying, I still felt bloated and looked 6 months pregnant. But I sure as hell gave it six weeks of my life in attempts to eliminate what could be causing my strife.
After futile fod-map diet attempts, it was simply “eat what you think sounds good;” but due to a serious antibiotic that shifted my microbiome, all I craved was fruit, and sugar. The cravings were compounded by adrenal fatigue I didn’t know I was experiencing and I could literally never feel full.
Eating copious amounts of food led to weight gain (frustrating), feeling tired left me unmotivated, but still, each day I had to commit to choose the right foods and seek answers. In my case, finding the “correct” path meant working with a functional nutritionist who can prescribe the right supplements for me. Working with her meant phone calls and meetings during the week, purchasing certain supplements and resting as much as possible. Looking back it seems like a lot of effort, but I got through it because I was willing and ready to do whatever it would take.
You have to be willing to fully attack a strategy, even if it might not work. I hate that I wasted time on various low-fodmap plans, avoiding carbs, avoiding sugar, and spent thousands of dollars on doctors who didn’t help to still not feel well, but that was part of the journey.
No matter how many doctors, naturopaths or professionals it takes, remember, your health is the most important. Whether it takes one doctor or seven, be willing to give your all for your health and DONT GIVE UP.
There’s no finish line
As a bodybuilder, I’d set a competition date 12 to 16 weeks out and work on losing fat for a period of weeks. By the time the deadline rolled around I’d be ready to compete, the journey was over.
As a powerlifter, I’d program my workouts to get me to a certain strength level by a certain date, compete, then the journey was over.
My gut health journey has made me realize that to be healthy, to feel optimal, it takes paying rent ever day. I pay my dues and invest in my health every minute of every day, in fact. The finish line is kind of the past and present combined.
If I’ve made the right choices, I feel good “now” most of the time. If I want to continue to feel as healthy as possible, I have to repeatedly make the best choices with rest, sleep and lifestyle situations. There’s no set time when you achieve “health.”
Positive vibes and negative ones come in waves. Each time you eat, sleep, exercise or smile, you are investing in your future. I look to the future as a flowing existence where my baseline is greater there, than it is now. You work knowing that it might take another year of two weeks, but you commit unrelentingly.
Food is fuel, and medicine, and poision
In high school I became calorie-aware. I began exercising more, and with the exception of my love for brownies and cookies, I tried to eat the best foods I could. College inspired a paleo lifestyle, a vegan lifestyle and everything in-between. After I finished college, I stopped with the crazy diets and focused on what’s been proven over and over again: calorie counting.
In that vein, I began flexible dieting. Lucky for me, I was raised to expect vegetables on my plate — so no, I wan’t eating pop tarts and protein powder daily (only sometimes!). At least once a day and I knew well enough that micronutrients make me feel more alive.
However, in the depths of competing, I lost sight of that, choosing egg whites, turkey or portion bars of healthy veggies in the few weeks leading up to the competition(s). A calorie is a calorie, right?
Not when you have a dire need for micronutrients and are trying to heal your gut lining. Little by little the amount of sweeteners I consumed added up and a shift occurred in my gut, or my microbiome (the flora and living microorganisms in my intestines). In the short term, sweeteners and processed foods would cause bad gas, which I’d ignore, chronic constipation, which I’d also ignore (re-read Part 1), and eventually such a shift occurred that my immunity was low, I began feeling anxious, and was chronically fatigued.
In order to fix the slew of problems I faced, I began to look at foods as helpful or harmful. For instance, I began finding celery juice in the morning to be more energizing than coffee! I also found that it decreased abdominal inflammation. Medical food (a protein type of powder with amino acids and vitamins and more) prescribed by my practitioner became a daily snack, and slowly but surely I began feeling full!
When it came to my mood throughout the day, the brain fog I’d been suffering, combined with fatigue made it hard to do work and other activities. To try to heal, get nutrients and be a contributing member of society, I began eating upwards of 2,500 calories. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous about this. I didn’t like my clothes getting tighter, but I was encouraged to fuel my body. And if you remember what I mentioned above, I was committing to doing whatever it takes!
Quitting sweetener in coffee? OK.
Going to bed at 8 p.m.? OK.
Omitting hard alcohol? OK.
Limiting some fruits, and all protein bars? I guess!
It took a huge shift in my perspective to see a food as something that would harm my gut flora I was working to rebuild. It took determination everytime I wanted an energy drink or second coffee to realize I’d only suffer more anxiety or an energy crash, to hold back. Then I’d try to fill my apartment with snacks, supplements and drinks (all in Part 5) that would soothe my body, fuel my mind and help me accomplish daily tasks.
Focusing on how food could help me, not just about what calories it contained, was a HUGE shift for me. Will I go back to watching my calories? Sure, at this point I am starting to get back to that, as I feel much better. However, I still approach food with this mindset of asking myself, “How can this food help me?” Or, “Will this food detract from my overall health?”
Something is broken inside me
For a while I wanted to cry and place blame, (including myself) for having a puffy tummy, for not being able to lose weight/for gaining weight rapidly, for not being able to go to the bathroom. I had the “poor me” attitude (and sometimes I fall back into tit if I’m being honest!) but working to remind myself that I have something awry inside me, reminds me to take a step back and think of the ways I can heal my body. And to heal, I have to reduce stress, eat variety in my diet, take the right supplements and give myself time to heal without judgement of what I look like in the short term, because, something is broken.
Try not to take whatever is going on inside your body personally. Look at it objectively and commit to healing, unrelentingly. It’s easy to get frustrated when you have a tummy flare-up, a pain, or brain fog happen while on the way to healing; remember that things take time to heal, and something is broken. Even bones don’t heal over night. Be patient.
I created some questions you can actively ask yourself each day before a meal to make sure you are fueling your body and actively if something that may be broken:
-Is this food is going to give me energy to live?
Does this food have ___ property that I need to heal the lining of my gut, repair my muscles, improve my mood, boost my digestion, soothe my anxiety, help my sleep etc?
Does this food have what I need right now in this moment regardless of what macro it is?
What other colors can I have today to make my diet full of variety?
The Chicken or the Egg
An age old question: what came first? In the beginning of this piece I mention that while on my gut journey, I experienced anxiety for the first time, ever. This article and others explain in great detail the dual pathway between the gut and the brain, drawing a conection to mood disorders, mood swings and metal issues when something in the gut goes awry. However, if something is causing mental stress, (like work, or a relationship, lack of sleep etc), it can read havoc on your gut, and the cycle continues.
In my case, I spent months trying to figure out what came first. It’s no secret that I have a TON on my plate (we all do!). But, I thought, it must be something in my stomach causing this (The antibiotics I took! The sweeteners! The gluten intolerance!).
What I wish I’d realized sooner is that the stress I self-inflicted by trying to blame something, was causing harm. My anxiety around food wasn’t helping the more traditional anxiety I was having for the first time ever, either. The early morning wake-ups were not helping my brain fog.
For a successful journey, you must not belabor this question, because the truth is, you will never know. The other truth? It ebbs and flows! Just like a food could disrupt your gut over time, good days and bad days will make for a wild ride. The goal should be to try to have more positive minded days than negative ones.
I hope that Part 1 of My Gut Health Journey inspired you to take stock of your health. I hope that Part II gives you some perspectives from which you can draw on as you go through your health journey, whatever struggles you may be facing. If you are working on gut healing yourself, I am here for you! I’m not a licensed professional but I have people whom I can refer you to!
Try to get the help you need and know that you are not alone. In Part III, I will discuss what exactly went wrong, in brief. Part IV will then go on to tell the steps I’ve taken up until this point, and the steps I take will continue to take to ensure for better gut health in the future.
As always, reach out if you have any questions! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
***If you are dealing with food anxiety and are not suffering any illnesses, feel free to try our FREE Food Anxiety Week-long challenge, email me for details, (you can do the week-long challenge anytime!).