It’s funny - my health and wellness journey began with my own gut issues, but over the last year or so I stopped sharing as much about digestive health, and focused more on general wellness, mindfulness and even have started coaching more around living a fulfilling life (ie career and life coaching).
It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking and teaching on gut health - I do! But I think on a subconscious level as my own symptoms started to come back and worsen, I began to become less confident in my ability to coach around something I clearly hadn’t figured out for myself.
Recently I started sharing more of my own journey (including the foods and healing modalities I’m trying along the way) and the response has been incredible. I get messages on Instagram every day from individuals saying how grateful they are for the recipes and tips I’ve been sharing, as well as words of encouragement.
Lesson for all my coaches READING THIS POST: You don’t have to have mastered, healed or fixed all of your own stuff before you can be of service to others.
The more I shared, the more questions came my way about my history and symptoms, what I’ve tried in the past, what’s worked and what hasn’t. I also had a lovely reader ask (via the community survey I sent out earlier this month!) that I put all my gut healing tips and recipes together in one place.
SO… I’m doing just that.
In a series of blog posts over the next few weeks I’m going to be sharing all about my gut health history and journey thus far.
If there’s something you have a specific question on or would like to see covered in this series, please shoot me a message and I’ll do my best to address it here!
Today we’ll start with how it all began… when and how my digestive issues first came up, and the symptoms I’ve experienced along the way.
How it all started
I always say I’ve had digestive issues my entire adult life, which is true - I can pinpoint the day during my freshman year of college when my symptoms started. Some of you have heard the story, some of you haven’t so I will share it below but there are some other facts I want to bring into this post that may have a part to play in my digestive health history:
I was a super sensitive kid with picky taste. I was the one who always got her feelings hurt, who went home crying more often than the others. I also remember being a little picky about my food - not liking specific foods and eating my meals in a specific way (I didn’t want my food categories to touch and would eat one at a time).
In high school I contracted mono (yup, the kissing disease). This is also when I remember being more aware of my body and my weight. I had always been normal sized, not super skinny but average - then I lost a lot of weight running cross country as a freshman, and subsequently gained a bunch back when I was sidelined from sports because of mono.
High school (my sophomore year) is also when my friends and I started drinking alcohol. We drank anything we could get our hands on, often a combination of spirits siphoned from our parents’ liquor cabinets. This obviously continued into college where alcohol was WAY more available and a big part of undergrad life.
It was during my second semester of college that I had my first intense belly ache (which I’ve since coined l my “stomach attacks”). It had been a stressful semester, I was carrying a full course load and had joined a sorority, so I was partying more than usual. My motto was “work hard, play hard” - I definitely didn’t drink and go out as much as some of my friends, but still it was A LOT. I was also running and working out more. I had gained some weight my first semester (beer and unlimited ice cream at the cafeteria will do that to you) and wanted to lose it.
My mom was visiting and we went to the downtown mall for lunch (I went to college in Charlottesville and this was an outdoor mall with lots of cute shops and nice restaurants, a quick drive or bus ride off campus). We stopped into a deli and I ordered an egg salad sandwich - something a little strange for me as it’s nothing something I would usually get out (I was never a big fan of mayo). I ate it and then my mom dropped me back at my dorm to do a little work before we’d meet up again for dinner.
Back at my dorm I started to feel awful. I was having these intense pains in my stomach, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before - I curled up under my rainbow sheets on my XL twin bed and called my mom crying, not sure what was happening. It was so bad she almost took me to the hospital, but after a little time (and some Tums and Saltine crackers) the pain started to subside.
MY FIRST ATTEMPT AT GETTING HELP
I don’t remember having more of those intense belly aches throughout college, but I also chilled out a bit after freshman year. I do remember feeling like my stomach was sensitive, and I was particular about what I ate (healthy food, I cooked a lot even then!).
It wasn’t always easy for me to go to the bathroom (especially the more specific I got with my food and workout routine) and college is when I first experimented with using laxatives to help my body be more regular.
Fast forward to after graduation when I entered the “real world” as an auditor at a Big 4 Public Accounting Firm. I loved my job, but after my first year it became more and more stressful. Not necessarily because of the work, but because I was a high performer and I took on a lot, and didn’t always know how to ask for help when I was over committed.
I started running a LOT more consistently (ie every day). I got more and more healthy (and also more and more extreme) with my diet, eventually becoming vegetarian and then vegan. I swapped the laxatives for “more natural” fiber supplements.
But despite all I was doing for my body and for my health, I regularly felt bloated and constipated, and pretty soon my stomach attacks started coming back.
I finally decided to see a gastroenterologist at the urging of my mother. He did a routine examine and tested me for the major digestive distress culprits at the time: gluten and lactose intolerance, and I believe Celiac’s as well. Everything came out negative.
The gastroenterologist told me I had IBS (Irritable prescribed me anti-anxiety medication and sent me on my way.
I was 22 at the time. I didn’t think I was anxious (I was). I knew some people who were on anti-anxiety meds and I thought “That isn’t me.”
And it’s true - I’ve learned since then that my anxiety manifests more inwardly (literally IN my organs), versus the frenetic restlessness and lack of focus I saw in others. But at the time I refused to take the drugs and instead decided that I would get to the bottom of whatever was causing my pain on my own.
This interaction also left me with a bad taste in my mouth with Western medicine - it would be almost 10 years before I saw another doctor for my gut health symptoms again.
Over the years, my symptoms have ranged, but here’s a summary of what I’ve experienced. I’m also defining some terms below so that you can start to asses if symptoms you’re experiencing are worth further exploration. For example, I’ve had clients that didn’t realize going to the bathroom only 1x every 3 days wasn’t normal until speaking with me, and after some shifts in their diet and routine they were able to have daily BMs (bowel movements!) and feel so much better.
Pain in abdominal area - As described above, these “stomach attacks” have been a recurring issue for me. Sometimes I’ll have them as often as every day, or every week, sometimes I’ll go weeks or months without having an issue. Usually it feels like sharp, pain on the left side of my abdomen, combined with a sour feeling in my insides and extreme bloating.
Bloating - Bloating is something I’ve dealt with regularly also. This is an interesting symptom to look at because it’s cause can be so many things from eating too quickly, to food intolerances to body image issues (yep, disordered body image can totally result in bloating, or thinking you’re bloated all the time). We’ll dive more into the why of bloating and specific tools to decrease bloat in another post, but for now I simply want to share that this is something I’ve experienced regularly for the last 10+ years. And it sucks because no matter what the rest of you feels like, when your belly is bloated you feel uncomfortable and unattractive.
Constipation - Constipation is defined as “a condition in which there is difficulty in emptying the bowels.” This can mean you go for days without a bowel movement, but you can also be constipated even if you’re pooping every day but you don’t feel like your bowels are fully emptying. Back in college and my earlier 20s, I experienced a lot of traditional constipation. I dealt with this by using laxatives, fiber supplements and drinking a lot of coffee, which helped in the short term but I believe this also contributed to my longer term issues. This is improved now, but there are still a lot of time where I go but it doesn’t feel complete.
Diarrhea - Diarrhea is loose, watery stools, and professionals will say you have diarrhea if you have loose stools three or more times in one day. I usually have a bout of loose stools before one of my stomach attacks.
Rashes - This has been the least frequent of my symptoms, but quite a few times I’ve broken out in strange, hives-like rashes on my back, neck and face. Often (but not always) the skin will reflect what’s going on inside our bodies so rashes, breakouts and acne can be a symptom of gut issues.
Chest and back pain - I’ve had my share of chest and back pain over the years, more recently it’s been mostly in my back on the lower left side. There are a few explanations for this pain: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), caused by stomach acid splashing up into the esophagus, can cause a burning sensation or a tightness under the sternum. In addition, gas occasionally produces intense pain that makes the entire abdomen feel full and tender. This pain can radiate to the back, causing back pain and bloating. Other GI issues can also cause muscle pain. This can happen after straining to have a bowel movement or repeatedly vomiting.
Weight loss, and weight gain - My weight has fluctuated quite a bit over the years. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been “normal” sized - not super skinny but not heavy by any means either. When I first started having digestive issues, I lost a lost of weight and got to a place where I was very, very thin. More recently I’ve gained quite a bit. Both sides of the scale don’t feel good, I’d love to be at a more balanced place with my physical weight and I know this will happen naturally when my gut is also balanced. Weight fluctuations can absolutely be linked to digestive issues for so many reasons - your appetite can increase or decrease depending on other symptoms. In addition, if your microbiome (the billions of bacteria that live in and on your body, especially in your digestive system) is out of whack, this can result in unhealthy weight gain and/or loss.
Anxiety, depression and disordered body image - Alright here’s where we go a little deeper, and where I share some things I haven’t shared very publicly before: over the years I’ve struggled with a disordered body image (especially with my belly), anxiety and depression. Our brains and our guts are intricately connected - there’s so much research being done proving that our guts are in fact our “second brains” and play a huge role in so much more than digestion. The state of our bellies impacts how we feel (energy and emotions) - we get butterflies in our stomach before going on stage or when chatting with someone we have a crush on, we know that sinking feeling in our bellies when we’re about to hear bad news, and it’s like our insides are tied in knots when we have a tough decision to make. On an energetic level, our guts are the center of our beings. It’s where our third chakra is located, and this is the chakra that connects to self confidence and our personal radiance (the third chakra is called manipura which translates to ‘bright jewel’). Sometimes physical digestive issues can be the result of emotional issues such as anxiety, depression and feeling meh in your body, and sometimes it’s the other way around. I’ll be sharing more about the energetic and emotional side of the gut and how I’m working to heal myself on that level, but for now I want you to know that these “symptoms” can in fact be linked back to the gut.
Note: I know you know this BUT I am NOT a doctor. On this blog I share my personal stories, and what has helped me and my clients over the years. If you think you have a serious condition - digestive, mental health, or otherwise - I encourage you to consult a trained professional. Please see my full disclaimer here.
WHAT TO DO
Whew! This post ended up being way longer than I expected, but I hope this provided you with some useful information about my history and symptoms.
Personally, it’s been helpful for me to hear others’ stories and symptoms as it 1) makes me feel less alone 2) dissipates some of the shame we feel around our bodies, especially with our bellies and bowel habits and 3) allows me to more clearly articulate what’s going on in my body. Like I shared about my client who wasn’t going to the bathroom, sometimes it takes hearing another’s story to realize what we’ve been experiencing is not normal, or there’s something we can do to improve our current situation.
In the next post in this series, I’ll be sharing more on what I’ve done over the years to manage my symptoms and get to the bottom of what’s going on with my gut.
Please feel free to message me your questions, or leave them below - as much as writing this series is to be therapeutic for me, I also want it to be interesting and useful for you!
Above all, whatever you’re going through, whatever you’re experiencing I want you to know you’re not alone and there IS HOPE. And even if there is no magic fix, no one diet or supplement that will wash away all of your digestive woes, you can and will feel better.
I believe in you. I believe in me. I believe in the power of our bodies and their desire to heal and function optimally. It may take time, and a lot of experimenting, but there is a better, brighter reality.