My Experience in Healing My Gut: Gut Health Series, Part 1
Updated: Jan 10
One of the main purposes for starting this blog and website was to share my journey to better health with others. Difficult times can become a blessing if we allow them to, and I always felt that if I could even just help one person, it would have all been worth it.
Interestingly, healing my gut was not the most difficult part of getting better. Don't get me wrong, it really wasn't easy, but the diet changes I made helped tremendously. I look back at my issues as having two parts: Ulcerative Colitis and other GI concerns, and mysterious chronic pain which worsened over time. Certainly these two components were related, but at least the Ulcerative Colitis had a label, as well as a clear solution that worked well for me.
Losing Control of My Health
So, here's how it happened. I was having terrible plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis in the summer of 2011, which I thought stemmed from a half marathon that I had run the previous year. Then one day in September of 2011, I was trying to take my kids outside to play and my left foot felt like it gave out in that plantar fascia area. A few days later, the same thing happened to the right foot. Both feet were so inflamed and painful that I could hardly walk. It was all so confusing! Most people I knew with plantar fasciitis were at least able to walk through it, and at that point I could hardly even stand. With two kids, ages 2 and 4 at the time, life became very difficult. I desperately sought help from my doctor and physical therapist. Everything seemed to make it worse, but my doctor recommended trying a high dose of naproxen for 6 weeks. I didn't like the idea, but was desperate and decided to try.
Shortly after, I started getting canker sores. As soon as they healed, I would get new ones. I was also losing weight, even though I was very inactive because of my feet. I did not feel healthy, and tried eating less sugar. By the end of October, I had full on symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis. 10-15 bathroom trips per day, blood in the stool, the whole nine yards. It was pretty horrible and I lost more weight. At one point I remember staring at the wall all day, feeling peaceful with the idea that I may not make it. I know that sounds dramatic, but I just felt like I was withering away. I look back and am pretty certain that although my gut was not in good health going into this, the naproxen was the straw that broke the camel's back. And the worst part was, it literally did nothing to help my feet! Even when I was needing to "run" to the bathroom, I couldn't! I had to quickly slip on very soft shoes and hobble, barely making it in time.
My Primary Care Physician did an excellent job of referring me immediately to a GI doctor, who did a sigmoidoscopy that very day. I was awake for this procedure, and saw every part of it on a big screen. It was painful actually, but seeing the way my insides looked had a big effect on me. The diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis was pretty clear, so the GI doctor sat me down and discussed my options. He was incredibly kind and had wonderful bedside manner, and I was impressed with how quickly he made my diagnosis. He gave me Asacol, which was the preferred anti-inflammatory for Ulcerative Colitis at the time. He also recommended I stop drinking milk, which was at least some recognition that food could have an effect on my gut. But beyond that, the GI doctor was clear that he did not feel diet had a big effect on ulcerative colitis.
Evaluating the Choices in the Path to Healing
The day I was diagnosed, my husband Tim was actually out of town for work. He asked if he should turn around and come back, but I told him to stay since I knew the trip had to happen and it was either then or the next week. He fretted that night, and ended up doing lots of research on the diagnosis and how to manage it. He came across SCD Lifestyle, and got very excited. Reports of people healing their guts with diet alone were very encouraging.
SCD Lifestyle is based off of Elaine Gottschall's book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle. If you visit this link, you'll notice the Legal/Illegal list of foods. This was one of the first things I looked at after Tim told me about the diet. I cried when I saw it! As someone who had recovered from an eating disorder as a teenager and young adult, I could not imagine going back to restricting my diet again. But, I agreed with Tim to try the diet for 1 week and see how it went. I remember eating lots of the chicken soup and weird things for breakfast like salmon filets and burger patties. I would eat chicken soup at 10 am because I was hungry.
The results were pretty remarkable for me, though: 10-15 bloody stools per day down to 3-5, and the blood was all but gone by the end of the week! I was able to tolerate the food I was eating, which was a big deal since nothing I had previously eaten was working for me. Granted, I was also taking the Asacol, so I could not be sure if the diet or the Asacol was helping more, or if it was both. I decided to go gluten free after that week, as well as low lactose dairy only (for me that meant hard cheeses and Greek yogurt). My goal was to continue the Asacol and eventually return to a regular diet. I did OK for the next couple of months, but then started feeling constantly nauseated. The canker sores came back, as well, and I got pretty scared. I went back to the GI doctor and they moved up my already scheduled colonoscopy, as well as added an endoscopy to the procedure. They wanted to rule out Crohn's.
Making the Choice to Embrace a Gut Healing Diet
I experimented with eating no grains or sugar for a full day at a time, and noticed on those days I was not nauseated and had no bloating. Honestly, I was kind of devastated. I had worked so hard to overcome that eating disorder, and I really didn't want to restrict my diet on an ongoing basis! One night I stayed up almost the whole night, thinking and praying about this. I remembered the way my insides had looked, and was certain I could not allow that to happen again. I thought about the Asacol, and how this drug was the one with the least amount of side effects, but because it did not seem to be working well enough, the next step would be a biologic drug with a huge list of serious side effects. I knew I did not want this, especially with the knowledge that it was a seemingly harmless drug (naproxen) that was the tipping point to ulcerative colitis for me.
The next morning, I knew in my gut (literally, I guess) that I had to commit to the diet change. I told Tim, and he fully supported it. I made more chicken soup with bone broth, and stocked the kitchen with SCD friendly foods including only cooked vegetables. The nausea stopped, literally within days, and I felt much better!
About 2 weeks later, I had my endoscopy and colonoscopy. I told my GI doctor beforehand that I had started SCD and was feeling a fair amount better. He was not unsupportive, but advised me not to stop taking the Asacol. However, the results of the procedures were remarkable: Only two spots of inflammation in my colon! They were able to rule out Crohn's as well. I remembered the way my colon initially looked when the sigmoidoscopy was done to diagnose the ulcerative colitis, and resolved to continue SCD.
The healing felt pretty slow at times, and was not a straight path. I remember about 2-3 months in, I suddenly stopped being able to tolerate basic things like eggs, almond flour and avocados. I panicked and wrote to Jordan and Steve at SCD Lifestyle. They assured me that many people experienced this, and that likely my body was trying to achieve the next level of healing. They were correct, and I moved out of that phase within a couple of months. I continued on and by 8 months in, I was able to eat raw fruits and vegetables again, and eventually was able add eggs back in! This was a big milestone for me, and marked my ability to eat more of a paleo diet.
I'd like to say I never looked back, but that would not be the truth. I was committed to SCD, but would cheat a fair amount with things like gluten free cupcakes and chocolate. Every time I would regret it, because I just wouldn't feel well. I would feel resentful of not being able to eat some of my favorite foods, like pizza. The hardest was actually coffee! I really, really missed my lattes. In all honesty, I would say it took about 6 months of many ups and downs to really start embracing SCD, and about 1 1/2 years to stop cheating. I remember one day about 1 1/2 years in, eating a gluten free cupcake from my favorite cupcake shop in Seattle, WA. About 2 bites in, I realized I was not enjoying it because it was way too sweet! I actually forced myself to finish it, and from that time on, it wasn't so difficult anymore.
Did It Cause That Eating Disorder to Return?
Now here's another remarkable thing that happened during this time: all remnants of that past eating disorder actually disappeared. This was the opposite of what I had expected, actually! Most people will affirm, when you've been through an eating disorder, it never really quite leaves you. You're always having those thinking patterns, and it's a choice not to act on them. But when I started eating real, whole and healing foods, food became my friend, and no longer the enemy! There are so many reasons I feel that God and my faith were so present in this journey. This was just one of many victories I had because of my season of illness.
I will be sharing more specifics on how I, personally, did the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, things to keep in mind, what worked and what didn't. I also will be sharing about why diet alone may not fix every issue, as this was certainly true for me. The diet may have fixed my gut, but the chronic pain continued to worsen over time, so that is a whole other part of my story. However, good nutrition is really the foundation of health, and I believe that healing cannot truly be achieved without this good foundation. There is no way I could have focused on solving the chronic pain in the coming years, had the ulcerative colitis remained out of control.
Have you ever tried SCD, paleo, keto, or another alternative diet? Have you considered it? If so, what are your concerns or fears about it?