A couple weeks ago I mentioned on social media that we are all on our own health journey, and the pursuit of health can be a continuous process. This is especially true if you are interested in health and believe in the power of food to help, heal and allow you to thrive.
I came to the field of nutrition with an interest in performance, knowing very well that what we put in our bodies makes a difference in athletic success and general well-being. I came to the sphere of “paleo” out of frustration that the standard nutrition recommendations didn’t seem to be getting people where they should be given the effort they put in. Many ancestral “experts” venture to this lifestyle from their own health crisis, looking for relief from years of unwell-ness. For me, it was more of a “this just makes too much sense” ah-ha moment.
I’ve been eating a paleo/primal “diet” for many years now, and I’ve noticed enormous benefit with regard to energy, sleep, skin clarity, GI issues and a greater appreciation for the sustainability of real food. However, there’s more to my story. There’s more healing that needs to take place. Now, like my many mentors, it’s time to dig deeper for more personal answers. Sometimes, it’s easier to help others than it is to help ourselves.
My continued woes are GI related and they stem back to my college days. As a gymnast, my schedule consisted of morning classes and afternoon training (maybe an evening class to follow) – very consistent for five years. Consistent was also the pain and discomfort I dealt with on a daily basis. The morning usually started out just fine, but as the hours went on, so did the bloating, distention and stomachaches – sometimes leaving me sidelined at practice. This happened day-in and day-out. I saw some doctors, but received the typical responses of “try cutting out dairy” (which didn’t help), maybe it’s “IBS,” and it could “just be stress.” So, I learned to live with it.
When you learn to live with something it can mean that you stop looking for a resolution and forget that you could feel so much better. Following a paleo framework reminded me of this, as I did experience some relief in terms of severity and frequency of symptoms. But, again, I started to “live with” the improvement. Unfortunately, eliminating grains, legumes and processed foods hasn’t “cured” my ailment. Neither have 30 day eliminations of coffee, dairy or chocolate. And while I think some of these foods have a negative effect on MY body, it doesn’t appear to be one of these foods alone that is the sole culprit.
As a nutritionist, I read, listen to and discuss A LOT of content about food and health. It’s my passion. The more I learned about SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) in an effort to better understand the fascinating new discoveries of gut health and our micro-biome, the more I thought, “gee that sounds an awful lot like what I’ve been dealing with all these years.” It was time to stop “living with it” and look at resolution.
I found a great naturopath, luckily with similar beliefs. I’m not looking for a band-aid, or a pill to numb the symptoms. The symptoms are there due to an underlying cause and it’s that cause that I would like to find and manage. This is her philosophy as well. Without mentioning to her that I thought I might have SIBO, and after hours discussing my history, she suggested a SIBO test, a look at yeast overgrowth and some other food intolerance testing. YES! I left her office feeling cared for and that I had a partner-in-crime to help me solve this mystery.
But, what the heck is “SIBO”? According to one of the prominent specialists, Dr. Allison Siebecker, it’s “a chronic bacterial infection of the small intestine. The infection is of bacteria that normally live in the gastrointestinal tract but have abnormally overgrown in a location not meant for so many bacteria.” Such bacteria interrupt healthy absorption and digestion of food and thus can lead to nutritional deficiencies, leaky-gut, food intolerances, auto-immune conditions, neurological issues and the symptoms I’ve experienced for years.
There’s not a perfect test for SIBO yet (although better testing is on the forefront), and you better believe that my science-minded husband questioned the validity of the test I was instructed to use;-) Scopes on either end don’t reach the area under question, and urine and stool tests often give indication of issues further along in the digestive tract. So, without surgery, the test often used today is the Hydrogen Breath Test. (You can learn more HERE if interested). Mine came back positive. The “diagnosis” was a relief in that I had some sort of direction to pursue now, but I know SIBO can be tricky to treat and find the cause of, thus a “quick fix” was not in store for me.
As I wait to hear on more testing, I’m following a strict herbal antibiotic protocol and diet. You think “paleo” is limiting? Well, it comparison to what the average American eats today, it is. However, this combination of a low FODMAP, GAPS-similar (Gut and Psychology Syndrome), SCD (specific carbohydrate), SIBO diet takes restriction to a new level. To my list of eliminated grains, legumes and processed foods, I’ve added coffee (yes, that’s right – I’m off coffee!), “safe starches,” dairy, CHOCOLATE, processed meats, nuts and seeds (at first), and am allowed a very short list of fruits and vegetables with limited quantities. All foods are supposed to be prepared at home, beginning with all fruits and vegetables in a cooked an pureed form. I actually don’t always obey the pureed recommendation, but I do make sure my few veggies and fruits are well cooked.
Is it worth it? Maybe not to some. And honestly, there have been a few times when I have questioned if it’s worth it for me. It’s one thing to believe in the power of healing through food, but it’s another to live it. My answer: YES, I think it’s worth it. Even in just the two short weeks that I’ve been on this protocol (longer for the diet), I no longer feel 5 months pregnant by the end of the day!! That’s huge. I also haven’t experienced any stomach pain. Most days I have absolutely no bloating. Has it been perfect, no. Every now and then I have minor symptoms, so I’m trying to pay attention to any foods or lifestyle factors that may bring them on. Including “stress.”
The doctor I saw back in college that mentioned “stress” may have been partially right. Stress can actually cause, or contribute to SIBO as it can disrupt the normal digestive process and lead to bacterial overgrowth. I don’t consider myself a stressful person, but I do consider myself a bit of a perfectionist and one who holds “tension” in my gut. I can feel it! And when it’s there, my digestion suffers. If one is successful at getting SIBO bugs to go back to where they belong, it is very common for reoccurrence to happen if the underlying cause is not addressed. One of my underlying causes could be related to stress, so this is something that I need to work on.
Even reducing general tension around meal time and better preparing my body for food is key. “Rest and digest” is something a lot of us ignore the importance of, but it’s the very first step in properly digesting and absorbing the nutrition you put in your body. I’ve naturally gotten better at this in the last few weeks, as my meals need to be spaced well apart (at least 4 – 5 hours), and I have to take my herbal antibiotics at least 30 minutes before eating, and 2 hours after eating. Needless to say, more planning and thought needs to go into what and when I’m putting in me.
This post is not meant to be a detailed description of SIBO or my current prescription, but I thought it would be helpful for a few reasons.
1. I’m not perfect. I’m a nutritionist and I love helping others gain an appreciation for the importance of real food and how food can effect how they feel. While I feel I do a good job providing nourishing food for myself and my family, our ways evolve and improve just as my clients’ do.
2. I’ve further tweaked how I look at food. My husband and kids haven’t changed their ways with me (nor should they). So I’m surrounded by foods that I love, but need to avoid right now (starting with the smell and ritual of coffee in the morning and finishing with a small square of 80% dark chocolate in the evening). Paleo cookies are being made in the house, raw cheddar is being sliced for burger night, and I’m packing school lunches that I can’t sample. I also can’t snack on raw veggies as I chop and prep them. But, it’s just food! Food is meant to nourish us and provide our bodies with the nutrients we need to be healthy. And I feel so much better with the foods I am focused on right now. The emotional enjoyment or comfort we find in food can also be found elsewhere.
3. As with any real food approach, my current SIBO protocol is very manageable with a little PLANNING and PREP! And when I have a game-plan, the food is delicious!
4. There are a lot of ways to eat “paleo.” The general framework is a great place to start when interested in getting back to a real foods way of eating. But, it’s not always enough to solve everyone’s issues. Digging deeper into what works for YOU is important.
5. We are learning more everyday about how the body works and how it is influenced by what we feed ourselves. Years ago, during my original look into the symptoms I had, doctors didn’t really know much or anything about SIBO. And so much more is on the horizon in terms of the relationship we have with the bacteria that we share this space with.
In the post to come, I will share more about how I felt during my adjustment phase, how I’m feeling and what my prognosis looks like in the next many weeks. I will also discuss what I have been eating, some delicious dishes and how I’ve dealt with social engagements.
For now let’s hope those bugs are moving back to where they should be!