10 days ago, I sat in my doctor’s office trying to process the mass amounts of information being thrown my way as she told me what the next 3 months would look like in order to properly heal my gut for the first time in my life. I experienced a whirlwind of emotions: excitement, nervousness, relief, fear, motivation, a bit of dread, and determination. The next few months are going to be a journey, and while gut health is becoming a trending topic, there is still SO much to be learned, and remains a topic that we don’t talk enough about.
Gut issues are becoming more and more prominent in our society, so in an effort to bring awareness to the topic and provide a direction for others who may be struggling with similar issues, I am sharing my story with you – as unglamorous as it may be.
*Disclosure: I am not a doctor. This post is not intended to help you diagnose yourself, but merely shed some light on gut health and potential problems. If any of this resonates with you, please go see your doc to get a medical professional involved. I tried to manage this on my own for years, and could have spared myself years of discomfort if I’d gone to a trusted professional sooner. If you’re not sure where to turn, search for gastroenterologists in your area, or if you prefer to try the more alternative methods first, seek a naturopath who specializes in gut health.
A brief history of where I am starting this journey from – I have struggled with my digestive system my entire life. I have dealt with food allergies since I was 5 years old. I traveled extensively as a young child all over the world, and throughout my childhood years I developed viruses, parasitic infections, and bacterial issues that I had to fight through. I would treat issues as they arose, but I never felt truly GREAT.
As an adult, I’ve struggled with bloating, fatigue, anxiety, brain fog, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, abdominal pain/distention, achlorhydria, and nutrient deficiencies. I’ve felt frustrated for years because I do almost everything “right”:
- I eat primarily meat, vegetables, fruits, gluten-free whole grains (I have Celiac Disease), and high quality dairy in small amounts
- I exercise 5-6 days per week and get a lot of daily low-intensity movement through walking
- I sleep 7-9 hours every night
- I practice stress reduction techniques daily and have a nighttime routine to help myself wind down at night
And still, I suffer on a daily basis with my GI system.
A few weeks ago, I decided enough was enough, and I forked over the money to do some extensive testing to figure out what is going on with my body, because even though I’m doing all the right things, my health is clearly not in check the way that it should be. Here are the tests I got done:
- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth test (aka SIBO – learn more here)
- GI immune function markers (did you know that a HUGE part of our immune system lives in our guts?!)
- Pancreatic & gallbladder function (these both release enzymes to break down our food)
- Parasitic test
- Bacterial tests
- H. Pylori
- Candida/fungus test
There are several comprehensive tests you can do if you are looking for an overall microbiome check. My doctor chose specific tests based on my symptoms, and I added on a few speciality ones as a way to ensure the whole gamut was accounted for. The goal here was to gather a comprehensive set of results so my doctor and I could come up with a course of action to begin the steps necessary to regain my health. Truthfully, my biggest fear was that everything would come back negative, and all the time, energy, and money would have been for nothing and I still wouldn’t have any answers.
In hindsight, the fear was unnecessary. When I got the test results back, the results were anything but inconclusive.
Our GI systems are incredibly complex, and we’re learning more everyday about just how much our gut health is tied to our overall health and wellbeing.
Wellness coaches are tuned into this, and there are so many health coaches out there now claiming that they are “experts” at healing the gut with lifestyle management. Yes, lifestyle can make a difference in your GI health, but I am living proof that this concept is not all-inclusive. Sometimes you need to stop listening to the Instagram experts and go to a real doctor. I’m so glad that I did because I’m finally getting answers. My test results came back with the following issues:
- Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, which basically means that my pancreas barely functions, so it does not release the proper enzymes to digest food.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), which is an autoimmune disease of the GI system. I always thought I just had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is still inhibitive, but not autoimmune. You can read about the differences here.
- Candida, which is a fungal overgrowth of the GI system. Candida feed off of sugars, so as someone who eats a moderate carb diet, I’ve been feeding this overgrowth unintentionally. Candida also promotes inflammation in the gut, contributing to GI symptoms.
- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO): I’ve had this before, and treated it, but never retested after treatment (big mistake!). SIBO wreaks havoc on the digestive system.
- Parasitic infection: everyone has parasites (creepy, but true). However, when you accumulate too many parasites, it can cause GI distress.
Whew! It’s a whirlwind, but also clear and definitive. Taken together, these diagnoses make a lot of sense, which I’ll get into next. It’s no wonder that even working hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I can’t completely fight all the mess going on in my gut.
HOW THE HECK DO YOU INTERPRET THIS?
I felt a bit of a shock when I first heard all 5 of these problems laid out in front of me, thinking I would have to be on five different protocols and that each was an individual problem I needed to address. In reality, these issues all intertwine, and this showcases the importance of having a good doctor who can look past just a diagnosis and see you as a whole human. This mindset has allowed us to piece together the real picture and learn more about how my body is currently functioning.
First, let’s talk about IBD. This is an autoimmune condition of the GI system. A little bit about autoimmune conditions – there are a wide range of autoimmune diseases out in the world. An autoimmune issue essentially means that your body views itself as pathogenic, and attacks itself. So, people with an autoimmune disease experience their immune systems attacking their own healthy tissue. Our bodies are amazing – when the immune system spots something foreign or pathogenic in the body, it sends fighter cells to destroy it to prevent illness. When the body begins doing this to its own healthy tissue, however, this becomes problematic.
As someone who already has Celiac Disease, which is an autoimmune disease as well, my gut’s immune system is already weakened.. Add IBD to the mix, and my GI system is quite susceptible to other illness and pathogens. This is likely how I developed parasitic infections and candida. We all have small amounts of those in our systems, but it often takes a weakened immune system in order for those to become overgrown.
SIBO + PANCREATIC FUNCTION
This is a really interesting cycle that I don’t believe a lot of people know about. With the increasing prevalence of SIBO, I think it’s important to explain. It’s also good to note that SIBO is not a disease that arises on its own, but rather can be viewed as more of a symptom of a bigger issue (more on this to come shortly).
Interestingly, the lifecycle of these issues begins with the achlorhydria I mentioned at the beginning. Achlorhydria refers to the body’s inability to produce hydrochloric acid, a necessary acid to break down food in the digestive system. Interestingly, one of the main causes of achlorhydria is hypothyroidism, which is a diagnosis I used to hold. My thyroid levels were just under normal around 5 years ago, and I was able to get them into the normal range through lifestyle alterations. This is why you see a lot of gut issues in women with thyroid disease. I’ll be retesting my thyroid to see if that is the root cause, especially as hypothyroidism runs in my family.
Achlorhydria is directly related to pancreatic function. When you eat, a healthy body begins releasing hydrochloric acid to help break down that food. As your digestive system becomes more acidic, the pH change triggers the pancreas to release enzymes necessary to continue the digestion process.
So here’s how this can go wrong, and what is most likely happening to me: without proper amounts of hydrochloric acid to break down food, the pancreas never receives the signal to create the appropriate enzymes. Therefore, food is left partially digested or undigested in the GI tract.
Pancreatic insufficiency is also tied to problems with gut motility (aka, the body’s mechanism of moving digested food through the intestines). So, food remains undigested, and then isn’t moving through the GI tract at the rate it should. This is a perfect scenario for food to ferment in the colon and bacteria to colonize. And thus, you end up with bacterial overgrowth, aka SIBO.
With all of this facing me, I created a plan of attack with my doctor and am so optimistic about how we’re going to start chipping away at these issues. I started a new protocol this week, which is a combination of dietary shifts, lifestyle modifications, supplementation, and medications. While I completely believe in the natural way to heal things, and rarely take prescription medications, I also believe there is a time and place for modern medicine, and that this combination is going to be the most effective method for me.
Be on the lookout for part 2 of my journey. I’ll be sharing more about my protocol implementation and how I’m making it work given the amount of change I am going through to begin the healing process!
I encourage you to read through some of the references if you’re experiencing a lot of GI discomfort, as it could help lead to some answers. Feel free to drop questions below!