Digestive Health and Healing: My Story (Part II)

In Part I, I talked about the nightmare I went through with my digestive health in my early 20s. Now for the fun stuff! Below are tips, tricks, and suggestions that helped my gut heal and flourish.

Keep in mind that I started feeling better before I implemented these lifestyle changes. Shortly after my nausea subsided, I decided to become as healthy as possible so I could fight back against the chronic illnesses that made my life miserable for so long. In order to gain back the weight I had lost in a healthy manner, I changed my diet, my exercise routine, and several other aspects of my life. I truly believe the reason my health and weight have been stable for almost two years now is because of these changes and my holistic approach to self-care and medicine.

FOOD

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It took awhile to figure out how to eat after I started healing. As a gastroparesis patient, my doctors advised me to stay away from fruits and veggies for years. I basically lived off crackers, potato chips, and processed foods. However, I knew I needed to start eating real food. Over time, I trashed everything in my pantry and fridge that contained gluten, dairy, genetically modified oils, and artificial sweeteners. Then, I filled my kitchen with organic sweet potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, zucchini, mushrooms, carrots, kale, and butternut squash. To my surprise, my body didn't revolt after I started eating real food. In fact, I had way more energy. I felt great. The last major step of my diet overhaul was to replace the soda in my fridge with cold-pressed juice and kombucha. The only beverage my stomach would tolerate for months was soda, so this was a big victory for me.

Changing my diet made a huge impact on my life. When I started eating real, organic food, I immediately felt like a new person. When I think about how vitamin deficient I must have been in my early 20s, it honestly scares me. My doctors always told me to stick to bland, processed foods, like crackers and toast...but they never talked to me about the importance of nutrition. After filling my diet with veggies for a few weeks, I started adding chicken and fish to my meals. I also slowly incorporated quinoa and brown rice. After that, I experimented with healthy fats (nuts, avocados, and eggs). My stomach tolerated everything, as long as I ate small portions. Since then, I've never looked back.

FOODS THAT CAUSE INFLAMMATION

  • Red meat
  • Dairy
  • Vegetable oil
  • Fried food
  • Artificial Sweeteners (aspartame, splenda, equal, sweet 'n low, etc.)
  • Soda
  • Refined flour (white bread, pastries)

FOODS/SPICES THAT COMBAT INFLAMMATION

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  • Turmeric: I sprinkle turmeric and nutritional yeast on mushrooms, cauliflower, and broccoli before I roast them. Turmeric is a strong antioxidant, boosts cognitive function, and supports heart health.
  • Cinnamon: I sprinkle cinnamon on sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and carrots before I roast them. Cinnamon reduces the risk of heart disease and blocks abnormal cell growth, which can protect against cancer.
  • Coconut oil: I use this for everything. I scramble my eggs in it, roast veggies with it, and bake with it. Not only does coconut oil combat inflammation, it also supports heart health, aids digestion, boosts cognitive function, and supports the body's natural hormone production.
  • Nuts: Hella nutritious and loaded with antioxidants/vitamins/minerals, nuts are a perfect snack. They support heart health, and they're high in fiber. Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts and pistachios are great options.
  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna): Fatty fish have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for optimal brain and body function. Fish is one of the best foods you can eat for a healthy heart and is linked to a reduced risk of autoimmune disease.
  • Dark, leafy greens (spinach, kale): Dark, leafy greens support heart health, are a great source of folate and fiber, and help purify your blood.
  • Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut is fantastic for your gut. It's filled with probiotics that help prevent against leaky gut syndrome and other digestive issues, and it helps protect against food allergies and autoimmune disease. 
  • Dark chocolate: Praise the universe, because I'm addicted to dark chocolate. It reduces inflammation, promotes heart health, and boosts cognitive function. Make sure to choose a cacao percentage that's greater than 70%.

MEAL IDEAS

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BREAKFAST: Overnight oats, granola with almond milk or dairy-free yogurt, scrambled eggs, a bar (RXBAR, LARABAR, or MacroBar), gluten-free/sprouted toast with almond butter and honey

LUNCH: Avocado toast (topped with hummus and/or an egg), roasted veggies, tuna/avocado salad, a hearty salad

DINNER: Cauliflower rice stir fry (made with egg, liquid aminos, garlic, ginger, and whatever veggies you desire), fish/chicken with quinoa/rice and veggies, "pasta" with butternut squash noodles/zoodles and tomato sauce

DESSERT: Paleo fudge brownies, no bake peanut butter bars, cashew honey cookies, Hail Merry cups

SNACKS: Simple Mills crackers with hummus/bean dip, nuts, Siete tortilla chips, roasted veggies, a spoonful of nut butter, organic popcorn

SUGAR

There's sugar in almost everything. It's actually kind of scary. Crackers, bread, pasta, potato chips, beef jerky, things that aren't even sweet...they all have sugar in them. Even heathy staples, like fruits and vegetables, contain a ton of natural sugar. For people with SIBO, it's important to reduce your overall sugar intake (even natural sugars and sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and dates). Sugars and starches feed bacteria in the gut and intensify symptoms. But for people who don't suffer from SIBO, you should primarily avoid ADDED SUGARS. According to the American Heart Association, women should only consume 25 grams of sugar each day, and men should only consume 37 grams. Once I started limiting how much sugar I was consuming, my skin cleared up, I felt less bloated, and I had more energy.

EXERCISE

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I used to tell people I was allergic to exercise. Cardio always made my legs red and itchy, so I avoided it for years. My doctors also forbid exercise when I was sick because I was too underweight. However, after I changed my diet around and reached a healthy weight, I wanted to make exercise a regular part of my routine. Exercise improves digestion, protects and strengthens the GI tract, and acts as a natural stress reliever. I started out with yoga and took a few studio classes. I also discovered a few sequences and routines I could do from home. Simply stretching out my body soothed my stomach and mentally refreshed me. After that, I joined a local gym. For the past few months, I've been doing cardio 3x a week (for about 40 minutes) along with some light weight training. The gym has become my happy place.

Something important to remember is that we're all different. What works for me might not work for you. Jogging and the elliptical are my go-to cardio routines at the gym, but you might benefit more from swimming or cycling. Figuring out what kind of exercise you genuinely enjoy is key. You want the gym to feel like a positive place, not a prison. 

SELF-CARE

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I know, I know....everyone is crazy about "self-care" now. It's truly so important to tend to your mind and body, though. What exactly is self-care? It's defined as identifying and meeting your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. Self-care is an active choice. You have to schedule it in your calendar just like you would a coffee date or a work meeting. And just like everything else in life, self-care is different for everyone. For me, self-care means getting a massage every few months, carving out time in my schedule to read, prepping delicious meals and desserts so I can properly nourish my body, getting enough sleep, taking care of my skin, and working out. Why is self-care important? It relieves stress. And stress can wreak havoc on your body. Stress promotes disease, weakens your immune system, negatively impacts digestion, and can physically damage your heart. When I'm stressed or anxious, I feel like my stomach is in a knot. So for me, self-care and mind/body relaxation is essential.

MEDICATION

This is where things get tricky. Medication is absolutely necessary for some people, and I won't deny that some prescriptions have major benefits and help people regain a better quality of life. However, prescriptions almost always made me feel worse. Many drugs slow motility (including many painkillers, antidepressants, and birth control options), so it's a hard path to navigate for those with gastroparesis. In addition, everyone's body is so different. Because of this, medication is very much a personal choice. 

With that being said, I can't stress the importance of advocating for yourself and urging your doctors to search for the root cause of your digestive issues. If you don't have support from a reliable, trustworthy doctor, do your own research or consult a functional medicine physician. Western medicine is all about prescribing drugs to treat surface symptoms of a disease. Meanwhile, functional medicine aims to treat the person as a whole and works to identify and understand the underlying root cause of a disease. My health started to improve before I sought treatment with a functional medicine physician, but if my health ever goes downhill again, this will be the first thing I do.

HOW DO I DEAL WITH FLARES?

I still suffer from symptoms, and flares hit me out of nowhere every now and then...they're all different in length of time and severity, but some of them really kick my butt. Here are the things I reach for and the things I avoid when I'm not feeling great.

FOOD/DRINKS THAT HEAL

Matcha is filled with antioxidants, increases memory levels, and fortifies the immune system.

Matcha is filled with antioxidants, increases memory levels, and fortifies the immune system.

  • Bone broth: Bone broth is insanely good for your gut. I tried making my own a few times, but it's a lengthy process. There should be several pre-made options at your local health food store. Why is bone broth so great? First of all, the gelatin found in bone broth heals the gut by repairing the intestinal lining (which SIBO damages) and reducing inflammation caused by disease. Second, bone broth is packed with collagen. Collagen is basically the glue that holds your body together. It soothes the gut, reduces joint pain, helps your skin and hair shine, and strengthens your nails and teeth.
  • Apple cider vinegar drinks: Your first reaction to this one might be "ew", but there are a lot of tasty apple cider vinegar drinks available now! Apple cider vinegar helps good bacteria grow and kills bad bacteria. It also eases heartburn and digestive discomfort. If you want to drink apple cider vinegar straight up, remember to dilute it in water or it will burn your esophagus. 
  • Kombucha: Filled with probiotics, enzymes, and amino acids, kombucha is wonderful for your gut. It can prevent and heal stomach ulcers, and it can heal candida overgrowth by restoring balance to your digestive system. Kombucha often makes me bloated, so I only drink half a bottle each day.
  • Coconut water: Coconut helps with inflammation, slow motility, and poor nutrient absorption. It also helps repair the lining of the digestive tract, which is essential for those with digestive issues. My favorite brand is Harmless Harvest.
  • Ginger: Helps break down food, promotes motility, and soothes stomach pain...what's not to love? I'm a huge fan of ginger tea, especially when I'm flaring.
  • Peppermint: The soothing, numbing, and antispasmodic effects of peppermint are great for nausea. I personally prefer to inhale peppermint oil. 
  • Vital Proteins collagen peptides: I use collagen peptides in drinks and baked goods. You can't taste it or smell it, and it adds a little extra boost of collagen to my day.
  • Water: Staying hydrated is so important...and it's key to keeping my POTS under control. The more water I drink, the better I feel. Summer is challenging for me...dehydration and heat intolerance are a recipe for disaster. I often forget to drink water, but always having a bottle on hand reminds me to take sips throughout the day.

FOODS/DRINKS TO AVOID

  • Coffee: I love coffee, but the acidity kills my stomach. I stick to low acid coffee beans now, and I only drink it occasionally. (When I need a caffeine boost, I now order matcha lattes!)
  • Alcohol: Drinking alcohol causes your stomach to produce more acid, which leads to inflammation. In addition, cocktails and wine are filled with sugar...which means fermentation and more bacteria. 
  • Beans and legumes (peanuts, soy): Beans and legumes contain lectins, which damage the intestinal wall and contribute to leaky gut syndrome. As for soy, it's particularly scary because it contains phytoestrogens. These chemicals mimic the action of estrogen in the body. This can lead to hormonal imbalances and infertility in women. 
  • Sugar (cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, fructose): Avoid high fructose corn syrup at all costs! It contains chemical toxins and contaminants, and it should never, ever enter your body. Seriously...trash everything in your house that contains this garbage.

NATURAL REMEDIES FOR QUICK RELIEF...

  • Iberogast: This is an all natural motility stimulant. It works well for a lot of people, so it may work for you! Just be sure to tell your doctor that you're taking it. (Swedish Bitters is another option.)
  • Essential oils: Essential 7 actually has a page dedicated to healing gastroparesis. They have oil blends for nausea, stomach pain, sore muscles, and more. I bought a ton of these blends when I was sick and walked around smelling like peppermint, cumin, and ginger for the better part of a year. I still reach for these oils when I'm flaring. I like to massage them directly on my stomach or the bottoms of my feet.
  • Exercise: When I'm flaring and unable to consume as many calories as I need, I have to be more careful about the intensity of my exercise. During these times, I avoid cardio and focus more on gentle exercise, like yoga and walking. Even when my nausea is severe and I don't want to move, I always feel better after taking a walk.