How Real Food, Whole30, Low FODMAP and GAPS Didn’t Fix Me
I have never really had a sensitive stomach. Oh, there were foods that I didn’t do that great with, namely high fat or fried foods. For example, I could eat an In-N-Out cheeseburger and chocolate shake or cheeseburger and share an order of fries, but I could not eat all three. So I could handle a little bit, but more than that gave me a stomach ache. But it didn’t stop me from eating my favorites: ice cream and baked goods!
Then about 4 years ago my tummy started bugging me a little bit. Hmmm…. I’m noticing a coincidence here. That was shortly after I went back to work after having my 3rd child. I was nursing, pumping at work, managing an au pair/nanny, commuting 2-3 hours a day and up millions of times a night to soothe my little one back to sleep. Let me tell you, I was not at my best. I was stressed and exhausted and stressed some more.
We ate out once or twice a week, mostly at places like Panda Express, Mountain Mike’s or a local Mexican restaurant. When we didn’t eat out, we had things like pasta with sauce, tortellini, burritos or baked chicken with BBQ sauce. These were all super yummy foods that we all enjoyed. They were quick and easy to make which suited our busy schedules. But I started not wanting to eat out so much or eat so much packaged foods. I wanted to eat healthier in hopes of boosting my energy and life span.
Shortly before I quit my job in 2014, I found the “Real Food” movement. And I heartily embraced it. I’ve always had a bit of a natural, earthy tendency. I blame it on the fact that my mom was born and raised in Germany (space and natural resources are at more of a premium in Europe) and the college I went to was nicknamed “Granola State”. Real Food resonated with me and I went gung-ho! I followed 100 Days of Real Food and bought the cook book. I talked it up to all my friends. I baked my own bread and made everything from scratch. I loved it and so did my family! But my tummy troubles weren’t helped. In fact, they got worse.
By this point I had quit my job and had been a stay-at-home mom for about a year. And my tummy troubles had progressed to the point where they affected me 24 hours a day. I didn’t want to eat, because it make my tummy hurt. Even when I drank water I would be in pain. My energy levels dropped and I had to push myself to do get anything accomplished. So I finally went to the doctor.
I got the diagnosis that everyone is happy and sad to hear at the same time: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). You are happy to have IBS, because it isn’t something worse. But you are totally bummed to have IBS, because it is not a real answer. IBS is a diagnosis by exclusion. That means they can’t pinpoint a specific issue like Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Celiac, they just rule those issues out. An IBS diagnosis basically means that they can’t figure out what is causing your tummy troubles, but there seems to be nothing visibly wrong. Of course, I felt like the doctors were wrong. I said, “IBS is a bunch of baloney! Figure out what I’ve got.” And the doctor still said, “It is IBS and I can’t help you, but you can see a nutritionist if you want.”
So I took matters in my own hands. I started doing some research to see what I could do to help myself and made an appointment with the nutritionist at the same time. Couldn’t hurt, right? Anyways, I heard about the Whole30 from friends and borrowed and read the book “It Starts with Food” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. I also found a wealth of information on the website as well. It made a lot of sense and I figured that if I could give my tummy a rest and reset things in 30 days, I would totally do it no matter how challenging. You can do anything for 30 days, right?
I cut dairy and grains right away. And the shooting pains in my stomach stopped within a couple days. I officially started the Whole30 a few days later. And I felt pretty good not eating sugar, soy, dairy, legumes, grains, and alcohol. But I still had tummy troubles. So I tried the Low FODMAP Whole30 list of foods. The Low FODMAP diet is for those suffering from IBS. It eliminates certain types of carbohydrates/sugars from your diet and then you add them back in one at a time to see what your triggers are. To learn more about the Low FODMAP diet, I liked this website to help educate me. And after meeting with the nutritionist, I compared her recommended list of Low FODMAP foods with those on the Whole30 list (for some reason each low FODMAP list you find out there will have some differences) and implemented those changes.
Unfortunately, this did not stop my problems. So, on the nutritionist’s recommendation, I continued to cut foods that I noticed caused me problems. There went eggs, strawberries and citrus fruits, mustard, vinegars, olives, oils, tomatoes and avocados. The list continued to grow. I kept cutting until I ate only 10 foods: chicken, beef, carrots, zucchini, spinach, water chestnuts, potatoes, bok choy, blueberries and bananas. I was still able to tolerate salt and pepper, lucky me. And yet still I was having problems.
It just seemed never ending and I couldn’t imagine cutting more foods. At this point I had been eating a low FODMAP Whole30 diet for 6 months and was getting desperate for answers. A holistic nutritionist was recommended to me, so I called her up. She recommended the GAPS diet and some supplements. So I bought the book (do you see a pattern??) and did research on GAPS. I started the GAPS Introduction Diet. That basically meant that made my own chicken soup. I boiled a chicken and used the broth to make soup with veggies. But the only veggies that I seemed to still be able to tolerate were carrots and zucchini. So I ate 3 ingredients for a long time. I was never able to move past Stage 2 of the 7 stages in the GAPS Introduction Diet. I basically survived on soup and my ginger “tea” (boiling water poured over freshly grated ginger) for 4 months. I had some minor improvements, but they were very minor.
And I looked for another nutritionist. I promise, I am not usually this difficult to please. But I needed to find answers and no one was giving me any, not the doctors or the nutritionists I had seen. This time I searched for a nutritionist that leaned towards functional medicine. I first heard this term in my Whole30 research.
According to the Functional Medicine Institute, “Functional Medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership.”
Basically, Functional Medicine doctors try to find the cause of the problem and strive to fix that using more holistic or natural methods, rather than just treating the symptoms. I found this often involves “healing the gut.” And, boy, did that make me happy, because my “gut” was definitely in need of some healing!
I was in tears when I met with my new functional medicine nutritionist Sahar Berjis at Inner Health Wellness. I just wanted to be able to live and eat normally. I didn’t want to panic if I was more than 30 minutes from home, because I couldn’t eat anything that didn’t come from my kitchen and I was afraid to not make it home in time before I completely lost it from hunger. I ate about 15 pounds of carrots a week, but didn’t turn orange. And lots of zucchini, most of which I was able to grow in my garden! My body just didn’t absorb any of the nutrients I was eating. My hair was falling out and I was losing weight in an unhealthy way. Don’t get me wrong, I looked great because I started out not on the skinny side. That didn’t take away from the fact that this was not the way I wanted to lose the weight. I was hungry every 2 hours and had to cook myself a whole chicken every 2 days to keep me fed. I didn’t want to feel sick after everything I ate and wake up in the middle of the night in pain. As you might have guessed, I was completely at my wits end.
And Sahar told me, “Lisa, I’m going to help you get better.” And I cried. I was so fearful that I was going to have to live this way for the rest of my life. And the problem was, it wasn’t really living. I was tied to the house and to all kinds of extra work and stress to feed myself, while at the same time I had to feed my family foods that were not extra boiled chicken and mush for veggies.
But through lots supplements and lots of hand holding, we began to heal my gut. I still cooked my own chicken and bone broth. But over the course of 6 months I was able to add in other vegetable and even could tolerate small amounts of gluten free grains. Though things had improved a lot, I was still having symptoms. We ended up doing a test to see if it could help us find the cause of my problems. By this point I had healed enough that the test would actually be beneficial. It came back showing a bacterial imbalance and lots of inflammation in my gut. It was no wonder that my stomach hurt all the time! I had low counts of bacteria and not a good diversity. This basically meant that my tummy bacteria just didn’t have the strength or skills to digest foods properly. My wonderful functional nutritionist adjusted my supplements to deal with the imbalance and we adjusted my probiotics to help build up the good bacteria. In addition to a daily high dose probiotic supplement, I also rotated my probiotic foods to help the bacterial diversity in my gut. Kefir, kombucha, raw sauerkraut and raw apple cider vinegar were rotated each day to make sure I was getting all kinds of good bacteria in my tummy.
Since I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned, I saw a GI specialist to run some tests. They did a colonoscopy and a video capsule endoscopy (basically I swallowed a tiny video camera that took pictures of my insides). And I had to do the normal prep for those tests, (not to get too graphic) the ones that completely clean you out while you eat nothing but broth and jello. I had only homemade chicken broth, homemade jello (not the boxed kind) and homemade tea. I felt so good not eating food, I decided that this must be the way to do it! Unfortunately, you need to eat to live, so that method was out. Shucks! The tests came back showing no problems. Not even any inflammation!
And somehow, I felt better than ever. I was no longer getting a gurgle-y stomach after eating or waking up in the middle of the night in pain. I felt almost normal. I was sooooo excited! Between the good bacteria I was putting in my body and the cleanse prior to the tests getting rid of any bad bacteria; I was finally in a place to start eating more normally.
That brings us to today. I still am not eating like everyone else, but I am no longer tied down by my tummy troubles. I can grab a banana and eat it for a snack. Or I can even have a steak (cooked dry, meaning no oil or butter) at a restaurant. I’m still on the road to recovery, but I am able to live again. This in itself is a miracle and I’m still in awe of this blessing every day. I owe this all to Jesus and the help of my functional medicine nutritionist.
I don’t know exactly what caused my problems. The doctors and nutritionists alike seem to think that stress and antibiotics probably had a hand in it. And I probably do have IBS, but the bacterial imbalances are really what put me down for the count. I do know that while Real Food, Whole30, low FODMAP and GAPS all helped me some, I was too far gone by that point for them to do too much good. And believe me, I am a big fan of every single one of those ways of eating. I have since done the Whole30 with my husband and plan to do it again (even though I already eat a Whole30 type diet every day). I still believe in Real Food and its benefits. I know GAPS and low FODMAP diets have helped tons of people and they helped to ease my tummy too.
The trouble was that in all of my searches and all my research, there was never an answer of what to do if these diets/lifestyle changes didn’t work. And believe me, I searched! What I found out through my experience is that, if trying to eat a healthy, healing diet isn’t working for you, working with a functional medicine doctor or nutritionist might be the way to go. I am now a big advocate of healing your gut! It has made a world of difference for me.
I suffered for 3 years before seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I hope and pray that if you are also suffering, that you don’t have to suffer long. Keep pushing for your health, because you are your best advocate. Keep hunting for those answers and be the squeaky wheel!