A little history of my health and the reasons behind my Gluten-free/Dairy-free life
There’s been a lot of hype in recent years about going “gluten-free” or “dairy-free,” and for many, it’s just a trend, but for others like me, it’s not a choice. I’ve been battling stomach issues for the past 10 years now (maybe even longer), and though I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely normal, I’ve definitely come a long way. Unfortunately, or fortunately, not sure what’s best in this case, a lot of my progress has been from my own self-experimentation, not from the medical community. The battle that I’ve been facing for the past ten years has not just been stomach discomfort, though it’s the root of it all; it’s been neglect from doctors, a burden on family and close relationships, anxiety when eating out or traveling, an inability to participate in functions and social settings, difficulty concentrating, depression, holding back from full potential, and the list goes on. I wouldn’t wish these feelings on anyone, but sadly I’m positive I’m not the only one that’s been in this situation. I remember back when I first started having issues and the doctors dismissed them, I felt so helpless. I was not able to live a normal life anymore, like the one I was used to. I knew there was something wrong, but without a diagnosis, it’s like it didn’t matter. I would go online and search through forums and blogs to reassure myself that I couldn’t be the only one dealing with something like this. And I wasn’t. So, though it’s taken me years to put something together, I hope that this blog can someday serve as a place where others can come to find similar reassurance. Whether it’s sickness, lack of confidence, body-image issues, anxiety, depression, you name it – we’re all human, we’ve all been there, let’s start being open and honest and SUPPORTIVE.
I grew up with the ability to eat practically anything I wanted, but the problems came on pretty suddenly as I was in the middle of high school. I would randomly start having terrible sharp pains throughout my stomach and I didn’t know why. It gradually worsened to the point where I would be in extreme discomfort immediately after eating anything. It got to the point where I wouldn’t go out to eat because any time I did, I’d come home and force myself to sleep because the only thing that felt okay was curling up in a ball. The first thing I completely eliminated from my diet was dairy. For a while, this relieved a lot of the pain but it was temporary. I still had sharp pains throughout the day, and I still struggled to eat like I used to.
Though I knew it wasn’t healthy, I started starving myself. I preferred the feeling of hunger over the pain. Doctors dismissed me, saying I was just stressed, but I knew it was more than that. My life wasn’t THAT stressful back then. I had blood tests, allergy tests, barium swallow tests, endoscopies… it wasn’t fun. But results always came back normal and back to the drawing board I went. At the time, I was involved in competitive dance, which called for several hours of practice a few nights a week and all day on weekends. The insufficient food intake with the amount of strenuous physical activity I was doing, was making me even sicker. My weight dropped to a low of 92 lbs and I was forced to see a nutritionist and a therapist, who both diagnosed me with an eating disorder. I can still feel the frustration I had from having to drive hours each week to be at these appointments, just to have them tell me that I needed to eat anyway. Family was concerned and confused by the onset of all of this, and at times, they didn’t even believe me.
One night at dance, I had the most severe pain come over me, and I sat out from practice. The next morning, I went to school and was about to give a presentation, when I felt like I was going to faint. Believe it or not, it was actually CJ that brought the teacher over to me and forced me to the nurse’s office. I was there for about five minutes before I was brought to the hospital. Both of my parents came with me, and off to the emergency room we went. I sat in there for 8 hours with my dad and just as they were about to release me and dismiss the case as minimal gas pain, I vomited, and they rushed me to an ultrasound. They discovered something in my lower abdomen and wanted to perform emergency laparoscopic surgery but had to wait for the doctor to come in later that night. I woke up the next day to the news that they removed a grapefruit-sized dermoid cyst from my ovaries. They explained that it was cutting off blood supply to my ovaries and that it was the reason for the sharp pains in that area. They said if it weren’t for going to the hospital that day, it could’ve been fatal (thanks hero CJ). They also told us that a dermoid cyst grows off of nutrients in the body and that it could’ve been the reason for my deficiencies and stomach discomfort. I started feeling better after this, but still was nowhere close to normal. I continued working with the nutritionist, who had me gradually increase my food intake, but something was still not right.
As if that wasn’t enough, right before leaving for college, I developed a few more problems. The first was a really bad skin condition, where little red, itchy bumps covered my entire face. I went to the dermatologist five times that week trying different topical solutions, taking biopsies, and trying to figure out what the heck was wrong. She ended up saying that it was a form of pustular folliculitis, most likely caused by a reaction to something in contact with my skin, but never attributed it to anything internal. I also began noticing swelling in my joints, particularly around my ankles and knees after eating. Still no answers from tests, just some more food restriction and temporary bouts of relief.
In college, I tried eating more and following the outlines from my nutritional counseling, but still suffered. I’d practically have to eat a ton of food in the mornings and then very little throughout the day so that I would be able to make it through lectures and exams. College was when I first started working out and I found exercise to be my remedy. It was the only time when I felt like I was actually okay, but I was only physically capable of working out first thing in the morning. If I tried working out later in the day, I would be too exhausted from lack of energy or too sick to move. When I was at the gym or running first thing in the morning, I didn’t feel sick. I was in the zone, focused, and in a different place. I got addicted to that feeling and little did I know, fitness would carry me through my life until today.
Right before senior year of college, I decided to go gluten free. It was actually recommended by a family friend (hero #2), who had known someone that didn’t discover an intolerance until being hospitalized. I decided to give it a shot, and noticed changes pretty much immediately. My mood was way better, stress levels were reduced, my skin was getting clearer, my stomach wasn’t hurting as much, and my personality was finally coming back to me. I still struggled with what I was eating, but at least progress was being made. I moved to Texas after graduating to start my career, and though I was slightly better, I was still scared to eat out, still restrictive, and still a little anxious about potential discomfort.
A lot has changed in the four years that I’ve been in Texas. I’ve been learning a lot about inflammation, stomach irritabilities, allergies, intolerances, and the effects of different foods and nutrients, but mostly the effects on my own body. What I’ve learned is that many different foods cause reactions in my body, and unfortunately I just have to be very careful with what I eat and when I eat. Did the cyst start it all? Who knows, probably not, but I do have a family history of GI issues. I may not have a specific disease now, but it’s not to say that it won’t show up later in my life, so I am careful and aware and doing the best preventive maintenance I can to stay healthy today. I have developed more of an interest in fitness, and as a result, have seriously had to readjust my food intake and figure out how to properly fuel myself for the workouts that I endure on a weekly basis. I eat primarily gluten free and dairy free, but I do have to be careful of many other foods as well, such as:
- Raw veggies – Cooked/steamed is much easier to digest
- Raw onions
- Soy milk
- Acidic fruits
- Acidic sauces
- Heavy oils
- Raw nuts – I tolerate nut butters much better
- Red meat
- All grains
It’s been self-experimentation and trial and error, and occasionally I’ll still feel uncomfortable, but I am much better now. I have energy throughout the day, I eat triple the amount that I used to, I’m comfortable requesting specific meals when eating out, my metabolism is back to its normal regulation, and I am finally me again.
It sounds like a long history, and there’s plenty more that could be said about each phase of my life, but in a nutshell, this is why I eat the way I do today. I know how it is to deal with these battles in the dark, and I wish I knew then what I know now.
Here are a few of the books that have helped me along the way:
- Food Matters, Mark Bittman
- The Gluten-Free Edge, Peter Bronski
- A Woman's Guide to a Healthy Stomach, Jacqueline Wolf, M.D.
- Survival of the Sickest, Sharon Moalem, M.D.
- Sport's Nutrition Guidebook, Nancy Clark, R.D.
- How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman, M.D.
- In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
- Good Calories Bad Calories, Gary Taubes
If you’ve ever experienced similar issues and have felt like no one understands, OR if you are thinking about trying a gluten-free or dairy-free lifestyle and want some guidance, please reach out to me! I'd love to help.