There are a few hash marks in my life timeline. The moments that create a hard line of “before” and “after.” Losing my dad is the deepest line. The whole year of 2020 will be another. But while these events imprinted a line of grief and sadness, figuring out my health and healing from gluten sensitivity has been the most definitively positive.
I can’t remember a time before I changed my diet that I felt good. It’s not that I suffered from anything I could name, but felt crappy, always thinking “that’s just how I am.” Tired and low energy. I couldn’t exercise without my heart pounding out of control, coughing, and feeling physically ill and worse after. My stomach was always a mess, ranging from not going to the bathroom for days to running for the toilet. I always had an underlying level of nausea that caused me to not enjoy eating.
There were signs of something more serious. I failed my high school sports physical because my heart rate was high, both resting and exercising. My dad, who ultimately died from cardiomyopathy, took me to his cardiologist for a check-up. The doctor said my heart was healthy. Even though I felt out of breath and racing heart no matter what I did.
Years went by, and my early 20’s are a blur of loss, struggle, and the glimmer of hope with my husband. I found yoga when I became pregnant with my daughter, and that was the first form of exercise that made me feel somewhat ok. So I clung to my mat, even going through yoga teacher training for a deeper understanding of the practice.
Stress is my enemy.
My childhood was full of unconventional stress, and I was born higher strung.
As a nutritional therapist, I now understand what stress did to my body, and it’s the thing that hurt my health the most, along with a not so great diet and some not so great genetics.
Stress not only makes you feel anxious and burned out, but it’s inflammatory. A lifetime of inflammation is an open-door policy to gut health issues. (No. Running to the bathroom is not normal.) Which leads to food sensitivities and all their annoying symptoms.
When I became a mom in my late 20’s, I realized that the trauma and fear I carried deep within me created a cynical view of the world that didn’t serve me or the beautiful baby girl in my arms. It took a lot of work to sort through that. But not wanting to make the same generational mistakes before me, I found myself a fantastic therapist who helped me find the root of my dysfunction.
I know what anxiety looks like. I’ve lived it, and I’ve worked through it. I’ve used medication when necessary and some intense therapy to create a world where I can cope and thrive and feel all the feelings now, healthily.
So when I sat in a doctor’s office back in 2013, and he told me there was nothing wrong with me, it was all in my head, and I was just anxious, I respectfully disagreed. And I cried.
I knew it wasn’t anxiety. I mean, yes, I felt anxious since I’d spent the previous year with mystery symptoms. But the anxiety wasn’t the cause. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convey that.
It was a warm, sunny summer day when I woke up and the side of my face was numb and things turned.
After I had my son in 2010, my health took a nosedive. I started with painful, stabbing headaches on one side of my head and behind my eye. My c-section incision didn’t heal, and I had three months of an infected open wound. I also started having more severe IBS issues, thinking I was “sick” all the time with nausea and gastro pains.
Adding to all that, I hurt my back during a family ski trip. When nothing showed up on the x-ray or MRI, I was prescribed steroids, which sent me to the ER with severe high blood pressure and on bed rest for a week, narrowly missing my daughter’s kindergarten celebration.
So when my face went numb, and with the recent history of adverse reactions to medication, it felt more serious and required medical follow-up.
At my doctor’s referral, I saw an endocrinologist first. They ran blood work for thyroid conditions, plus tested me for an adrenal tumor. They said I was “normal.”
Then it was off to a neurologist for the facial numbness, who sent me for a brain scan to test for MS. Also, “normal.”
Things were “normal” but progressively getting worse. My heart was racing all the time. I felt like I was going to pass out. Since my dad died of cardiomyopathy (which I’ve since found out can be a gluten-related disorder), I went to a cardiologist, had a heart ultrasound, and wore a heart monitor. All of which looked “normal.”
A few months later, I developed vertigo. First, it was spinning vertigo when I rolled over. Then constant bouncing vertigo, like I was always on a boat. I went to an ENT who couldn’t explain the bouncing feeling. They sent me to vestibular therapy. Which didn’t help.
I was a mess on every level.
We had no family nearby and I had to take care of my young kids myself while my husband was starting his career and rarely home. Since we’d just moved to the area, I didn’t have many friends, and the ones I did have I wasn’t connecting with because I could barely socialize while being so preoccupied with my health.
I was desperate for answers so I went for one final opinion at a well-known hospital and brought all my tests, blood work, and symptoms. I kept a page of notes on my phone detailing every step of my experience up to that moment. Only to be told there was nothing medically wrong with me. That, I likely had anxiety as my medical history would dictate.
No. Sh!T. I mean I definitely had anxiety! I felt crazy. And desperate. So I called my therapist because what if it was all “in my head?” But she didn’t think so (I love that woman) and recommended a friend of hers, an integrative medicine doctor who specialized in these “mystery” cases.
After a six-month waitlist, I marched into that office with a file full of tests, no answers, a chip on my shoulders, and tears in my eyes. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life feeling so sick.
There was nothing left to test medically, so she ordered nutrient testing.
And that’s when it was confirmed. There was definitely something going down in my body.
In addition to the iron and vitamin D deficiency I knew about, I had a magnesium deficiency. All my B vitamins and zinc were low. She immediately started me on supplements, which gave me some relief. There was mention of an elimination diet at that first appointment, but I had lost weight and couldn’t eat much due to constant nausea and vertigo. Often, I felt worse after eating, making the cycle worse. It wasn’t the right time.
After about a year, my symptoms were 50% better. But I stared down a dark hallway of life, thinking I would never feel 100% normal. Hearing the words “maybe this is your new normal,” too many times to count.
It was a spring break trip to Florida and a peanut butter cup that finally pushed me over the edge. I felt like crap the entire trip with vertigo and stomach pains and wanting to crawl into bed every minute of every day.
I looked at a peanut butter cup, and something inside me stopped short and screamed: “what if it’s my food making me feel so bad?! What if it’s… sugar?!” I mean, we all know the “sugar is bad for you” lecture.
I got on the plane home, logged onto the wifi, and googled “how to remove sugar from my diet.” That’s when I came across a 30-day whole food eating program, I paid to get daily email support, and I committed to starting the next morning.
I’d never been on a “diet” my entire life. I’ve always been thin, which some would say I’m lucky. But given my health, being thin can also be fake as heck in the health department.
I stopped eating: Sugar, Gluten, Dairy, Soy, Legumes, Corn, and Alcohol. No substitutions. Just real food for 30 days.
Then there was “after” healing from gluten sensitivity.
When those 30 days were through, I legit had never felt so strong in my entire life.
I felt healthy for the first time. I had never felt like that. Not as a kid and certainly not as an adult.
I had energy, and my headaches were gone. My digestion was normal. And bouncing vertigo finally disappeared. More surprisingly, the underlying level of anxiety I had was absent. My mind was clear. My heart didn’t race or feel like it was skipping beats. I wanted to work out, which was NOT like me at all.
I felt “normal.”
But the program was only for thirty days and overly restrictive long term. I had to begin reintroducing foods. It was also my birthday. So I decided to have a glass of red wine and a piece of flourless chocolate cake.
Convinced sugar was my issue, I thought a good thing was coming to an end. One bite and I’d be back to feeling like crap again. But nothing happened. I felt – amazing? I hadn’t been able to enjoy a glass of wine or any type of alcohol in years. That was one of those mysterious symptoms, where I became completely intolerant to any sip of alcohol.
The same happened when I had beans and corn. Nothing. I still felt unusually healthy.
Maybe I’d done it just by eating more vegetables? Maybe there’s something to healthy eating after all!
And then it was time for gluten. I don’t remember what I ate. All I recall is that within 15 minutes of the first bite, my symptoms came back. Stabbing stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and bouncing vertigo. Waves of panic and anxiety. In the next 24 hours, my leg swelled and tingled, and I had a migraine headache like someone took an ice pick to the side of my head and behind my eye. It took days to recover.
And yet, I still didn’t believe that’s what it was. So I ate it again.
Same symptoms. Somewhere in there, I also ate something with soybean oil in it, and that headache was more debilitating than the gluten headache. I would later discover I also had a soy sensitivity (and some dairy is ok in small amounts.)
I didn’t understand. How could it possibly be foods that I never gave any thought to, causing me to feel so terrible? How could it be that specialist after specialists, no one tested me for this?! Or even mentioned gluten sensitivity as a possibility?! Isn’t this their job as a healthcare provider? To give me answers?
Fascinated, I researched constantly about this seemingly magical phenomenon. I began talking about it. Incessantly. When you feel so shitty for so long and then feel like you can conquer the world, you can’t help but want to scream it from the rooftops.
People noticed. They noticed that I was happier, healthier.
About a year after I became gluten-free, I had exhausted all of my google searches and talked everyone’s ear off, and I needed more. My kids were in school, and I dedicated my adult life to supporting my husband to achieve his career goals. It felt like my time to make my mark in the world as a human outside my family.
I knew people like me were walking around, sick, and frustrated with no answers, and I knew I could help them. So I found a holistic nutrition program to learn more about food, the body, and healing.
My recovery hasn’t been linear. It seemed to be overnight, but it’s been a long journey. Living gluten-free can be isolating. The eye-rolling—the irritation from family and friends. When you either don’t have options to eat or the server doesn’t seem knowledgeable at restaurants. The fear of being “glutened” when on vacation or before a big event or meeting is real. And a struggle with balance, for “clean eating” to not morph into an unhealthy relationship with food.
I learned I was never truly healing from gluten sensitivity even though I eliminated it. There are foods and supplements I need always to be taking to live a safe gluten-free lifestyle.
Through the years of my own experience and helping my clients, I realize that the two most important things in living a gluten-free lifestyle are this:
I had to find a lifelong way of eating for me to support gut health.
I had to find a healthy relationship with food as it relates to my body.
It’s been five years since my journey of healing from gluten sensitivity began.
I’ll always have gluten sensitivity. Each year, more and more research comes out, and more specialists are using gluten elimination as a trial for a treatment plan.
For those genetically susceptible to inflammation and auto-immunity (my symptoms were both), a gluten-free diet isn’t a cure or a treatment. It’s an anti-inflammatory way of eating to support your body’s natural immune process. Stress, sleep, exercise, and a non-toxic environment are also critical modifiable factors in your health and wellness.
I’ve been where you are. I understand your frustration in healing from gluten sensitivity and other gluten-related disorders. Let me help you along in this journey!
If you’ve been evaluated by a healthcare professional and have a recommendation for gluten elimination, join my online program, The Gluten-Free Lifestyle: How to Remove Gluten in 5 Simple Steps for Ultimate Gut Health.
If you’re unsure or looking for a way to support your gut to prevent inflammation and auto-immunity that doesn’t involve an elimination (because not everyone should be or needs to be gluten-free!), contact me for your free consultation.
See you on the healthy side,