Archive for September, 2011

Listen to your gut

Yo! What’s up everyone? Back from 50 days in Europe! I had a blast, and… after years of pain, I got my health back! Tadaaaaa!

If you’re a long-time reader of my blog, you have probably read about how my health has sucked in the last 10 years. In the last 4 years especially, I’ve been sick, almost every day. I never talked about it in much detail, since my “incurable syndrome” was a rather embarrassing matter.

But I think the time has come to tell my story, since I’m now feeling healthy for the first time in a long time. I’m still in the very beginning of my journey, but I’m feeling right. I am convinced that this approach is already working, and that it will continue working for me for the years to come. That’s why I am sharing the information with all of you out there, so that people can learn from my experience.

As I remember, it all started a few weeks after coming back from my wedding in France in 2001, I was feeling sick. I had diarrhea twice a day. I thought it would clear up. It never did. It soon became a nightmare. My bowel movements became even more frequent and watery. I felt pain, I was bloated, and I could not leave the house. Any kind of travel, no matter how long or short, would stress me like hell, with a single thought on my mind: “where are the bathrooms?” I came close to having bowel accidents twice, both times in France, once while visiting the Palace of Versailles (it had a 50 meter queue!), and once at Gare d’Austerlitz. Therefore, I think France ought to build more public restrooms…

When I came back to the US after that first vacation in 2003, I decided to see a doctor. He ordered various tests and a colonoscopy (which thankfully was under anesthesia, a detail that doctors skip in Greece in order to save money). The tests found that I had no diabetes, I had no cancer, I had no food allergies, and I was not gluten-intolerant. The doctor even said that I had a beautiful colon (I will never forget that, haha!). One of the tests found that I had an overgrowth and/or infection with Clostridium Difficile (a super-bug, yay!). I got the antibiotic Flagyl for 10 days, and I felt better for about a month. Then, the same thing started again. I was put on Flagyl again, and this time around I saw no remission at all, not even for one day. Obviously, the bacteria had evolved as a consequence of the first treatment and they adapted to Flagyl.

The doctor ordered a SIBO breath test (“Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth”), so I was sent to one of the best hospitals in the world, the Stanford Medical Center. They found bacteria overgrowth (what else is new, right?). So I was put on Vancomycin. Which worked. For 10 days. As long as I was on this super-strong antibiotic. On the 11th day, the bacteria started their little orgy again. Somewhat later, I was put on Rifaximin, another strong antibiotic, which did absolutely nothing for me.

I was running out of options, and my diarrhea, bloating, pain were running rampant. I once had to go to the bathroom 13 times in a single day. I felt some brain fogginess, fatigue, hair loss, eczema, dandruff, heart arrhythmia. I was diagnosed with elevated DHEAS hormone levels. I started to feel early signs of diabetes, getting easily tired, but feeling better within 2 minutes of eating something with sugar in it. Since I avoided leaving home as much as possible, my weight kept going up, from 127 lbs (58 kg) when the first symptoms appeared all the way to 165 lbs (75 kg). This sickness made me go from barely overweight to seriously obese. In this last year I’ve even see a bit of black blood in the stool (which would indicate my baby first steps towards Crohn’s, or ulcerative colitis).

Somewhere along the way, after none of the anti-biotic treatments seemed to be working, my doctor decided to classify my symptoms as IBS-D (“Irritable Bowel Syndrome, predominantly diarrhea”), an umbrella name for such symptoms with no identifiable cause and no effective treatment. I’ve read somewhere online once that as many as 15-20% of Americans and British have some form of IBS. He hypothesized that it might be stress-related along with recurring bacterial infections. He also gave me some stress-relief drugs and gut-flora drinks that did nothing for me. During my last vacation in Greece, my mother insisted that I should see a doctor there, whose best guess was also that my symptoms were stress-related. He gave me another drug to try, which did nothing either. As for over-the-counter probiotics (iFlora, Florastor) they didn’t do anything either!

I fell into a depressive state. I could not leave the house any more. I always felt sick, and I my gut was crying for attention all day long (and a few times at night). Over the last 2 years I’ve been pretty convinced that I would die by the age of 50. Even though I’m an atheist, in despair I was praying that some deity would just kill me in one swift move, so that I would be done with my pain. I was tired of it all. I felt that I had lived enough, that I had seen a lot of cool things in my life (more than the average person has), and that I was indeed ready for a quick, painless ending. I’m not afraid of death. I felt my husband was being held back from having the life he wanted to have (he likes to travel a lot). If I died, I would free both him and myself from the situation. Up to a week ago, while still on our vacations in Europe, I just wanted for everything to end (even though those vacations were otherwise great).


One of worst things the USA ever created is this food pyramid

And then, things took their course, and the truth revealed itself to me step by step.

Since I don’t speak French, I can’t socialize a lot while in France, so during the week of vacations that I spent there I started reading my mother in law’s cooking encyclopedia (published in 1976). The cooking style was traditional, and not about the “nouvelle cuisine” movement that started in France in the ’60s. There were plenty of pictures in the encyclopedia, but the amount of meat and starch in them made me want to throw up!

So I started discussing with my husband that the modern cuisine is much more elegant. Smaller portions, more green vegetables, nicer presentation, dishes that feel “fresh” rather than “loaded”. So I decided to buy a few cookbooks of my own in order to pass the time (I can understand and read a bit of French, especially when it comes to cooking, even if I can’t speak it or write it). I opted for books with recipes that my body seemed to crave for: salads, light dishes, low cholesterol recipes. That was on Wednesday, two weeks ago.

Because we’d be traveling quite continuously from Saturday through Monday, starting on Friday I decided to not eat much, in order to try to keep my symptoms under control. In addition to trying to eat less for a few days, being enthusiastic about how fresh the recipes in my new books looked, I decided to cut out all the starches too. That Friday, we visited one of my husband’s relatives who battled Crohn’s years before. She mentioned that she felt better using only diet. Her health had been compromised seriously, and her doctors wanted her to have surgery but she refused. Years later, she seems to live fine without major problems.


Crohn’s disease and SCD

Later that night, I started searching online on my condition and various diets that I might have to follow in order to see relief (if they were such diets at all in the first place). The first clue I got was via some rave reviews on Amazon about the No-Starch diet book for IBS. I was ready to start this diet, but someone, in the reviews section I think, led me to another book: “Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet” by Elaine Gloria Gottschall. I was astounded by the positive ratings and comments, which were even more positive than the no-starch diet book. This book has a better Amazon rating than Asimov’s “Foundation”!!! People were commenting that the diet cured them of their gut issues. Could it be that simple?

I had nothing to lose and I started researching online on the SCD diet (“Specific Carbohydrate Diet”) that the book advocated (I ordered the book but it hasn’t arrived yet). The premise is that when eating complex sugars and starches, most people to some degree develop damaging bacteria and yeast. Some become intolerant as kids, some later in their lives. When eating such foods, they go down the digestive track undigested, where yeast and bacteria feast on. Hence, my SIBO was born: the micro-organisms overgrew, colonized the small intestine, the gut realized that something was wrong, and tried to “remove” all the bad things by creating a “cleansing diarrhea”. This is a usually-inflammatory, auto-immune disease, and I was told over and again that eliminating the symptoms would range from ‘very hard’ to ‘impossible’! The book’s idea is to cut down the food that these bacteria eat, and that will eventually kill most of them and bring the gut back to balance.


Celiac disease and SCD

In the last 10 days I started following a loose version of the diet (all the necessary information is on the book’s web site for free), and went from 4 loose stools a day, to 3, to finally one… healthy, well-formed stool, one such that I haven’t seen it as such for many years. My bloating was gone within 1 day. My cramping and gas were gone too in 3 days. My energy was back, despite having to battle jet-lag! I am not foggy and tired any more. Within only a few days on the diet, my eczema (another auto-immune symptom) on my ears and nose has almost disappeared. My period is currently lite, and painless. I am feeling good for the first time in a long time!

Reading online other people’s stories and own accounts, the diet seem to have made asymptomatic a lot of people with Chron’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Acid Reflux, IBS, Celiac disease (for those that a CFGF gluten-free diet is not enough) and other gastro-enterological problems. And it doesn’t stop there. If we are to believe people online (e.g. read their testimonials on blogs, youtube and amazon comments of the book), the diet reportedly also has a positive impact: hypertension, high blood sugar, amenorrhea, PMS, ADD/ADHD, diabetes Type II, acne, fibromyalgia, depression, migraines, lupus, multiple sclerosis, hay fever & some allergies, asthma, some types of arthritis, fistulas, and get this: it’s said to bring quite some life back to kids with autism! Sure, it could all be a big joke, a fad, or it could only work for a few cases. But having seeing the diet deliver to myself in a few days, I’m more open to believe these miraculous claims than not. Besides, these possible cures make sense to me anyway, since a lot of these diseases have their roots on auto-immunity & inflammation, which is what diets have an effect on (for better of worse). A French published doctor explains it all here, and his similar diet had similar miraculous effects too to his study subjects. His results are here, in French (three PDFs).

While I always knew that “healthier eating is more healthy” (duh), there was always some debate among specialists as to what’s actually healthy. But after I tried SCD I never knew it could be so immediate. That is what actually took me by surprise in the whole story.

This blog post is not an ad btw, I don’t sell anything, neither I endorse other people’s products (the author of the book is dead btw, and the diet is based on studies first made in 1926). This is just my true story, from the bottom of my heart.

So, my original plan was to follow the SCD diet for 2-3 years, hopefully get “cured” as other people claimed to have, and then get back to the Standard American Diet (SAD, indeed). But as I was keep researching online, I realized that this was not an option. Yes, after you get “cured”, you will get 1 month, 3 months, or maybe 6 months of symptom-free “normal” diet, but then the problems will start again. My body has shown me that I’m simply predisposed for it. I obviously can’t digest most starches, complex sugars, and milk properly anymore. Eating the sugar/starchy-full MacDonalds burger would send me in the toilet after a few bites (in 2-3 minutes)! Eating the rice-loaded sushi (my favorite food), would send me to the toilet within 10 minutes. Eating milk bloats me immediately too. But I have no problems with nuts, honey, fruits, vegetables, fatty meat/fish, or eggs. Which are the natural things that people ate before the Agricultural Revolution 10000 years ago. Most of us evolved to only eat these things — not dairy, not grains, and not some of the toxic tubers or legumes. The rule of thumb is that if something is edible raw, then we probably evolved eating it, making it a “safe” food. If not, or it requires lots of processing before it’s eaten, then it’s probably a bad food for most of us. The idea is rather simple, really.


IBS and SCD

So I was in search of a diet for life, after the SCD-bacteria-overgrowth-specific diet would work its magic as a starter for my condition. So I found the (similar to SCD) Paleo diet and the South Beach Phase II Diet. I decided on the Paleo diet, as it’s ~95% the same as the SCD diet, and with the same reported health benefits (read paleohacks.com for health testimonials)! Of course I read the news, so I knew about these two diets for a long time. I just wasn’t interested in Paleo because I never believed its benefits. I didn’t really want to leave rice behind, and honestly, I still had a bit of problem with the diet’s position on green beans (pods), and olive oil (hey, I’m Greek!). But it otherwise made the most sense for the long run. It’s logical, and scientifically it makes sense for nearly everyone (not just patients), people who follow it swear by it, and weight loss is inevitable. I’m not even trying to lose weight right now, I just want to feel healthy. Losing weight is a very welcome side-effect of these diets. On these diets, underweight people (e.g. Crohn’s patients) put on weight, and overweight people lose weight! These are NOT weight-loss diets, they are simply diets that make you look normal! They are life-changing diets-for-life!


Ulcerative Colitis and SCD

You are probably thinking now that the carb cravings will be so immense that I won’t be able to sustain these diets for a long time. Well, I have no cravings at all right now, 10 days into the diet, because fruits and fruit juices are allowed on both diets. I eat my fruits, veggies, meat, fish, eggs, a few nuts, and I’ve found this yogurt, which might work for my case (I will know soon if my gut agrees with it). Paleo does not allow dairy, but SCD requires such a yogurt in order to “reboot” the gut flora after the die-off. I’m so motivated right now that even starchy/sugary food from the best chef in the world would not sway me away from the diet. I want to get better. I want to live normally again, and make up for ten years lost to being miserable.

For the first time in my life, my condition feels manageable. I’m still only at the beginning of all this, and not quite 100% healthy yet, but so far I’m getting the most encouraging results I’ve had in 10 years. My doctor had cursorily mentioned diet changes and gave me a generic copy of text to read that “maybe could help”. Make no mistake, I think my doctor is actually a very good one. He did everything that was standard for my condition, and he even had an open mind suggesting that SIBO has something to do with the food we eat. Unfortunately, most traditional gastro-enterologists would say that “food has nothing to do with most these gut diseases and syndromes”. And yet, myself and so many others are living proof that food was the primary component of our illness. After I get even better, I will schedule an appointment with him in order to explain what worked for me. I wish I had a way to help more people with similar conditions. This blog post is the first step. It breaks my heart reading people’s stories on various disease-dedicated forums, but since no one is signing in with their real name (embarrassed for their leaky-gut condition, as I was), I can’t find them, email them, and tell them about my break-through. At best, most people just try the CFGF glutten-free diet, which doesn’t go far enough to prevent the bacterial overgrowth, in my opinion.


Paleo/Primal: The real food pyramid for humans

Of course, these diets will not work for everyone with gut problems, but I can imagine how they can make life better for many people. For people with actual traumas, parasites or mutated bacteria (that feed on everything, and not just carbs) or for people with expansive food allergies (e.g. nuts, raw food, eggs etc.), these diets won’t help. At least for people with massive intolerance towards some food stuff, they can start on these diets, and then remove categories of foods one by one to see which one makes them sick.

Speaking for me, even in this early stage, my gut tells me that I’m on the right track and on the road for healing. I will definitely keep you all updated, if you don’t mind reading about bowel movements and other yucky stuff!

Oh, and now I can go out and shoot more videos. The last one I shot was last year. I simply could not leave the house anymore.

That’s all over now. I can now live again.

UPDATE: The exact diet I follow, 6 weeks on the diet, 4 months, and a year after.