How to heal your guts.
Hi everybody! I’m Dr. Davis!*
I was sick to my stomach for most of my life, and recently, through a series of methods, I have mostly healed myself. I want to tell you all about it.
First there was chronic illness. As a child, through puberty, before I went vegan, after I went vegan. I had a brief reprieve from stomach pain when I gave up gluten, but then it returned. My stomach hurt before I struggled with eating disorder behaviors, had a moment of peace when I basically wasn’t eating at all and then got much, much worse in the process of my recovery.
When I say my stomach was sick I mean this: Sometimes it was so tender and bloated that I couldn’t leave the house. I struggled with intense gassiness and literally every single thing I ate seemed to make it worse. I would grow exhausted from dealing with chronic pain and simply want to sleep. I never felt like having sex because I felt like the least sexy person ever. My belly was so distended that people constantly asked me if I was pregnant. Sometimes my poop would be liquid for months, sometimes I couldn’t go at all.
I went to the doctor. First a primary care physician, then a specialist. I had test after test after test and they all came back negative.
“IBS!” they said. “Just a little IBS!”
“How do I fix that?” I asked
They just shrugged in response and suggested regular use of Pepto Bismol.
I did not agree that that could possibly be a long term answer.
I beat myself up terribly for my stomach, cried, felt ashamed and embarrassed. I tried eliminating so many different foods to fix it that I lost count.
I went to acupuncture, they needled my abdomen and gave me herbs. Both were great for a spell of time, but then my pocketbook told me that wasn’t a good answer for the long term. Acupuncture is amazing and incredible and very expensive unless you want to be in a room full of multiple people getting work done at the same time, which is not for me. I needed my healing to be private.
When the Paleo diet first hit the scenes and claimed to fix “leaky gut” I was all over it, because the symptoms sounded exactly like what I had. I was not willing to eat meat for ethical reasons, but I did add pasture raised eggs to my meals and did my best approximation of a bean free/grain free lifestyle.
It did not help long term, and for me, it didn’t feel balanced. I knew in my heart that I felt best mentally on a vegan diet and that the only sustainable cure for my gut health was going to have to be plant based.
I have experimented with every single suggestion under the sun for the past year, as long as the suggestion was vegan and inexpensive enough for me to afford on a teacher budget. I don’t always do every single one of these things, but when I remember to, the culture of my stomach drastically changes, which feels like a complete miracle. I write this for you as a working list (Please feel free to add suggestions!) in hopes that if you live with chronic stomach pain, we can work miracles for you too.
So, here we go.
Soak beans and grains, sprout them, and simmer them with kombu: After my Paleo vegetarian stint I cannot tell you how much I loved adding in both grains and beans to my diet. It is IMPERATIVE for me to make these things at home (especially beans) because your run-of-the-mill restaurant prep of these foods makes me feel totally sick. I soak, rinse, sprout, rinse, simmer in a crockpot or rice cooker with a seaweed called Kombu, scoop off the white frothy stuff that comes up when they first start to cook (for beans), and wait to add salt until the end of cooking. My bean and grain prep is rigorous and it is extremely helpful in terms of digestion.
Probiotics: These little dudes can be expensive and sometimes aren’t vegan, which is a drag. But! I found out the ones at Trader Joe’s are very wallet friendly and don’t contain animal products. They are shelf stable (I don’t need to keep them in the fridge) and useful if I have an IBS attack. I tend to pop ‘em whether or not I’m feeling sick for preventative measure too.
Digestive enzymes: I take one or two of these before meals in times when my stomach is not doing so hot, but these days I mostly don’t need them. I keep them in my arsenal for when I eat food that is spicy, beany, or rich. In general restaurant foods don’t sit that awesomely with me, and I don’t want to live a life without restaurants. Enzymes help.
If you can’t poop or you have diarrhea: One cup unsweetened almond milk, 1-2 tablespoon chia seeds, 2-3 tablespoons gluten free oats, ¼ cup blueberries. Shake up and let sit for 2 hours-overnight. Gobble up (it tastes awesome) and you will have the bowel movement of a lifetime within 12 hours. Works every time.
Blend your raw fruits and vegetables: Salads SOMETIMES work for me, on a really good day with no stomach pain, if I chew slowly, and take a digestive enzyme beforehand. Sometimes I don’t want to chew my greens sixty million times and I still want the nutritional benefits. The answer is my Vitamix. Raw soups and smoothies for the win.
Eat a varied diet: I tried eliminating many things in an effort to fix my guts. I was already vegan, then added eggs, then went vegan again. I gave up gluten, processed soy, apples/pears with the skins on, beans, grains, peanuts, bananas, cauliflower and broccoli, nightshade vegetables, and who knows what else, all at different times. Every time I gave something up, I had a week or two of good digestion, and then something would mess it all up again. It felt like I was getting new intolerances every day and like I would soon not be able to eat a damn thing.
I am a creature of habit. I go through long periods of eating the same foods every single day. As my diet got more and more particular the chances that I would have little variation only increased. Here’s the thing: my stomach gets irritated with too much of whatever. If I am not rotating my food, the gut gets all “what the hell is this shit, kale salad AGAIN?” and gets angry at me. Rotate your foods. I don’t know why it works, but for me, it really really does.
Lessen coffee consumption: When I started nutrition school and found an audio lecture about IBS, I gobbled it up. FINALLY! I thought. Someone gives enough of a shit about IBS to spend some time talking about it! Within five minutes of that lecture my enthusiasm waned. The lecturer said the very first thing to do, the thing you should do if nothing else, is eliminate coffee and other forms of caffeine to reduce IBS suffering. At the time I heard this, I was drinking roughly 32 oz. of coffee per day (We all have our vices!) and couldn’t imagine my life without it.
Because I have been working on ditching all-or-nothing/black-or-white thinking I decided I would just lesson my caffeine. I am now having about 8 oz. of coffee in the morning and maybe a cup of green tea later in the afternoon if I need it. Let me tell you, you don’t need to quit coffee to feel the gut benefits of lowering caffeine. My switch has been a game changer.
Chew and eat slowly: I have always eaten my food quickly, and once I experienced an eating disorder, it got worse. It’s like my body got so used to famine that when food was in front of me I felt like I had to eat it as quickly as humanly possible. NOT COOL, especially when you eat a lot of fiber like I do. The solution is totally to chew, and I try to put my fork down between bites as a reminder. Some people say chew each bite 50 times, but I think a chill 15-25 is more my speed.
Manage stress: The first thing I do when I’m stressed out is fart. THERE, I SAID IT. In order to deal with my life of projects, jobs, interpersonal relationships, and productivity, I need to chill once in awhile. I’m talking meditation (which I prefer to do while taking walks, sue me!), deep breaths, setting daily goals and intentions so as not to get overwhelmed, exercise, stretching, and taking time to make gratitude lists.
For so long, I sorta knew about most of this stuff, but just simply didn’t want to put in the energy to do it, because it pissed me off that being vegan and gluten free wasn’t enough. Since I decided to become rigorous about the healing of my gut, the quality of my life has improved tenfold. I AM WORTH IT, PEOPLE and I’m sure as hell that you are too. If your guts have been the source of a lot of trauma in your life, I highly encourage you to do all of the above. Little changes have made a huge difference for me.
What do you other stomach sensitive people do to keep your guts in check?
*Disclaimer, I am in no way, shape, or form a Doctor. Also DUH, that image is from The Simpsons, and not drawn by me.