The two tiny things that destroyed my gut health
How my sister lost her health for one and a half years – and how she slowly rebuilt it despite pain, nausea and fatigue
One of my motivations to train as a Certified Holistic Health & Lifestyle Coach was watching friends and family suffer with autoimmune disease, illness, digestion issues and chronic fatigue. That’s why I’m so pleased to be able to share my sister’s story of overcoming acute digestion issues that left her sick, exhausted and unable to eat anything without severe reactions.
Lying in bed the first morning back in the UK, I felt a rush of nausea coupled with an alarmingly distended stomach. I had been living happily in Kathmandu, Nepal, for five months. Sourcing my food from the local markets and cooking in my apartment, I had been meticulous about hygiene. I had peeled all my vegetables and cooked them in boiling water on my basic gas camping stove.
But I hadn’t done enough.
Looking back, it is understandable that I became so ill. It had been wedding season during my time there, and as anyone who has experienced South Asian hospitality will understand, I had been kindly asked to join many celebrations.
Eating with several hundred people at a time, sitting crossed-legged on the floor, from leaves and with my hands, was bound to compromise my efforts to be as hygienic as possible. On one occasion, I had even been directly fed a piece of mutton by a kindly grandmother of the bride!
Back in England, I put my symptoms to the back of my mind. I had travelled many times to that part of the world and bugs are just part of the deal.
But in the months that followed, my illness became hard to ignore. I was being left bed-ridden with aches. Walking to the tube would leave me clutching the nearest wall to steady myself against the persistent, destabilising nausea. Any food consumed, be it vegetable, protein or carb, would have an erratic effect on my digestion that left socialising untenable.
The size of my swollen stomach did not fluctuate, however, even when, as an experiment, I didn’t eat for two days. I looked four months pregnant – without the gorgeous, healthy glow of a mum-to-be.
My memory suffered and I struggled to focus on my day. Doctors prescribed endless antibiotics and ran blood tests. The tests showed nothing.
More months passed and I began to look at alternative ways of healing. I adopted a positive mental attitude and a commitment to health. I ate a primarily vegan diet, practised yoga, slept and of course kept away from alcohol. I also enlisted the help of a qualified herbalist.
Luckily for me, my herbalist encouraged me to pay for a full stool test. It was expensive, being among the most comprehensive tests in the world to determine the cause of symptoms affecting the digestive tract – from diseases to parasites, bacteria, fungus and viruses – and check for malabsorption, among much more. It was a relief to finally get the results.
I had in fact had two parasites all along. These had failed to show up in previous tests (which, apparently, is common). The tests also showed that the combination of parasites and the cocktail of antibiotics I had been taking had left my system broken. My kidneys weren’t functioning. Neither was my pancreas, and I had lost the villi in my small intestines – rendering me unable to process food and leaving me malnourished and anaemic.
It was a great relief to find out that I wasn’t mad, and to finally have some answers.
It was clear to me that I needed to get nutrients into my body in the least stressful way for my system, so I relied on a powder that stripped my nutrition right back to the essentials and decreased inflammation. From there, I slowly introduced foods found in the FODMAP diet, which helped treat my digestion.
My stomach at this stage had been almost comically hard and distended for eight months and continued to be for almost a year after the discovery of the parasites in my gut. That was my indicator for healing, and as my symptoms eased, sometimes painstakingly slowly, I gently reintroduced food groups and built up my energy.
It was only as recently as this June that I woke and instinctively brought my hand to my stomach (as I now did every morning – a reflex to check if that awful swelling was still there) and truly felt normal.
It had been an arduous journey. Only six months before, a tame vegetable soup could leave me bed-bound with cramps.
Time, and a complete overhaul in understanding and managing my health, got me to a place of complete recovery.
Here are some of the things that helped me along the way:
1. The FODMAP Diet – Eating anti-inflammatory foods helped me to manage day-to-day symptoms. This eating plan is useful for IBS sufferers and those with food allergies and intolerances.
2. Castor Oil Packs – I rub castor oil on my stomach at night and apply a hot water bottle. It both detoxifies and magically eases bloat.
3. Hot water, lemon and ginger – this is a great antioxidant and anti-inflammatory drink. I drink it to sooth my digestion and for its immune-boosting properties.
4. Colonic irrigation – colonics were vital to heal my damaged gut. Around 90% of serotonin is made in the body’s digestive tract, and 70-80% of your immune tissue is in your digestive tract. So, it made sense for me to have a cleanse. If you’ve never had one, colonics are surprisingly gentle.
5. Magnesium Citrate supplements – we need magnesium to properly digest foods, regulate vitamins and minerals, as well as to absorb and use proteins, carbs and fats. Many of us are magnesium deficient, and some of the symptoms are fatigue, memory loss and confusion. Nuts, leafy green veggies and wholegrains contain magnesium.