9 SURPRISING THINGS THAT HELPED ME HEAL MY GUT
The benefits of eating to support gut health (and health in general) are so intangible and incomprehensible to anyone that has never tried to do so that it can be easy to ignore the hype and chalk it all up to "health freak BS". Without experiencing the incredible reality of how much more amazing I feel when I eat/live to support that crazy microbiome within, I’m not sure I would have ever truly committed to healing my gut myself. Now that I've experienced what it is to ignore gut health and conversely, to embrace it (read more here and here), I'm excited to share the below things that have had the biggest impact on my health during my gut healing journey!
THE HEALING PERIOD
GATHERING DATA: Beyond the obvious culprits that we know can wreak havoc on a compromised microbiome (excessive sugar, gluten/wheat, dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol), it was tricky to figure out which foods were my body's personal no-no's. The combination of blood work + a month-long elimination diet + food journaling helped me finally pinpoint/confirm what was causing chronic constipation, pretty severe digestive distress, rashes, recurrence of teenage style acne, flushing, sinus irritation and awful headaches. Prior to doing the all at the same time, the delayed responses to foods, cross contamination at restaurants and other potential triggers confused and frustrated the hell out of me. Though this approach sounds intense, once you go through digestive, skin and weight issues for YEARS, a few months of committing to figuring things out once and for all doesn't sound so bad.
- TAKING A DRAMATIC LEAP: I was so desperate to feel like myself again a year after back surgery and a few months before my wedding that I was willing to do anything. I put on my big girl pants, bought a book recommended by a friend and dove head first into the Clean Program. I blended up nutrient-dense liquid meals in the morning and at night, and had simple but nourishing solid food lunches each day. I was truly SHOCKED by how wonderful I felt when gave my body a break from hard to digest foods and my immune system a break from the allergens I let creep back into my eating routine. I felt like an entirely different person within 7 days on the 21-day program. Like superwoman. My mood, energy, sleep and bowel movements were more regular and healthy than they had been in my ENTIRE life. I finally felt strong again, which was so relieving with my wedding only 2 months away. That experience truly changed me because it slapped me across the face with the cold hard reality that what we put in our mouths and our habits around food have an ENORMOUS impact on how we feel, think, look and live. Until you’ve done something like this, you will roll your eyes at stories like mine, but when you follow any program that completely removes any impediments to health, you will never look at food the same again. If you're looking for a DRAMATIC way to wake your brain and body up to the benefits of eating for health, think about doing this! (not sponsored) PS. I did the book version the first time and have almost every time ever since (I do Clean Program a few times each year). I did not, and have never, bought the full (expensive) kit. I actually recommend doing the book version to gain far deeper understanding around what your brain and body are going through and to have ultimate control over making the program work for YOU. It's the most fascinating science experiment you'll EVER be a part of!
- AVOIDING DAIRY, GRAINS, LEGUMES, REFINED SUGARS/FLOURS, PROCESSED FOODS AND ANY SENSITIVITIES TEMPORARILY: I know this sounds incredibly overwhelming and challenging, and it was. I restricted these things well beyond the Clean Program under the supervision of a doctor that was treating my leaky gut. I did it because things had gotten bad enough. I couldn't even eat my beloved big mixing-bowl salads (my lifeblood) without pain anymore. My food sensitivities were abundant, my digestive distress was painful, my stool samples showed severe dysbiosis and my endoscopy revealed a small ulcer and inflammation. I do NOT recommend this for the average Joe with occasional gas, and I certainly don't recommend it for someone with a history of disordered eating, but if your gut is in serious disrepair, drastic symptoms call for drastic measures.
- ACCEPTING IT WILL TAKE TIME: Restoring or improving gut health takes time and patience - 2 things I didn’t exactly have in the beginning of my healing process. I expected my bloating, cramps, irregularity & food sensitivities to go away over night. The truth is, removing irritants, restoring good bacteria, rebuilding gut walls & creating new habits to support continued improvement can be quite a lengthy process. The Clean Program was only the beginning for me. Just think about how long we have the habits (eating refined foods, stressing too much, medications, sleeping too little, etc) that contribute to digestive issues. 5 years? 10? Or in my case, over 2 decades. Wounds that deep take a little while and A LOT of TLC to heal. As soon as I accepted that healing would take some time, I was in a better place to add the magical ingredient that makes all the difference: self compassion.
- FINDING FOODS/MEALS I TRULY LOVE THAT ARE GENTLE ON THE GUT: This took a little time and a lot of experimentation, but once I found a handful of GENIUS bloggers and books dedicated to special protocols and food allergies I was beyond relieved. I don't care how bad things get, eating cardboard for health just isn't sustainable and I didn't know how long I could last eating boring food (24 hours?!). I was determined to make eating for gut health delicious. These bloggers and chefs helped make that possible by exposing me to a whole new world of beautiful food prepared in inventive ways: Detoxinista, Against All Grain, Nom Nom Paleo, Elana's Pantry, Tasty Thin, Minimalist Baker, Half Baked Harvest and Clean Eats.
- FASTING FOR 12-14 HOURS OVERNIGHT: This is probably the simplest gut health habit that has had had the biggest positive impact on my digestion AND eating habits in general. Giving my body sufficient time to digest dinner AND perform normal detoxification processes while sleeping has positively impacted digestion, bloating and energy so much that I've continued doing this for 6 years! I've also noticed it makes me MUCH more aware of grazing and "dream feeding" (aka waking up at 5:00 am stressed out and face planting in a jar of nut butter).
- EATING A LIQUID BREAKFAST DAILY: Starting the day with an easy-to-digest smoothie or smoothie bowl to extend the time you're allowing your body to put energy into restoring and regenerating has been a real game changer for me. Little known fact: food actually takes A LOT of energy to digest, energy that our bodies could dedicate to other things (like healing). I see continued benefits in digestion, bloating and overall health with my nutrient-dense, super satisfying smoothies. Click here for some of my faves!
- ADDING PRO AND PREBIOTIC FOODS & ANTI-INFLAMMATORY HEALING FOODS: The unfortunate truth about taking oral probiotics is that no matter how fancy they are, they simply aren't enough to balance your gut bacteria, heal a leaky gut and promote gut health going forward. A high-quality probiotic is a great place to start, but adding foods that are food for the good bacteria in your gut, introduce new bacteria and calm the inflamed gut walls are powerful next steps. Check out this post for more detail on how to do all 3!
- STAYING CONNECTED TO MY INTENTIONS: This one was extremely important during the hardest and most restrictive stages of the process. I found it really helpful to reinforce the connection between mood, physical comfort, healthy digestion, clear skin and gut health in my daily journaling practice. A few years later, as symptoms fade and reactions become less severe, this practice helps me maintain a diet and lifestyle that supports my gut health and my overall mental and physical health. There are PLENTY of times (especially holidays) when I veer off track (it isn't always easy to turn down cocktails on vacation, gooey pizza at parties and warm old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies when I'm PMSing) so staying connected to my intention to put health first is key.