How I Healed

Healing! We’ve finally made it to the good stuff…the comeback story…and my favorite part to share.

I think there is some irony in healing. Healing doesn’t happen all it once – by definition it is a process.  And within that process I found the most genuine, body-mind-and-soul encompassing feelings of joy, energy, and life. The kind of joy that radiates throughout your body, not just your thoughts. The kind of joy that makes you squeal when you’re alone in your car and realize that it’s actually working – you’re getting better. The kind of energy that sets you on a momentous path forward as you crave more healing. And the kind of life that is felt when one develops awestruck admiration for the power of her own body. Who would have thought I’d find such happiness and appreciation from being kicked down so darn hard?

The spark that lit this fire came to be when I became enamored by the realization that I was cohabitating with a microcosmic existence – my gut flora. Within this finicky community were trillions of bacteria that I couldn’t see, touch, or measure but were calling the shots nonetheless – so I’ll start there.

KRISTIE MEETS HER MICROBIOME

I love figuring out the right answer. Like a lot.

So when the medical community insisted that I accept that gut ailments (like IBS and IBD) have no definitively known cause, my brain struggled to compute. Without a known cause, the best course of (medical) treatment was to throw medications and procedures at me until something worked. So for months, the doctors and I threw spaghetti at the wall and prayed something would stick, but it never did. Although I was letting it happen, this approach never really sat right with me. I had strong reason to feel this way – it seemed everything we threw really only made me worse than before. Maybe if we had been throwing whole wheat pasta, we would have had better luck…

Anyways, it was time to start computing.

In my case, I knew that the bacteria-eliminating antibiotics were at the heart of my demise, and the bacteria-replenishing FMT provided the only hint of improvement thus far. Thus, I turned to books and documentaries that fascinated me with the complexities of the gut and the trillions of bacteria it was home to. As it turns out, just five days on a broad-spectrum antibiotic can wipe out a third of your gut bacteria (per The Microbiome Solution…great book!). Well darn, I was on antibiotics for over six weeks. No math needed there.

At this point, I imagined my microbiome as a war zone that was seriously lacking when it came to good contenders. After completely ignoring them for 28 years, it was time that me and whatever was left of my good gut bacteria got on the same page – I needed to give them a fighting chance. But I had no idea where to start and I was running out of steam. The failed diets and attempted treatments were really starting to wear on me.

Lucky for me, I share a tiny office with a bighearted coworker and I found the companion I needed to give me a reboot. Luckier for me, he knew a thing or two about food. Real food. Good food. And this is where it gets deliciously better.

With some (heavy) guidance, I learned all about food.

I learned a whole new outlook on what real food was (like things found in the produce and meat section at the grocery store) and what real food was not (basically everything else). I learned what our ancestors hunted and gathered (it certainly wasn’t processed and in a box). I learned what the healthiest cultures in the world consumed, and what the cultures ridden by heart disease, diabetes, and obesity consumed – that second group is us, by the way. As I learned, some things became clearer, but others got much less clear. Was sugar or fat to blame for obesity? Was meat necessary for our daily protein intake, or a food supply chain disaster? Did dairy make your bones strong, or was it meant strictly for baby cows? Was gluten suddenly the devil masked as a loaf of bread?

Playing with a baby cow while visiting a raw milk farm to learn about its potential benefits. Spoiler alert: I decided it wasn’t for me, but more on that later.

But among all this confusion, you know what no one ever seemed to be confused about? Plants! No one ever threw shade at veggies. No one ever said to put the fruit down. No one ever hypothesized legumes were the cause of the obesity epidemic. With all the conflict out there, one thing always came through resoundingly clear whether I turned to the nutritionists, cardiologists, or the Michael Pollans of the world: we were meant to eat plants. Or said another way, perhaps my outnumbered cohabitants (good bacteria) were meant to eat plants. And, so, into my life entered the healing concept of a whole foods, plant-based diet. I know that’s not a sexy “diet” name, but it breaks down quite simply:

  • Eat whole foods: These are foods that are unrefined (or refined as little as possible). The closer they are to their in-the-ground state the better. Whole foods don’t come from a manufacturing line and aren’t curated in a lab. Instead, they come from the land and bring with them all the nutrients that soil, sun, and rain have to offer.
  • Eat mostly plants (thanks M.P.): Plants include more than just vegetables (although vegetables are so abundantly delicious). Add fruits, whole grains (quinoa, whole wheat, brown rice), tubers (potatoes and sweet potatoes), nuts, seeds, and beans (chickpeas, black beans, lentils) to that list.

If you’ve stuck with me through all of this, and you’re thinking I just described another tasteless, strict, boring diet, I promise you this is not that – hang with me just a little bit longer! Or, if you’re about to sign off because you know your digestive system most certainly cannot handle fruits and vegetables, just wait, I was there too! But I got through it, and I’m going to tell you how, I promise!

EASING INTO VEGGIE NATION

At this point, I really wanted to try this “new-found” way of eating. There was just one problem. Per usual, my stomach got to call the shots and it simply could NOT handle vegetables and fruit. They proved torturous for my digestive tract – if you’re struggling with IBS, I’m sure you can relate. How was this ever going to work? So, with a lot of backup from my foodie guardian, a plan was devised. We hypothesized that first I needed to soothe and strengthen my digestive tract, and only then would it be well equipped to handle the prebiotic foods (veggies) that I wanted to throw at it. So here’s what we did:

Step 1: Soothe and Prepare

Through research, we found natural ways to calm inflammation and restore my digestive tract lining. Turmeric tea for inflammation, ginger for nausea, Zinc supplements to strengthen my gut lining, and bone broth packed with the nutrients that I had become so deficient in.

I started taking Vitamin D and Magnesium supplements, as they’ve been shown to help with depression. I was definitely feeling beat down, meaning neither good vibes nor good chemicals were likely being sent from my brain to my gut. It may seem trivial, but we’ve all seen how far a good attitude can take you, so I knew this was essential to my recovery.

I also kept really strict to my no sugar, no dairy diet. And by strict, I mean I consumed no dairy or no sugar, ever. I knew these things were proven to irritate the gut and even worse, feed the bad bacteria.

See, I told you I wasn’t happy about the turmeric tea.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t super eager to try any of this. Turmeric, ginger, and broth…blah. But the tea kept showing up on my desk, so I kept drinking it. If you don’t like the taste either, don’t worry, it gets better around cup number 11 – tested fact.

After a few weeks of this, I began to notice subtle, but real changes. My stomach seemed to calm down. The churning was still there, but the edge seemed to be dulling. I thought it was time to slowly start introducing prebiotic foods – fuel in the form of vegetables for my good bacteria to feed on.

Step 2: Ease In

Raw foods obviously create a lot of work for your digestive tract, so obviously that wasn’t a good place to start. So, I learned to sauté and roast. I ate small portions and eased my way in with whole foods that I found easier to digest. I started with things like zucchini and carrots and worked my way up to cooked leafy greens. At first, I peeled the fibrous skin off things like potatoes to test the waters. I cooked my bananas down in coconut oil. I added garlic, onions, olive oil, and coconut oil to nearly everything I could, whole-heartedly believing in their healing power.  I took it slow, and over time, the list of foods in my pantry and fridge kept growing. I then took a massive leap of faith and introduced raw veggies, starting with things like cucumbers and green peppers. Before I knew it, I was slamming down giant bowls of salads packed with all the colors of the rainbow.

As I increased my plant consumption, I also gradually reduced my meat consumption (including fish) until I was very rarely, if ever eating animal products. I cut chicken, beef, and pork entirely and ate fish from time to time. I wasn’t convinced that completely giving up meat was the way to go, but the more I read about all the drugs (including antibiotics) that our animals were given, the bacteria-ridden environments in which livestock lived, and the inflammatory impacts meat had on my body, the more I felt I should shift my intake from some animal products to nearly entirely plants. If I ate meat (and if I eat meat now), most important to me was knowing where it came from and how it was raised.

Step 3: Say goodbye to the pills

This whole foods, plant-based thing seemed to be working for me, but it came time to really put it to the test. I knew from my research that many of the medications I was taking might be having unintended impacts on my gut bacteria. I was throwing all the good prebiotic food I could at ‘em, but maybe they still didn’t stand a fighting chance. So, I slowly weaned myself off of every last pill I was taking. So long Imodium at every meal.

Step 4: Go kale crazy

Had I made it through the tough and dedicated intro period?  Could I now reap the deliciously glorious benefits? The answer was a big fat yes. It was time to truly rediscover plants.

PLANTS. PLANTS. PLANTS.

It’s no secret that veggies get a bad rap. Green beans get pushed to the sides of plates, iceberg lettuce wilts at the end of buffet bars, and frozen bags of corn get pushed to the back of freezers. Meats are marinated, roasted, set in the middle of the table, and carved to oohs and aahs. Vegetables, on the other hand, are a “side,” quickly steamed, and added to the dinner menu because we all know we’re supposed to eat them. But what if we gave vegetables just a little more attention? Or what if we went further and gave vegetables the chance to be the star of the show?

So, I decided to part ways with the unseasoned chicken I was eating (thank goodness), and instead took a stroll (and then another and another) to my local farmers’ market. I started watching cooking shows and YouTube videos. I was inspired to read books, that taught me the foundations of cooking like “The Art of Simple Food,” by Alice Waters. I learned what it felt like to have a real knife in my hand. I developed new skills like flipping sautéing mushrooms in pan (how many do you think hit the floor the first time I tried?).

My Facebook feed became beautified with veggie-based meals from blogs like Cookie+Kate, Oh She Glows, and Minimalist Baker, just to name a few. I learned how to use and cook real foods that I had been too intimidated to touch: new greens like kale, swiss chard, arugula, and cabbage, meaty portabella mushrooms, things I’d never heard of like bok choy and leaks, real garlic, fresh herbs like parsley and rosemary and cilantro, grains like quinoa and farro, and the list goes on. I stopped microwaving my sweet potatoes and instead sliced them in coins and roasted them until they were oh so sweet. I stopped depending on dressing to be the sole source of flavor in my salads and introduced new ingredients like roasted pepitas, walnuts, fruits, grains, chickpeas, black beans and more. I bit into fruit that was in season and right from the tree and literally giggled with excitement over its bursting flavors.

Oh how I missed fruit for months and months! A peach never tasted so good.

And the more I did this, the more I craved it. I noticed my taste buds starting to change. Broccoli became sweet, kale wasn’t bitter, coconut oil infused delectable flavors. The cakes and ice cream I had been dreaming about for months lost their magical appeal – and meals ended with me thinking, give me more veggies! Cooking stopped becoming a means to end and instead became an experience that brought the power of healing to my plates. To my incredible surprise, I was never bored with what I ate – the recipes and combinations seemed endless. Even my Chipotle-carnitas-craving-husband got on board with my all veggie meals. I stopped consuming and started experiencing: from the farmers’ market, to the kitchen, to my mouth, to my microbiome.

My plates transformed and my meals started looking like this. VEGGIES.

It was amazing just how quickly I started to notice I was getting better.

Even just a few weeks in, I saw improvement. At first, I’d get a day here or a day there where my churning stomach wasn’t the primary focus on my brain. Then a few days would string together, and eventually the good days turned into a good week. And after that the momentum just kept climbing. Not only did my digestive system keep gaining fortitude, but I also noticed my nails getting pinker, my hair getting strong, my skin regaining a glow. Nutrients were being absorbed! I had to pinch myself every once in a while to be sure it was actually happening, but it was oh so real. I was able to introduce more and more into my diet. I went out to dinner with my friends and could actually order off the menu. I could go for runs and strengthen my muscles. I could drink a glass of wine, on our sunny California porch, on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. I even ate an ooey gooey chocolate cupcake on my birthday (hey, don’t judge…it’s a plant based diet…that leaves room for a special-occasion-cupcake). These were all simple things that would have put me down for the count for days, just a few short months earlier. I rejoined life, with eyes wide open, my senses renewed, my head cleared, and my stomach at peace. It was, and every day still is, simply beautiful.

TODAY (1 YEAR 6 MONTHS POST-DOOMSDAY)

About 8 months into my whole foods plant-based adventure, I’d venture to say I’m about 85% recovered.

I still have a day here or there where my stomach is a little off. Or, if I stray too far away from the good stuff too often, I’ll start paying for it some. When I was sick, I used to think that as long as I had limitations like this, I wasn’t living – I wasn’t back to health. But through my healing process, I’ve discovered that mindset is just so very wrong. Each day, I feel more alive than ever. I feel connected to what I eat. I feel nourished and energized, and supported by my large plates of food and I’m constantly craving more of it. Plus having total confidence in my healing tool box gives me the peace of mind I need to keep charging forward without fear of a limited life.

Knowing where I am now, I know I’m lucky. Through this experience, I’ve learned that there are so many people who struggle with debilitating and sometimes undiagnosed digestion problems for years, or even their entire lives. My struggle, supported so very much by my family and selfless friends, was comparatively short-lived. I hope that by taking up this small space on the internet, I can reach another C. Diff or IBS sufferer with my story. If you’re one of those people, I’ll share with you my research, tips on where to start in all of this, my favorite recipes, and my favorite resources, with the hope that you too can experience the joy in healing and finding a new connection to what you eat. Even if you’re not sick, I want that for you too!

After it all – after all the empty medication bottles, pages of test results, and bookmarked terrible diets – for me, healing ultimately happened through three simple things:

  1. A kick start from my husband’s “co-habitants” (FMT)
  2. My own powerful, resilient body
  3. All the life, microorganisms, and nutrients that each bite of whole, real foods has to offer

IBS: 382 days. Kristie: The glorious rest of them.

Here’s my obligatory on-top-of-the-world concluding photo. Now let’s get to eating!

kalemekristie