SIBO In College: A Really Fun Time
Here's part two to part one I wrote about this past week.
Growing up, I always ate what I considered to be healthy- fruits and vegetables. But, I also ate like any normal kid- a bag of chips here, a cookie there, candy here. The summer going into my freshman year of college (2018), I eliminated all “red” foods, AKA ones that I was intolerant to. It was brutal. I realized that I did eat a pretty fair amount of processed foods and found it really hard to eliminate so many at one time. I also became fixated on being 100% perfect and not messing up. I would get so frustrated if I accidentally ate a chip that had sunflower oil in it or ate salad dressing that unknowingly was made with safflower oil. To me, it felt like I had failed whenever this happened. To make matters worse, I had a visual time clock of three months ticking down in my head. I thought that once I made it three months of not eating any "red" foods, I would be cured and all my stomach problems would go away. Whenever I accidentally ate something that was "red," the time clock would roll all the way back to time zero and I would tell myself to start again.
The summer passed by and I ended up being too afraid to re-introduce the "red" foods back into my system in fear of symptoms re-arising like the extreme bloating and stomach pain I had felt before. I went into college with a strict diet of eating anything but the red foods. I eventually realized that if I accidentally ate salad dressing made with sunflower oil or a cookie with an egg in it, nothing horrible was going to happen.
About two months into college I realized there may be something more wrong. Every single time I would eat even the smallest bit of food, my stomach would expand to look like I was 8 months pregnant. It's just as uncomfortable as it sounds. Imagine your post Thanksgiving meal bloat and multiply that times 10. That's how bad it was. I was so uncomfortable in my own skin all the time. I only wanted to wear sweatpants because of how restricting the waistband on real pants felt. My skin was so angry at me all the time. I was starving. STARVING. I was afraid to eat because I knew that no matter what I ate I was always going to end up massively bloated and in pain. I had the most bizarre sugar cravings and it felt like there were demons in me demanding I eat sugar all the time. The sugar cravings were debatably the worst part. It was not like the normal cravings of needing a little something sweet here or there. It was torturous. I was constantly fatigued to the point of having to take multiple naps throughout the day. I tried so hard not to eat sugar, but when I did, it only made the fatigue the next day uncontrollable. I had constant brain fog, could not focus for the life of me, and had no motivation to get anything done. It was exhausting.
Okay so I'm feeling brave.... here's a day in the life of what happened to my stomach when I ate barely anything.
I hadn't really ever thought much of it because I can't remember a time I didn't get bloated after eating so much as a tiny snack. I thought it was normal to always feel bloated so until it got really out of hand, I just thought that this is what food does to you.
I went back to see my holistic doctor in October and explained all these symptoms to her. She told me she thinks I have SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). This is when you have an overgrowth of bacteria in your small intestine and you can’t digest food or absorb any nutrients from food. It can lead to leaky gut and many food intolerances and allergies- we've come full circle. The goal with treating SIBO is to "starve" and kill off the bacteria because there is an overgrowth of them. Bacteria that live in your small intestine thrive off of foods such as carbohydrates and sugars. Every time you eat something, you are essentially "feeding them" which causes them to continue to grow and multiply. The only way to "cure" SIBO is to starve the bacteria (AKA not eat) and kill them with medicine (AKA herbal supplements).
SIBO is not something that is easy to treat. It takes a lot more than a bandaid or a quick prescription. Even today, a year and a half later, I am still treating it (but wayyy more mildly). There’s two routes you can go- (1) antibiotics or (2) herbal supplements and a major diet change (and I thought that part couldn’t get any worse). The antibiotics are not as successful as the herbal route so my doctor advised me to go the herbal way. When she told me I was going to be taking herbs to cure my stomach, I thought she was insane and joking. UNTIL, I tried it and it worked, so, if you're like me and think herbs are insane and wizardry, all I have to say is don't knock it till you try it. They actually are pretty powerful.
I took Berberine Complex 3 times a day in between meals, Atrantil with meals, and Magnesium Citrate at night. Berberine is an herbal antimicrobial (I know- sounds so hippie and whack but trust me) which means that it is proven to kill the bacteria in the intestine. Atrantil is a formula made by a doctor specifically for SIBO and bloating. It contains herbs that kill bacteria and help reduce symptoms.
The real crowd pleaser and cherry on top to this whole thing was the diet I had to eat. I only ate chicken with one of four vegetables (COOKED, always cooked: spinach, green beans, zucchini, or carrots) for two whole months- and remind you, I was in college. It was horrible. I was so hungry all the time but constantly bloated. I was gaining weight for who knows what reasons considering I was eating less than 1,000 calories a day. I genuinely felt like an umpa lumpa most of the time. I hated going out because I wasn’t supposed to drink since alcohol is sugar and I was supposed to avoid sugar at all costs since sugar feeds the bacteria I was trying to kill. Whenever I did drink I felt miserable and so uncomfortable. And to really seal the deal on my freshman year, the trim dining staff had to specialty make my meals- really fun times to be a freshman.
So for two months I sucked it up and did what I had to. I ate like a skinny legend (even though I definitely was not), avoided sugar, spaced out my meals, intermittent fasted, took the herbal supplements, drank plenty of water and tried to avoid alcohol.
Mmm yes, these are as appetizing as they look. Sooo not tasty to eat this and only this for two months.
When I came home for Christmas I finally felt better. My skin and the little bumps on my face and around my nose had cleared up. I didn’t look as bloated and round. I had way more energy and was more myself.
This pattern of going from feeling normal and amazing to feeling like I am 8 months pregnant has repeated itself on and off ever since. It has not been as severe as the very beginning in October, but I still have days, weeks, or months that I don’t ever feel good and constantly feel bloated, miserable, and exhausted. Other times I feel amazing and feel like I can eat anything and it won’t bother me. When I don’t feel well, I know I have to order two bottles of Berberine and eat a very clean and strict diet to reset my gut. Alcohol makes everything worse which is torture. Tequila seems to be the gentlest on my stomach so cheers to that. Same with sugar- I love sugar so much but it hates me. HATES. I’ll share my favorite dessert recipes that have very little to no added sugar because for having no sugar, they’re honestly not that bad.
This past August (10 months later) I was really miserable again, debatably worse than in October, so my doctor said I should try the antibiotic route in hopes of knocking it out all together and be the last piece to the puzzle. That would have been way too good to be true and instead the antibiotics were nothing but three weeks of nausea, stomach pain in my left side, and extreme bloating so that was a one and done deal.
I never like to say I feel good because whenever I admit it out loud, it seems like the very next week the vicious cycle is beginning again and all the horrible symptoms occur. When I was going through this experience I felt all alone and like not one person could understand just how much pain I was in. It was hard enough to begin with and then to feel alienated was even worse. I remember scavenging the internet at night trying to find anyone that I could relate to so I could see that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and I wasn't always going to be so miserable.
And here we are, a year and a half later. I kind of eat whatever I want, except not really. I can't even tell you the specifics of which"red" foods I am supposed to avoid. That list caused me so much stress and agony and I am happy to say I have pretty much ditched it. I avoid gluten like it's the plague. I try to avoid sugar as best I can and only have it in small amounts. My main source of food are vegetables- kale, spinach, zucchini, avocado, and so many more. My stomach likes vegetables which is unfortunate considering I used to hate them. Occasionally I will eat something processed like chips or crackers but only in moderation since they don't always agree with me. I eat fruit in small amounts since it is heavy on the sugar and that often upsets my stomach. I'm not a big meat eater but if I am out and it is one of the only things I can eat, I will gladly eat it since I know it agrees with me. I don't eat dairy except for a few hard cheeses in moderation.
My life and food is not as controlled as it was two years ago and I have learned to be able to let go a little bit, but it's still scary not knowing when your stomach is just going to decide to flare up on you when you thought you were eating the right foods. Everything I eat is in moderation and as much as I try to never deprive myself of foods I love, the sad truth is that I have to for my own sake. I've learned the hard way that not eating the chicken tender that looks crispy and smells so good is for sure for the best. And eating that big slice of cake for dessert only leads to extreme fatigue the next day. So there's my story and how I became so involved with my health and holistic ways of healing. It definitely was not fun and I've accepted that my digestion is always going to be some sort of issue in my life. I've learned a lot and figured out how to live a life with it and everyday I do the best I can to eat well and not upset it. I still love a good cookie though :).
Here is a little bit of advice if you’re having stomach issues, regardless of if you’ve seen a doctor or not- these are all around helpful tips (at least I think so):
Always cook your vegetables. Raw vegetables are not easy to digest which is why you may feel bloated or uncomfortable after eating. When you cook them, you help break down the enzymes inside so that your body doesn’t have to work overtime to do it. Better digestion= better everything in your life, trust me.
Bone Broth is liquid gold. The gelatin inside bones (of any kind- chicken, beef, whatever) are full of nutrients and help to heal your stomach and intestinal lining. So, your intestinal tract that was full of small tiny holes from having a leaky gut, are getting help healing. It’s kind of a pain to make because it takes 8 hours to simmer and cook but it is so easy and you can throw it in a pot and walk away. This has saved me in my worst and most painful times so there’s something to be said for that.
Stop eating processed sh*t. Have you ever looked at the ingredients in a loaf of bread? Bread is made with flour, water and oil. For you health queens, these are the ingredients in a loaf of whole wheat bread: Whole Wheat Flour, Water, Whole Wheat, Wheat Gluten, Sugar, Yeast, Molasses, Soybean Oil, Contains 2% Or Less Of: Sugarcane Fiber, Salt, Calcium Propionate And Sorbic Acid To Extend Freshness, Monoglycerides, Datem, Soy Lecithin, Whey (Milk)*. WTF is calcium propionate and monoglycerides, and datem?? NOT NATURAL. When it is not “natural” or “real” your body does not know how to break it down because it is not real food. I'm not saying that you should never eat processed foods, but just be a little more aware of the ingredients in them.