For 15 years I suffered from moderate to severe stomach problems: bloating, acid reflux, IBS(D), nausea, and vomiting.
Over time, my symptoms worsened. I saw lots of doctors and specialists–all of whom said I was perfectly healthy (on paper). I was told to take Imodium for the rest of my life, spend more time on stress-management activities, and avoid fatty and greasy foods.
Eventually, my symptoms expanded from my GI to other body systems. I developed an autoimmune blood disorder that makes me more susceptible to bleeding, bruising, & slow healing, a skin condition called perioral dermatitis that looks much like acne (but isn’t), and muscle spasms in my fingers, legs, and shoulders.
Despite trying a gamut of dermatologist-prescribed creams and pills, my dermatitis melted into an angry red patch around my nose, mouth, and chin. I was embarrassed to show my face in public, and I dreaded face-to-face conversations. All the reclusive tendencies I had adopted as a young acne-ridden-teen returned.
I searched for treatments for perioral dermatitis online. There were lots of other people who suffered from this skin ailment, and they touted natural alternatives such as apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, and probiotics. I tried them all. Nothing worked.
Finally I considered the thing I never, ever, wanted to do. What I had been putting off for so long (um, yeah, an entire decade) because I was afraid it might work, and then I’d be forced to stick with it forever. Live with it forever.
Seriously. Ten years of ignoring, denying, refusing something that could possibly change my life. What murky waters could be so terrifying?
The unchartered territory of a restricted diet.
I was desperate.
So instead of dipping my toes into the water, I jumped all in. I went gluten, dairy, and sugar free for a week.
The results spoke for themselves.
My dermatitis cleared up significantly (but not completely), and my GI improved drastically (but not entirely). Even my twitching quieted down.
Was this an adventure I wanted to navigate through? Was the treasure worth the countless storms ahead? Were my symptoms that problematic?
It was my vanity that made up my mind. My desire for clear skin set me on course for an island I had never heard of and a treasure as mythological as the Black Pearl.
I traded in my food to control my dermatitis.
Over the course of two years, I tried many diets. First the anti-Candida diet, then the SCD diet, finally the Paleo diet. Many times I felt like I was making progress, like I was finding tiny pieces of a torn map. But ultimately, my symptoms (skin, IBS, spasms) would flare up again. I felt like I couldn’t eat anything. I suspected not just specific foods but quantity of those particular foods. I’d have cauliflower one day and be fine. The next time, I’d be having problems. It was confusing, even for my doctors who I kept revisiting and the natural-minded practitioners I tried.
At one point, I drove six hours to see a holistic chiropractor who diagnoses food intolerances through muscle testing. I left his office with more foods to avoid and a paper bag containing over $200 in supplements. A couple days later, my husband had to rush home, because I was sure my body was shutting down.
All of my energy that been sucked out of me. I was sweating buckets in an air conditioned room and crying uncontrollably. I tried to stand, but my world was spinning and a headache seared across my forehead.
By the time he arrived, I could barely talk. I felt catatonic. He was as confused as I was until he looked up the new supplement I had taken for the first time. He read the herb Bugleweed can lower blood sugar and can be dangerous to diabetics (which I’m not, BTW). He gave me some food. My blood sugar raised and I stopped sweating. I could focus on what was happening again. It was a day-long recovery, but there weren’t any long-lasting effects.
In the end I was thankful. Because I had made a mistake: the chiropractor had directed me to take a whole dropper of the liquid supplement. I had misread it and only taken one drop. What would have happened if I had taken 10+ times more than what I had that morning?
It was a sobering experience. A warning. There are pirates (even well meaning Jack Sparrows) who think they are helping you, but are in fact, only delaying and/or endangering your health.
The worst pirate was the one reflected in the mirror. After asking my general doctor for a dietician referral (and being told there wasn’t anyone in the network who dealt with food stuff like mine) I decided to go solo. Being on one restricted diet after another took its toll. My body protested. I was fatigued and weighed the same as I had in middle school (which to my astonishment many people complimented me on, but that’s another soap box). I lost a lot of muscle and suffered from mild depression. My anxiety, which I developed around the age of 9, became more pronounced. I knew I needed a diverse and balanced diet (i.e. I needed carbs!!!), but so many foods seemed to make me react in one way or another. Even eating a small amount of grains made my muscles spasm for 24-48 hours.
I was in the midst of a terrible storm.
At this point, I turned to God for healing. I needed a supernatural helper. Something greater than my doctors or my own understanding.
The rain and wind settled.
For some reason, I gave up the last fruit I had been eating daily (apples sautéed in honey). And poof!
Within 24 hours, all the anxiety and depression I had been dealing with disappeared. It was like magic. But how could that be? I had struggled with anxiety for so long. It seemed too good to be true.
Except it stuck. I never picked up another apple (or piece of fruit) and my anxiety never returned. That’s right. 20+ years of anxiety had vanished. I had discovered another gold coin. And a handful of torn pieces. I was getting closer to the treasure, I just knew it.
Eight more months passed before God sent the rest of the map to me. Just after I was referred to Mayo by my general practitioner and gastrologist, I was told by two people (on the same day) to try the Low FODMAP diet first.
The low what diet?
Basically there are a ton of foods out there that contain fermentable carbohydrates that some people react to. Like me!!! You can learn more about it from where it was developed, at Monash University. But COLLEEN FRANCIOLI does a great job explaining it too, here.
When I first looked at the list of Safe and Unsafe Foods on a Low FODMAP Diet, the map magically pieced itself together. All the bizarre foods that sometimes gave me problems and sometimes didn’t (depending usually on how much I was eating in one sitting) was there. Staring back at me.
After looking at it a bit longer, I realized I had also been inadvertently eating foods I thought were safe but weren’t. Like onions, garlic, and broccoli!!!
Once I knew what to avoid, my life changed.
I began to heal.
After nine(ish) months, I could reintroduce gluten free grains without experiencing muscle spasms. And now . . . a year and a half later, I can also eat white flour in moderation. You see, it wasn’t gluten I was reacting to, but the fructans found in gluten-containing foods like wheat. I still can’t eat whole-grain wheat as it possesses too many fructans but being able to eat white bread really expands one’s options.
I have to read labels all the time. High-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and honey are added to products (that don’t need it!) like nobody’s business. In fact, most packaged breads contain them (sigh).
I’m now following my own tailored Low FODMAP diet. After experimenting with all the F-O-D-M-A-Ps in different quantities (as recommended by the doctors behind the diet), I’ve come to the conclusion that fructose is my pirate kryptonite. I am extremely–and I mean extremely–sensitive to fructose.
Most fruit, honey, high fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup make me react within a half hour. I can get away with a little lemon or lime or a small portion of a very ripe banana (which once ripe, contains more glucose than fructose). But I can’t eat regular white sugar (like some Low FODMAPPers) because it is half fructose, half glucose, and that is just too much fructose for me. Are you confused? I’m sorry if you are. It is rather complicated to an outsider. I was baffled for a while too. But now, I’m good.
Because being in control of my body is worth the dietary sacrifices.
I’ve gained all my weight back and muscle. Tomorrow I will be running my second 10K. And while I sometimes cheat with foods I shouldn’t (especially with dark chocolate), I finally know how to keep my IBS, muscle spasms, and dermatitis under control (as long as I also avoid the sun and dogs–which I’m naturally allergic to, of course!).
I found the X on my treasure map. And I’m running my fingers through a chest of gold coins. I’ve reclaimed my health and I feel better than I have in 15 years.
What’s next for me?
Well, I’m looking at the horizon, and I see a few distant ships out there. Others who are caught in storms, or confused at the torn map they’re holding, or excited at a gold coin they just acquired.
I want to help them.
First, I want to tell them, they’re not alone and there is hope.
Second, if it turns out they have a sensitivity to high FODMAP containing foods (hopefully discovered under the direct supervision of a doctor and/or registered dietitian), they don’t have to give up on every single food they love.
Especially, if they’re like me and have a terrible sweet tooth . . .
Because I’ve set sail and have a few Low FODMAP recipes to share with the masses. They’re exactly what Low FODMAPPers like me need to stay healthy, but they’ll also work for those who are sensitive to gluten and dairy. And they’re to be enjoyed by all–be them pirate or not.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or health professional. These experiences are my own and are not intended to diagnose, treat, or otherwise advise others. When starting a new diet, please consult your doctor first.