On SIBO: My Journey Toward a Healthier Gut

Jan 21 2018

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I've always struggled with digestive issues. I was born a colic baby and that gassiness never really went away. From as early as I can remember, I could out-fart any human, including my dad. I never thought much of it and accepted it as "how I am" up until my late twenties.

Within the last five years, I've grown extremely self conscious about my bloated stomach, which gives me the look of an early pregnant female. Not to mention, physically, the amount of gas is uncomfortable and hard to deal with in social situations.

Project End Gut Bloat began in 2013 when I did a ten day juice cleanse. Inspired by the documentary Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, I bought an expensive juicer and sought to eradicate The Bloat. I did a good job - I brought my neatly packed juices to work every day and resisted all temptation to cheat. I even got my period during the cleanse and it was the only time I didn't have ANY cramps...so that was an interesting and cool plus. The cleanse was extreme, though. I lost most of my bloat but still had a distended tummy, which highly disappointed me. At the close of the cleanse, I went and had tacos at Mercadito in Chicago and reverted right back to my old ways. The results were sort of there, but a lifestyle of drinking only juice just wasn't possible.

That fall, my friend Franchec and I ran our first Chicago marathon. I was eating right and training for months. In my mind, The Bloat was proof of lack of exercise and healthy eating, so naturally I thought it would go away during such intense training. Of course it didn't and I was left puzzled, again.

Post marathon drinks in 2013

In early 2015, I decided that I hadn't tried hard enough and opted to do the mother of all cleanses - Karyn Calabrese's famous month-long doozy that included a very restricted diet, numerous supplements and two weeks of at-home enemas. I bet you're cringing, because I am, too. I did lose some bloat but still - the distended gut was there and my appetite to continue such a lifestyle was gone. I bounced back to my old ways.

The start of Karyn's cleanse, January 2015

Within the next year, I was too distracted with other major life events to work much on the gut. Moving, a brutal breakup and loneliness in San Francisco enabled my mental state to override any "healthy eating" that might help my digestive tract. But, in summer of 2016, I decided to finally see a gastroenterologist about my chronic gas, bloating and constipation. The issue was becoming too much and I knew I needed to do something bigger than my own self diagnosis.

I was pretty freaked out the day I went to the California Pacific Medical Center. I hadn't been to a gut doctor in my entire life and was nervous / scared as to what she might say. Unfortunately, the appointment was a colossal waste of time. The doctor talked to me for about ten minutes, asking me a few questions about my habits and bowel movements. I could see her interest waning, so I decided to up the ante, saying "I fart more than anyone I've ever met." She looked at me and I thought, good, now she'll listen. Nope. She brushed it off as normal and said she'd test me for food allergies, like Celiac disease. She also sent me home with a prescription probiotic and instructions about the FODMAP diet, an elimination diet to help pinpoint trigger foods that cause bloating and constipation. Earlier that week, I had read about SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and had asked her to test me for that, too. She refused, saying that a lot of people think they have SIBO and maybe we could look at that some other time.

I left pretty annoyed. The probiotics didn't do much and I wasn't very clear on the FODMAP thing, but I tried it anyway. I did the diet for two months before giving up. I felt like I didn't have a partner on my health journey and wondered if I'd have this fucking bloat forever. The lack of support was really frustrating and rather than dig deeper, I became avoidant. I figured, if this won't go away, then who fucking cares? I'll do what I want, whenever I want.

Fast forward to this past fall. I moved to Chicago and started my creative sabbatical. I had much more time to work on myself so I started going to yoga 4-5 times a week. After two months of a healthy yoga practice, I started to see results in my muscle development, but of course, nothing with The Bloat. During each pose, I'd zero in on my stomach in the mirror, hating it and killing any "namaste" vibes with my brutal, self-critical eye.

I decided to see a functional medicine doctor after reading an article about them and listening to an episode of The Healthy Maven (a great health and wellness podcast!) that covered what they do and how they are different than tradional MD's. Basically, a functional medicine doctor is part MD and part naturopath. They try to understand the root cause of a medical disorder and work with the patient over a period of months or years to get their body back in working, balanced order. Rarely do they just write a prescription and send you on your way.

My experience with my functional medicine doctor exceeded my expectations. For starters, our first appointment was 90 minutes long. I discussed everything about my digestion that I could rememeber. I talked about the many cleanses and diets I'd tried. We dove into my family history and last of all did a quick, physical examination. She told me that something was definitely wrong and it may not be related to diet or exercise, but rather, an unbalanced, unhealthy gut with messed up gut flora (bacteria). I realized for the first time that The Bloat wasn't my fault and it was being caused by something I couldn't have known. And likely, it was treatable.

I left with two test kits and an order for bloodwork which included numerous thyroid tests. One of the take-home tests was a three day poop sample kit and the other a SIBO breath test - SIBO being the same SIBO I asked that silly MD about in San Francisco. I had to pay out of pocket for the whole damn thing, but I assured myself it would be worth it.

The poo test was pretty agonizing. I'm not a mom and I'm definitely not used to handling human poo outside of the toilet bowl. It was hands-down the nastiest thing I've ever done and caused me so much anticipation anxiety that I actually had nightmares about collecting the samples. The SIBO test was much tamer. It consisted of an apparatus that I would breathe into right when I woke up. After that first breath, I drank a sugarly solution called lactulose. If you have SIBO, the bacteria lurking in your gut will react to the lactulose and it will be detected in your breath. I continued breathing into the apparatus every half hour for three hours, then sent the samples off for review.

Drumroll please...

As of today, I haven't gotten my bloodwork or poo results yet but I got SIBO back and I definitely have it. I was so incredibly relieved to know that yes, I'm not crazy, I do have something that won't go away based on diet or exercise alone. This whole time, I was trying to cure something when I didn't know the cause - and now I do. I was and continue to be overjoyed, (to say the least).

So, what the F is SIBO? Note: this is not a scientific explanation of any sort but I understand it to be an overgrowth of bad gut flora in relation to good gut flora. The SIBO intercepts the food that I eat before it fully gets to the large intestine and it starts fermenting it right away, creating bloat and gas. It can also block the absorption of nutrients (for me, some of the B vitamins) which can cause low energy levels throughout the day, especially after eating.

So now what?

Treatment started on January 8th. Every day, I take 21 herbal supplements (see the bottom of this post for more details), which help combat the bad guys in my gut. I also am on a restricted diet, commonly known as the Candida Diet. The bad guys love to feed on sugar and heavy carbs, so all those foods are a no-no for me these next three months. Fruit is limited to low glycemic berries and carbs to brown rice, quinoa or gluten free oats. Sugar is out in all its forms, including honey, agave, raw sugar, etc. Alcohol is also stronly discouraged (AHHHHHH!) but if needed, only clear spirits like vodka or gin will do, paired with club soda. I have to follow this regimen for the next three months, then once things clear up, I can reintroduce some of my favorite foods back into the mix.

I was nervous to start the diet before my trip out West, but figured no time would ever be just right - so I went for it. My friends in LA, SF and Seattle were incredibly supportive, opting to dine at healthier restaurants and even making me smoothies and other goodies at home. I also got lucky with my destination choices, as LA, SF and Seattle are health-aware cities that had plenty of things I could eat. Airports are still a challenge of course, but I'm prepared to tackle that by bringing my own food when I can. And I've been carrying a steady supply of Larabars and RX bars wherever I go.

Needless to say, eating is an adventure. I still have strong sugar cravings after savory meals, but they are getting easier to overcome. If I do crave something sweet, I grab an RX bar or some blueberries (up to a half cup per day) to help.

This is a journey. I still don't know if other things are plaguing my gut but I'll find out next week. I've tried to relax my expectation of losing The Bloat completely - it will probably happen but it may not fully go away and I have to be prepared for that. I'm trying to look at the whole experience as a lifestyle change that I can take with me in the months and years to come.

Stay tuned for more posts as this digestion journey unfolds. I wanted to write the blog post that I wished I could find these last few years. If you are in a similar boat and want to talk poop or digestion, drop me a line - I'm here.

My family of supplements

Supplement List:

Photos were taken by Victoria Goretsky at The Now in Studio City, CA. I'm wearing Girlfriend Collective's Paloma Bra and High Waisted leggings in limited edition Dusty Rose.

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Colorful, wild paintings and other art by color lover and maximalist Adrianne Hawthorne.

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