How I helped improve my gut health after it shut down

In a previous post, I wrote about how my gut shut down because of stress. This was one of the top three most horrific periods in my life (number one was in 2019/2020 after my job and marriage and family all fell apart at once, amidst covid; second was in 2006 when my oldest son was an infant with severe acid reflux and did not lay down for 9 months, and then this gut health issue in 2017/2018 was the third). I tried EVERYTHING that I could to improve my digestive health.

First of all, I should note that, when this issue began, I was at my peak physical fitness and health for my entire life. I exercised 5-6 days a week (mostly lifting and training for obstacle course races), I was strong and had great muscle tone (I could climb ropes, do pull-ups, and more). I was eating “clean,” as they say in the lifting world. A typical breakfast would be eggs, spinach, sweet potato, a protein shake. Lunch would be a salad full of veggies and a protein. Dinner would be a protein source and a vegetable. I added some healthy fats in there too. I hadn’t eaten candy or other junk food in over a year. I had been healthy like this for over a year.    

Almost overnight, it seemed, without changing anything about my diet, I had developed abdominal pain, bloating, and severe constipation. I could not eat without major pain and discomfort. And so my first steps involved seeking help from the medical professionals. I went to the doctors, including specialists. They were all surprisingly unhelpful. I remember the first GI doctor told me to increase my fiber. At the time, my fiber was WAY MORE than adequate. So “increasing my fiber” was not going to fix anything. None of his suggestions were helpful. Other than him telling me to take a strong laxative on a regular basis. Yeah, right, like that is really going to be good for my body, long-term.

And since the doctors were not helpful, and I was in so much pain daily, I began trying things on my own. I had already known that I had food sensitivities, which were exacerbated when I was stressed. For example, I could not eat gluten without causing some discomfort, and the amount of pain depended on my current stress level. When I had tried to share that with my GI doctor, he did not believe me and said it was in my head.

But I knew it was real, even if the reasoning my gut could not handle gluten WAS because of stress in my head, and so I wondered if maybe I had developed another food sensitivity. And so I bought book after book after book…tried every diet under the sun…in addition to going strictly gluten-free again, I tried various IBS diets, the FODMAP diet, and then an elimination diet. I learned that I could not eat anything solid without causing intense pain and bloating. I joined various gut health Facebook groups, and I finally realized that my digestion system had shut down. My body was not secreting enough digestive enzymes, and my intestines were not moving along the contents. Anything that I ate was just sitting in my digestive tract and fermenting from bacteria in there. It was horrible.

Finally, after two months of misery and more doctors appointments and tests that were worthless, I found a book, The Gut Health Protocol. I followed it to a T – I bought all the recommended supplements and started the protocol. Now, I know that some people say the author is not a medical professional and his protocol is “dangerous,” but I was desperate. And it worked for me. I started with only eating bone broth, jello, and taking supplements, for more than a week. Then I slowly added pureed chicken or fish and very well cooked squash, and easy to digest starches like tapioca and rice. I took digestive enzymes with everything I ate. And I slowly, painfully slowly, trained my gut to work again.

Every morning, upon waking, I would externally massage my intestines to help them move the contents, because the intestinal muscles would not do it on their own anymore. They needed help. I even would have to massage my ileocecal valve, the sphincter that controls content moving from the small intestine to the large intestine, so that the contents would move. I know this sounds insane. It was insane to me, too.

But it worked. And it was the ONLY thing that did.

In addition to manual massage to move the contents of my gut, I also would lie down and do a gut health/digestion meditation after every meal, to allow my mind to stop working and focus on my body and its job in digesting. That was my first real experience with regular meditation. It was a necessity. When I was at work, in my office, I would close my door during lunch and eat quietly, without any stress or external stimulation, and then I would lie down on the couch in my office and meditate to digest my food.

It took a few months, but I finally started feeling better, most of the time. I weaned off all the supplements. My gut health never recovered 100% – I still have issues when I am stressed, and I have to be careful about what I eat. But what is interesting is that it is “repressed” stress that is most damaging to my gut. For example, when my whole world fell apart in 2019/2020, my gut did NOT act up. But then again, I was crying almost every day and definitely allowing myself to FEEL the stress that I was experiencing. No, my gut only gets upset when something is stressing me out that my mind is in denial about. So now, I try to really pay more attention to potential stressors in my life and bring the feelings to the surface and experience them.

I also have a much greater appreciation now for my digestive system, how it works, and the mind-body connection. It’s so much more powerful than most of us realize. And it took my digestive system shutting down for me to appreciate that.

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