LATE WINTER 2012
"I have to run back into the bathroom. I'm sorry," I said with a tone of embarrassment to my husband.
This was the third time that we pulled back in the driveway so that I could use the bathroom. Cramping, butt-clenching, white-knuckle scooting to the toilet one more time before heading into the Twin Cities for the day.
I was already exhausted as I had spent the evening awake with nausea from about 9:30 until 1AM when I finally fell asleep, aided by my concoction of Pepto Bismol and Unisom. I knew it wasn't healthy to keep on taking these OTC meds, but I was at a loss.
Internet searches where futile - pointing to my symptoms as being more in my head than the reality that they were.
"Try ginger tea. Peppermint is good. Avoid onions and peppers. Don't eat anything spicy. Stick with a BRAT diet. Sip on flat coke."
These were the "answers" the internet provided. I resigned and accepted that I had bad guts. My mom had frequent upset stomachs so somehow, maybe this was inherited.
"Perfect brown banana."
My husband and I will often utter this visual phrase after having an extremely satisfying regular, daily bowel movement. You know how with animals and babies you look at their poop as a litmus test of sorts to see how things are functioning? Well, you should be looking at your poop too. If you're on either side of the perfect brown banana and rival rabbits or a broken soft-serve machine, there's a problem. Gasp! Yes, I just said those things.
Last week, I met with a new client that told me, " I poop about once a week." My jaw dropped. "WHAT?!?" I exclaimed. This was not okay. But unfortunately, because of how many people suffer from a the "garden-variety" of GI complaints, not a lot of practitioners are listening to these complaints with any real concern. There are plenty of over-the-counter meds to deal with anything from nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, and diarrhea (thank you Pepto commercials for locking that in my brain) - not to mention constipation, hemorrhoids, bloating, and flatulence (or farts for those of you that appreciate 12-year-old humor).
So what do these symptoms mean and is there anything that can be done to not only remedy but really fix the situation?
LET'S TALK ABOUT BACTERIA
Fun facts: our bodies are comprised of more bacterial DNA than they are human DNA and there are more bacteria in one ounce of stool than there are stars in the known universe. Being connected to these numbers is important because of the influential role that gut bacteria play in our digestive health.
This little universe of bacteria that live in us make up our own personal microbiome. Our gut bacteria contribute to an essential set of functions: nutrient metabolism, xenobiotic and drug metabolism, maintenance of structural integrity of the gut mucosal barrier, immunomodulation, and protection against pathogens. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4528021/)
Essentially, gut bacteria let the good things in, keep the bad stuff out, and help with breaking down foods and absorbing nutrients. To do this, we rely on maintaining a certain percentage or ratio of helpful bacteria to keep things running smoothly. About 85% of the bacteria in our gut should be the "good guys" and the remaining percentage are the "other" - not always pathogenic (disease causing but not necessarily beneficial if too populous).
When these ratios start to favor the "other" bacteria, they can prohibit the growth of good bacteria...and that's where trouble comes in.
WHAT DISRUPTS THE LEVELS OF BACTERIA
Good question. I'm glad you asked.
From the day that you are born, your microbiome has been in a constant state of flux. I have to catch myself here because I could go down a rabbit hole with explaining all of the various mechanisms that influence bacteria, so I'll keep it simple...environment, food, medications, stress, toxins, and overall digestive health.
Tying this back into my personal health story, let's talk about my perfect storm for IBS.
I was born in 1979. The 80's were right around the corner, bringing a whole new era of processed frankenfoods right along with it.
I was a formula baby, had a mom that smoked, and was on antibiotics from a young age for frequent ear infections and strep throat. Strike, strike, and BIG strike. Our pantry was stocked with a variety of foods without a lot of restriction around sugar so I got to eat lots of processed snacks and sugary beverages. Another strike. Add to that my tendency to be a bit anxious and stressed (my parents were divorcing), and I had all of the things going on to contribute to dysbiosis - an imbalance to my gut bacteria.
Not everyone's story will read the same.
Not everyone's symptoms will be the same.
Your own symptoms may not even be the same from day to day. And that's because our microbiome is ever-changing.
SCIENCE NERD ALERT
I have to talk just a bit about what happens inside your gut when your bacteria aren't playing nicely together. Let's recall what gut bacteria do in the simplest terms - digestion and protection.
They help to break down foods, process nutrients, and protect our bodies from foreign invaders that can contribute to symptoms and disease. When something dies in nature, it decomposes with the help of an abundance of microbes and gets processed into usable organic material. Most of the time we don't notice these processes because nature has perfected this process. But there are those few times where we are keenly aware of when nature is not working well - there's that smell. UGH! What died in here?
Well, gut bacteria kind of do the same thing. They break down the foods that we eat. But if something isn't working in our digestive system (poor stomach acid, gallbladder dysfunction, lack of enzymes), our gut bacteria have a harder time doing their job. When you consider the possibility of these bacteria already being out of balance, you'll end up with a fun thing happening in your gut - fermentation and putrefaction. Mmm.
You know that bloating and those smelly farts? Yep.
Our gut bacteria make gas that become our gas. And depending on the type of gas, your bowel motility will be impacted. Methane=constipation. Hydrogen=diarrhea.
There are things that increase the likelihood of having gas IF our gut bacteria aren't up to snuff...fiber (too much, too little, not the right type) and carbs.
Bacteria love carbs as fuel. But we have to make sure we're feeding the right bacteria with the right types of carbs. Because if we aren't, that's where we could potentially end up with IBS or other undesirable GI symptoms.
WHAT I DID TO CHANGE MY GUT HEALTH FOR LIFE
I was doing all of the wrong things when it came to attempting to feel better. I mentioned the OTC meds I was taking along with the bland diet I was eating to keep diarrhea at bay - bananas, apple sauce, crackers, Rice Krispies, toast, pasta, rice, and ginger ale or flat soda. As a personal trainer, I knew that this wasn't the right way to eat, but adding in fruits or vegetables meant an upset stomach. Restaurant foods were way out of the question. It was like insta-runs.
After a consult with the naturopathic doctor, she laid it out for me from A to Z and I was like, "WHOA! This makes so much sense!" coupled with, "Finally! Someone can save me!" Rounds of antibiotics for strep coupled with a few months of an antibiotic for acne in my teen years, along with a high-sugar, highly processed diet, and exposure to some toxins and stress meant my gut was a hot mess. So here's what I did...
Number 1 - The bad bacteria had to go. While it is possible through an intensive, pain-staking diet, using a natural antimicrobial to help kill off some of the bad bacteria can help to expedite the process and make it easier to do. There are a variety of different products so this is where professional guidance and know-how is essential.
Number 2 - The bad food had to go. Adios carbs and sugar. All of it. This wasn't easy to do as I hadn't eaten healthy foods in an abundance ever and my gut didn't know what to do with all of the fiber. But...
Number 3 - Adding in good bacteria with a professional-grade probiotic made all of the difference with getting those good bacteria in there.
Number 4 - My gallbladder was underfunctioning. Fats were a huge IBS trigger so I needed some extra enzymes with my meals.
Number 5 - I learned to sit down while I was eating and actually chew my food. Your gut doesn't love to break down large chunks of food so I had to chew until the pieces weren't so big anymore.
Number 6 - Since bad food was out, good food was in. Lots of plants through vegetables and fruits, lean and clean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, and nuts/seeds. I took dairy out for a while and kept things really simple.
Now, I still follow a healthy diet because food is so important to our health. But should I ever veer off course or my lines are not so bright, there's no bathroom emergency. My gut can handle it.
MY ADVICE TO YOU
Work with someone. This is hard to do alone. A professional can help to provide clarity and guidance when you're not sure what to do or what to try.
Be patient. These gut imbalances didn't happen overnight and they won't fix themselves overnight either. Healing naturally is a gentle process.
It's all about the food. But it's not. Contradiction, dear Watson? Yes. Trying to eat healthy when your bacteria can't break down the food is really hard. It feels uncomfortable. You feel bloated. It upsets your stomach. I really believe that some supplements can help get you through the hump of adjustment. Remove, reinoculate, repair and rebuild. Your gut really wants to heal.
REACH OUT TO ME IF YOU HAVE ANSWERS ABOUT YOUR DIGESTIVE HEALTH. I'M HERE TO HELP AND GUT HEALTH IS MY SPECIALITY. YOU DON'T HAVE TO SUFFER.
THERE ARE ANSWERS.