The Road to Healing

Welcome to Themindfulgut where I will share what I have learned on my lifelong journey from chronic pain and illness to good digestive health and overall wellbeing. The science is clear: better digestive health will help with metabolism, nutrient absorption (which is the root cause of so many ailments) and a better mental state. It is possible to feel better and live a healthier and happier life, simply by understanding the importance of what we eat, learning what our body needs and then eating and living mindfully.

At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease or IBD). Ulcerative colitis is an auto-immune disease that affects the lining of the large intestine (colon) causing severe abdominal pain and gastrointestinal bleeding, among other things.  There is no known cause of Ulcerative Colitis and there is no cure, other than to remove the colon. I resigned to live a life where I casually took nine capsules of medicine daily, always felt mildly uncomfortable and often was in pain.  I lived with the disease by managing it, which worked for many years.  Until it didn’t.

When I was in my late twenties, I saw top specialists for a variety of physical ailments, but no one was connecting the dots.  I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), psoriasis, spondylitis - all autoimmune disorders - but no doctor saw that these issues were related. The doctors treated symptoms individually, but there was always something going on - and as time marched on, more symptoms arose. When I spoke to my doctors about ways I could change things for myself by way of diet and nutrition, I was told there was nothing I could do to help myself other than take my drugs and try to reduce stress.

So I did what I could to reduce stress.   Yoga and psychotherapy helped.  I ate a diet of mostly organic foods.  Although I was ill into my thirties and was sick during both of my pregnancies, none of my doctors seemed alarmed.  Indeed, I was told that I was high risk for getting colon cancer and lymphoma, but it was understood that since I was being monitored by the top doctors in New York City, whatever disease I might get would be caught early enough to treat.  This was unsettling, but I felt there was nothing I could do except trust these highly regarded experts.

It was not until my infant son began to have health problems, that I learned I could heal myself.  In order to understand and resolve his health and developmental issues, we went to a very progressive developmental pediatrician.  We completely changed my son’s diet, eliminating dairy, gluten and soy.  In solidarity with him, I took dairy out of my diet.

Amazingly, within five days, some of my son’s physical and neurological symptoms diminished. And within weeks, my colitis and many of my other ailments began to disappear. Six weeks after taking dairy out of my diet, and putting myself on omega 3 and probiotic dietary supplements, my gastroenterologist of ten years performed a colonoscopy and said,  “I don’t recognize you. Keep doing whatever you’re doing”. One year and another colonoscopy later, my doctor said, “If I didn’t know you, I’d never know you have ulcerative colitis.” After that visit, I took myself off of the drugs entirely.  One year later, my doctor said there is no sign of the disease and that he saw no evidence that I ever had ulcerative colitis.

This was diet. I now live disease-free and drug-free.  I have educated myself through reading, research and learning from various alternative and open-minded medical practitioners.  I am now a Nutritional Therapy Consultant, where I help people understand that they, too, can take control of their health and see dramatic shifts in their physical, neurological and mental health. It is not too late to reverse the effects that your diet or your genetics or your microbiome has inflicted on you. You don’t need to accept poor function or chalk things up to the effects of aging. Our bodies have an innate intelligence that can guide us to healing. The key is to find, in your specific case, how best to get on that healing track. Hopefully these articles, recipes, mindfulness exercises and alternative therapy recommendations will help you find a way to help yourself.

On Meditation, Loneliness and Inflammation

Talk amongst yourselves . . .

A recent study confirmed the long held belief in yoga and in healing circles that meditation decreases illness, inflammation and depression.  One thing however that this new study suggests is that people who meditate are also less lonely- further decreasing inflammation and depression, leaving practitioners of meditation in overall better health.

Loneliness is one of those human emotions that all people experience but few discuss.  Talking about it can make us seem needy or depressed, and could possibly make us more lonely by alienating us from other people.  That said, we all have moments when we feel alone, unheard or situated in a place where we cannot relate to anyone else.

For many years I struggled with colitis in silence- I never shared any real details of the disease with anyone for I feared others wouldn’t understand my plight or would find it boring.  Sometimes, I just didn’t want to bring myself down by talking about it.  Now, I realize that my avoidance may have been one of the things that kept me sick for so long.

Many people are finally speaking out about Colitis and Crohns Disease and those suffering are finding community through the internet and other channels.  Hopefully this will eradicate the notion that people suffering from Colitis or Crohns have to go it alone.  Because now we know, this could be one of the important factors preventing us from healing ourselves.

Identifying Stress

STRESS! That ubiquitous word. The root of all disease. “Are you stressed?” The word takes your shoulders up to your ears as soon as you hear it. Even the sound of the word is harsh. When I hear that word I think, I’ve got to DO something about this stress, I must get rid of it. Putting that kind of stress on yourself to get rid of stress can be, well, stressful. Want to lower the risk of cancer? Don’t stress. Want to get rid of your headaches? Reduce stress. Want to stop having gastrointestinal woes? Manage your stress. Want to fall asleep, insomniac? I would, if I could stop stressing long enough about how I’m stressing which is causing my insomnia.

When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 14 I was told that I had to reduce stress. So, what did that mean to me back then- um, don’t bother going through adolescence? Don’t bother going to high school or trying to get into college? Clearly, I was not able to slow down life at that point, did not completely understand that the doctors were actually telling me to manage my stress and even if I had understood the advice, I was not self aware enough to change my stressful circumstances.

So many diseases supposedly are caused by this fiend, this stress, that causes problems in the gut, inflammation, headaches, backaches, muscle aches and insomnia. But what is it really? In the case of insomnia, thinking about not being able to fall asleep most definitely makes it harder to do so. But in the cases of other disease, is it really all in our head?

Much of this blog will look at the role that mindfulness plays in our physical state. Indeed, themindfulgut was born out of the idea that our mind and our gut are deeply connected and interdependent, so much so that we can often heal our bodies just by calming our minds. Even the most conventional gastroenterologist will tell you that the stress you have in your mind will most certainly contribute to your GI troubles.

Yet there is another kind of stress that is more tangible- it is the physical stress that we put on our body, that may or may not have born out of stress but has transformed into an actual physical problem. This often happens without our knowledge. This is not to say that our mind cannot help our bodies change, simply that there might be physical obstacles that might be hindering our mind’s ability to change our body. Indeed, all the yoga in the world might not be able to cure all of one’s physical ailments.

What I found was that the times in my life where my colitis flared, it wasn’t in my worst emotional states- it was when I put stress on my body physically. In college, I flared after I abused my body by binge drinking. In law school, I got sick from eating greasy and fatty food late at night while studying. Then the worst of it came during both of my pregnancies and the subsequent years spent nursing when my colitis and psoriasis flared out of control. The great physical stress of pregnancy and the depletion of nutrients from nursing are a huge stressor on the body- and one not mentioned in the What to Expect books.

Physical stress can stem from, among other things, an excess of stored toxins in the body, muscle tightness or tissue blockages left unattended over the course of many years. Often times, detoxing our bodies by eliminating known stressors such as gluten, dairy and animal fats helps to rid the body of accumulated toxins. Other ways to remove physical stress and obstacles are Massage, Myofascial Release and craniosacral therapy. By being mindful and paying attention to what physical obstacles we might have, and what irritants are harmful, we can start to understand what is aggravating our system. Once we address our physical obstacles and work out whatever these blockages are, we will see the deep benefits of relaxing and calming the mind. We can then go deeper, enabling us to function and heal more efficiently.

Carrageenan: The Devil You Didn’t Know

Even the most conscientious consumer can get confused and distracted by the myriad choices in our supermarkets and even our co-ops, healthfood and specialty stores.  For the past several years, there has been a deluge of information pointing us toward organic and vitamin-enriched foods, and driving us away from allergens and pesticides.  This is great progress!  Unfortunately, even within the small universe of healthy alternatives, the mysteries, controversies and contradictory evidence presented by food organizations, doctors, scientists, corporations, advertisers and trade organizations can be overwhelming and seemingly impossible to decipher.  It’s enough to make me want to throw up my hands and say: “pass the Cheetos.” While we all want to trust that our local co-op only carries products made with healthy ingredients, and we generally believe that organic is better than conventional and that “natural food” is just that, there is one ubiquitous ingredient lurking beneath the sea salt, behind the xanthan gum or next to the sunflower lecithin in many of our highly evolved products: carrageenan.

Carrageenan is a food additive derived from red seaweed - sounds natural and nutritious, yes, but in actuality, it has notably high correlations to colon cancer, inflammation, and a depressed immune system.  It’s cheap and easy for manufacturers to use, and makes otherwise bland food taste palatable. Check your fridge- you’ll find carrageenan in such healthy foods as organic yogurt, hemp milk and Applegate Farms sliced turkey.

The controversy around carrageenan involves the idea that there is one type of carageenan that is healthy and one that causes cancer and other disease.  Indeed, corporations and other heavyweights in the food industry successfully lobbied the FDA to have carrageenan deemed safe.  However, the safety of the “healthy” carrageenan has been refuted by top medical professionals who suggest we stay clear of the additive. I only recently became aware of the additive, the controversy and the realization that so many of the products we have switched to in an effort to eliminate inflammation may in fact be exacerbating inflammation.  My son and I haven’t eaten any dairy for almost three years so we’ve been making healthy smoothies filled with vitamins and antioxidants- until just last month when I realized that our almond and coconut milk have been processed with carageenan.  So essentially, we have been trading the devil we knew for the devil we didn’t know.

So where does this take us, to the point where we cannot trust anything or anyone leaving us no choice but to create our own concoctions?  That would be an option.  But while we all wish we had the time, space and patience to make all of our own food from absolute scratch, even the crunchiest among us often reach for some ready-made grocery items. What you may find is that carrageenan often appears where you least expect it, including toothpaste, beer, shaving cream, gummy products and yes, organic dairy. In my mind I ask, why not chose the products without carageenan and support companies who use whole ingredients and stay away from potential carcinogens? The good news is that there are many products out there that do not use carrageenan.  Here is a comprehensive list of some very nutritious and healthy foods that in fact have carregeenan in them- and the brands that don’t.