Monday, February 29, 2016

An Evolution in Eating

A few months ago, I told you that I'd been feeling "unwell" for a while and that's why I hadn't blogged in several months. I thought maybe it was time to tell you what happened.

It started as a vague burning sensation just under the breastbone. It felt like something was gnawing at me from the inside. I ignored it, thinking it would go away. 

Weeks went by and it didn’t go away. Thinking it was just a little heartburn, I eliminated the usual culprits: coffee, alcohol, spicy food and tomatoes. I tried this for several weeks but I didn’t feel any better. In fact, it started to get worse.

I began having trouble getting to sleep because of the discomfort. I was awake at 3:00am every single morning from this feeling. I’d have to get up, take Pepto Bismol or Alka Selzer, and hope that I could get back to sleep. Often I wouldn’t.

I tried leaving out even more foods. Nothing changed.

I read more about reflux and decided to try the “natural" route, spending loads of money on supplements touted as being helpful: a variety of different probiotics, DGL, slippery elm powder, Swedish bitters, digestive enzymes, apple cider vinegar, soothing herbal teas, gelatin capsules, EFA’s, even mineral clay. I was shocked and dismayed to find that NONE of these things helped. In fact, I was starting to feel even worse!

While I was attempting to deal with this on my own, I also went to a GI doctor to see if we could find the culprit. Over the course of a few months, she put me through the whole battery of usual GI tests: endoscopy, colonoscopy, blood panels, CT scans - nothing suspicious found. Great, no stomach cancer or tumors. No celiac disease. Organ values all good. That offered some relief, but also frustration, because I’d hoped we’d find an explanation for the cause of all this pain.

I pressed her for a diagnosis and got GERD (gastroesophogeal reflux disease). But that just didn’t sound right to me, because everything that I was doing was supposed to be “helping" the reflux. All the foods and drinks I had given up, the supplements and medications I was taking, laying on my left side, or even sleeping sitting up (!), eating well before bedtime, everything - they were all supposed to be helping that condition. And they simply weren’t.

By now my sleep was really suffering. I was getting 3-4 hours a night and over the course of all these months it was no surprise that my days began to suffer. I was a zombie. I couldn’t concentrate. I was tired and weak. I stopped bike riding and walking because I had trouble even climbing the stairs to my bedroom! I was nauseous and dizzy all the time. Worst of all, the pain would not let up!

Four months had gone by and I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Out of desperation, I tried the not-so-natural route: varying brands of stronger antacids and pain meds; accepting, and filling, a prescription for PPI’s (proton pump inhibitors). The fact that I even accepted this prescription shows how desperate I was for relief. Surprisingly, and much to the chagrin of my doctor, I found virtually no relief.

By now, I had deteriorated so much that I had to summon whatever strength I could just to get through the work day, all the while hiding my condition from my boss and co-workers as much as I could. When my 8 hours were up, I could barely stay awake during the drive home and when I got there, I would often collapse into bed. I barely ate anything anymore. I was down to 400 calories a day and then would only reluctantly eat, as many of my supplements required they be taken with food.

Let me say that I was feeling the absolute worst of my life. I was in pain 20 hours a day.  I had tried almost everything I could, and my doctor was of absolutely no help to me. When I mentioned things like diet and bacteria, parasites and the like, she looked at me like I was from Mars and promptly told me that was all nonsense, that I should stay off the Internet and stop worrying myself! Stop worrying myself? I was in pain! 

My endoscopy showed inflammation down the esophagus, in to the stomach and duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine), which is about as far as they can get with the camera. The medical report read that the cells were beginning to change and that scared the hell out of me! Left untreated, the burning from reflux can damage the esophagus and affect the vocal chords. As cells are repeatedly exposed to the acid, they begin to change, which can lead to cancer, so it’s not something to take lightly. How could I not be worried about that? I had to fire my doctor.

Since none of the conventional or alternative therapies were working and I decided not to see my doctor anymore, I was feeling alone in my nightmare and really down. It was like major depression was coming on. There were days I dreamt of driving over a cliff. Why was this happening to me?  How could my digestive trouble have led me into such a state of mental despair? How could someone so interested in health be so unhealthy? I wanted out of this hell. I wanted to stop worrying about EVERYTHING I ate. I wanted to enjoy life again. Instead I was crying all the time.

Utterly exhausted and nearly at my wits’ end I somehow found renewed energy to think outside the box. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. What was I doing wrong? I googled everything I could and started reading more. 

One day I came across a book that I downloaded for free onto my Kindle called Heartburn Cured by Norm Robillard. I promptly read that in less than an hour and then downloaded his other one, Fast Tract Digestion. I was intrigued but somewhat doubtful about his claim that my heartburn and reflux were being caused by the carbohydrates I was eating. Could they alone really be the cause of my digestive distress? I had trouble believing that. Weren’t whole grains healthy? I already gave up gluten - what else did I have to give up?

While searching for more to read, I found the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) and Breaking the Vicious Cycle and now all 4 of these books were saying the same thing: fermentable and indigestible carbohydrates from grains, starches and sugars were likely fueling my reflux.

We were now into December and vendors were sending tons of sweets to the office - a grain, starch and sugar nightmare! We had potlucks that I respectfully declined. While all those around me chowed down on sugar and starches, I started reducing them, but sadly didn’t really feel much better. I had to make a 100% commitment.

So December 26, I started the GAPS Diet, making bone broth out of chicken bones, carrots and celery. I drank that morning, noon and night and nothing else. I felt better in 2 days! Then I added some boiled meat to it, and a few days later felt even better. In fact, I was sleeping through the entire night. I cannot tell you how that alone made me jump for joy. Sleep! What a wonderful thing! I was immensely grateful and hopeful. Maybe the black cloud that had hung over me all these months was lifting!

Over the next few days, I started eating well-cooked vegetables with the meat and bone broth. I was hungry from a month of barely eating and this tasted so good! Every few days I would add a little more: cooked eggs and sautéed spinach for breakfast, more variety in the vegetables, and some of the other recommendations from the book. I realized that I would start boring of the "broth and meat and vegetables” routine and decided to switch to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet to broaden the variety of foods.

It was at this point that I realized the gut-brain connection. My digestive trouble was fueling my depression! I’ve read that it’s actually the gut that produces serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, and now that makes total sense. When the digestive system is not well, neither is your brain. Which is why both these books talk about how to cure kids with autism and other mental disorders through diet.

I was so excited about feeling well that I got cocky and started adding things in too quickly and relapsed. Clearly I wasn’t ready for them. I had to relearn all that I thought I knew about food. Just because something is “healthy” didn’t mean that all the ingredients in it would agree with me.  Things I had otherwise thought were innocuous, like soy, gums, thickeners and hidden starches, even in supplements (!), caused problems for me. They all had to be strictly avoided.

The book had warned me, but I didn’t realize, I’d start becoming FANATICAL about reading labels, making sure that everything I ate was “legal” (a term that means the food gets the green light). It has been a shift in what I eat but I cannot say that it’s been difficult. Pain is a fantastic motivator!

What I’ve only now really begun to understand is that eating is about chemistry. Everything we eat causes a chemical reaction and affects us in different ways. When the balance is off, the trick is to find what works in your digestive system and what doesn’t. 

Patience is also a requirement because this process will take time. This evolution in eating is a journey. I am not healed yet. I still don’t know what is “wrong” with me. I have a feeling that it’s SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), meaning that the good and the bad bacteria in my system are out of whack. If things don't improve or actually get worse eating this way, I would go a different medical route, finding a healthcare professional that has training in functional medicine.

I don’t know how long I have to continue eating this way. The books say maybe 6 months to a year or two. Maybe for the rest of my life. It doesn't matter. I am fine with giving up foods that trigger pain. All I want is to feel better and heal my gut.

It took some considerable effort over many months to find relief but the best thing I could do was just keep searching. It was really trial and error, exploring options, and keeping an open mind.

So that’s my story. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Vegetable Saute made better with Sausage

One of my favorite things lately is Italian sausage. The mild, or sweet, variety is the one I like best. I’m finding ways to get it into just about everything. It’s kind of like bacon - everything is better with bacon. Sausage is sort of the same thing.

Italian sausage is made with pork and usually contains seasonings, of which fennel seeds reign supreme. Fennel is a great addition to pork. They are really fantastic together.

I usually buy the uncooked variety of Italian sausage that’s in a casing, and simply squeeze it out like I’m milking an udder! I always laugh when I do this because that’s the visual I get. You can also buy the meat loose (not in a casing) but sometimes that’s hard to find. If you can find it loose, save some work and get it, otherwise get the sausage in the casing.

Italian food has always intrigued me. There’s something about that cuisine that speaks to me. It’s as if it calls my name. Pasta and sauce doesn’t do it for me though. The meats and the vegetables are by far so much more interesting and flavorful, not to mention healthier. So it’s no wonder that I ended up putting these ingredients together. 

I was looking through the fridge and saw that I had a TON of vegetables I had to use up soon. I decided to put this combination  together and see what would result. I have to say that I simply loved it. I ate it 3 days in a row! It makes a lot. I’d wager it made about 5-6 servings.

Sausage and Veg Saute

Olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 eggplant, peeled, and chopped into small chunks
1 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch of kale, tough stems removed, and chopped*
1 package brown crimini mushrooms, sliced**
15-20 Kalamata olives, pitted

You’re going to need two sauté pans going concurrently. I use one regular stainless steel pan that gets meat nice and brown, and the other is the non-stick variety for the veggies.

Start with the non-stick pan and heat a Tbsp of olive oil in it. Once that’s warm, add your chopped onion and cook about 10 minutes until soft. Add your peeled and chopped eggplant. Make sure the eggplant isn’t a small dice but isn’t too large a chunk either, or it will take too long to cook. Keep that going while you start the stainless steel pan. Don’t forget to stir that every so often so the eggplant doesn’t burn. A little color on the veggies is a good thing though. Adds flavor.

Put just a little oil in your second pan and get this one really nice and hot. Add your sausage meat and turn it when it is nice and brown on one side. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking until the meat is done. Turn off the pan just before it gets too done. Since the pan is hot it will continue cooking a few minutes longer as it cools down.

Back to the veggie pan (you can do this simultaneously while the meat is cooking): add the garlic to the eggplant and cook about 1 minute. Add the chopped kale (or chard) and cook that down until it wilts (about 10-15 minutes). Add the mushrooms and sauté another 8-10 minutes. If you like a little spice, you could add a few red pepper flakes at this point. Otherwise, just add salt and pepper to taste and then the olives. No need to cook those. We only need to warm them up.  Taste it and make sure all your veggies are cooked to your level of doneness and add more seasoning if it requires it.

Give it all a good stir and enjoy!

Notes on ingredients:

* There are a few varieties of kale to choose from. Those that I most often find are (1) curly kale, (2) Lacinto, (3) Redbor, and (4) Russian (Siberian) kale. I am not fond of the Redbor. I find it scratchy and tough. My favorite is the Lacinto (sometimes called Dinosaur kale). In the absence of Lacinto, I usually buy the curly kale.

** Crimini mushrooms are a little more earthy and flavorful than the regular white mushrooms you usually see. I tend to buy these for that reason. Don’t wash in water. Simply wipe them clean and slice off the stems.

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