My Health Journey Part 1: GAPS for Gut-Healing

Whenever I hear the word gap, I immediately think of my healing journey. The Webster dictionary defines the word gap as a pass or way through a range of hills. I am writing my story on March 1st, 2012 after following the GAPS diet program for one full year. I decided to write on this day to share my story of healing - my path through this journey so far. For those of you who are not familiar, GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome. It is a natural digestive healing program. It has been used to successfully treat many diseases/conditions including: Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis, IBS, Autism, ADHD/ADD, Allergies, Depression, Anxiety, Asthma, Eczema, Schizophrenia and more. The GAPS program rebuilds the gut by healing the damaged gut lining and establishing a healthy gut flora balance.

I learned about the GAPS diet program from a friend while attending the Weston A Price Foundation Conference in November 2010.  At the time, I was receiving Remicade infusions to manage the symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis, which I had been dealing with for over 10 years. Ulcerative Colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) characterized by symptoms that include abdominal cramping and bloody diarrhea. Like many chronic conditions, it’s a disease that one cannot truly understand unless they have been in those shoes. The physical pain and emotional pain are just relentless at times. The constant dread of cramping, blood, mucus and diarrhea plagues one with IBD. When I was experiencing the worse times of IBD, I wondered if that was what life was going to be like for the rest of my life. I felt beaten. I felt hopeless. I felt very very alone. Those are true feelings that I remember all to well. 

To give some history, I had been dealing with digestive issues since 1999 when I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. Prior to receiving a technical diagnosis, I experienced many of the typical symptoms except bloody stools. At the time, I was 19 years old, in college, playing volleyball and enjoying a co-ed school environment (I attended an all-girls high school)! I felt normal – until symptoms appeared. Not knowing that my cramping episodes were signs of something more serious, I took Tylenol to hide them. I remember taking Tylenol before volleyball games due to cramping during the day. One day I saw blood in my loose stools and I knew that was bad. My younger brother had suffered from Ulcerative Colitis when he was around 7 years old. I recalled that he had seen blood in his stool so as soon as this happened, I remember just thinking Oh No. I soon found myself in a full-blown flare - intense cramping & bloody diarrhea. Anything I ate doubled me over in pain and sent me to the bathroom. I lost a lot of weight because I stopped eating; I was hungry but I thought I wouldn’t cramp if my system didn’t have anything in it. That wasn’t the case and it continued. I spent weeks sleeping in the living room, on a mattress on the floor next to the bathroom. I was quickly losing my strength, energy and hope. After testing and exams, the doctor diagnosed me with Ulcerative Colitis and handed me prescriptions. The first was prednisone, and overnight, it made a big difference. I remember my younger brother took it for a time so I strangely felt comfortable accepting it as a treatment. 

For anyone that has ever taken Prednisone, you probably recall its taming the symptoms but not at addressing the root problem. This is critical to understand - no prescription medication addresses the root problem! In a few days, I was up and moving around. I returned to normal life for a bit. I then attempted to taper off Prednisone and failed. I bounced between periods of symptoms and remission. My doctor then prescribed Asacol for my maintenance medication and it was paired with increasing and decreasing Prednisone for years. I felt like a yo-yo. I was always bouncing between dosage changes, trying to find lasting relief. All the while, the doctors were telling me that the medications were the solution. To manage and hide symptoms throughout all those years, I proceeded up the typical pyramid of conventional medications, from Prednisone and Asacol to Colozal. 

My Ulcerative Colitis came to a head in August 2006, after years in so-called "remission". I had recently had a colonoscopy. My symptoms become much more intense and severe. I was constantly having bloody diarrhea and tremendous cramping. I was struggling with the fact that I was unable to enjoy my summer; possibly not being able to take part in my best friend’s upcoming wedding. One summer night, the pain and bleeding was finally so unbearable. I gave in to it all and I agreed to go to the ER. Once admitted, I was first given the highest dosage of IV Prednisone possible in attempts to stop the bleeding and cramping. After a day or so of trying that, the symptoms did not subside. With that unsuccessful result, they told me the only other option besides surgery was Remicade, an intravenous drug that suppresses the immune system. It had just recently been approved for Ulcerative Colitis when previously it was only approved for Crohn’s Disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis. At the time, I had never heard of Remicade but I desperately wanted to stop the pain and bleeding so I agreed to the infusions in the hospital. It seemed to work relatively quickly. I was soon released with directions for further Remicade infusions and a very high dosage of oral prednisone. In about three weeks surrounding my hospital stay, I lost about 15 pounds but I was encouraged by my doctors that the Remicade would get me well. In time, I slowly tapered off prednisone and per the advice of my gastroenterologist, I began taking Mercaptopurine/6MP (another immuno-suppressant drug). The Remicade indeed managedand hid my Ulcerative Colitis symptoms. I was able to wean off the Mercaptopurine/6MP (this medication is not safe for fetuses and I eventually planned to have a child). I remained on the Remicade infusions which is a 3-hour intravenous process administered in an outpatient hospital setting. I received these infusions every 8-9 weeks, continuing without any signs of symptoms. 

According to the world of conventional medicine, it appeared that I was doing well with my health and Ulcerative Colitis. I had no signs whatsoever of my disease (no cramping and I had normal stools). I went through college and early adulthood healthy. I also was following what I thought to be a healthy diet (low-fat, lots of grains and everything in moderation). I also had always had a thin frame and so everyone always gushed about how thin and healthy I looked. I was not healthy. Remicade and other medication are not treatments nor are they the answer; they solely manage the symptoms. Therefore, they do not address the root problem. Unfortunately, the typical approach of our conventional healthcare system today is just that - give the drug that hides the symptoms to make you forget that your body is at war underneath. And so, I was only reminded of my disease when I went in for my infusions, the drug that disguised my body’s ill state. I had blood work drawn every few months due to possible side effects of the medications. When I would see my gastroenterologist to review the bloodwork, it was the same office visit over and over again. I was told I was doing well; medications were the answer to my disease and to continue on. 

Remicade managed my symptoms, the bleeding and abdominal pain. However, I soon realized that I wanted out of the managing symptoms cycle. You may be wondering why I would want to risk flaring, risk spending more time in a hospital, risk more pain and bleeding, and risk facing many health and life uncertainties.

There were several reasons that surfaced. First, I usually felt uneasy during infusions. It’s a difficult feeling to describe. I never had any allergic reactions to Remicade and so I never needed to prep the infusion by taking other medications which most other patients required. Following infusions, I felt a little out of it and I usually didn’t plan much for the remainder of the day. So although I never had any direct reactions to the infusions, throughout the years, I became even more troubled at infusion times. I also had the uneasy feeling (it sort of felt like a fist was twisting and pulling in my gut) when I thought about my hidden disease and what my body was going through underneath the Remicade mask. Literally, I had a gut feeling - I guess that was my gut giving me a sign that something wasn’t right. This wasn’t the way to deal with my body’s ill state for the rest of my life. 

I tried explaining my feelings when my gastroenterologist doctor asked me Why? in June 2010 when I approached him regarding my desire to heal myself naturally and get off medications. I had just begun the health coaching certification program through The Institute for Integrative Nutrition and I wanted to jump on the right track and embark on my own journey for true health. In addition to the uneasy gut feeling, the possible effects of Remicade are very serious. They can include a weakened immune system, infection, liver damage, tuberculosis, and lymphoma (cancer)! The unknown long-term side effects also were a mystery since Remicade was only approved in 1998. My answer to his question was that I wanted to address the core problem and heal the chaos that my body was experiencing while hidden under the meds. I expressed how extremely terrified I was of all the side effects and the unknown future ramifications of the medications. These medications are serious. Remicade is classified as chemo-therapy when billed to an insurance company and each infusion costs about $5,000! My gastroenterologist seriously recommended that I continue Remicade. He cautioned that if I were to stop infusions, I could build a resistance and it would not be effective the next time. He questioned why I would want to stop a treatment that was successful. He shared that as long as his patients don’t experience an immediate allergic reaction, he keeps his patients on Remicade. Well, I didn’t consider that successful. He also said that he didn’t know about any natural treatments or ways to address it. He continued to advise that IF I chose to stop Remicade, he wanted me to transition to another oral anti-inflammatory medication. Of course, that medication came along with another list of side effects. Obviously, we weren’t on the same page and not even in the same book! My objective was to heal my disease without the dangerous medications that are pushed upon patients too quickly every day. I wasn’t worrying about building resistance to Remicade because I knew I wanted to stop putting that poison in my body and never go back. I decided that I wasn’t going to receive the support that I needed from him. That was the last time that I saw a GI specialist.

So, that brought me to my search for natural healing. The role of food, which passes through our digestive system several times a day, was NEVER discussed during the 10 plus years dealing with Ulcerative Colitis. How could food, which travels through our body AT LEAST 3 times per day, 21 times per week and 1100+ times per year, not be a factor in healing AND prevention? I was told that I would have to manage the disease by taking medicines for the rest of my life. My former GI doctor mentioned that certain foods may trigger a flare-up but it is different for everyone. I was never questioned about my regular food intake. Also, it’s well-known that gluten is a hard to digest wheat protein. Given my digestive disease, you would think that at some point along the line, I would have been tested. I finally requested the test in 2010. Even though the test came back negative, that didn’t matter to me. I soon learned that allergy testing is not very accurate anyways. In addition, having anyfood allergy means that our gut is unhealthy! I knew my gut was in distress and so I suspected gluten sensitivity in my body at that point. With the goal of healing my gut, I removed one of the suspected offenders – gluten – from my diet in December 2010. The chronic knee pain that I experienced for years dramatically decreased. I was convinced that food was the root of my healing process.

I found it very hard to believe that all food doesn’t play a major role in our gut health and all our health, for that matter. But that is what we are told by most physicians. Given that food is the most consistent thing that interacts with our body on a daily basis, I began to question it all. Through the program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I was introduced to the teachings of Weston A. Price and the true meaning of health through traditional, nutrient-dense and real foods. My eyes were dramatically and FINALLY opened because I THOUGHT that I was already eating healthfully and making good choices. For years, I had been following what I now call the mainstream health advice. Did I ever discover the truth? I embraced a new approach to health and lifestyle. It resonated very deeply with me and my body –for good reason! This was how my body was supposed to be nourished! Even though I did not return to my gastroenterologist doctor, I decided to continue with infusions until I had a clear plan for healing. It was during the Weston A. Price Foundation Conference in November 2010 that a good friend talked to be about the GAPS diet program. She was about to begin the diet for her own personal healing. After the conference, I read and learned even more about it and decided that it would be my path for healing. In January 2011, I consulted with Dr. Thomas Cowan, a doctor who utilizes the GAPS healing program in his practice. We determined how I would taper off Remicade while implementing the GAPS diet program. 

So, I prepared for GAPS. Fortunately, I was living and experiencing the traditional food lifestyle already, so the transition wasn’t so shocking. I am glad that I slowly transitioned towards GAPS so that it was a gradual move. However, there were still many routines and foods which the GAPS diet highly stresses and I needed some time to consistently incorporate them into my life. 

After a few months of preparing, I started the GAPS Introduction phase on March 1st, 2011. There, my GAPS journey began. 

As I look back at this year on GAPS, the food aspect was of course challenging.Obstacles, trials and days of utter frustration with food were always present. It wasn’t easy. I remember staring often into my refrigerator thinking I have nothing to eat! even though I just spent HOURS preparing food that would last me several days. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, I just got tired of animal stock and fermented vegetables. I specifically remember a time when I had a minor breakdown over acorn squash! I couldn’t find jars full of acorn squash that I had roasted over the weekend. I prepared them ahead of time so that I would have some ready for meals during my busy work week. Oh, that was a fun morning, when I realized that I would just need to cook and prepare even MORE food that I already had in the previous days. I remember bawling to my cat, Lewis, saying I just don’t want to MAKE any MORE food!The beginning was often tough. Also, a GAPS girl always has to be prepared! Traveling with lunch bags/coolers, thermoses full of homemade stocks and soups, and my trusty mini-crockpot to reheat homemade meals in hotels were (and still are) a must! There were many times when I just wanted to have sprouted gluten free bread (being grain bread, it’s still a big GAPS no-no). I often thought, what would happen if I just had one piece? Or what if I just had some roasted sweet potatoes? Those thoughts definitely flew around in my mind. It was in those times, I had to dig even deeper, envision my life ahead, healed and free of medications. I refocused and kept on. 

I have to say the most challenging aspect of GAPS, especially during the first 8 months, was the mystery of how my body would react to this healing process. I had NO clue what to expect while tapering off Remicade in addition to introducing a limited food regimen. I thought Will my symptoms return?, What will I do if they return?, Am I ready to possibly go through those severe symptoms again?, Will I be able to work? Since I had not experienced any symptoms since being on Remicade in the summer of 2006, this was scary, very scary for me. I had read several successful testimonials about healing digestive disease with the GAPS program. I even found a new friend, a former patient of Dr. Cowan, who healed her Crohn’s disease with GAPS. She was and still is a great support throughout my GAPS journey. However, I was unable to find someone that decided to completely forgo successful conventional treatment (which was managing the symptoms of digestive disease) and choose natural healing when symptoms weren’t at all present.All of the testimonies and stories that I encountered thus far were about taking on the GAPS program while symptoms were present and conventional medications were not managing symptoms. It was scary and I was in the dark. 

While I began to taper off Remicade and starting the GAPS program, I was also finishing up my health coaching program from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I was working on building my health coaching business. I had a lot on my plate, literally! At the same time, I knew I needed to rest and let my body figure out how to heal. I remember countless days on end (I called them healing weekends) when I experienced set-backs. I stayed in the house, wore my pajamas for days, looked a wreck, slept, drank stock, sat in the sun and didn’t do much at all. 

My energy was greatly affected and I lost about 14 pounds; definitely not weight I needed to loose! However, I kept on with my journey, one day at a time, keeping my heart on true healing. I continued on and I began to see improvement. While I once managed symptoms with the icy cold Remicade infusions, I was now finding true health through the warmth of the deeply nourishing homemade stocks. 

It has been quite a year on GAPS. With any natural healing process, there are ups and downs, plateaus and hills. It’s a long road. So far, through it all, I can say today that I am doing very well and I trust in my heart and gut, that this is the path for me. I have regained most of my lost weight – a sign of healing. From the extra nourishing GAPS diet, my triglycerides are a record low! By the way, I am consuming a ton of fats! My energy has also increased. I remain on GAPS and I plan to do so in order to heal completely. I know that I have come a long way but I have more healing to go. In addition to more gut healing, the loads of pharmaceutical drugs throughout the years took a toll on other aspects of my health and GAPS will help in regaining balance with those aspects as well. As I look forward, I am positive and full of thankfulness. I am so appreciative of all the support from Brian, my friends and my family this past year. Their continued love and support has been a tremendous reason for my success so far. In addition, Dr. Cowan’s continuous guidance has been nothing short of supportive and genuine care. 

I hope that my story has inspired you to take a step towards true healing for whichever health issue it may be. I undoubtedly believe that anyone can take back their health. If you or anyone you know is dealing with any of the conditions I mentioned in the beginning of my story, I encourage you to read the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha McBride. It has changed my life and health and I can feel my body healing. It is a slow process but it is REAL progress and TRUE healing. It is extremely worthwhile. I wake up and I know that pharmaceuticals aren’t masking my body’s signs and feelings. Each and every one of us deserves to be well and to experience optimal health. I am not one of the lucky ones. Sharing my story is part of my healing process. We CAN all get to that place naturally, without pharmaceuticals, with the strength of our bodies, our love for ourselves and with REAL, nourishing foods. I have been down this road and through this journey. If you need support, I am here to for you. Be strong and let your healing journey begin!

Because My Gut Told Me So Photo Credit:

logan cox