When Your Stomach Always Hurts
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Raise your hand if your stomach hurts and feels 'unsettled' or you have frequent digestion/GI issues. Oh good. It wasn't just me. Now, I feel I need to preface this blog with the following:
I am not a doctor.
I am not any sort of medical professional. My education/background is in business.
I'm not in any way saying this is going to work for you or if you do what I did you, you'll get the same results.
What I do want to do is share with you what I've found and experienced as part of my wellness journey. This blog isn't a peer reviewed article, it's just one person's story, so keep that in mind. I was told by doctors that I was lactose intolerant when I was 17, but they said it so casually that I didn't take it super seriously. In college, I just kinda lived with it, and eventually, I learned the hard way that while I was an adult and COULD eat a pint of Ben and Jerry's for dinner didn't mean that it was a good idea. How seriously I take my lactose intolerance comes and goes. Speaking of...
First thing we need to get straight: what's the difference between an allergy and an intolerance? From what I've found in my extensive Googling, this was the most clear answer:
A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems. - Mayo Clinic
I didn't feel like I was having a true allergic reaction to anything - my throat wasn't closing up, but I just felt bloated and bleh and uncomfortable all the dang time. Even when I was cutting out dairy and being really strict with it, my stomach still hurt. SO, I started trying to learn. When I don't know what's going on or why something is going a certain way, I try to look into it. I start reading and researching and trying to find an answer. It's the only thing I know to do.
I started seeing all these food intolerance tests that you can do at home. GENIUS! This is exactly what I need. Except, then, I started looking into them, and apparently, they aren't the most accurate thing. So, I tried to find alternatives. One thing I kept coming across over and over again was an elimination diet as a way to figure out and pinpoint what your body couldn't tolerate. I figured, why not? It's 8 weeks. I can totally do this.
I knew it was going to be really restrictive. I know it's not a long term, sustainable thing, and I'm not trying to make it be. It was 8 weeks, and that, I knew I could do. I started looking at what I should even be eliminating, and found the Big Eight of food intolerance.
Now, I don't eat Shellfish or Fish frequently enough (read: maybe twice a year), so I knew that wasn't causing my constant discomfort. I did a bit more research on elimination diets and found that others included cutting out all forms of meat at first (yeah that's a no for me) and cutting out citruses and nightshades. So, I swapped out fish and shellfish for nightshades and citruses. Other lists I found had the main twelve: The Big 8 + Corn + Caffeine + Nightshades + Citruses. I don't eat corn enough for it to have been an issue, and there was NO WAY I was giving up caffeine. So, I settled for my own eight and decided to keep meat in there.
For the first two weeks, I would eat nothing on that list (Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, Tree Nuts, Soy, Peanuts, Citrus, Nightshades). None of it. So, I ate a lot of veggies and grilled chicken and rice. It wasn't exactly the best culinary experience, but like I said it was just two weeks. After the first two weeks, I would add a new food every 3-4 days, and when I added something in, I would eat a ton of it. For example, when I brought back eggs, I had two with breakfast and then had an omelet for dinner. When I brought back nightshades I was eating tomatoes and bell peppers like crazy for snacks and meals. I knew that dairy was probably one of the causes, so I left it for last. I wanted to see if there was anything else causing my issues, and, spoiler alert, there was. When looking at the order to bring things back in, I went with eggs first (I needed an additional protein source and something for my breakfasts) and then went on to add tree nuts. By doing it that way, I was able to eat RxBars just three weeks into the whole thing. This was big because I was still in grad school and needed snacks and foods I could easily bring to school to eat for lunch. It gets weird if you just eat carrots and blueberries for snack all the time.
I was super committed to this, so while my friends were out at Thirsty Thursday, I was...not drinking. And, I was packing my own meals because I basically couldn't eat anything catered in for school events. I wasn't mad about it. I was on an excessively restrictive diet for a short period of time. It required some commitment and planning. So, if you're considering buckling down and doing the same thing or something similar, I have three key pieces of advice to offer you.
Key 1: PLAN
Meal planning and grocery shopping prep was my friend. I planed every meal and snack for the entire eight weeks. Yeah, it was a lot to plan, but I needed to have a plan or I knew I'd never be able to do it. I tried to eat as few processed things as possible because a lot of boxed items have soy or wheat hidden in them. The less of it I ate, the fewer labels I had to read. I involved my husband in this plan as well; just because I was going to do this, didn't mean he needed to do it with me (plus, he has a legit nut allergy). So, I made sure he knew what I was planning, but also kept a stash of a few meals (frozen pizza, lasagna, etc.) that he could pull out and make if he just couldn't do another dinner of rice and chicken. I wasn't going to make him miserable. If you're going to do this, make sure to involve someone in your plan - roommate, friend, significant other, etc. Letting someone know your plan can help you have someone to support you as you stick to your plan.
Key 2: Read, Read, READ
As I said a few sentences ago, you have to read everything. Wheat and soy get stuck in a lot of things - including some spices or spice blends. You have to read the backs of the food packages to find out exactly what is in there. It takes some time, but if you're going to do it, go all in for the eight weeks and then you don't have to do it again.
Key 3: Get Creative!
This was probably the "fun" part of all of this. Thankfully, I have a husband who loves to grill even if it's 3 below outside, so I would do a week's worth of chicken breast in different marinates and then he'd do one big grill night so we'd have chicken all week. One of my new personal favorites: blueberry & basil chicken. Sounds weird, I know, but trust me - it's SO good. I would have never thought to try it if I hadn't gone through this.
In the end, I found out that I have an intolerance of lactose (duh - knew that) and, drum roll...gluten. I will say, I didn't really make it through the first day before I was uncomfortable when it came to adding gluten back. Like, laying on the couch because my stomach hurt so much. That's when I decided that it was best to cut back dramatically/eliminate my consumption of gluten.
Since then, I've been trying out all kinds of GF products, and while there are some that are basically cardboard by another name, there are some really great ones. I also went on to find out that I have the genetic marker for a high inflammation risk (more on that later) giving me even more reason to avoid these two groups of foods.
What about you: have you done an elimination diet? Did you do it all at once or eliminate one thing at a time?