Those of us who suffer with gut health conditions have had long and rough journeys towards diagnosis and recovery. This is my story. Despite being a fit strong health conscious personal trainer who takes care of my diet and my body, it took me a long time to realise my gut health was compromised with a candida yeast overgrowth. With months of horrific symptoms and emotional stress, and quite a traumatic recovery process, this blog is a telling of how I came to understand my condition and the steps I am taking to heal my body, including food sensitivity tests and the strictest elimination diet ever. Read on to learn about my experience and my gut health story and how I became a #glutenfreePT.
Family, friends, clients, and my Facebook/Twitter family will all have heard some or all about my incredibly restricted incredibly ridiculous diet, and have asked what I’m doing and why. I wish I could simply say it’s to lose weight or just to be healthy, but there is a long and complicated story. I started writing about my experience over the last 6 months always intending to post and update regularly about my progress but I never got around to it. I’ve finally found the time to sit and compile it altogether into a cohesive story and share with you the details of this diet that has consumed my life for half a year and will continue until who knows when. I apologise to those who have heard me talk endlessly about it. I’m sure you’re all bored of hearing me say ‘I can’t eat that’. Believe me I am very bored of saying it. So here is my story in full explaining the ins and outs of it all. Happy reading – sorry it’s quite long!
THE START OF MY GUT HEALTH STORY – The Symptoms
As some of you may know I have recently started an elimination/food re-introduction diet. It is an extreme nutrition program `that involves eliminating foods that my body reacts negatively to, and slowly re-introducing them back into my diet as my body starts to desensitise to that food. How it came about all started back in April where I spent an entire month suffering from skin allergies, IBS and poor health. All of which could be attributed to diet and poor gut health.
For the last 2 years my diet has been largely paleo and relatively clean. On weekdays I would eat few if any starchy carbs, zero gluten, and my meals were made up of largely meat and veg. At the weekends however I would carb load or have treat cheat meals where I was far less restrictive and would eat a few more sugary and/or gluten based foods. At the end of March I took a trip to New York and needless to say, I was much more relaxed about nutrition whilst on holiday. Though I did make a conscious effort to eat well, it was tough finding convenient healthy foods while you’re out sightseeing and shopping in such an amazing city. In the end I think I ate more gluten in the 5 days in the New York than I had all year back home!
The day we arrived back in the UK I woke with an itchy rash on my face, something that I had never experienced before. I knew straight away that it was a reaction to the foods I had been eating on holiday. So I cleaned my diet again cutting out the gluten, and was back to my usual meat and veg, but I still suffered this persistent rash for a further 2 weeks until it spread to my arms and legs. This time I definitely knew it was a reaction to something I was ingesting and suspected it was an ingredient in a new supplement I had started taking. I stopped the supplements immediately and the rash on my arms and legs subsided and it all seemed to die down.
But lo and behold the rash on my face would flare up every few days, I became run down and ill, and by week 4 I was suffering IBS and migraines, again something I very rarely experienced. By now I was 100% sure I had Leaky Gut Syndrome, a very common condition where holes in your intestinal lining allow undigested food particles/toxins/bacteria to pass into your blood stream, setting off your body’s immune system into overdrive. Conditions associated with leaky gut include:
I decided it was time to get myself tested for food intolerances. Food intolerances or sensitivities are not be confused with food allergies commonly found with nuts and seafood. With a true food allergy your body produces IgE anti-bodies in response to the food ingested which triggers histamine release, resulting in an immediate and potentially life threatening inflammatory reaction. Intolerances differ as they result from non IgE anti-body immune responses to the food, or is caused by the inability to break down food particles or absorb nutrients due to the lack of certain enzymes or chemicals.
There are various methods of intolerance testing and I had previously tried out some of the cheaper methods such as hair sample testing and bioenergy testing. But these methods have been known to give the least accurate results. IgG antibody blood testing which gives a more accurate result is priced up to £300 depending on the number of foods to be tested against and the level of aftercare following the test results. I opted for a MRT® Mediator Release Test known to be the most accurate test that measures and quantifies the inflammatory response to foods and food chemicals, and can identify the foods most and least harmful to an individual. I had heard of MRT® and its availability in the US but discovered that there was only 1 company in the UK who offered this kind of testing, Gore Bioscience. And though the cost of their food intolerance test package was far higher than any other test on the market, I considered it a good investment. Not only is the information more accurate, but you are given a structured nutrition plan with follow up consultations with their nutritionists to help you understand and work with the information to get the best results.
The test results were really interesting and definitely explained a few things. The report gives you a list of foods and a scale of reactivity, whether that food has a mild, moderate, or severe reaction in your body i.e. whether you have a sensitivity/intolerance to that food.
My report showed that I had a severe reactivity to rice, sweet potato, cod and whey, and my moderately reactive foods included tomato, sugar, lamb, cucumber, lettuce, tea, mint, yoghurt and a whole host of foods that featured regularly in my diet. A light bulb immediately went off in my head as soon as I saw some of those ingredients, remembering when my symptoms last flared up after having sweet potato, or symptoms worsened after that tomato soup. Most importantly, the report showed that I have excessive yeast or candida in my system. Although a natural flora present in the gut, when there is an overgrowth of candida it causes leaky gut and wreaks havoc on the immune system, thus resulting in these numerous food sensitivities. Bingo!
THE GUT REBUILDING PROCESS
And so begins my journey to cleanse my body of the candida overgrowth and restore the balance and health of my gut. To do this I am supplementing with enzymes to help break down the candida cell walls, releasing all the nasty toxins in them so that my body can excrete them from my system. I am also taking digestive enzymes to help break down the foods I’m eating for proper digestion and absorption as well as probiotics to restore the good bacteria in my gut. And finally the elimination diet, not only removing all the moderate to severely reactive foods, but also removing all forms of sugar (starches, fruits, and dairy) which candida feeds on.
My diet, as structured by the clever nutritionists at Gore Bioscience involves 6 phases. During phase 1 (days 1-7) my diet is restricted to only a small list of foods that scored least reactive in my test results. Phases 2-5 are 5 days phases where I am to add 1 new food each day, with the foods scoring higher on the reactivity scale as the phase progress. This is all provided that my symptoms don’t flare up once I’ve re-introduced a new food in which case that food would be eliminated once again. After day 27 phase 6 commences and involves a 3 day rotation of the permitted foods (foods that were re-introduced and showed no symptoms) where I never eat the same food for more than 1 day in 3. This helps to prevent over exposure to that food and creating further food sensitivities.
It all sounds pretty intense and it is, particularly the first phase where I was stuck eating the same foods for 7 days, requiring a lot of creativity in the kitchen. And with the zero sugars and zero caffeine (I don’t drink coffee but tea leaves tested as highly reactivity), satisfying my sweet cravings, finding something to drink other than water, or just having some form of comfort food was probably the hardest of it all. But as the weeks have gone by I’ve found ways around it by experimenting in the kitchen and making do despite the limitations.
So during Phase 1 my ingredients were limited to:
PROTEIN: Chicken, mussels
CARBS: Onion, leek, celery, string beans
FATS: Almonds, olive oil
FLAVOUR ENHANCERS: Dill, Paprika, Basil, Carob
Not a bad list of foods to be stuck with and I considered myself lucky to have such a versatile protein as chicken. Whereas as a colleague of mine was stuck with just tilapia fish and mussels during his phase 1! Brutal.
THE PROGRESSION OF THE 6 PHASE DIET PLAN
7 days of cooking with just the above ingredients where the only other seasoning permitted was salt. To be honest it was surprisingly quite manageable with the different cuts of chicken (breast meat, on the bone, whole roast, etc) and the herbs and spices giving me some sort of variety. I would get a little creative by coating chicken in almond flour before baking in the oven to give me some sort of crunchy texture (something I miss a lot when eating paleo foods – very little crunch with meat and veg!), and discovering that mussels as a protein are quite easy to come by, quite cheap (200g mussels for £2 providing a decent 14g of protein), and delicious! But I was definitely looking forward to phases 2-5 to add more veggies. It’s hard to get a decent amount of carbs from veg such as onions and leeks which I would normally use as flavour enhancers as opposed to a substantial portion of veg in my meals. And so most of my meals over the 7 days had a large helping of blanched string beans, and raw celery sticks!
Phases 2-5 dragged on in what felt like an eternity. Adding a new food everyday was great psychologically for me. The more foods I could add the more meals I could create and also knowing that each new food was a new day, and a day closer to completing the phase.
The down side was the paranoia of whether I was having a negative reaction to the new food or not. Sometimes you can have an immediate reaction to foods and sometimes it will take 24hrs so I wouldn’t know if I was reacting to the food I’d introduced on that day or the previous day, or if I was just being paranoid and not actually having any symptoms at all!
Phases 3 and 4 were the hardest emotionally. By this stage I was experiencing severe symptoms. My face rash returned, then the itching arms and legs, some upset stomachs, bloating, and migraines. I hadn’t been training regularly due to lack of energy, physically, mentally and emotionally. I didn’t know whether I was reacting to the foods and I was scared to eat anything! I was so emotionally distraught and stressed and confused as to why I was suffering worse symptoms than when I started and I had even gained more weight. It all seemed so futile and a waste of time and effort.
But after doing some of my own research and a follow up consult with one of the nutritionists and biochemists at Gore Bioscience, I learned that I was suffering Candida ‘die off’. With the lack of glucose in my diet to feed the candida cells, and with the anti-fungal and probiotic supplements, the walls of the candida cells were breaking down thus releasing its toxins into my system causing all these negative symptoms. The symptoms kicked in during phase 3 & 4 as I had only started taking the supplements at the end of phase 2. It was such a relief to know that the symptoms were coming from the candida cleanse, assured that the enzymes were working and progress was being made. I was also able to relax a little and not stress so much about the foods causing the symptoms, and I was free to continue to eat all those low reactive foods I had already introduced. It was about this time too that I was advised that the time it takes to completely cleanse my body of candida is dependent on how long I’ve had candida, how aggressive it is, and the measures I take to encourage the cleanse (with the right nutrition and supplements to encourage better gut health). With all this new information I was given fresh motivation to persevere with the diet and move positively into phase 6, the rotation diet.
Having been able to introduce more and more foods into my diet, meals were now a lot easier and the option to eat out in a restaurant became more viable. Although this didn’t come without some amount of research and hardship trying to find restaurants that served my permitted foods. I found that the best places to eat were steak houses that serve meat and sides of vegetables separately. I could pick and choose what ends up on my plate rather than being lumped with what seems to be the compulsory side of potatoes or rice that most restaurants serve. Dessert sadly was still not an option but I learned to make and bake my own ‘sweet’ treats baking with nut flours, stevia sweetener, and best of all, dairy and sugar free chocolate! (More on this later and recipes to follow).
Phase 6 however was the start of the rotation diet, only eating a food once in 3 days to avoid creating food sensitivities by limiting exposure to that food. It sounds like a pain in the @ss and it is, but also quite manageable at the same time. I would have to plan my week around what food I could have on a particular day (yay chicken day, or yay coconut day – which is my favourite day). It meant that I couldn’t make large batches of food for the week anymore as the meal wouldn’t get eaten again until 3 days later and so I’m actually cooking more than I used to, having to use a whole new set of ingredients each day. I get round this by eating the same meal 2-3 times in the same day, as cooking 4 different meals a day, 7 days a week is a bit much! Dinner will always be something different though as one needs variety.
3 months into the start of this journey, 2 months into the rotation phase and things were going well. I was introducing more new foods that had low reactivity, some with success and others I reacted to. But things were going well. It was summer and I’d discovered I could make ice cream without dairy or sugar by using coconut milk, stevia, and investing in an ice cream maker. The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with is my sweet tooth and love of cake and treats. And I’ve spent a huge amount of time researching and experimenting in the kitchen, baking grain-egg-dairy-sugar free treats. Again some with great success but also a lot of failures. (Recipes for the triumphs will also be posted here).
With the diet going well and all the summer events lined up I started to relax a little. I had some weddings to attend and other social gatherings and decided that I would have a couple of cheat days here and there, coming off the diet plan so that I could enjoy some champagne and wedding cake, or go for afternoon tea for a hen party, and a weekend of camping and partying at V festival. This was a big big big mistake.
With the excessive alcohol and the high influx of sugary foods my body went into full on rejection mode. I remember the days leading up to V Festival that the soles of my feet had started itching but it was so mild that I ignored the symptoms. The evening we set up camp we cracked opened a couple of cans of cider and ate some naughty treats that go along with booze and the next morning a rash developed around my ankles. Sadly this didn’t stop me from indulging over the course of the weekend and lo and behold by the end of the festival the rash had spread further up my legs and onto my arms.
That Monday I went straight back to my usual restricted rotational diet and increased some of my supplements hoping that this would be enough. But over the course of 2 weeks the rash worsened spreading up my torso and around my neck, itchy, red, and inflamed. The gut was bad, the energy levels were low, and the stress was super high. In consulting with Gore Bioscience it was clear to them that along with the candida re-growth, I was also experiencing issues of liver toxicity exacerbated by the alcohol binge. I had to start my diet all over again going all the way back to the start of phase 2. My 2 weeks of summer indulgence set my progress back by 3 months. I was distraught and so incredibly disappointed in myself for being complacent, for thinking that this would be a quick fix, and that cheating every now and then wouldn’t do me any harm. How wrong I was. I was advised that this whole process could take up to 18 months before my gut would be rebuilt and liver function returned to normal.
THE STORY CONTINUED
My relapse was 3 months ago. I’ve been so incredibly strict with my diet, never straying or purposely eating foods I know would cause reactions. Zero alcohol, limited starch, and no refined or even natural sugars. I even survived a long weekend in Ibiza completely tea total and still on my rotational diet. It wasn’t easy to say the least as my emotional state was very very fragile as I struggled to come to terms with having to spend another year with these limitations. I’ve had to cut short a family trip to Hong Kong as I feared it would be hard to maintain my diet in a place that has such amazing and indulgent cuisine, not to mention that I can’t eat rice, soy, or noodles of any kind (egg, rice and wheat flours). It has been an incredibly stress filled 6 months but I am very glad to say that things are looking a little brighter. I am 3 months in after my relapse and have only had a few minor gut reactions to new foods that I’ve introduced. I am now able to eat 1 low GI carb meal a week and can introduce more new foods so that I’m not so limited with my ingredients. My dreaded trip to HK is this week and I feel a lot more relaxed and know that there will be foods that I can eat without it being too much of a struggle, or knowing that if I have to stray and eat foods I know I shouldn’t, that the reactions shouldn’t be too bad. I still have to avoid/limit alcohol and certainly binge drinking, but I can give or take alcohol. It’s the treats that I always craved. The cakes, chocolate, biscuits, and desserts. But I’ve spent so much time in the kitchen and on the internet finding recipes that I can make. Cakes I can bake that are sugar free (using sweeteners such as stevia or xylitol), and are egg free, and grain free. I use nut flours and butters, coconut flour and coconut oil, cocoa powder and flax seed as egg substitute, and even avocado to make amazing desserts and cakes, all making my life so much better and full of joy!
I still have a long way to go. I go through phases of depression and frustration where I’ve just had enough and want to live my life without restrictions. It passes, as it must, as giving up on this process is not an option. It may be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do both physically and emotionally, but if I give up I would suffer even more. And so I’d rather live my life as preventative as I can and with these limitations knowing that a) it is only temporary while I restore my body to good health b) that by restricting my diet to only foods that will do it good I am allowing my body to heal, and c) that one day I will be able to eat proper cake again! One day. In the mean time I’ll make do with my grain-dairy-sugar free baking and I can tell you, I’ve made some amazing treats that you wouldn’t even believe are clean, guilt free and still delicious including a to die for chocolate frosted cake, rich chocolate tarts, and a scrummy chocolate mousse pie. My recipes will be posted soon and you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter to see my other kitchen creations that don’t make it to the recipe board.
2015 is nearly upon us I cannot wait - A new year, with new foods, new joys, with a fuller diet and above all else, a fuller life. Here’s to 2015, the next chapter in my Candida story.
Do you have a similar story?
What steps have you taken to heal your body?
Comment below and share your experiences. I'd love to hear from you.