Dude…where in the ever living hell have you been?!?! Long story. Today is not the day. Today we talk about the healing power of a healthy diet. Today we talk about how pills are not always the answer. Today we talk about how doctors don’t always have the answers and sometimes we need to focus on what we are eating! Today we focus on one of my Dudettes. She’s had a tough stretch health-wise and an ungodly difficult last year, her Freshman year in college. I’ll let her tell the story of how food saved her. It’s a long read, but a necessary one. Dudette…the blog is yours.
Thanks Dad. First of all, I just want to say you are the best father in the whole wide world and this earth is a better place because you are on it. If you looked up “amazing person” in the dictionary, they’d have a picture of you.
Ok…just kidding…this is still Gluten Dude. Now Dudette, take it away.
Throughout high school, I suffered with extreme hand pain. It began with a small, sharp stabbing sensation in the base of my right thumb, but it soon progressed to both hands, getting to the point where I couldn’t write for more than ten seconds without unbearable pain. I went to physical therapy, occupational therapy, radiologists, neurologists, rheumatologists, and countless other doctors who were all equally stumped.
“You’re holding your pencil wrong… that’s why your hands hurt.”
“It’s just growing pains.”
I was tentatively diagnosed with tendonitis and carpal tunnel, while also being told by a massage therapist that I had the most damaged tissue he had ever seen. Yet, no doctor felt confident in telling me anything concrete, since the pain was often unpredictable. We thought it might have been related to Celiac disease, but when I was tested, all the tests came back negative.
Over the years, the shooting pain turned into a dull ache, which then turned into a slight annoyance. By the time college came around, I had pretty much forgotten about the suffering I had endured in high school, and thought I was in the clear once and for all.
In October 2017, as a freshman at University of Delaware, I randomly became extremely ill, spending the entire day bed-ridden, throwing up. I had had stomach bugs and food poisoning in the past, but nothing had ever felt like this.
No matter what I did, I could not keep anything down, not even water, and it seemed like whatever was in my gut so desperately wanted to get out. By the next day, I felt weak, exhausted and sore, but I no longer felt sick. It seemed like whatever had plagued me that day had simply went away. So, similarly to how I reacted to my hand pain, I swept it aside and continued on with my daily college life, which included eating cookies, pizza, candy, and pretty much every other unhealthy food option you can think of.
Everything seemed normal until my birthday came around. In true birthday spirit, and almost exactly a month after my October incident, the same thing happened. Except this time, it somehow felt even worse, even more violent. To this day, I am not sure if I have ever felt more miserable in my entire life than I did that day. I spent the entire day vomiting my guts up, with no clear explanation as to why. I hadn’t had a sip of alcohol and I hadn’t eaten anything unusual that day, and yet, I had never felt more disgusting and nauseous in my entire life. My poor roommate, and also one of my best friends, had to deal with me once again puking my guts up in my small dorm room, since I couldn’t muster up the energy to walk to the bathroom. I ended up going home that night, and by the next day, I felt weak again, but the throwing up ceased. But unlike last time, the disgusting feeling in my stomach and entire body lingered.
At this point, I began realizing that this may have been linked to anxiety. I knew that spending all day throwing up was not a typical sign of anxiety, but I did not have any other explanation for it, so I settled on me just being an anxious college student, and once again swept the issue aside. I went back to school, visited friends at Penn State, and lived a relatively normal college life, until December hit. On December 1st, 2017, I once again got extremely sick, but this time was different than the previous times. I spent my Monday and Tuesday vomiting up all the contents in my stomach, and when everything was gone, I would continue to dry heave throughout the night. I tried taking Rolaids and doing the BRAT diet, but everything only made me feel worse. On December 3rd, my mom rushed to get me from the University of Delaware, and took me straight to the emergency room. I spent the entire car ride dry heaving and sobbing, my entire body in pain from throwing up food that wasn’t there.
Food wasn’t appetizing, water wouldn’t stay down, and medicine did not stay in my system for more than ten minutes. We waited in the ER for about an hour. Once I was admitted, the nurse hooked up me up to an IV that contained anti-nausea medicine and fluids. Within minutes, the color returned to my face, and the nausea completely went away. I relished in the feeling, for it was the first time in 3 days where I did not feel absolutely miserable. That night, I was able to eat chicken and soup, and I truly thought that the worst was over. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of an extremely long and frustrating 6 months.
The hospital trip provided us with no answers, except that my body was dehydrated, and by the next day, I was throwing up again. I felt like I was dying, and I specifically remember having a mental breakdown on the floor of the bathroom, thinking that the rest of my life was going to be like this. Yes, it sounds dramatic now, but at the time, my life revolved around constant nausea and throwing up, and I didn’t see a bright future ahead (spoiler alert: there is a bright future ahead… it’s just 6 months away).
I was now home for my winter break, and despite all of my struggles, I managed to finish my first semester of college on the Dean’s List. My extended family members kept reaching out to me to congratulate me and ask about my first semester at school, and when I told them that I absolutely loved it, that wasn’t a lie. I did love Delaware, despite the fact that my health was quickly spiraling. I felt at home at Delaware, and even in my darkest days of feeling like absolute shit, I never wanted to leave. Nevertheless, finishing my first semester was still something to be proud of.
December came and went, and I hadn’t thrown up since that first week, but I still woke up every morning feeling anxious, nauseous, and just plain gross. By this point, I had lost around 8 pounds, and my appetite did not increase whatsoever. I would eat two bites of my meal and immediately feel full.
Fast forward to January. Not gonna lie, this part of my story sucks to write, because it’s not a part of my life that I ever want to revisit. I developed a routine, and not remotely the healthy kind. I would go to bed, wake up at 3:30am, violently throw up for at least 10 minutes, fall back asleep, wake up at 7am, throw up, and then fall back asleep. This continued for weeks, and I could not figure out why my body had developed such a strange and unhealthy habit.
At this point in the story, I feel like I should make it clear that at no point was this an eating disorder. I did not have any type of food complex, I simply lived in a perpetual state of intense nausea; I wanted to keep my food down and gain weight, not the opposite, but my body vehemently disagreed. I eventually went to a psychiatrist, who chalked it all up to anxiety, and prescribed Celexa and Xanax to me. I felt no difference on the Celexa, but the Xanax provided me almost immediate relief. Taking a Xanax did not always prevent me from throwing up, but more often than not, taking one pill before bed would allow for me to sleep all the way through the night, which was a luxury I had not been familiar with in weeks. But, like anything, the Xanax came with its side effects. I felt drowsy and unmotivated. After all, Xanax is a sedative, and trying to live my life as a 19 year old college student while simultaneously being exhausted was more than challenging, to say the least. Yet, it prevented me from being constantly sick to my stomach, so I kept taking it (as prescribed), and went back to school.
Life did not get easier at school. Despite taking the Xanax, I would still throw up at night, resulting in mental breakdowns that, once again, my amazing roommate would help me get through. But no matter how much support I had at home and at school, no one could take away the pain I was experiencing. I was now a scary 88 pounds, and my mental and physical health had never been worse in my entire life. I was constantly exhausted and nauseous, and I felt like my entire body was constantly in an intense state of anxiety, despite not being anxious or nervous about anything in particular. School became a challenge. I had to excuse myself on multiple occasions from class to throw up in the bathroom, or miss exams due to being too weak and nauseous to move. And while my days were extremely tough, my nights only seemed to get tougher. For whatever reason, Xanax and Benadryl affected my body the same way, so I began taking 2 Benadryl instead of Xanax. It would calm the nausea and allow for me to sleep, and I appreciated any rest I could get. At this point in the semester, I began hating my body.
Growing up, I always wished that I carried more meat on my bones, and at this point, I was about 12 pounds lighter than my healthy weight, so I decided to begin working out. I avoided cardio in fear of losing any more weight, so I focused on weight-lifting, and for the first time in months, I felt like I was actually treating my body well. In retrospect, I know that I was not eating the proper nutrients to have a successful workout, but if anything, it was an activity to keep my mind occupied and my body moving.
Fast forward again to the end of my freshman year. My health had its ups and downs, and while there were certainly weeks where I would feel somewhat healthy, there were more weeks where I felt horrible. Despite how insanely taxing the year had been on my mind and body, I still absolutely loved college, and even managed to make the Dean’s List second semester, as well.
I remember the day I got home from school when my parents looked me in the eyes and promised me that I would heal this summer. I heard and understood their words, but I cannot say that I believed them. I did not think for one second that after 8 months of feeling betrayed by my own body, I would heal in the short span of a 2 month summer. I was defeated, pessimistic and drained beyond belief. I would’ve done anything to switch out what I was going through for hand pain, because no matter how much my hands hurt at the time, it was nothing compared to the misery I had endured during those 8 months.
Despite feeling less than optimistic, I was willing to try anything to heal myself, and in June of 2018, my healing process began. We decided to get a full panel of blood work done, just to cover all of our bases. I received my script from Doctor Patrick Fratellone, who I genuinely believed saved my life. I remember looking at the script and seeing words and phrases that I had never seen before, and it was immediately clear to me that this would not be a normal blood work panel. Patrick was testing for things that other doctors had never tested for in the past, and for the first time in months, I felt hopeful. The script was quite thorough (9 vials of blood, to be exact), and even though I threw up and almost fainted, I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling more optimistic than ever before.
A few days later, my results came back, and they were almost as extensive as the script itself. I had multiple vitamin, iron, and glutamine deficiencies, a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, along with having Leaky Gut syndrome, and issues with my thyroid. At this point, I began educating myself about the relationship between the gut and the mind. I had no idea that 90% of serotonin is produced in the digestive tract, and I became quickly fascinated by the scientific evidence that proves that anxiety frequently stems from the gut, not the mind. According to the blood work I had gotten done, my gut was a complete disaster, no thanks to the way I treated it for 19 years of my life.
I began to realize the power that food had on my body, and I officially eliminated gluten, dairy and processed/artificial foods from my diet completely, along with adding the proper supplements. Candy and junk food used to be part of my daily routine, and when I got to college, my eating habits became even worse. I was eating junk food every day, and I never stopped to think about the potential consequences of intentionally putting so much toxic ‘food’ into my body would be.
At first, nothing happened. I was still afraid to go to bed without taking a Benadryl in fear of waking up in the middle of the night and throwing up. Along with eating clean and taking the proper supplements, I decided to taper off of my anxiety medication. I am not in any way ‘anti-medication’. I know that it is a necessity for many people, and I have seen it save the lives of important people around me. But after months of taking Celexa, I knew it wasn’t working for me and that I would need to focus solely on eating clean. Weeks went by, and I was still experiencing random anxiety attacks, where my entire body would tense up and shake, and release the tension in the form of throwing up. I was never under the impression that this was going to be a quick fix, but my parents still held onto their promise that I would be healed by the time my sophomore year began.
Slowly but surely, I felt myself begin to heal, and by the time July came around, I was no longer plagued by the constant nausea or anxiety that used to follow me everywhere. I hadn’t thrown up or felt nauseous once, my anxiety had significantly diminished, and for the first time since October, I felt like myself again.
My family’s dear friend, and someone I consider one of the greatest role models, Jennifer Esposito, had seen me in May and expressed grave concerns about my well-being. At the time, I was severely underweight and completely ridden by anxiety, and as someone who had been through hell and back as well, she recognized what was happening immediately. When she saw me only 3 months later, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. I will never forget when she looked me straight in my eyes and said “you look like you’re alive.” I began gaining weight, and it was as if I could physically see the life begin to creep back into my body and eyes. After so many months of looking and feeling sick, I had forgotten what it was like to look healthy, to feel healthy. I relished in the feeling, absolutely amazed that I had transformed my body and mind by the power of food alone.
Of course, there were still days where I felt anxious and ‘off’, but it never once resulted in a full blown anxiety attack or throwing up. I went from throwing up 10+ times a day, to being able to eat full steaks by myself and go for seconds. Long gone were the days where I picked at my food in disgust. Now, I appreciated healthy and clean foods, and became more independent in the kitchen, where I began making myself my own meals.
My diet in college became especially bad, but I was never the healthiest eater. I would be fine eating a handful of Goldfish or pretzels for breakfast, and my lunch always included processed and crappy foods. I never cared about ingredients in the foods I was eating, never looking twice at the list, even if there were paragraphs of words that I couldn’t pronounce. Now, checking the ingredient list is the first thing I do, and if I try to ‘treat’ myself with bad food, my body can feel it. My anxiety is triggered, and my whole system feels off balanced. Food and the ingredients in it quite literally fuel my body.
I now eat full, nutritious breakfasts, experimenting with cooking gluten-free and vegan pancakes, or breakfast energy bars. Making meals for myself is especially hard living in a small dorm with no kitchen, but I have just been forced to be more creative. A quick and easy breakfast, and one of my favorites, is a rice cake with almond butter, chia seeds, banana and honey. The ingredients are clean, and it provides me with energy to start the day. I make sure I eat greens with nearly every meal, so if I’m having chicken and potatoes for lunch, I always add a salad or some kale. I cannot stress enough how much food changed my life. I went from rock bottom, to the best I have felt in a very long time, all through the power of fueling my body with clean, and natural food.
Now, I am in my first semester of my sophomore year, and while living in a dorm without a kitchen has proven to be difficult, I wouldn’t consider for a second going back to my old ways. I no longer have to worry about carrying my Xanax around in class, in fear of experiencing a full blown panic attack. I no longer clutch my stomach in pain at 3am, or go days without being able to keep anything down. I no longer feed my body toxic ingredients, and I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am.
I am now completely off all medication. I work out 4-5 times a week, still focusing on weightlifting and increasing my strength, and I can’t describe how much I love feeling and looking strong. I used to feel like a stranger in my own mind and body, and there were many times where I could not even recognize who I was anymore. I remember countless occasions where I would be sobbing in the mirror, hating my body, and hating my mind.
Currently, only a few months later, I truly feel like the absolute best version of myself. My journey was grueling, exhausting, and frustrating, but it changed my physical and mental well-being for the better, and ultimately shaped my outlook on health and life. I learned strength and positivity in the face of adversity, and although it was by far the most difficult year of my life, I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way.
It’s Gluten Dude again. While I was reading this, I was eating an onion sandwich and now I’m all teary. I hate when that happens. Anyway…this line says it all: “I used to feel like a stranger in my own mind and body.” I’m sure so many of us can relate. If that describes you and you have not tried completely altering your diet, before your doc puts you on yet another medication, please heed the words of my Dudette: “I relished in the feeling, absolutely amazed that I had transformed my body and mind by the power of food alone.”
Coming up next is an article from my other incredible Dudette who has her own story to share and how food changed her life.