*This post is not intended to provide medical information or advice. It is merely an account of my own personal experiences and recounting of a select period of my own health history. If you are having trouble with any of the issues discussed or would like medical advice on how to manage these issues, please speak with your doctor.
After nearly a year suffering with GERD, acid re-flux, terrible fatigue and eczema, and heightened anxiety, I finally made the connection between allergy anxiety, brain fog, GERD, gut health, fasting, and stress. This post is a “side note” to my experiences with life-threatening food allergies, and perhaps a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when we don’t keep our allergy anxiety and allergic reaction PTSD in check. When I started talking about GERD on social media, so many people came forward to say that they were having similar experiences, so I decided to share my story… all the personal details.
It started in 2016. I didn’t know it started, but in hindsight, that was when the first shoe dropped. I was at my company’s holiday party, dancing, having a great time, and holding a light beer. I took my first sip and immediately felt the blood drain from my face, my legs went weak, my body turned cold, and my stomach took on a hollow feeling. Within seconds I was barely able to contain my vomit and ran (in 4 inch heels) across the room to the washroom where I crouched over the toilet for a good 20 minutes, and called Brandon to pick me up. I thought either I must be developing an intolerance to alcohol, or I had food poisoning.
I refrained from drinking alcohol for about a year, hoping that would sort out my problems. Giving up alcohol sparked some positive changes, but I didn’t know that the real problem was still brewing. Then, in 2017, after drinking a bottle of sparkling water before bed, I woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath and choking on my saliva. I felt like I was having a heart attack, and decided it was the result of a really bad dream. A family friend of ours had very recently passed away and I thought I must have had a bad dream about him. What I didn’t realize was that stress within me was mounting and this was the volcano erupting, triggered by the sparkling water.
GERD shows up
From then on I experienced night choking often, which led me to do some research about it. I learned that it’s called GERD, and happens when one has a bad case of acid re-flux. The stomach acid is in the wrong area, up near the esophagus, and pushes up as you lay down to sleep. Some people describe it as feeling like choking or vomiting in your sleep, or feeling like you have sediment at the back of your throat, and let me tell you it’s really scary.
As all this was going on in the fall of 2017, I felt like my daily life was becoming a very fragile web of responsibilities. Just a few weeks after signing my book deal, Brandon and I got engaged (read about our wedding here) and decided to marry in five months. New opportunities at my job as a book buyer were opening up, and I wasn’t about to say no to them. I was flying out on business trips when I really wanted to be at home testing recipes and spending time with Brandon, and planning our wedding. People were visiting my kitchen to cook for photo shoots for the blog, which involved a lot of advanced prep, and then a lot of cleanup and hours of photo editing. I was managing our vacation rental property on the side. It felt like I had settled into a warped schedule of constant productivity; I worked during the day, then came home and worked at night. Sleep and exercise were no longer priorities.
I’m not sharing all this to say that my life was so busy and important (to some of you this might seem like a walk in the park), but I’m sharing it because it was a poor time for my mental health. I wasn’t taking care of myself; I was only concerned with executing my responsibilities as perfectly as possible. Everyone’s idea of a heavy workload or life stresses is totally different. I compacted all this stress and didn’t allow myself any way to release it. I felt like I had to do everything perfectly because there was no time to fix mistakes. And I felt like I was only able to put part of myself into each of these projects when I really wanted to throw my full self into all of them.
On top of it all was that pesky allergy anxiety and allergic reaction PTSD. I worried that if I had a reaction I would not have time to recover properly, or that I would let people down who were relying on me to get things done. My biggest fear was that I’d have a reaction before the wedding, or at the wedding, or before I got my manuscript in, or worse, that someone else would have a reaction at our wedding. I didn’t talk about it to anyone, and instead repressed all my feelings so that I could function efficiently, because efficiency was necessary to keep it together. I spent too much time reading food allergy Facebook forums and internalizing other people’s stories.
If I looked put together, dressed well, hair and makeup done, I thought no one would see how fragile I felt. Stabbing stomach pains and acid re-flux that knocked me on my ass became a regular occurrence, but I told myself that as soon as the wedding was over and my manuscript was in, I could relax. I told myself that I didn’t have time to deal with this, and that I shouldn’t “be weak” because none of these things individually is stressful. In hindsight this was totally ignorant, but these are the lies we sometimes tell ourselves.
In the meantime I researched changes that I could implement to reduce the symptoms and occurrence of GERD. Unfortunately many antacid pills contain some derivative of dairy, so I had to go natural. At this point I was not interested in risking it and I didn’t have time to visit my allergist to test it out.
Changes I made included:
Sleeping sitting up, sometimes even on the couch overnight
Cutting out tomatoes, onions, garlic, more than one coffee/afternoon coffee, chocolate, alcohol, white sugar, mint, citrus, bell peppers, spicy foods, fried foods, fizzy drinks, and tea
Stopped eating three hours before bed, and remained sitting upright for those three hours
Intermittent fasting - aimed for 14 hours but was satisfied with 12
More regular sleep schedule, with an aim to get 7 hours
Increased my serving size of fermented foods, such as kombucha, coconut milk yogurt, and sauerkraut, and ensured I consumed at least one of the above every day
Ate more seeds and berries, and low acid foods
Practiced intuitive eating; listening to my body closely and eating when I was hungry, and stopped eating when I was full. If a food did not agree with me I listened to my body and added it to the bad list.
These changes had a profound impact on how often I experienced GERD and my acid re-flux became much more manageable. The only problem was that these changes were not sustainable in the long-term; I felt like I couldn’t eat or do anything, and my social life suffered. It was too much of a load on top of the allergens I already avoid.
So I made some bigger changes. I decided to leave the job at Indigo that I loved. I looked inwards, and revisited why I started writing about food allergy so I could better convey my message to my readers. I reassessed my personal relationships. I retired the kitchen photo shoots. I unfollowed social accounts that posted fear narratives or click-bait about allergies.
I allowed myself the time to focus on the things I am most passionate about (my book, blog, etc.), and to do them really well.
Over the Mountain
By summer 2018, it was safe to say I had made it over the mountain peak. GERD was no longer a regular thing, but I was still very sensitive and had to sleep sitting up, avoid alcohol, and practice intermittent fasting and intuitive eating. If I was having a bad stomach day I had to take it seriously. While I was able to start reintroducing some of the foods I had given up, GERD was sparked very easily if I tried to reintroduce too quickly.
I felt myself start to decompress as I took things off my plate that were not making me happy, and it’s like a flood of symptoms related to deferred stress suddenly unleashed. I got a massive eczema flare up on my face, my skin looked sallow and dry, my brain felt foggy and I was always tired, and I didn’t get my period for 4 months. Although I was pulling myself together I still felt like I was falling apart in other ways.
Doctors, and a Misdiagnosis
I decided to see a gyno about the period issue. He quickly prescribed me a pill to jump start my period and diagnosed me with PCOS. He told me that uterine matter was building up inside my body and never cleansing itself; a horrible image that I thought must explain my severe abdominal pain. The pill he gave me was big and contained dairy and soy, so I couldn’t take it. Luckily my mom read about a natural remedy and to our surprise it actually worked and I got back on schedule. Stress was never brought up during my appointment. Being me, I started to research PCOS and worked myself up all over again about the potential long term effects on a woman’s body. My stomach started becoming fickle again as I stressed about what could be happening inside of me, and I began to get tinnitus quite frequently.
When the abdominal pain got really bad one night, I went to emergency room for another round of blood tests and ultrasounds. They told me I had an inflamed lymph node on my appendix and that I had to wait it out. Fortunately my appendix did not burst and I was able to go home.
By this point, I had been through many blood tests at different clinics, multiple visits with different doctors, a hospital visit, and several rounds of stomach and abdominal ultrasounds. It’s really fortunate that needles don’t bother me, because I can’t even count how many I had that year. Then, I had a miscarriage (I won’t go into that now).
What the eff was happening to my body?
The other shoe had dropped.
Late fall of 2018
Let me preface this by saying that private healthcare is not a common thing in Canada unless you are going for a cosmetic procedure or something highly specialized. It’s uncommon to see a private doctor for matters of general health because it’s a luxury and you have to pay for it. I’m extremely fortunate that I was able to afford this service.
Finally, Connecting the Dots
What a difference to see a doctor who looks at your personal health from a holistic perspective, and does not dismiss it as “women’s issues”. All this time I had been seeing different doctors for different issues as they arose, when I really needed one doctor to analyse all of the information as a whole.
He made the connection between all my systems, and what I was experiencing. The light bulb had finally switched on!
This is what I learned
I have a very reactive body due to high level of histamines (oh yeah, all those allergies). I am more likely to have physical reactions to things because that is how my body behaves, just like with my allergies
Stress and anxiety levels are high and I am unable to properly manage stress, especially with such a reactive body
I have disordered eating because of my need to control something that can feel like it controls me (I already knew this and have had it since I was a teen)
GERD is a physical manifestation of my stress and anxiety
I had a bad zinc deficiency, and very low B12, and D levels which contributes to brain fog, making it difficult to think clearly and rationally, and was contributing to my constant fatigue. My body was not properly absorbing nutrients due to stomach acid issues
Gut and mental health connection. When experiencing acid re-flux and GERD, the gut is in a state of distress which we are starting to understand is linked to our state of mental health and well-being
I do not have PCOS but missed periods due to stress
All of this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle which can be broken by making strategic, big changes
He gave me a “prescription” going forward
Meditate regularly, preferably daily
Cut out unnecessary sources of stress
Practice sleep hygiene to reduce brain fog (see article about the connection between sleep deprivation and the amount of allergenic protein needed to cause a reaction here)
Increase my intake of Zinc and B12
Maintain good gut health with probiotic foods (such as kombucha and sauerkraut)
Exercise more regularly to feel in control of my body and let off steam
He did not prescribe anxiety medication! Some doctors would have been quick to treat my problems with a pill, but instead he devised a plan to improve my overall health.
Beginning the Healing Process and Kicking Anxiety’s Ass
I took all this information to heart and started making changes right away. For so long I felt like I couldn’t be open about my issues because we live in a #hustlehard world and I didn’t want to be seen as weak. But I came to realize that that attitude is total bullshit. Working harder is not as important as working smarter; I started saying no to things that weren’t worth my time, to unpaid work, and to any event or opportunity that seemed like Instagram “showmanship”. Standing up for myself became a priority. I made the difficult decision to close my allergy-friendly online shop (RIP Handled with Care) as it was a break-even business and I couldn’t sustain it long term.
Then I started on my “prescription”. Exercise was an easy place to start. I enjoy barre class and yoga, but I needed to start doing it more regularly, so I did. It’s incredible what an impact exercise has on our mental health and wellbeing. It made me feel grounded, more in control, and allowed me to shift my focus and get out of my head. I began to stretch my workout classes, walking a half hour each way to the studio, to further allow myself to unwind.
Admittedly I was skeptical about meditation before I began. It seemed like such a foreign concept, and like something that required trendy accessories. It took me a little while to come around. I joined a meditation studio to get myself started and learn the ropes, and then I began meditating daily at home. Now I can’t go for a day without meditating or I feel unsettled. Those 30 minutes are so precious to me. Meditation is teaching me mindfulness, and I’m beginning to have more clarity about my path in life and the journey I am on. It has taught me how to pinpoint when anxiety is creeping up so that I can resolve it before it gets out of control. I was able to identify tinnitus as a sign that my anxiety was worsening, so when it starts to kick in I know that I need to focus on exercise, meditation, and fasting. When I’m clear-headed and not feeling anxious, I barely experience tinnitus.
Although I’m still battling this eczema flare up on my face, it has become much more manageable and has begun to subside. I cut out wearing foundation and powder nearly all the time, allowing my skin to breathe. Letting my eczema show, wearing it with pride, felt liberating in a way I never could have imagined. I stopped caring so much about what other people think, and started caring more about what makes me feel good.
I’ve been able to sleep through the night without having GERD nearly every night. Taking better care of my sleep schedule and how I wind down (no screens or lights) has improved my mental clarity and I wake up feeling more well rested. I’m still sleeping on a bit of an incline but not nearly to the degree that I previously was, and I’m no longer afraid to go to sleep.
Intermittent fasting is a practice that has stuck with me through this crazy long journey to good health. It’s a practice that I would like to maintain with some regular cadence, and I have even worked up to an 18 hour fast! Allowing my body the time it needs to digest and process foods makes so much sense. When I consider how often I used to eat at midnight , it’s miraculous that this didn’t affect me long ago.
Now, Spring 2019
I’m now on the path to creating a positive cycle of health. I’m even learning to let go of stress with the help of improv. I wouldn’t say I’m totally in the clear, but I am miles ahead of where I was at this time last year. I can both see and feel a difference in my health and well-being. While I have had GERD maybe once or twice this year, it is no longer a regular threat. I feel energized and empowered, and not like a frail, fickle body on a downward spiral. So that’s good.
Despite how difficult this journey has been on my physical and mental health, I’ve learned that I’m more resilient than I thought I was, and that I have incredible willpower. When I made up my mind to avoid certain foods or set a certain routine, I stuck to it unfailingly. I feel my values have become clearer, and I am unwavering. You might even say that after all of this, I learned how to inspire confidence in myself.