I first took an interest in diet and nutrition in 2009 when I lost 20 pounds by removing soda and other sugary food and drinks from my diet. Then I went to college. After a few years of dining hall food, late night pizza, and frequent binge drinking (more on my struggles with alcoholism coming soon), I found myself in the worst shape of my life at 215 pounds. It wasn’t until my mom sent me a link to Mark’s Daily Apple in September 2012 that things finally started to change. Mark Sisson’s “primal” approach just seem intuitive: nothing processed, no refined sugars, no inflammatory grains, beans, or oils — just real, nutrient-dense foods. I quickly committed to the 21-day transformation -- three weeks of primal-aligned eating. The results were drastic. I lost about 20 pounds over the first six weeks and nearly 50 within about nine months. I was the leanest I’d been since before middle school, without counting calories or starving myself. My body’s newfound ability to efficiently burn body fat allowed for effortless weight management, sustained energy, and freedom from constant refueling typical of a higher carbohydrate diet. Simply put, I had never felt better.
Over the next few years, I spent most of my free time studying nutrition, eventually incorporating a passion for barbell-based strength training and rock climbing into my lifestyle as well. I developed my knowledge of different methods and strategies through personal experimentation, always willing to tweak my diet and training regimens and try new supplements; I also worked hard to improve my sleep quality -- something I have struggled with since high school.
Then, in March 2016, during a six-week sport climbing trip in Spain, I noticed a pretty significant change in my energy levels. I felt tired and sluggish nearly every day, no matter how much or how soundly I slept. I was training pretty heavily at the time: climbing a lot, training for climbing, and barbell training every other day as I studied for a strength coaching certification. Naturally, my first thought was, “I’m overtraining.” When more rest didn’t work, I tried adding more carbohydrates to my diet (I’ve been mostly keto since 2014). When that didn’t work, I started to get a little worried and I began taking a deeper look into chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). At this point, I was experiencing persistent bouts of depression, listlessness, anxiety, and stress for the first time in my life. This felt serious; but with no money and no health insurance, I really had no other option than to carry on with trying to figure it out on my own.
Sometime in the winter of 2016, I started reading about gut health and leaky gut. Before long, I was pretty convinced I had a parasitic infection -- I was experiencing at least 90% of the common symptoms. An herbal antiparasitic cleanse produced a bit of improvement, but my symptoms returned shortly thereafter. Over the next few months, nothing I tried seemed to work. In fact, my symptoms were getting worse.
By spring of 2017, I was sleeping 10-11 hours a night and waking up every day feeling like I had pulled an all-nighter, experiencing debilitating migraines 3-4 days a week, and my stress levels were totally out of control. Every single day was a struggle. All of this while, at the same time, trying to start a career as a health coach, which only added more stress, self-doubt, and hopelessness to my situation. How could I coach others to optimal health when I could barely get out of bed in the morning?
It was pretty obvious I was dealing with some serious gut issues, but I just wasn’t able to figure out the primary causes. I was still pretty convinced I had some sort of gut infection, but I was so overwhelmed by the intensity of my symptoms that I finally decided to see a doctor. I found a functional medicine practitioner to administer some diagnostic testing and provide some help in creating a more well-rounded protocol. An expensive stool test came back negative for parasites, harmful bacteria, and fungus, but did show that my secretory Immunoglobin A (SIgA) was extremely elevated, a sign of significant inflammation and immune response. My doctor recommended that we move on to a very expensive food tolerance test to help diagnose which foods were causing the obvious immune response. Once I had my results, I eliminated all problematic foods, but after a full month, I still wasn’t seeing much improvement, so I decided to start following the paleo Autoimmune Paleo (AIP).
AIP helped me gain traction and noticeable improvement for the first time since I began experiencing symptoms. It was a huge relief and helped me regain hope in my ability to heal. Unfortunately, my recovery plateaued after a couple months of AIP, but I didn’t really feel good enough to begin reintroducing foods -- at this point I was probably still only operating at about 60% of how I was used to feeling prior to 2016.
I knew I needed another approach; it was time to take a more proactive approach to stress management and my mental and emotional health. I knew meditation was important, but I really struggled with the stillness -- even 30 seconds felt excruciating -- so instead I focused on simpler, more achievable strategies like breathwork, long walks, lots of sunshine, and grounding. But the single biggest boon to my mental and emotional health? Gratitude. Certainly all of these strategies contributed to my improvements, but daily gratitude journaling changed everything for me, helping me feel less stressed and find valuable perspective on my path to find healing.
Unfortunately I was still unable/unwilling to reincorporate foods from AIP and this diet is not meant for long-term, indefinite use. This past winter (2017/2018), I went through my strictest period of elimination dieting as I just continued stacking different protocols. At one point, I was following keto, AIP, low-histamine, and low-FODMAP protocols all at the same time. I used a 4-day rotation diet to help avoid developing new food intolerances while eating from such a small list of foods. This went on for a couple months with transient improvements while I continued to tell myself that this was okay; I tried so hard to convince myself that I wasn’t stressed.
In April, I finally threw in the towel and admitted that stress and anxiety surrounding everything I put in my mouth was controlling my life and destroying my well-being. During the four days I spent in Austin, TX for Paleo f(x), I ate out at restaurants more times than I had in the past year. And while I definitely didn’t feel better physically, it felt incredible to just relax and enjoy a relatively normal meal with friends. Over the subsequent six months (May-October), I stuck with my decision to relax my food restrictions, sticking to a basic Paleo/Primal diet (excluding eggs and dairy which I know don’t work for me). I ate more carbs on a regular basis than I had in four years. This proved to allow for another big step forward in my mental and emotional healing even if it felt like a step back physically. I finally learned to give myself space: to allow myself to be depressed sometimes, and tired, and unproductive. And at times to simply not give a fuck about everything single thing I eat and how it’s going to impact my healing process.
After six months, I had gained 20 pounds and a ton of clarity and perspective regarding my health. I finally felt ready to start proactively working on my diet again. Since the end of October I have been following a zero carb, carnivore diet. Yes, you read that correctly -- nothing but meat, salt, and water. This diet has been steadily growing in popularity within the paleo/keto community as an effective protocol for weight loss, chronic disease management, and healing gut issues. I know -- it sounds insane. But it seems to be working for me. I haven’t exactly had the “breakthrough” that some other folks seem to experience on this diet but I have had a really good month. I’ve been productive and have been able to sustain more physical activity than at any point in the past two and half years. I’ve also brought a different mindset to this round of restrictive eating; I’m trying not to be too dogmatic about it. I’ve had sweet potatoes on occasion after workouts and non-dairy ice cream and nuts a few times when I was just feeling tired and stressed; just giving myself some space and not adding extra when I’m already having a rough day.
I’m still not back to 100% and who knows? Maybe I never will be. Right now, I’d estimate I’m at about 70-80% on any given day. I still deal with daily fatigue and brain fog, depression and listlessness, anxiety, and the occasional migraine. But I feel as optimistic as I have about my health in a very long time. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey, staying patient with myself, being grateful for my amazing body and everything it does to allow me to keep moving toward my goals and giving myself the space to find my way to healing at my own pace. I also want to say thank you to everyone who has supported me along this journey, from family to friends and fellow health coaches, I am deeply grateful for every single one of you.
It's interesting now, to look back over the years and see how far I've come. But what's most exciting is just knowing that this is a lifelong journey and embracing everyday as an opportunity for continued growth.
To anyone who is dealing with CFS or other chronic health issues, just know that healing is possible for you, even in the darkest times. If you feel you may need or want support in your journey, please reach out and schedule a free consultation. I would be honored to help you on your path to healing.