One day last September, I found myself sobbing alone in my Manhattan studio. I had been there all day, and I was unable to stop crying.
Why? Because I’d been “glutened” the night before at a party by a tiny flour taco masquerading as a rice-paper wrap. It had rendered me both physically and emotionally destroyed.
After more than a year of working diligently on my health — thousands of dollars and countless hours spent on doctors, naturopaths, healers, extreme diets, and exotic supplements — I had finally felt I was getting somewhere. So now getting kicked back to square one by one tiny taco left me feeling totally wrecked by the seeming endless futility of my efforts.
Let me back up. It started in my mid-20s when I began having problems digesting wheat. When gluten became vilified as the culprit for everyone’s health issues somewhere around 2011, I thought “AHA! There’s my problem” and swiftly yet sadly hacked most of it from my diet.
But after breaking up with my boyfriend of five years and dealing with stress, lots of booze, and a lot less sleep, my stomach got worse.
I should also mention that it had been years since I'd had a normal period, ever since I had quit hormonal birth control. But my OB/GYN reassured me that I just needed to wait. Still, I cut most carbs, increased the protein and fats in my diet, and attempted to bulk up my naturally slender frame. When six months became a year and then three without a period, I sought a second opinion.
That year, in 2012, the ultrasound showed cysts on my ovaries. Despite being asymptomatic in every other way, my doctor labeled me with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). The suggested remedy? Oral contraceptives, the very reason I felt I'd landed here in the first place.
I had also developed brain fog, extreme fatigue, and an inability to concentrate on anything. Thyroid testing revealed a low T3 hormone, which didn’t put me in the category of hypothyroidism, but it was clearly wreaking havoc on my energy and mental clarity.
My new doctor suggested a hormone replacement for my thyroid, but after my experience with birth control, I was wary of messing with any more hormonal treatments. Upon my request, she offered an alternative solution: a type of brown seaweed extract called Modifilan. A few weeks into taking Modifilan, I felt high. My energy was soaring, my digestion was speedy, and I was sharp as a tack! I spent about a year on what I called my “seaweed speed" but still no period.
A daily dose of apple cider vinegar and blackstrap molasses gave me false hope with a light period once or twice, but it didn’t last. What’s more, my digestive issues began to creep back in, and I worried that I was once again masking my symptoms with a pill.
Eventually I turned to an endocrinologist, who literally laughed in my face and made me feel like my health history was both ludicrous and unsolvable. He then suggested progesterone (more hormones) to jump-start my cycle. He wasn’t interested in considering a relationship between my digestive, thyroid, and reproductive issues.
As an otherwise healthy 30-year-old woman, I refused to accept that all of my systems were suddenly failing independently of one another. I opted to keep searching.
During this time I had gotten into a serious relationship with an incredible man. And yet for reasons I couldn’t yet understand, I knew it wasn’t right. As I attempted to squash this “gut feeling” by internalizing stress and guilt daily, my physical gut issues went from uncomfortable to unbearable and I developed the unfortunately named condition leaky gut.
One by one, I watched as my favorite foods were placed in the “bad” pile until the only thing I could comfortably consume was chicken soup. As I reached my breaking point, I knew I needed a new kind of help. Probiotics and clean eating weren’t cutting it, and traditional practitioners refused to see my body as a whole.
On the recommendation of my brother who’s a doctor, I sought out a naturopath. With gusto, I forked over $400 and prepared to embrace the naturopath's routine — until I read what it would entail: I was to avoid salad and juice bars at all costs, wash all fruits and vegetables in a specific parasite cleanser, and suck on tiny, herb-filled metal balls around the clock.
Her prescription also included nearly $2,000 of blood and stool testing plus some very invasive procedures that I dare not speak of lest you lose your lunch. Terrified of her strict sentence, I opted for another route.
I tried countless books and DIY cleanses, spent weeks working with a different naturopath and acupuncturist, and visited a Chinese medicine doctor obsessed with parasite cleansing and stimulating my chi through ginger tea. One particularly miserable day, I called a “leading Candida specialist” in Florida who asked whether I’d ever had an extraterrestrial encounter. I hung up the phone.
I felt like I was following a gluten-free breadcrumb trail to health.
I was desperate but refused to give up. The alternative was utter misery as I continued to lose weight and struggled to find anything edible. The emotional roller coaster of my physical illness plus the indecision of what to do about my relationship caused severe anxiety, amplifying everything. My friends were tired of hearing about it, and I was too.
Eventually I walked away from the perfect-on-paper relationship and began a relationship with a functional medicine doctor. Dr. Robin Berzin bridged the gap between Western and alternative medicine and encouraged me to link the emotional and physical issues I was having.
Free of my relationship indecision, I was finally able to focus my energies on healing my own body, mind, and spirit. I began meditating regularly, spending time to create beautiful meals from the few things I could eat, and denied my health issues space by talking about them less.
I no longer identified myself as a “sick” person, instead focusing on positive thoughts of healing. As my anxiety receded, so, too, did my symptoms, and little by little, my digestion began to flow.
I wish I could say that was the end of the story and I’m 100 percent healed, but the truth is that I still have my ups and downs. I still don’t eat any American wheat, though I have no problems abroad, where the wheat is processed more naturally than in the U.S. On a super-stressful day or after having a trigger food like nuts or wine, my belly sometimes rebels. But it’s less often, less severe, and getting consistently better.
The brain fog and fatigue have become a fuzzy and distant memory. My period stays stubbornly away. But I can sense ovulation and am confident that like everything else in my life, it, too, will soon flow again.