Part 1: A Series of Unfortunate Events and A Light at the End of the Tunnel
I suppose I’ll start my story a few years back from today, during the 2013-2014 school year, when my adventure with gut issues began. I was a third year student studying Life Sciences (Majors in Physiology and Health and Disease) at the University of Toronto, living in an apartment away from my hometown of Niagara Falls. For the majority of my life I had always been and usually felt like a healthy person, with the only “illness” to speak of being some mild depression to deal with during the winter season. I had a good social life, school was going well, and I had a pretty clear map of the future in terms of what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be, and how I could get there. All of this changed in pretty short order over the course of a year. First I began to feel increasingly lethargic. My mind started feeling cluttered, racing with anxious thoughts that I couldn’t get to shut up. On top of that my ability to think started to slow down substantially. It felt like my mind was trudging through mud and that my brain just wasn’t firing right. I couldn’t wake up in the morning no matter how much sleep I had gotten the night before. I was getting progressively more depressed, and so at first I figured that my winter blues must be getting worse.
But there were physical symptoms as well. There was a persistent pressure building up behind my eyes and against the inside of my skull. Often it would get so bad that it would cause my eyes to start rocking back and forth, and I’d have to close them to stop from getting dizzy. I was also developing sinus issues and could hardly breathe through my nose anymore. My joints and muscles would sometimes become sore for no reason, and I often felt pins and needles in my feet. My urine burned (despite being a proud and verified owner of no STDs ever) and there was consistently blood detected in my urine samples, sometimes clearly visible. My stomach was always very bloated after meals, although at the time I thought this was normal and just a result of me overeating. And man, did I ever start overeating. My cravings were becoming ungodly and I’d constantly stuff my face to near death before I’d stop putting food in it. My body was feeling more and more awful by the day. It felt like someone filled my veins with hot sludge, and I was constantly sore, exhausted, anxious, and irritable.
Throughout this landslide from health I visited multiple doctors to try and find some answers. I had blood work done at several points in time, and everything kept coming up normal besides a downward trend in my red blood cell count and testosterone, until both were just below the normal clinical range. They said these numbers were still around the normal range and therefore have nothing to do with any of my symptoms. Fine. I also did a sleep study and everything came back normal. Usually then doctors would tell me just how healthy I actually am, that everyone gets stressed out and doesn’t feel their best all the time, and then normally recommend antidepressants, and that’s it.
The gross part is that at some point doctors can and will actually convince you that you’re just stressed. If you happen to be a student, the argument is lost before it even begins. Regardless, how you can even concretely prove to someone that you’re not stressed, let alone a doctor who is very obviously married to the idea, is beyond me. I’ve tried.
At some point you become desperate. There was a week where I decided to give Wellbutrin a chance by the urging of a school clinic doctor, but I felt completely flat and emotionless while taking it and although a single week probably wasn’t a fair trial, at that point I’d already firmly decided I didn’t want to play antidepressant roulette. Another time my past family doctor told me he’s writing a script for Concerta (a drug for ADHD) before even asking me if I wanted to go that route. I gave it a try for slightly longer as it at least helped me concentrate on my assignments and stay awake, but again the side effects I experienced ended up being too unbearable to take for any prolonged period of time. I decided to stay away from any psychoactive drugs after that – I vowed to exhaust all other options first.
And so it was clear I wouldn’t be getting any help from doctors. Over time my symptoms continued to get worse. Eventually my head felt like it weighed 100 pounds, and my body felt like it weighed ten times that. I was turning into an anxious mess to the point where, when I was actually able to get out of bed, I could barely leave my room to face my roommates with whom I was close friends with, let alone leave the apartment and deal with other people. On top of that I was completely losing it cognitively – I could no longer hold conversations with people as my brain couldn’t keep up with what they were saying. Obviously this made going to my lectures essentially pointless, and getting through labs and presentations was always an ordeal. Reading became extremely difficult because I’d forget the beginning of the sentence before I got to the end. On the really bad days, I’d stand on the sidewalk hailing down normal cars instead of taxis, genuinely unable to distinguish which was which. I literally felt like I was losing my mind.
It wasn’t until about a year later when I started to draw the link between all these issues and my gut health. A naturopath recommended an herbal treatment for candida (after some actual testing down the road it turned out candida wasn’t my issue), but also recommended I reduce dairy and grain intake to help kill off the fungus. Being Italian, I don’t think I’d ever gone five minutes without dairy or pasta, let alone having to endure multiple consecutive days. Anyways, I did it. And after 2 or 3 days of the herbal treatment, many of my symptoms suddenly lifted, including the mental fog. Wow, I thought, this damn candida fungus was my problem the entire time. After the coast was clear I celebrated with two burgers (along with companion buns and cheese) and bam, not only did I feel like crap again, I felt even worse than I did before. Hold up. Was this some sick joke? How is it that the same foods I’ve worshipped like an angry God my entire life are suddenly causing horrible symptoms that are totally unrelated to my gut. Weren’t these foods my friends? Are there other foods I’m reacting to that I had no idea about? Can I trust these foods ever again? My heart was broken. I loved these foods so much I would have married them. My family loved these foods. How am I supposed to explain to them what has happened? I had some difficult questions and I needed answers, and it was from this day forward that I set out on my path to restoring my gut health.
How I got to that point in my health is still unclear, but it must have been a combination of stressors on my body and gut that over time just broke me. I had travelled a few times to foreign countries during my undergraduate degree (Honduras twice, Taiwan) and basically ate everything in sight with obvious disregard of what country I was in. That could have been it. On the topic of eating, I was the type of person to eat several meals a day and several times between those meals. With all my other health problems it’s a small miracle I’m not morbidly obese too. I literally couldn’t put on a pound if I tried. Yet my mind was always on food. Although I generally ate healthy and made my own meals during the day, I was certainly not opposed to exploiting the McDonald’s value menu or downing a Double Pork (extra pork) Smokes Poutine with Sriracha after a night of drinking all my good judgement away at the bar. That could have been it. I was also extremely busy with school and with my extracurriculars, and as they say, often in university you may choose two amongst the trio of good academics, a good social life, and good sleep. My sincere apologies go out to good sleep, as a ton of coffee was clearly not a sustainable placeholder. It really could have been that too.
But was all of this really that out of the ordinary for a university student? To be fair, and it’s ironic considering what I’ve just divulged to you, I can still honestly say I was living a healthier lifestyle than most of the people I interacted with in university on a daily basis (especially being in a science program) and on top of that a lot better at dealing with stress and making sure I was getting regular exercise. I’m not going to downplay the fact that stress probably also played a role, but university is not exactly synonymous with good health and at the time I felt I was doing a reasonable job of balancing both.
But no one else from my program has become this sick, so I really don’t know what the deal is in my case. At the same time though it is true that practically everyone these days is having some type of problem related to their gut and the foods they’re eating. And sometimes, as in my case, these health issues that stem from the gut don’t always involve typical gastrointestinal symptoms. I know one person who found out her vertigo is triggered by eating certain foods. I know another who gets severe depression and arthritis from eating certain foods. My cousin, who went on the same Honduras trip as me, has developed fibromyalgia, and seeing as it there is no known cause of the disorder I wouldn’t be shocked if it were also a gut issue. There’s more and more evidence mounting that the balance of microbes in your gut can be a causal factor in depression and anxiety, and alterations in this microbial balance have also been correlated with chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s. So I guess it’s possible, especially considering the increasing rates of mental disorders, that people are getting sick and just don’t realize it’s coming from their gut. I guess I don’t really know if I’m the only one.
Fortunately it doesn’t really matter how I got sick. At that point the problem was there and I finally had a clue as to what it was – a gut issue – and could now go about fixing it. I could at last properly explain the situation to doctors and they’d know exactly what to do. I’d seek out a naturopath again as they’d surely have some natural cures for this type of thing. I wouldn’t have to suffer much longer. For the first time since becoming sick I could finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. And then I heard the faint horn of that train growing louder and louder.