My Story: How Pregnancy Struggles Helped Me Reclaim My Health
Many of us practicing functional medicine have a personal health story that brought us here. My story became most apparent after pregnancy complications and recurrent miscarriage helped me to uncover underlying health issues associated with gut infections, food sensitivities, hypothyroidism and environmental toxins. I share my very personal experience because I want people who are struggling to know that there is hope. I want my patients to know that I can relate to what they are going through much of the time. I’ve been through a lot with my health – truly this story is just the beginning – and while it was a challenge, I’m thankful for the experience because it has made me a better physician.
My path to wellness started as a college student in Boulder, Colorado. I struggled with hormonal issues and was prescribed synthetic hormones. Intuitively, even at this young age, it didn’t make sense to mask my symptoms with medications. Instead, I turned to Traditional Chinese Medicine and had success with acupuncture. This set the stage for my interest in holistic medicine.
It wasn’t until medical school that my next major health issue came to light after bad dental work led to two root canals (I am now very choosy about my dentist, and take oral health very seriously). Soon after, I noted a change in my digestion and a compromised immune system. Suddenly, I was dealing with a serious viral infection, and taking antibiotics at least once a year for a series of bacterial upper respiratory infections (only to worsen my digestive issues). I was unaware at the time that all of this could be related. I sought out care from a gastroenterologist, and after an upper and lower endoscopy with biopsies, my symptoms were attributed to stress. I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and told to deal with it. I sought out holistic remedies such as acupuncture and herbs, but there was no major change.
How Pregnancy Complications Changed Everything
Years later, when I became pregnant with my first child, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. I was in disbelief, as were my medical colleagues. I was a busy family medicine resident – but still making a green smoothie every morning, packing my own lunch with sprouted wheat bread, and practicing yoga.
At that time in my career, at least 80% of my patients were either diabetic or pre-diabetic. This diagnosis gave me an opportunity to walk in their shoes. I pricked my finger 4 times a day to monitor my glucose levels, and learned first-hand about how different foods affected my blood sugar. Conventional management of gestational diabetes advocated for 6 or more servings a day of grains and starch, such as bread, cereal, pasta, rice, corn and peas. I knew for a fact that those foods spiked my blood sugar. I learned to limit certain carbohydrates (especially processed grains) and balance them out with healthy fats and protein. This experience confirmed my suspicion that the conventional dietary and nutritional recommendations for diabetes (and most chronic illnesses for that matter) were all wrong. Thankfully, I was able to manage my pregnancy with diet alone, and we were blessed with a healthy seven-pound baby girl. But I had a lot of lingering questions. Why did I have blood sugar issues? Was this a sign of something more serious? What was the root cause? I was frustrated that conventional medicine did not offer any answers to these deeper questions.
Even more frustrating was that despite a diet of organic, high-quality foods that I believed were healthy, my digestive issues only got worse. I would soon discover that, even in moderation, the whole grains and organic dairy I was eating were contributing to the issue. I had recurrent episodes of what I thought was viral gastroenteritis, commonly known as the stomach flu. Over the years, I noted fingernail changes, rashes, acne, headaches and even urinary symptoms. I started monitoring my blood sugar again and was concerned by my body’s response to certain foods. I had a confusing collection of symptoms that I knew were not “normal” and a hunch that they were all somehow related. Yet my conventional lab tests were read as normal and my physicians assured me I was fine. (remember to listen to your intuition, and that “normal” labs don’t mean there is nothing wrong!)
My health issues took center stage when my husband and I tried for a second child and suffered through recurrent miscarriages. At one point, I was seeing an internist, gastroenterologist, endocrinologist, dermatologist, gynecologist and fertility specialist. While I believe these doctors had my best interests at heart, the toolbox of conventional medicine did not have answers to my deeper questions. I felt heartbroken and scared, because recurrent pregnancy loss reinforced to me that something was wrong with my body. I was also motivated more than ever to make some drastic changes, and my family was now 100% behind me. (It’s important to have support from the people you love!)
Connecting the Dots in My Health Story
A friend and mentor introduced me to functional medicine, and we used the same investigative tools to connect the dots that I now use with my own patients. After a more complete lab workup, I discovered my markers of inflammation were off the charts, and I began reading about the inflammatory and autoimmune spectrum. I created a timeline, and recognized conventional dentistry as a likely trigger. As part of my investigative work, I requested the records from the gastroenterologist I’d seen over 6 years prior. My pathology report – which I’d been told was normal – arrived in the mail and read “findings may be consistent with early Celiac disease.” I still have no idea why that was missed, but have boiled it down to human error (I now review all of my labs myself, and encourage patients to do the same).
My Path to Renewed Health
Recognizing that most of my health issues were related to digestive problems and hidden food sensitivities, I focused on healing my gut. Through advanced functional medicine testing, including stool and urine organic acids, I learned about the underlying causes of my IBS – including Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and candida overgrowth. I used everything from pharmaceuticals, herbs and supplements to mind-body work to help recover. (When diet alone isn’t enough, don’t ignore unrecognized gut infections.)
These gut infections caused issues with intestinal permeability (known as leaky gut), which contributed to food sensitivities. I changed my diet dramatically, starting with an elimination diet called Whole30, which included strict avoidance of gluten and dairy. I embraced food as medicine, and adopted a whole new way of eating. It’s taken some time, but I’ve learned to navigate dietary restrictions with ease in my own kitchen, where I love to cook for friends and family.
Working with a biological dentist, I made a huge decision to extract my root canals. Because of the timing and subtle symptoms, I believed they were contributing to my health issues. In particular, I theorized that they set me up for SIBO. This was a scary (and expensive) decision, but it is one I have never regretted. I now have a keen interest in the connection between oral and digestive health, and have started testing for oral yeast and bacteria in my own practice. (Don’t forget that good oral health is an important foundation for your health in general!)
I also addressed suboptimal thyroid function. With a strong family history of both Hashimotos and Graves disease, thyroid had always been on my radar. But it wasn’t until my thyroid function was evaluated more thoroughly through a functional medicine approach, that I discovered low T3 was making me functionally hypothyroid. Fixing this imbalance addressed a lot of issues, including blood sugar and the gut-thyroid relationship. But more than anything, it allowed me to be the mother and wife I wanted to be. (If you are hypothyroid and still living with symptoms, don’t settle – there is hope!)
Delving into my genes, I discovered that I had genetic predispositions similar to MTHFR that caused difficulty with methylation and meant I needed more B vitamins. Functional medicine testing helped me to identity and correct other nutrient deficiencies as well. These are common problems with the malabsorption that accompanies chronic digestive issues.
Given my training, I also knew that toxins were likely playing a role. I discovered specific environmental toxins that were contributing to my issues, so I worked to mitigate those while focusing on detoxification. I also moved on from the emotionally toxic relationships in my life and did everything I could to minimize stress during this time.
As I began to heal, I saw improvements in digestion, energy, mood, hormones, blood sugar, skin and nails, headaches and immune system. Best of all, we had a successful pregnancy and a gorgeous baby boy. His first years of life presented a huge opportunity to learn more about my own health and healing. I was fortunate to walk that path with others as I practiced functional medicine.
Years Later: The Irony of Reclaimed Health
I still maintain my health through a plant-based, mostly Paleo style diet, high quality supplements, and a variety of approaches I learned along the way. My lifestyle has experienced a major makeover, and my health is now better than it’s been in a decade. I know this because I feel better. More interestingly, I know this because my husband and I are now expecting our third child (surprise!). I tell my patients that as their health returns, their fertility will follow. I am the poster child for this statement. So as I enter into 2018, I do so with an unexpectedly pregnant belly, yet even more determination to help others.
Functional medicine established the framework and tools that made sense to me, and addressed the subtleties of my health concerns. This journey not only gave me the opportunity to learn more about my own health and vitality, it reinspired my practice of medicine. I’m passionate about working with patients who are looking to dig deeper, and I have the great privilege of partnering with patients as a functional medicine physician. If you are struggling to find your own answers, don’t give up hope! Advocate for yourself and listen to your intuition. If your journey involves working with a doctor who will truly listen to your needs and connect the dots to help you overcome chronic disease or optimize health, I would love to work with you.