During the winter of 1991, I began experiencing chronic digestion problems. The main symptoms I experience when this occurs are that I get very bloated after meals and sometimes feel like I have a rock in my stomach. I become very lethargic, low-energy, and depressed. I am not sure whether, when this occurs, there is some sort of obstruction to the food's passage, but digestion is obviously very disturbed and seriously slowed if not virtually halted at times. When it first began, I would sometimes get these awful-tasting burps like food was rotting in my gut.
I experienced this off and on for about a year prior to it becoming chronic. There were a few times where it literally made me sick to my stomach and I'd have to spend a day in bed.
Beginnings of the problem
I believe the two major causes of this problem were the diet I had been following during the preceding years, and stress. Five years before this began I was following an extremely high-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-protein diet. I was a "vegan" which means I did not eat meat, dairy, or eggs. I can see now, though, that I did not follow this diet in a very rational or balanced way. I was pretty obsessive about not eating dairy, eggs, or meat, but I still ate a lot of sugar and refined foods. I don't think it was the "vegan" diet which caused my digestion problems, but instead it was the way I followed it.
I ate an extremely large amount of carbohydrates and very little fat or protein. I also ate the majority of my food right before I went to bed so that it just sat in my stomach or small intestine all night. I followed this way of eating because I believed it was healthy, and it worked best with my schedule to eat a lot at night rather than during the day. I could also eat a large volume of food without gaining weight. My weight at this time was about 120 pounds at 5'8", and I was very happy with the way I looked and had no intention or desire to lose more weight.
The carbohydrates I overate were not always high-quality, high-fiber, unprocessed foods. I was eating a lot of pretzels, bread, and pizza without the cheese (because I was vegan). I am not sure what the exact cause or diagnosis would be, but sometimes it felt as though, after eating, a blockage would form in my small intestine where food would become stuck or its passage impeded.
When my problems began, I was also eating very chaotically because I was under a lot of stress. I had just returned to college to finish my BA degree and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do well. I began renting a studio, which was extremely expensive for me to afford. My schedule changed at this time and I began eating haphazardly rather than following the regular pattern of spaced-out meals that I had been used to previously. I had a lot of food addictions, and used food a lot of the time as a way to relieve stress.
Before all of this happened I was taking yoga classes a few times a week as well as practicing on my own. I also worked as a massage therapist. When school began, I stopped going to yoga classes and didn't have as much time to practice on my own. I can see now that giving up this centering activity was a mistake.
When these problems began, I lost my desire to eat. I didn't have much of an appetite and I generally felt so sick after eating that I preferred not to make myself feel this way. Consequently I began losing weight.
Experiences with the "live foods" approach
I was familiar with the whole "live foods" philosophy and system of eating. This system believes in eating all uncooked foods, mainly consisting of raw vegetables, fruits, sprouts, soaked grains, and seeds and nuts. It puts a large emphasis on cleansing the body of toxins and impurities, and tends to see these as the main cause of every illness. This system also believes fasting is the best way to cleanse and purify oneself from these unwanted toxins. Adherents of the live foods system believe that it has helped many people recover from cancer and other degenerative and life-threatening illnesses.
I thought this way of eating would cure my digestion problems. I had already lost about 10 pounds and had no desire to lose any more than this, but I was also feeling very sick. I would have tried anything to get my energy level and digestive functioning back to normal. I tried doing a one or two-day fast and then a few days of raw foods. It didn't cure my problems but I felt better. Eating in this way brought about a light, euphoric feeling, and I felt clearer. The problem was that I lost another 10 pounds. My weight was now down to 95 pounds. This really scared me. All my friends and relatives thought I had anorexia.
Going to the other extreme of overindulgence to gain weight
I didn't feel I could continue eating in this way much longer. I was losing too much weight, and although I was feeling clearer and less lethargic in a certain way, I was also feeling weaker from having lost a lot of muscle mass. My digestion didn't seem to be improving either. I was somewhat familiar with acupuncture and Chinese medicine, and decided to give this a try.
I was told I had what they call in this system a "weak spleen." In Chinese medicine the spleen is said to relate to the energy of the whole digestive system. They have a very different belief system concerning nutrition than the "live foods" movement. They believe that too much of what they call "cold food," such as uncooked fruits and vegetables, weakens digestion. They advised me to stop being vegan and to eat a lot of soups, well-cooked vegetables, and even meat.
At this time, I was so tired of being thin and drawing so much attention to myself that I came to a point where I just wanted to stop regulating and controlling my eating so much. I should have, at this time, followed the advice of my acupuncturist, which was about trying to find balance through eating things like soups, cooked vegetables, beans, and grains. Instead, I went to the other extreme and began eating whatever I was craving and foods that I thought would help me gain weight quickly like ice cream and junk foods, which I loved. Moderation and a well-balanced diet seemed more difficult than the extremism of raw foods, or of eating whatever I wanted.
When I say "eating what I want," what I mean is trying to "tune in" to my body and get a sense of what it wants and needs. This is something I've been trying to develop throughout this experience, although at this earlier time I was not very "in tune" with my body. There is a book called Intuitive Eating, by Humbart Santillo that talks about learning to listen to one's body to determine what it wants and needs. The problem was that I was craving a lot of junk foods at this time. I've since learned and experienced first-hand that as the body cleanses it begins craving more whole, unprocessed, and healthier foods.
After about a month of this approach of eating whatever I "wanted," I gained back 10 pounds, and was looking much better but still not feeling "well." I was able to keep this weight on for about a year, but I still had a lot of digestion problems and low energy. I knew I was not as healthy as I could be, and my energy level did not feel as good as it could be. I was still working as a massage therapist, and I felt my work was suffering because of my health.
I continued going to school during all of this even though I had digestion problems. I just had a year of school left, so I wanted to complete it. I managed to keep weight on during this year by including dairy in my diet and not being so obsessive about eating "healthfully." I ate ice cream just about every night before going to bed. The problem with this was I didn't feel "well." I fell into the pattern mentioned previously of eating a lot before going to bed and then waking up feeling bloated, low energy, etc.
I had thought that once school ended I'd be under a lot less stress and my digestion problems would go away. This didn't happen. School ended and my stress just transferred to worrying about money and how to support myself. I was making my living working as a massage therapist and part-time at a health food store.
My mother had been suffering with leukemia for a couple of years preceding all of this. During the spring of 1992 she began experiencing a lot of pain in her stomach. Her doctors found a tumor growing and she started chemotherapy immediately. She died within 3-4 weeks. I was living in California and she was in Rhode Island. I flew home the night she died and was able to be with her during this transition, but she was unconscious.
This was quite a shock to me. I wasn't quite sure how to handle it. I remained in Rhode Island for about a month afterwards to help myself process this event. I was still having a lot of trouble with my digestion and keeping weight on, and decided to give Western medicine a try to see if they had any ideas about what was happening. The doctor I saw ran a few tests but nothing was found.
I was still basically eating whatever I wanted which mainly consisted of some vegetables, bread, nut butters, dairy, junk food, and even occasionally meat. My weight was about 95-100 lbs. at this time.
I flew back to California in August of 1992 and I remember being worried about whether or not I could support myself financially. I felt more on my own without my mother even though my father was still alive.
I was living in Santa Cruz, and continued doing massage and working at a health food store. I knew I needed to do something about my digestive problems because I did not feel well. I was tired of always feeling bloated, low energy, etc. I decided to go see a gastroenterologist, but he was not very supportive. He had never heard of anything like this and he treated me like he thought I was lying. I think he thought I had anorexia, and therefore did not take me seriously.
Back to the other pole again with Natural Hygiene and cleansing programs
About this same time I started getting more heavily into the entire "raw foods" philosophy as well as Natural Hygiene. I read a few books by Gabriel Cousens, Paul Bragg, Arnold Ehret, as well as by Herbert Shelton, the pioneer of the modern Natural Hygiene movement. Something felt very "right" about a lot of their theories on cleansing. I was impressed with how many people had regained their health (according to reports) by following the principles within these systems. In one of Herbert Shelton's books (Fasting Can Save Your Life) there's a chapter on "Fasting to Gain Weight." He writes about how a fast can strengthen one's digestion and improve assimilation so that it becomes easier to eat more and gain weight once the fast is over.
I had a lot of thoughts at this time about how my diet could be causing my health problems. According to raw and living foods teachings, eating "live food" was supposed to help digestion because this food still has all the needed digestive enzymes which are destroyed by heat in cooking. It's an interesting contrast because Chinese medicine believes cooked food is easier to digest--in its view, in order for the digestive process to occur, the body needs heat, and raw foods are too cooling.
Anyhow I jumped on the Natural Hygiene, raw-foods bandwagon. I figured in order for this to work I needed to do it fully and eat all my foods raw. I did this for about two weeks and experienced the light euphoric feeling I experienced before. I felt clearer, much less bloated and lethargic, but I was getting weaker in terms of muscle strength.
More lost weight, and another swing back the other way...
Needless to say I started losing more weight. After about a month of eating the majority of my food raw, I got scared because I was getting very weak. My digestion did not seem to be improving either. All my friends and relatives put a lot of pressure on me to stop what I was doing. Again, I came to a point of being tired of being so thin and drawing so much attention to myself, so I decided to give up entirely on eating what I thought was healthy, and began eating a lot of junk and high-calorie foods to help me put weight on. I also began biking and lifting weights which I really enjoyed. I continued this for the next 8-9 months and managed to gain back about 15-20 pounds. By September of 1994 I was looking the best I had looked in a long time.
As you can see, I had this pattern of going to extremes. I think part of what I've had to learn throughout this whole ordeal is moderation--finding the middle way and avoiding extremes.
...and back to cleansing again from the consequences
During the late winter of (early) 1995 I reached another point of being tired and not feeling well again. I knew I could not continue feeling this way while working as a massage therapist and teaching yoga, which I had begun to do, and both of which require a lot of energy. I decided to try to slowly clean up my diet. Someone told me about the Arise and Shine cleanse which works specifically with cleansing the small intestine. After reading the book put out by this company describing the cleanse, I was convinced that this would be the thing which would finally cure me. I even met a woman who had had a similar story to my own, and who had cured her digestive problems and begun gaining weight after this cleanse.
The cleanse involves a week or two of live foods and then a fast. I decided not to do the fast out of fear of losing more weight. I tried following the diet they advised which consisted mainly of live foods for about a week. I tried to eat a lot of avocados, bananas, and potatoes to help me keep weight on. These were all allowed on this diet. I took all the herbs and supplements they advised, but I stopped after a week because I was losing weight and my digestion wasn't improving. I can see now that the diet consisted of too much vegetables and fruit, and not enough grains and protein for me to keep weight on.
I read an article in Yoga Journal around this same time on Ashtanga Yoga and how it strengthens, stretches, and purifies one's body. I enjoy being physical, and liked how it was quite aerobic and an extremely intense workout. I remembered how good I had felt when I was really into yoga before, and thought that maybe studying this system would help my digestion and energy level.
I was living in Santa Cruz at this time (spring/summer of 1995) and had a sister in San Francisco who lived in a collective household. Santa Cruz didn't have Ashtanga Yoga but San Francisco did. I started thinking and planning to move to San Francisco to be able to study this type of yoga.
Into a hospital eating disorders unit
In the meantime, I went home to Rhode Island for the month of August to spend time with my family. I was still quite thin, and when my family saw me they thought I had anorexia. They wanted me to go into the psychiatric unit of Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, which had an eating disorders unit. I totally resisted and knew it was not the place I needed to be. My family insisted to the point that I finally gave in, but was not looking forward to the experience. I felt very misunderstood. They thought I had this fear of being fat, whereas my focus and goal in all the diets I had tried had always been health.
It was a trip being put in this hospital. It really scared me at first because there were a few people who seemed pretty psychotic. I had fears that my family was going to leave me there for life. Although the hospital had an eating disorders unit, I was the only one in it. There were a lot of very depressed, suicidal people there. Everyone was on what they called their "meds." I had a feeling that the psychiatrists would also want to put me on some type of antidepressant, since this was the main healing modality they used for every patient.
The whole experience was very strange and scary. After 4-5 days of them meeting, questioning, and watching me, they determined that I was depressed and needed to go on antidepressants. They did not feel that I fit the description of the classic anorexic. I totally resisted the idea of taking antidepressants, which seemed so anti-natural and went against all the basic principles of Natural Hygiene that the body was fully capable of healing itself when given the right conditions. I was also worried that if I didn't take the antidepressants, I wouldn't be let out of the hospital or that my family wouldn't let me return to California. My family and the psychiatrists put a lot of pressure on me to take them, so I finally agreed. I was very confused at this time. The antidepressants had some side-effects, but I did feel better. They helped me believe in myself more than I ever had in my life.
Back to Natural Hygiene again, and more cleansing...
I was released from the hospital after two weeks weighing 95 pounds, and was finally able to return to California to make my move to San Francisco. In November of 1995 I moved to San Francisco mainly to begin studying Ashtanga Yoga, which I hoped would help me regain my health.
My sister moved out of the collective household she was living in, and I moved in. The house consisted of 13 men and women ranging in age from 20 to 45. It was mainly vegetarian and we all took turns cooking the communal dinner that took place each night. At this time I was trying not to have too many hang-ups about my diet. I was still taking the antidepressants and wanted to focus on building up my strength and my body with yoga.
I was doing yoga, working as a massage therapist, and also started receiving acupuncture treatments, although I didn't fully believe in the whole Chinese system of medicine. Even though I was eating mostly cooked food at this time, I still believed that eating raw foods was the most ideal and healthiest way to eat. After a few months of taking the antidepressants I started to gradually reduce the dosage. Something about taking these man-made drugs didn't feel right to me. I was worried about the side-effects and about becoming dependent. By March of 1996 I was completely off them.
I'd always felt that I hadn't taken my "cleansing" far enough and that if only I'd cleanse a bit more I'd cure my digestion problems. I've since learned that cleansing can occur in a much slower, more gradual, and less extreme way, but at this time I really thought from all the raw-food and Natural Hygiene philosophy that I needed to do a fast. I did not want to do this on my own, and began researching different centers I could go to to do a supervised fast. I decided on Ray Kent's place in Texas because I had heard him speak before and I liked what he had to say. In August of 1996 I went to what is called "Our Place" in Texas for four weeks.
I was trying to eat well before going to this center and was following a lot of the principles of Natural Hygiene. The problem is this caused me to lose more weight and brought my weight down to 85 pounds, the lowest it had ever been to this point. When I got to Ray Kent's place he felt I was too thin to do a fast. He advised me to eat 70-80% raw foods, and felt that if I followed this over a period of time, my body would begin to cleanse and I'd regain my digestive strength and consequently gain weight. I was pretty upset that I couldn't fast but I decided to give his recommendations a try.
By this time I was feeling extremely weak and my energy level was very low. I was too weak to even do my regular yoga practice. It was pretty scary but I thought this was all part of the "cleansing" process. I gave this way of eating a try for the next 6-7 months. I didn't follow it exactly. Sometimes I'd give in to my cravings for more cooked food, sweets, and desserts.
After 6-7 months of eating in this way I didn't feel I was getting anywhere. I got some tests done by an osteopath who focused on working with people with digestion problems. The tests showed I had something called small bowel bacteria overgrowth as well as candida. I was so happy to find out that I had "something" and that this was not just all "in my head." My weight was so low at this time (still 85 pounds) that the doctor thought I should focus on trying to gain weight before treating these conditions. He did not feel my body was strong enough to handle the cleansing which would be required.
I was not sure how, but I became determined at this time that I would gain weight. I wanted to try and gain weight as healthfully as possible, but I also decided to give in to some of my cravings for chocolate and sweets. Basically, I tried not to be so obsessed about eating "healthfully" or following any specific diet plan, and to just listen to my body in terms of what to eat. I very gradually started gaining weight during the summer of 1997 and have continued to do so up to this time.
In September of 1997 I read the article in Yoga Journal entitled Health Food Junkie. I totally related to author Steven Bratman, M.D.'s story and description of "orthorexia nervosa" (the term he coined to describe the type of eating-disorder behavior that results when one becomes overly obsessed with avoiding anything but the most pure of foods). I felt there was something synchronistic with the timing of this article coming out, and the beginnings of my own realization that I needed to be less obsessive about how I ate.
I now basically follow the pattern of eating described in the book Fit for Life (by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond). They advise a Natural Hygiene type of approach of eating just fruit for breakfast, salad for lunch (I usually have some type of grain at this time as well), and then heavier protein-type foods (I also eat grains at this time) at dinner. I find this way of eating works well with my digestion and gives me a lot of energy during the day. I'm not dogmatic or strict about it, though. The basic philosophy I have toward my diet is to listen to my body and eat what I'm in the mood for. I've gained 15 pounds since last year, but I must say it has not been easy.
One of the basic principles I've learned from this experience that has helped my digestion is to only eat when I'm hungry, instead of eating whenever attracted by cravings for specific foods as I did previously when eating "what I wanted." At the same time, I also try to listen to my body and "tune in" to get a sense as to what it needs at that time. Getting back into my yoga practice has helped me develop this connection or "sixth sense" about my body. While I'm eating I try to be mindful of a "taste change" (when the food begins no longer to be so appetizing as it was when I first started), which tells me I've had enough and it's time to stop eating. If I eat past this point I generally experience a lot of bloating and low energy afterwards. This isn't an easy thing to develop and it takes practice. Sometimes I'm not as "in tune" with my body as others.
I also believe in making slower, more gradual changes, rather than doing anything too extreme, which can be shocking to both the body and psyche. Most of us have a lot of emotional connections to food. I still have a lot of questions. I'd like to learn more about "orthorexia nervosa" and the underlying emotional issues which may be underneath this obsession for health, perfection, and control.
--Kate Finn, Summer 1998