My story starts in North Carolina, where I grew up. Our shared culture meant fried fish sandwiches and hush puppies at the Farmer’s Market, pork BBQ with vegetable sides cooked in more pork fat, fried chicken n’ waffles, Snoopy’s hot dogs, deep-fried candy at the NC State Fair, and an annual Krispy Kreme donut run that involves eating 2400 calories of donuts at the halfway point of this 8k. My poor husband even took me to a fast-food burger joint, Cookout, after our first date — it was a year before I’d agree to hang out with him again.
Luckily I was poor enough through college (and the first few years after thanks to the recession) that I made most of my meals at home and rarely ate out — but it was not always nutritious (ahem: peanut butter sandwiches for days in a row).
Long story short: I’m incredibly grateful to have grown up in NC, but when it comes to nutrition and healthcare, I never found it very progressive.
During my childhood and early adulthood I was never fat (oh don’t worry, that comes in my later 20's), so you couldn’t tell from appearances that I was sick. My whole life I’ve faced various medical issues: migraines, a severe case of mononucleosis that kept me out of high school for 6 months, strep throat a million times, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a body-focused repetitive disorder (BFRB). The day I turned 18 I drove myself from my parent’s home in Cary to Duke Hospital to participate in a clinical trial I saw in the newspaper. Thus began my lifelong quest for wellness.
When I was 25 I quit my boring desk job, started dating this guy, and began working remotely (read: cooped up in my house alone for 9–10 hours a day) for a budding tech-startup. Shit was stressful. It was a rocket-ship startup and every day was a crisis, it seemed. It was also a lot of fun — I can’t leave that out ;) Two years later we got married and I quickly gained weight — 23% of my bodyweight to be exact. It was depressing. Since I barely had time to leave my computer on workdays, my therapist came to my living room (I told you, I rarely left the house). Except to see my psychiatrist, who tried every pharmaceutical drug possible on me during a 6-month period. They all had awful side effects, the worst being more weight gain. Rivaling the weight gain was the fact that none of them made a single positive improvement by any measure.
I knew I needed a change.
Before we moved to San Francisco from Raleigh I was in the worst shape of my life. I was stressed, didn’t exercise, was 30 lbs overweight, bald, and hid Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups around the house so my husband wouldn’t know I was eating them for lunch. Not because he was the nutrition-police since he survived on a diet of red bull and pizza, but out of shame. I knew I needed to practice stress-management, exercise, lose weight and eat better. I even subscribed to those cooking kits-in-a-box services and bought books like, Healing with Whole Foods. But one mystery continued to plague me that none of the doctors in all the hospitals and private specialist offices could help with.
This is where you may want to stop reading if you’re not into medical drama.
I had been having some pretty bad abdominal pain and bowel irritation for years. One evening I was at a restaurant with a group of people and… well… needed to use the restroom. The pain was so bad, and came on so fast. Next thing I knew I started losing feeling in my fingers, toes, arms, legs, my face. I couldn’t walk. My hands stiffened into an unmistakable visible tetany. I was curled up on the bathroom floor looking like a paraplegic and crying. Unfortunately, this had happened a few years prior while waiting in an urgent care office — ends up I was incredibly sick then too, but the hospital never found a diagnosis — and so I cried out for the medication I was given last time. Nobody had the Bendaryl I was asking for, but they did call an ambulance. The EMT said he’d seen this plenty of times and was confident that I was just hyperventilating and the resulting respiratory alkalosis (an increase in pH of the blood due to an excess of oxygen) caused the numbness. [Actually I learned later, it was slightly more complicated than they explained. In fact yes, my blood pH level increased, which reduced the amount of free calcium (hypocalcemia), producing tetany.] They sent me home.
I was not better. The abdominal pain came back. This time my family took me to the emergency room. Again, they found nothing wrong with me. The doctors told me it’s in my head and I just needed to relax. I was sent home again. I saw a gastroenterologist specialist who ordered a colonoscopy, which came back clean (BIG SURPRISE). He advised me to eat toast and applesauce for a while (because it’s easy on the digestive system, you know), but couldn’t explain what was happening to me. That was as close as anyone ever got to nutrition advice for an overweight patient with GI complaints.
In 2014 my husband and I packed up to start anew in San Francisco. Well, sort of anew — I kept my job and just started working from the office with lots of people! After signing a lease, my first priority was finding a new doctor and therapist. At One Medical I found Dr. Jenny Viva-Collisson, one of their Mind-Body physicians. The day I walked into her office, she listened to my story for an hour and announced, “You’re in luck; I’m really good at fixing GI issues. I think we can also wean you off your anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, too.” Finally. I was hopeful, but not too hopeful, just in case it didn’t work out. She was the first clinician to order a diagnostic stool test (why isn’t this obvious?)! The results, she explained over the next 30 minutes, indicated my gut lacked enough variety of good bacteria to break down food in my intestines. The prescription was to see a Nutritionist that she recommended (also at One Medical) to change my diet, and immediately take probiotics (VSL #3) and start drinking a glass of kombucha and/or other fermented probiotic foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso daily. To transition me off of the prescription drugs I so badly wanted to stop taking, she came up with a supplement plan to follow based on the book, The Mood Cure. The plan consisted of a multi-vitamin, multi-mineral, and particular times/doses of specific amino acids. She also made some other recommendations, like meditating with a group in SF on Tuesday evenings, reading, and working with an intuitive woman to get to the root of my other mental health challenges.
The depression fog lifted almost immediately. I no longer took Klonopin for occasional anxiety. I felt better off the anti-depressants than I had in years on them. My GI issues disappeared. I lost 30 pounds.
Of course, I was still me: a perfectionist desperately seeking freedom from the reigns of my mind. I was still working at a stressful job. And with stress comes some rather quirky coping mechanisms.
All in all, though, it was nothing short of a miracle. To me, Dr. Jenny Viva-Collisson was a magician.
It’s been 3 years and I haven’t been sick or had any GI issues since and my mood has been mostly stable. I am human, and female, after all.
When I finally left my job this past November, I knew I had another calling to pursue. At first I took a few months to explore daily living and life outside my bubble. I meditated on the feeling of waking up and having the power to choose how to spend each day. I let myself be. I traveled. I talked to friends and family. I read books. I journaled.
I began to feel my mind wandering back to the magician that is Dr. Jenny Viva-Collisson. I thought what power she had to heal in such a natural, functional, integrated way. I thought how unfair it is that these methods are such “secrets” to most of Americans and how none of my other healthcare providers seemed to have the training or perspective that she had. I was moved by the power of nutrition in my own healing.
It had been staring me in the face for all these years. It’s so funny how your path forward only becomes clear by looking back. It is so clear to me now how my own struggles have led me on a path to help others use nutrition as the basis for wellness and to prevent, treat and reverse disease.
With a goal and fire under my butt I quickly signed up for classes and applied to a Master’s program in Human Nutrition & Functional Medicine at University of Western States. And was accepted!!! With the 2-year program starting this fall, I’m pretty busy this summer finishing prerequisites like Intro to Biochemistry, Intro to Nutrition, Anatomy & Physiology and Medical Terminology. I love science and love all of my classes, so I already know I made the right choice and am excited to start this new chapter.
The quest for wellness through nutrition has only begun. I can’t wait to share what I learn with everyone!