Within two weeks on a Low Carb High Fat diet, the migraines, acid reflux, bloated stomach, IBS and even depression were all gone!
– Shannon Stark
I was born completely deaf, but my parents didn’t discover that until I was 3. At that time, I started wearing hearing aids and learning speech as I could hear a bit out of my right ear with a hearing aid. I spent a good portion of my childhood in the hospital due to my ears; every 8 months from the age of 3 until I was about 15 I had new tubes inserted in my ears. I was shy to begin with and I believe my hearing impediment caused me be hypervigilant about my environment. My sympathetic nervous system was always on alert, and that triggered years of anxiety. Feeding this further, my parents had government jobs that required us to move around a lot throughout my home country of Canada, so I was often anxious about starting at a new school and being the “new kid.”
I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s with a younger sister and both parents. My mother made pretty healthy food choices for our family. We ate whole wheat bread, lots of fruits and veggies, and natural peanut butter. It was only at friend’s houses that I could indulge in white bread, Jiffy peanut butter, and strawberry jam. At home, a tiny sprinkle of brown sugar on oatmeal or Cream of Wheat cereal was our treat. In my teens we ate out a little more frequently and indulged in some processed foods.
My genetic inheritance includes a lot of autoimmune conditions: My maternal grandmother had Graves’ disease and my maternal aunts all had some sort of thyroid dysfunction. My mother is currently being tested for possible Sjogren’s, my sister has Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and my daughter was recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Coincidentally, my daughters’ father was recently diagnosed with hypothyroidism too.
The Standard Canadian Diet at the Root of Health Problems
I was very active growing up, participating in track & field and the long distance runners club in school. When I went to college, I was less active and I started to gain weight. After graduating and entering the workforce, the weight really started to stack up.
I married for the first time at 25; by then I was close to 30 lbs. overweight. We did a lot of traveling and spent 6 weeks in China. During my last few days there, I got very sick and barely made the plane trip home. Later, when we tried to have children, it just didn’t happen, and the pressure of infertility contributed to our eventual divorce.
When the talk of children came up during my second marriage, I went straight to a reproductive endocrinologist. By now I was 30 and 60 lbs overweight. My doctor scheduled a laparoscopy dye test to see if my fallopian tubes were open. We discovered that both tubes were blocked and I was flooded with emotion: relief, because the problem had been identified, and then fear, because I didn’t know what it would mean for having children. Fortunately, at the end of the test, the left tube cleared. I could see the dye spill out as the doctor cheered and said, “You only need one tube!” I was put on a round of Clomid and became pregnant with my daughter in just over a month. When my first daughter was 9 months old, I found out I was pregnant with my second.
I was lucky to be able to be a stay-at-home mom for the first 10 years of my daughters’ lives. I fed our family according to Canada’s food guide: lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, some meats and very little fat. I tried to work out daily, or at least every other day, walking 5 km, or cross-country skiing in the winter. No matter how hard I tried, the weight kept climbing and I began to experience gastrointestinal issues. It started with constipation and then went the other direction, to the point that I could not go out to eat, as I needed to be near a bathroom. I lived on Tums and Rolaids; even a glass of water would give me severe acid reflux. At night after supper, my stomach would feel very bloated, and I sometimes became nauseous. My doctor told me to take Zantac.
Anxiety, Migraines and Mysterious GI Distress
Soon I experienced my first anxiety attack. I was sitting in the hospital while my two-year-old daughter was getting a cast for a broken leg. I felt a tingling sensation start in the middle of my back and spread out from there. I informed the nurse that something was wrong with me, and she assured me I would be on my way home in no time. Instead, I passed out and woke up a few hours later in my own hospital bed. My vitals were checked and I was sent home with no explanation as to what had happened to me.
Not long after the anxiety episode, we decided to move out of the city to Port Sydney Ontario, also known as Muskoka or “cottage country,” for better air and water quality. While the move was supposed to help reduce my stress, my life there became a living hell of mounting health challenges. I suffered constantly with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and had alternating feelings of cement or water in my intestines. Repeated anxiety attacks kept me from leaving my house, and I developed debilitating migraines and extra heartbeats called premature ventricular contractions (PVCs).
Instead of considering my many symptoms or running any tests, my doctor handed me a prescription for anti-anxiety drugs. It was so frustrating because I felt I was not being heard or taken seriously, and also, I didn’t want to be a stereotypical ‘housewife on Prozac.’ In the end, I felt so awful I took the pills. I promised myself that once I started to feel better, I would stop taking them.
I got some relief from the drugs and that gave me the energy to explore more natural healing options. I took yoga classes and the teacher suggested I explore mindfulness meditation. I signed up for Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program and learned how to quiet my mind by meditating. I meditated while sitting, while walking, during yoga and even while eating. I noticed the anxiety subside the more I meditated. Within two months after completing the 10-week course, I weaned myself off the anti-anxiety medication.
Eat Less Move More Not The Answer
While I now had tools to deal with my anxiety and was feeling much better emotionally, I was still having IBS, migraines and bloating, and I still felt sick at night after supper. Doctors just repeated that I needed to eat less and move more. So I went back to doing heavy cardio workouts and trying to eat a balanced diet of veggies, fruit, meat, lots of grains and minimal fats. None of it worked. I was now 42 and I could feel the depression kicking in and my weight increasing. This was no way to live.
In November 2011, my mother phoned me to tell me about an interview she had heard on the radio with Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It. I bought his book and read it with a raised eyebrow… No carbohydrates? No sugar? Was it possible to live without them? I had sworn off new weight loss programs, but then in January 2012 I stepped on the scale and wanted to cry: I was now 76 lbs. overweight. I decided to give Gary Taubes the benefit of the doubt and just do it. I had been sick and overweight for 7 years, and it was time to find a solution.
Low Carb High Fat Was My Holy Grail
At first, my only goal was to lose weight. I had no idea that by changing my diet, my other symptoms would clear so dramatically.
The first week following a low-carb high fat diet (LCHF), the “carb flu” hit me. Unfortunately, I was unaware that drinking some good salted bone broth would help with that, so I suffered for 3 days feeling like my head was floating above my body. But when my head ‘re-attached,’ the difference was amazing. Within two weeks the migraines, acid reflux, PVC’s, bloated stomach, IBS and even depression were all gone!
I dropped 50 pounds in 5 months without doing any exercise. I never counted calories. I ate until I was full and avoided foods with more than 7 grams of net carbs and 2 grams of sugar. I could not believe how fast my body responded and how great I felt.
Totally motivated to learn more about LCHF, I found Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy and followed his Primal framework of living like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago. It was easy to increase healthy fats and proteins; and easier than I imagined to remove grains, processed food, industrial vegetable oils, and even sugar. I was not willing to give up cheese, which is a grey-area food on the Primal Blueprint, so that was good enough for me.
I then discovered Nora Gedgaudas, board-certified nutritionist who wrote Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and A Longer Life; Chris Kresser, licensed acupuncturist and functional medicine practitioner and educator who wrote The Paleo Cure: Eat Right for Your Genes, Body Type, and Personal Health Needs — Prevent and Reverse Disease, Lose Weight Effortlessly, and Look and Feel Better than Ever; and Terry Wahls, a medical doctor who reversed her own primary progressive MS and wrote, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles. I just kept searching, reading and learning.
In 2013, I drove 28 hours from my home in Ontario, CAN to Austin, TX with a few other Paleo Peeps for the Paleo Conference, and got to meet and hang out with all my Paleo gurus. I learned more about health in those few days than I had in my entire life. After the conference I searched for a local naturopath in my area who supported the Paleo framework but couldn’t find one.
A Great Nutritionist Helps me Get to the Roots
I then heard about a “great nutritionist,” named Matt, from a Paleo friend. I was still having a few minor issues with bloating, and I wanted to go beyond symptoms and continue to improve my health. I am so glad I found Matt and very appreciative of the hours he spent with me painstakingly reviewing my blood work, health history, and really listening to me and getting the big picture. He discovered I had parasites (probably from that trip to China), a leaky gut, a mild case of candida, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and he found I was still deficient in some important minerals and nutrients.
Matt suggested I do a proper elimination diet to see if there were foods that were continuing to trigger the leaky gut and bloating. He had me remove all dairy products, FODMAPS (Fermentable Oligo-Di-Mono-Saccharides), which are short chain carbohydrates that some people have trouble digesting. Examples would be fructose (simple sugar found in many fruits and veggies), lactose (carbohydrate found in dairy), fructans (found in grains), galactans (found in legumes) and polyols (found in the nightshade family which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants). After three months I slowly reintroduced foods one by one to see what was still triggering me. Thank goodness it wasn’t cheese! It turned out to be tomatoes. I loved tomatoes and probably ate them in some form at each meal. As soon as I reintroduced them, however, I could feel the cramping and bloating again, so out they went.
In the meantime we worked on clearing out my elimination organs with the use of UNDAs–low-potency, plant-based homeopathic remedies, some Chinese herbs and targeted supplements. Each part of the process took about 3 months. After clearing out the liver and kidneys, we then started nourishing my system with greens, probiotics and B vitamins. The next step was to eliminate the parasites, but a follow-up blood test showed they were already gone! After a year of no tomatoes and continued gut healing, I eventually introduced them again with no issues.
Since the birth of my second child I always struggled with low iron. I tried drugstore iron supplements, but nothing worked, so I used better quality supplements, with little improvement. After 11 years of taking iron pills with poor results, Matt suggested I get some grass-fed local beef liver, cut it into small pill-sized portions, freeze it and swallow a good half an ounce or more every morning. Within 3 months my iron stores were normal.
I Rebelled and Then My Gallbladder Rebelled Back
One sunny summer weekend in August 2014, I was feeling good and my inner rebellious teenager emerged. I decided I wanted to drink Tequila coolers, eat chips, bread, and licorice like everyone else. I indulged for 2 days and ended up in the hospital. My gallbladder was in crisis. I knew from an ultrasound 10 years earlier that my gallbladder had stones. It was quiet while I followed the LCHF protocol, but once I binged for two days, it was my gallbladder’s turn to rebel. While in the emergency room, the doctor told me that my gallbladder was a ‘useless and archaic organ’ and that he was going to take it out that day. He said I needed to stop eating LCHF and start eating grains; and then he asked me, “What is wrong with sugar?” Something was useless and archaic, but it wasn’t my gallbladder.
The doctors were not happy with me when I opted to keep my gallbladder. Before leaving the hospital, I asked the surgeon, “If I leave today without having surgery, am I going to die?” He said no. I then asked, “Can I heal my gallbladder?” He said, “No.” Nevertheless, I left and went to see Matt, who got me started on a 3-4 month protocol of homeopathic and Chinese medicines.
The first month was tough as I was still having occasional gallbladder pain. Warm castor oil packs became my best friend. At about the 3-month mark I did a liver flush, keeping in touch with Matt by phone to make sure I was doing everything exactly as he instructed. Lo and behold, more than 400 “stones” (which are mostly congealed dietary cholesterol) emerged. A few months later I repeated the liver flush and barely anything came out. At my next ultrasound the doctor said he didn’t know what I was doing, but that my gallbladder looked very healthy. The technician did not see any stones, so there was no reason to remove my “archaic organ.” By November I had no more gallbladder issues and have had none since.
Pressing Pause on Healing
It was at this point in my healing journey that my 14-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) [read Romy’s healing journey here], so I have put myself on the back burner. I will eventually return to my own health journey, but for the moment, I am 100% focused on my daughter’s health and wellbeing.
My healing journey, while long and challenging, has allowed me to get my quality of life back, and prepared and educated me for this new chapter of helping my daughter recover from MS. I am grateful to have discovered Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, as it was monumental in helping me heal from anxiety, and I am very thankful for Matt, my wonderful nutritionist, and all the amazing Paleo educators who showed me the way to heal with food.
If you are facing unresolved health challenges, don’t give up hope and keep educating yourself.
My Top 5 Recommendations for Healing
- Eliminate gluten, sugar, soy and legumes from your diet, immediately.
- Find a functional medicine doctor in your area. I think about all the money I spent on guessing what I thought I needed. Having someone who a) understands your goals and understands your full health history and b) is educated in functional (root cause or systems) medicine and c) does tests to see what it is your body really needs removes the guesswork. It is so worth the money.
- Remove emotional and environmental toxins (including people) from your life.
- Breathe, meditate, and live in the moment.
- Follow your passion and do what makes you happy.
I’ll be back, hopefully soon, with an update on my journey. In the meantime, you may want to read about my 14-year old daughter, Romy’s remarkable journey healing from MS. Wishing you the best in health and happiness!
Take good care!