The Gut – Health Connection

How my cat taught me that gut health controls so much more….

When most of my classmates were home watching TV or playing hide and seek or hanging out at the mall, I was home working in my organic garden or studying the latest copy of Organic Gardening magazine.

I learned a lot about the importance of healthy foods from the Organic Gardening magazine and that was reinforced at home with restricted access to candy and the required vegetable with dinner.

Unfortunately much of the information provided to the general population about healthy food was wrong or incomplete. The dairy lobby was strong and had convinced Moms everywhere that all kids need milk to get enough calcium. So the fact that I got headaches and felt awful whenever I drank it, was not enough to convince my mother that the milk industry could be wrong about this.

I always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. I also wanted to live on a farm and grow my own organic food. Unfortunately,  my grandmother said I couldn’t do both. It was too much! I gave up that dream for way too long.

I did go to veterinary school. With so much information to learn and remember there was no time to question any of it. The only nutritional information came from the pet food companies who helped to sponsor the schools and us. If the school believed, so should I.

When I started to practice, food was a significant part of my therapy, but always in the form sold by the prescription pet food companies, who had so kindly help me feed my cats while I was in school. I faithfully repeated their mantras, that they knew better than any pet owner what to feed.

It wasn’t until my own health challenges that I started to see flaws and limitations in the messages I had learned in my medical training.

As I look back I realize that my issues started when I was young. Those reactions to dairy were my body’s way of telling me that it wasn’t good for me. Over the years the list of foods that “didn’t agree” got longer and longer. For some reason, I never put much thought into it, I just avoided them. I now understand that this is a sign of severe inflammation.

By the time I was diagnosed with Celiac disease in my late 40’s, my gut was so damaged that I was no longer absorbing nutrients from my food. I was losing weight without trying! Celiac is an autoimmune disease cause by an intolerance of gluten. Gluten from wheat, barley and rye finds its way into most prepared or packaged foods. The odd thing was that I had never noticed gut issues when I ate any of these foods. In fact, my go to for gut discomfort was pasta or toast, and it usually helped.

Celiac is an insidious disease causing severe inflammatory bowel disease. It comes on slowly, signs are variable and can be anything from cramping and gas to frequent vomiting and diarrhea. But many of the symptoms are not gut related. It is an autoimmune disease and it stimulates the entire immune system. Many people experience headaches, joint aches, fatigue and even brain fog. The gut contains 70-80% of the body’s immune system. When the gut is inflamed the whole body’s immune system goes on high alert. Cancer and other autoimmune diseases are also common as the overworked immune system fails to deal appropriately with  abnormal cells.

For me, the gut issues seemed relatively minor with just some cramping and gas, but I did have frequent headaches and severe fatigue, which I had associated with a full time job and 3 young children. The brain fog was the worst. When I was younger I could remember everything- numbers, references etc, but by then I had to write down everything, lest I forget.

Prior to my diagnoses, I really didn’t believe there was anything seriously wrong with me. I was losing weight, but I really wasn’t hungry. And for some reason that I couldn’t explain, many of the foods that had previously bothered me were back on my menu. Losing weight and able to eat most anything seemed like a dream come true!!

As I mentioned, Celiac is often associated with other immune mediated diseases. Mine was autoimmune thyroid disease, also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I was put on thyroid replacement therapy to try to mimic what my thyroid was supposed to be doing.

As a follow up to the positive Celiac test, my doctor ordered bone density tests and vitamin D. Since I was already there I finally went for that mammogram the doctor had been mentioning for the previous few years.

The next call I got from my doctor shocked and scared me. The mammogram was “strongly suggestive of cancer and by the way, your bone density is low.” Could these all be connected?

Without my go to of pasta and toast when my gut hurt, and with the gradual healing that again allowed contact of foods with intestinal cells, I started getting more discomfort. But over the counter medications did not help. I started experimenting with different herbs to find relief from the cramping and bloating that I still felt occasionally. I found that milk thistle helped at first, then ginger became my go to for years.

As you will remember, prior to this diagnosis, my diet was already limited. Now I had removed nearly half of the foods that I had previously enjoyed. Over the next few months, I got used to a very strict and very monotonous diet of perhaps 10 ingredients.

What happened next was not surprising. My intestines were inflamed and leaky and my immune system was on high alert. So when I started to develop sensitivity to some of those 10 foods I had been eating, I knew I had to take the next step and try introducing new foods. I started very slowly introducing clean, whole foods that I had never had before, like jicama and fennel, organic whenever possible. By then I had read enough to know that some of the herbicides and pesticides sprayed on food crops can adversely affect gut health. I was in healing mode. I couldn’t risk that.

Over the next few years as my gut continued to heal and my diet became more diverse, I experimented with different supplements to speed healing and modulate the immune response.  I still took my thyroid medication, but it was a constant battle to get the dosing correct.

What happened next did surprise me. The paradigm that I learned, and all my doctors shared, was that immune mediated thyroid disease is not reversible. And the original ultrasound by the endocrinologist had shown no functional thyroid tissue left, so we all knew that I would need thyroid supplement for the rest of my life. But I kept decreasing my dose to try to get to a level that I could tolerate. I eventually stopped it completely. I have been off thyroid supplements for at least 8 years now and have no symptoms of thyroid disease!

That is when I had my first real epiphany about the connection of gut health to the rest of the body. My cat taught me the second.

I was about 5 years into my health journey when my very obese cat, who had always been so food motivated that she would do tricks for treats, suddenly stopped eating. She had never had diarrhea and while she did vomit occasionally, it was not more than what I, and most veterinarians, would consider to be normal for cats.

She was diagnosed with severe inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis and possibly intestinal cancer. The prognosis was not good. Many cats with this diagnosis can be treated successfully but most will relapse.

Having been through my healing journey, I now had a slightly different perspective and a greater respect for the body’s ability to heal. I still had my doubts, but I had to try a different approach. Instead of using steroids to decrease the inflammation, I tried herbs. I also changed her diet. No more highly processed dry food, ever! This was an interesting challenge since she had been raised on dry food and was a true dry food addict. She had never liked the texture of anything that was not crunchy. She would beg for the meat we ate, but rarely do more than lick it when it was offered.

After trying over 20 different canned foods, I finally found the one flavor, 1 texture and 1 brand she would eat. By this time I had discovered the benefits of bone broth and was adding it to her food daily. She regained her appetite and was acting more herself.

But then I started to notice something. She was losing weight. I had tried all the prescription diet foods I could find, from the time she was 10 months old, but none worked. So this was concerning. I brought her in for a recheck. Blood tests were fine, ultrasound showed no more sign of intestinal inflammation or pancreatitis. So I watched and waited.

She continued to melt down to a more normal weight. She went from a 15 lb obese cat to an 11 lb slightly overweight cat and stayed there for a long time. I also noticed that the hyperesthesia, that twitching skin that used to make her so irritable if you pet her too long, had disappeared. All that time I had thought her obesity was a calorie issue, when in fact it was an inflammation issue! And hyperesthesia in cats had always been thought to be a neurologic disease totally unrelated to gut health.

She is now 16 years old, a little slower than she used to be, but enjoying life and  rarely missing a meal.

After that, I was a believer! I knew I had to apply what I had learned to all my patients. I now see things differently. Most chronic diseases in pets and people stem from chronic inflammation. If the gut contains 70% of the body’s immune system which controls inflammation, it makes sense to start healing the gut, no matter how the symptoms manifest.

I have used this new approach on everything from obesity and inflammatory bowel disease to cancer. And while I will not profess to be able to cure cancer with diet and herbs alone, my clients are thrilled to have their pets with them longer than they expected and in good health and good spirits. In fact, one of my cancer patients had always had a sensitive stomach. Because episodes were so frequent the owners had prescription medication at home at all times. They were so thrilled to report that after just 1 or 2 weeks on the new diet and herbs, they had not had to use the medication and he had not shown any sign of stomach upset through that period. His cancer did go into remission for a few months and they were able to spend real quality time with him free of his historical gut issues.

I love that I am able to offer an alternative option to those pet owners that prefer a more natural approach or just want to minimize the use of harsher medications.

My goal now is educate pet owners how to feed pets (and their families)  to avoid so many of these chronic diseases.

I am happy to report that I am healthier, stronger and happier than I have been in decades and I now grow a small organic garden of herbs and vegetables. We truly can have it all if we feed our gut for health!!