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Stomach Woes: Look To Food, Not Medicine, For Help

Food for stomach health. Credit: Carole Murko

Food for stomach health. Credit: Carole Murko

We all have a habit of taking something for granted until, all of a sudden, it’s gone or it hurts. Have you ever really thought about your stomach? And I don’t mean whether it’s flat, flabby or fit. I mean, how it works and how what we ingest affects stomach health. Well, to be honest, I never did. I used to say I had a cast-iron stomach.

I pretty much ate real food my entire life. After all, that’s what my culinary movement Heirloom Meals is all about, the celebration of real food and our connection to our ancestral foods. However, I did subject my stomach to lots of aspirin, Advil and diet soda. Why suffer from muscle aches or worse, headaches? I also bought into the calorie-free bliss of diet soda, which for me began with Tab in college.

I swore off meat and french fries for a good chunk of my adult life only to return to them when I finally had a full-time man in my life. I have always mostly eaten real food, though. I eliminated diet soda more than five years ago and read ingredient labels. If I don’t recognize an ingredient or can’t pronounce it, it doesn’t get a free ride in my grocery cart to the checkout counter.

So, why oh why, did I wake with an odd stomach (just stomach, not abdomen) pain last summer? It wasn’t an ache, it was a dull pain. And it didn’t go away.

Freaked out and worried, I went on vacation to my parents’ beach house. My mom coincidentally had an appointment with her gastroenterologist, so she brought me along. The compassionate doctor had me hop up on the table, felt my stomach and abdomen and noticed that I was worried and scared. So she scheduled me for an endoscopy and a colonoscopy in two days. I was relieved and distressed. What would she find?

After many tests, ultrasounds and biopsies, I was told I have leaky gut. The gastroenterologist prescribed Prilosec and antacids, forever. Interestingly my primary care physician wanted me off those but he didn’t really have a solution. And of course I wanted a solution, not a mask. I decided to figure it out myself. I asked my primary care doctor to run a food sensitivities panel. I knew fundamentally that our stomachs are really our second brain. Everything we ingest goes through the stomach.

Getting to the bottom of leaky gut

Harnessing the power of the Internet, along with my affinity for research and my love of books, I started getting to know my stomach. I knew I had some inflammation, some acid reflux and irregularity. I also had the term “leaky gut” to research. I think leaky gut has become the all-encompassing diagnosis for when we can’t find anything medically wrong but something clearly is. Such comfort!

In Elizabeth Lipski’s book, “Digestive Wellness, Strengthen the Immune System and Prevent Disease Through Healthy Digestion,” she explains that leaky gut is really a “nickname for the more formal term increased intestinal permeability … It is not a disease or an illness itself. It’s a symptom of inflammation and imbalance that has many causes.”

After I received the results of my food sensitivities test, my primary care physician suggested that I add digestive bitters to my diet. I initially didn’t pay attention but then re-read my notes and reconsidered. He also recommended a probiotic. Lipski also writes “replenish your bacterial flora with probiotics … You may need to support your digestive function with enzymes, bitters and hydrochloric acid.” So I knew my primary care physician had set me on the right path.

I went on a quest to find digestive bitters and discovered that they are a tried-and-true ancient remedy for stomach issues. The list of ingredients includes such things as aloe, myrhh, saffron, senna leaves, camphor, rhubarb root, manna, thistle root etc. I also learned a lot about manuka honey. It is a monoculture honey from the tea tree, which is known for its antimicrobial qualities. It acts like hydrogen peroxide.

While I was at it I discovered a list of anti-inflammatory foods. If I had inflammation, I figured I should avoid foods that cause inflammation. Sadly the nightshades are high on the list, which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. I also eliminated all the food to which I was sensitive, including wheat, chocolate, bananas, beef, eggs and casein, which is the protein in cow’s milk. I credit the dietary eliminations along with the manuka honey, Swedish bitters and 4 to 6 cups of fresh ginger tea a day with healing my acid reflux and stomach pain.

I also started drinking almond milk, using Earth Balance butter, and cooking with olive, walnut and coconut oils. I also take a probiotic every day and eat lots of kale, lentils and fish. I rarely drink alcohol or caffeine and avoid most sweets.

Addressing stomach woes for the long term

Over six months, my stomach pain went away. One day I woke up and I didn’t notice my stomach, just like in the olden times. However, I know it’s not an invitation to throw caution to the wind. I am wiser and healthier knowing my stomach is fragile and is the main organ in my body to protect. As Dr. Alejandro Junger says in his book “Clean Gut”: “Your overall health is connected to a singular area of the body, your gut .… [sic] most diseases being diagnosed … can all be traced back to your injured or irritated gut.”

So I say, hello stomach, nice to meet you and now I respect you. I also understand that food is medicine and you, my stomach are the key to my health. Somehow I think our ancestors already knew that.

Top photo: Food for stomach health. Credit: Carole Murko

Zester Daily contributor Carole Murko is the creator, host and executive producer of the weekly radio program "Heirloom Meals," a storytelling show she created to share treasured family recipes, stories and tips on NPR affiliate Robinhood Radio, WHDD, 91.9 FM, in Sharon, Conn. She developed and was host of a 16-video series featuring diabetes-friendly heirloom recipes for Liberty Medical, and she writes for Edible Berkshires. Before founding "Heirloom Meals," she had successful careers on Wall Street and in interior design and decoration.