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Listening to my gut (inflammation)

Some of you may have read my earlier story about how much better I learned to be able to listen to my heart during my rehab from a pulmonary valve replacement five years ago.

But my heart isn't the only organ I've learned better to care for and listen to as a result of health hurdles, I've also had some digestion issues that have taught me how to be more mindful of my gut.

I lived in China for many years and at one point joined a Chinese tour group trip through Yunnan. A highlight was our visit to Shangri-la on the Tibetan Plateau. One memorable evening there we joined three other tour groups for a lavish dinner complete with Tibetan musicians, singers and dancers. We enjoyed course after course of delicacies while watching the performances.

Around the middle of the evening, we were surprised when the dancers informed us that it was time for their break and that each tour group needed to take a turn to entertain the others! Once it was our turn a chant started growing: "For-eig-ner! For-eig-ner! For-eig-ner!" I was coaching my university's Wushu (kung fu) team at the time so I figured I could do a little demonstration.

After my performance I had no less than 10 people from the different groups come up to get pictures with me, drape me with ceremonial white silk scarfs, and drink a cup of the local rice spirit with me. One particularly keen man wasn't happy with just a glass of spirit and gave me a whole bowl full!

The rest of the evening was uneventful but the next morning I woke up with a horrible flu! Fever, chills, the works. It was all I could do to get back on the bus for the day's excursions.

That evening my friend and I decided we couldn't continue and we left the tour, heading back down the mountains to a little village called Lijiang to recover. Thankfully the worst of the flu left me in 3-4 days and by the time I got back to Fujian a week later, I was more or less good as new.

The part that wasn't good as new however, was my digestion. I'll spare you all the graphic details, but basically what followed was three years of constant diarrhoea. I can't even count how many hospital visits in China and in the US I made, how many different specialists I consulted, how many stool samples and other tests I was subjected to, how many months of antibiotics I took. What I do know is that no one was ever able to point to exactly what was wrong with me and we were only ever able to guess that I had had some viral or bacterial infection from the Tibetan food or (copious) local spirit, and the resulting inflammation was persistent.

Really it was a nightmare at the time to go through this all, but the silver lining was learning more about my individual digestion and constitution. I had a food intolerance test highlighting a few very minor sensitivities. I tried months-long experiments restraining myself from gluten, from lactose, from nightshades, and so on. In the end I had to basically cut back on almost everything to a very plain and simple diet with nothing known to cause irritation in anyone. And from there I began to rebuild, introducing new foods into the mix every few weeks, closely monitoring my condition.

I wouldn't wish anyone all the months and months of physical and emotional discomfort I went through in the depths of when this was all happening. I did however, learn loads about my own body, and how it reacts to different foods. And not just foods but I also started to be able to notice and anticipate how my digestion would change if I was under stress for example, dehydrated, or sleeping poorly.

Science is progressing quickly these days, uncovering more and more about the functions of the human biome and how peoples' bacteria work with the body's systems. But as this new knowledge is coming to light, many people I know seem to be having more and more difficulties knowing how to manage their own food choices. It's one thing managing your macronutrients, knowing approximately how many carbohydrates, grams of protein or grams of fat one needs. But it's quite a different matter having the same grasp of which and how many vitamins and minerals you need, in what forms, and how to notice when you are having deficiencies or surpluses. And since everyone's biomes are different, there is no one-rule-fits-all solution.

As I continue on this journey one area I've increasingly been studying is Ayurvedic nutrition, with it's rough guidance for how to identify my individual 'constitution' and tendencies, and then use this knowledge to choose foods more suited to me. But what's right for me at this stage may not be right for others. I'm glad to have friends in London with much deeper knowledge than my own about western diets and nutrition, traditional Chinese medicine and foods, and other related disciplines, but what I'm happiest about is how many people seem to be waking up to the need to take their diets and nutrition into their own hands, to get professional support, but to also get to know their own bodies.

What have you learned as you have become better acquainted with your digestive system? Has anything suprised you along the way? Are you facing any challenges?

Happy eating!



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