We are hearing a lot about gastrointestinal disorders these days. For years, it was leaky gut syndrome. Now SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) seems to be the diagnosis of the day. Researchers are just beginning to understand the complexity of the gut microbiome. While health care providers give lip service to how anxiety and stress impact the gut, treatment usually focuses on restrictive diets, supplements and medications. We believe it is important for providers, and the people they serve, to keep a wide lens when looking for answers to what might most support healing. When we start to mess with people’s food, we also mess with their lives. For many, what begins as a seemingly harmless experiment turns into years of disordered eating and a diminished quality of life. As providers, our first ethical guideline is to do no harm. So how do we help without harming?
In her blog “From Helpless to Kindness: Food, Emotions & Me,” Shelby Leigh shares how she made peace with food by listening to what her body wanted, not her mind. Shelby writes, “I believe my unhealthy gut bacteria thrive on low self-esteem, self-doubt, shame and lack of meaningful human connection and affection.” We found this perspective so refreshing—and sorely lacking—in dialogue about healing gut complaints, so we are sharing the full blog here with Shelby’s permission.
From Helpless to Kindness: Food, Emotions & Me
I’ll never forget that night when I was walking up SW Morrison Street towards 12th. It was dark early then and very rainy – as it often is that time of year in Portland. It was many years ago but the moment is crisp in my memory. I remember feeling an incredible sense of helplessness and hopelessness around food and feeding myself.
I remember being incredibly hungry and in a hurry and at a loss for how to find food I could eat without going all the way across town to my own kitchen. I remember feeling so depleted I could barely keep myself standing – my impulse was to curl up in fetal position right there in a doorway of a closed shop wishing and hoping someone would come save me, fix my body and tell me what was wrong with it. Why was I allergic to almost every food I put in my body? Why couldn’t I take in any nourishment?
Nearly everything I ate hurt in some way except for broth and squash, a bit of meat and a bit of mashed up veggies. Whole Foods was right down the street but I was completely terrified of the oil and sugar they put in their cooked foods. None of their vegetables or meats were cooked in the way I needed them cooked so I was silently panicking.
Over the years of trying to heal a very painful and uncomfortable belly, I had conveniently come down with a case of what some might call Orthorexia. I was deeply afraid of eating food that wasn’t “clean” and according to the latest restrictive diet my naturopath prescribed me. I feared if I didn’t eat perfectly that I would develop cancer or another sickness even worse than what I already suffered from – more chronic pain, more depression, more stomach aches. At least that’s what my naturopath(s) led me to believe in order to encourage me to stay with the prescribed diets.
There also happened to be a lot of suffering around binging at this time. I remember standing in my kitchen, filling up a small bowl of almonds even though I wasn’t hungry and went to my room, ate them, and still felt a deep longing for something – a hunger that food could only numb if I became uncomfortable enough. Then, I’d go back to the cabinet, knowing almonds gave me stomach aches but tasted so good and filled up another bowl. I went back to my room, ate it and repeated the process sometimes 5-10 times in an hour. I felt out of control. I wasn’t even binging on cake or ice cream but I felt awful because I knew it was hurting my body and I couldn’t stop – I couldn’t feel any sense of satisfaction anywhere inside of me – no cue that said – thanks…I’ve had enough.
That’s because I was trying to fill an emotional black hole that constantly screamed “something’s missing!” with food. What I needed was love. I needed to know I was enough from the inside out but I didn’t. So… I ate. I reached and reached for food. For perfect food, for organic food, for the most beautiful gluten-free, soy free, dairy free, sugar free, grain free amazingness I could find. My life turned into obsessing about food – which is really easy to disguise here in Portland as a foodie. I was getting high off the specialness of my diet instead of getting nourished. That part was still missing.
Several years went by with the “perfect” diet. In that time, I’d tried several “perfect” diets – everything from raw & vegan to gaps & paleo. However, I still hurt. The amount of stress that surrounded my food intake probably outweighed the benefits of food. Stress is most likely the #1 reasons my belly hurt in the first place and that was the one thing I was slow to remove from my diet.
I believe my unhealthy gut bacteria thrive on low self-esteem, self-doubt, shame and lack of meaningful human connection and affection. That goes for lack of connection and affection with myself as well. When I believe I’m not good enough, that something’s wrong or missing all of the time, I feel that in my heart and belly. There is a gnawing and pressure in there – a tension and contraction from not being held with deep care, validation, kindness and holding.
Here’s the deal – as soon as I threw my perfect GAPS/Paleo/FODMAP fusion out the window and vowed to listen to what my body (not my mind) wanted, things started changing. I’m not recommending everyone needs to do this but for me it was a very important step in the healing process. It was very confusing at first because I had to pull apart what my intellect told me I should eat and what I felt my body wanted. Honestly, this can still be hard BUT when done with kindness and a lot of space for mistakes, it’s well worth the process. There are still some days when it feels like my body is craving dairy and I learn later that it really wasn’t a good idea. When I can slow myself down and let myself have the feelings that come up around food in any given moment, something softens in my body and heart and my stress levels decrease and I’m more receptive and at ease. When something difficult arises, I’ll say something simple to myself like “I’m here with you. I see you.” Then, I’m there keeping myself company in a very friendly, supportive and validating way.
It’s about building a loving relationship with myself where I listen more deeply, respond, and listen again. I am still allergic to quite a few foods but I can now eat hundreds more than before and each time I do, there’s a lot of gratitude. Gratitude helps me take in the nourishment too! And…the more I’m able to let in the nourishment of each moment I feel connected to myself or someone else, each moment of warmth or kindness or care—the more I’m able to receive the nourishment of food. It’s not just about the food—it’s connected to everything. The more I truly allow myself to have what I want and take in life’s beautiful things, the more I’m able to open myself to the nourishment of food.
Today, I’m at a meditation retreat (don’t tell anyone I’m writing!). I’ve been practicing meditation, mindfulness, loving-kindness and compassion for nearly 15 years. This is my 17th silent retreat so I have many to compare them to. I tell you this because I want you to know that change is possible and that it takes patience, dedication and consistency. On this retreat, arriving in the dining hall and sitting in front of my plate of food for every single meal has been 100% a non-issue. It has been just like going to the library to read a book or taking a walk next to the river or going to drink tea with a dear friend.
I’ve been able to take what was cooked for me without fretting about not getting enough because I’m able to eat more and more variety of food. I have been eating until I’m satisfied and nourished without obsessing if I ate enough or ate too much. I’ve been relaxed in my body and available to the beauty of the moment with the sounds of clanking silverware, chairs sliding in and out and seeing the swaying trees in the sunlight outside. In the past, meals were by far the hardest part of any event I went to. I panicked as I stood in line wondering if there was anything at all I could eat. Then I panicked because I’d inevitably take something I knew would give me a stomach ache because I felt like it wasn’t fair that everyone else could, then I’d panic because I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough seconds even though I was rarely hungry enough. I was rarely present or grateful. I was usually crying. It was a mirror for how I felt in the rest of my life – constantly afraid I wasn’t enough, I wouldn’t get enough, no one was there to help me or care for me, I shouldn’t make waves by saying what I need, and, something was always wrong. I lived my life in survival mode – this is an enormous stress on the digestive system.
With all emotions wrapped up around food, my body couldn’t receive it. I was tense and tight and shut down. These days… I’m so happy to say that food is much more easily received. One of the cooks here told me that I was the most difficult person they’d ever cooked for – was I really allergic to that many foods? Now… the cooks and I rarely interact at all. I let them know up front what I need in order to be well supported in a way that’s open hearted and clear and they respond with kindness and care. I know I’m special. I know that I matter, that I’m lovable and enough. When I can tap into the genuineness of these beliefs, I don’t need to use food and my relationship to it to prove to myself over and over that I’m not.
For you, if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’ve been lost and longing for relief, for answers and to be seen in how awful it feels to go through this. Please know – you are not alone, it is very easy to become isolated when you can’t eat with others or you’re always needing to make special requests. Get yourself out there, become your own best friend in every moment you can (even if it’s only a couple right now) and get support so that you can ease your stress, change your inner belief systems and step into the confident and radiant being that you are. May you be at ease, may you be healthy, may you be happy and may you be free.
Shelby Leigh is a Somatic Psychotherapist and Meditation Teacher and lives in her beautiful hometown of Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about changing the world through teaching awareness and kindness. She believes in change through compassion – with this… we can do anything we put our minds and hearts to in this world. Shelby sees individual therapy clients in Portland and offers both online and in- person meditation retreats and workshops throughout the year. In everything she offers, most people say what they’ve learned most is how to love and accept themselves for who they are instead of who they think they should be. Shelby’s mission is to help people tap into their inner radiance so they can bring their gifts and purpose out into the world whole-heartedly.