Alissa in a cowboy cat and leopard top smiling while looking out over a balcony.

Why I Believe in Holistic Healing: How I Overcame My Chronic Gut Issues (SIBO & Leaky Gut)

digestive health highly sensitive wellness Apr 01, 2019

In the summer of 2014, I’d just turned 22. I had one semester of college to finish before graduation that winter. I’d recently ended a turbulent relationship so I threw myself into work that summer. I was a server at a restaurant in my hometown and spent almost every evening after work drinking beers and margaritas with my coworkers. I remember spending the 4th of July working a really slow shift, then going to a bar with a coworker afterwards. No fireworks, no BBQ, no friends in town. I cried in my car on the way home because I felt so lonely that night. This is when I started to experience sharp stomach pains on a consistent basis.

I’d dealt with stomach issues before. The previous winter, I had a gnawing pain that lasted for weeks which eventually brought me in to see my primary doctor. After a few pushes on my stomach, she told me I had gastritis and instructed me to stop eating spicy foods and start taking Prilosec. For the most part, my stomach pain stopped after that. But when it came back this second time, my mom suggested I see a gastroenterologist.

GI Doctor #1

The GI doctor told me I was likely experiencing food intolerance. He gave me breath tests to test for lactose intolerance and fructose intolerance. The tests came back to show that I had fructose malabsorption. Finally, the answer I needed! He set me up with his nutritionist who got me on a food plan. I was to avoid gluten, dairy, high fructose corn syrup, and any other foods that were naturally high in fructose. This included avocados, apples, honey, and many other foods that were healthy but didn’t work for my body. No problem! Though I had to say goodbye to most of my favorite foods (sour cream, cream cheese, bagels…) I was more committed to feeling good than I was to eating all the good things.

For the most part, I was healthy for a while after this. Here and there I experienced episodes of pain but nothing major. I successfully completed my final semester of college and graduated with a degree in Retail Merchandising; a sales associate position at Nordstrom awaiting me.  For whatever reason, I had a lackadaisical approach to my future. I applied for some jobs here and there but nothing really seemed right. I probably had a low level of stress throughout this whole time because I felt like I didn’t have my life figured out compared to others.

Then, I got the news that I’d been accepted for an internship at a retailer in California. I had three weeks to pack up my life, find a reasonably priced car to rent, and find a place to live for the ten weeks of my internship. It was one of the most intense and exciting periods of time in my life.

New Life in California, New Challenges

First week in California

For my first ten weeks in California, I rented a room in a woman’s house. This woman had cats who were riddled with fleas which resulted in my feet and legs being covered with flea bites. The itchy bumps all over my feet ended up getting infected. Not a good look for a Minnesota girl who was excited to wear her sandals! It took two rounds of antibiotics and like a gallon of calamine lotion to get rid of them.

Earning $10/hour at my internship, I was also struggling to make ends meet. I basically lived off of Trader Joe’s microwavable meals. Most nights after work, I’d come home to my little room, slide shut my door and drink a beer or two at my table while I watched TV and ate my microwave meal.

I look back at those early days with so much fondness. Although, back then, my worries were incessant: Will I ever be able to afford to live here? Will I get a full time job? Will I make friends?

I wish I could go back and tell myself, yes to all of those things. Don’t worry. Just enjoy the journey. It’s going to make sense one day.

In those first ten weeks, my stomach pains started to come back. I hadn’t been following my gluten free, fructose-free diet as closely as I should’ve– too many beers and after-bar pizza runs. Antibiotics certainly didn’t help. So, I went back to the basics that my nutritionist had recommended a year earlier: no gluten, fructose, or dairy. I essentially tried to follow a low fodmap diet. Except this time, the pain didn’t go away.

Another trip to a new primary doctor in California, another bottle of Prilosec. I started taking this regularly. I understand now it’s recommended to only take Prilosec for 14 days, 3 times per year. I took it daily for at least a year. The symptoms weren’t getting any better. My stomach was starting to get worse. More and more foods were upsetting me without any rhyme or reason. And it wasn’t just obvious junk foods making me sick; it was healthy foods, too. Like cucumber, squash, zucchini. Some days I could eat these foods, other days they made my stomach blow up like I was six months pregnant.

What is wrong with me?

I got to a panicky point where I was so afraid of what was going on in my body. My parents were still living in Minnesota at the time but were very much involved in my struggles. My mom found a GI doctor in Orange County who was supposed to be good. I waited for two weeks to see him. I placed all of my eggs in this basket and just knew that after I saw him, I’d have the answers I needed and this nightmare would be over.

GI Doctor #2

Finally, the moment came to see the doctor. He had me lay down while he poked around on my stomach.

“Are you sure it’s not just stress?” he asked. “Your tests came back negative for celiac disease and dairy intolerance,” he added.

My eyes welled up with tears. “No,” I told him, “there is something wrong. I’m constantly bloated and my stomach always burns. Something isn’t right.” I still get emotional writing this because I was so broken in that moment.

He told me we’d do an endoscopy to see what was going on inside of my stomach. If you’re unfamiliar, an endoscopy is when they slide a scope down your throat to take a video of the inside of your stomach.

Celebrating my birthday at work the day after my endoscopy

So, the day before my 23rd birthday, I took the day off work (unpaid because I was still a temp employee) to get an endoscopy. Happy birthday to me!

The results told us I had a hiatal hernia and a few stomach ulcers, to which they gave me the old, “limit your spicy foods and take Prilosec”. This time, though, they also gave me medication to coat my stomach to help with the pain of the ulcers.

As you’d have it, I was still sick. I followed the orders without much relief or progress. And so, the journey for answers continued. At this point, it had been a few months of living in pain. I was starting to forget what it felt like to not have a stomachache.

GI Doctor #3

I found another GI doctor. This one felt a little more promising because of all her amazing Yelp reviews, but I was still cautiously optimistic. First things first, another endoscopy. Nothing clearly wrong, except I still had stomach ulcers.

“Let’s test you for SIBO,” she told me.

I’d never heard of SIBO before. Finally, could this be the answer to this weird, foreign pain I knew was so real?

SIBO stands for Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth. As defined by, “Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is a serious condition affecting the small intestine. It occurs when bacteria that normally grow in other parts of the gut start growing in the small intestine. That causes pain and diarrhea. It can also lead to malnutrition as the bacteria start to use up the body’s nutrients.”

So, I got tested for SIBO and the results were positive. I had high levels of bacteria in my small intestine. My new GI doctor prescribed me a medication called Xifaxin which was supposed to kill the bacteria.

I couldn’t get those meds fast enough. I was elated. So happy I could cry. Finally, my answer! And then the questions came. Why didn’t my other doctor know about SIBO? Why was this the first I’d heard of it? Why did I have to search for so long to discover what was plaguing my body?

The happiness was short lived. After being on the meds for a while, the doctor told me to start trying foods to see if I still reacted. I remember eating a cheeseburger on a bun, fully anticipating that I was going to be able to digest it. I was filled with disappointment (and an undigested cheeseburger) when my stomach did its usual bloating and burning. No improvement. So, I went back for another SIBO test and found that the bacteria was still there. I began round two of the antibiotic.

My Introduction to Holistic Healing

One night after an appointment with my GI doctor, I met Matt, his mom, and step-dad for dinner. We were newly dating at the time, so I didn’t know his family too well yet. Kathy, his mom, started telling me about her stomach ailments. I discovered that she’d been taking Xifaxin, too! She too, had this strange and mysterious SIBO. Except she was a little further along in the journey and told me the multiple rounds of Xifaxin hadn’t worked for her. So, she’d moved on to healing with a holistic approach by following the GAPS Diet.

I won’t get into the details on this diet, as I wrote an entire post about it here.

In short, I followed the GAPS Diet religiously for a few weeks. I put in my best effort but what I needed was help from a professional. I was down to about 30 foods I could eat without acid coming up into my throat and my stomach painfully bloating. My symptoms were expanding from just my stomach to the rest of my body. I knew the SIBO bacteria was using up the nutrients in my body. I struggled to think clearly. I was constantly tired. My arms were often tingly. I learned later that I was very deficient in Vitamin D and B12.

One morning at work, I drank a bottle of carrot/orange juice. Not fifteen minutes after, the stabbing pains started. Angry acid thrashing around in my gut. Why is this happening? I was trying to be healthy! I ran to the bathroom and threw up, noticing blood in the toilet. Tears welled up and I ran to my boss’ office, telling him I needed to go home. He was flustered seeing me in tears and told me, “yes, please go home!”

Up until that point, I’d taken one or two days off despite how sick I always felt. I knew I was at a breaking point if I was crying to my boss and asking to leave.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

That afternoon, I searched for a SIBO Doctor on Yelp. A holistic, Chinese medicine doctor with incredible reviews appeared at the top of the page. I scrambled to call him. To my relief, I was able to get in to see him the following week.

I’d never been to a holistic doctor before but the GI doctors hadn’t been able to help me. I’d been through the ringer and I was never going to get better if I didn’t change my approach. l’ll never be able to explain the gratitude I have for my doctor, Dr. Gin. He changed my life.

Throughout my years of gut issues, I’d had plenty of moments where I felt like “finally, here’s my answer!” But I knew, as I waited in Dr. Gin’s office, surrounded by books about holistic healing, diet, and astrology (my favorite), I’d found my place. I was in good hands. Dr. Gin had successfully treated many SIBO patients. The part that I liked, that intrigued me most, was that he got to the root cause of the issue to heal it. It wasn’t just fixed with an antibiotic.

That’s not to say the healing was easy. It was incredibly difficult and required my utmost commitment. There’s no quick fix to undo years of damage. It took me about 7 months to fully heal. I learned that I not only had SIBO, I had leaky gut as well.

Leaky gut, according to, is “When the tight junctions of intestinal walls become loose, the gut becomes more permeable, which may allow bacteria and toxins to pass from the gut into the bloodstream. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as ‘leaky gut.’ When the gut is ‘leaky’ and bacteria and toxins enter the bloodstream, it can cause widespread inflammation and possibly trigger a reaction from the immune system.”

It’s important to note that leaky gut isn’t a medically recognized condition and SIBO (though bacteria overgrowth is a known condition) is often not recognized either. This explains why I’d gone to so many different doctors without being able to find answers when I knew something was wrong. They couldn’t help me in the way I needed. I’m certain I would’ve spent years searching for answers if I hadn’t changed my approach. Which gets me thinking, how many others are still searching for their answers? How many are constantly popping Tums and living in pain? This is why I want to share my story. I want people to know there are alternative ways to heal.

So, why did I get SIBO and leaky gut?

There’s a myriad of reasons. It all came together and made perfect sense after I started working with Dr. Gin. It all starts with stress. Seriously, stress causes so many physical issues in our body. I’ve always been a sensitive, visceral person so when I get stressed, I feel it strongly in my body. I think back to what was going on when my stomach issues flared up — a bad breakup, moving cross country, getting infected by flea bites, stressing about money, worrying about making friends, anxious with an overbearing boss. I had a lot going on. When our bodies are in a state of stress and anxiety, we go into fight or flight mode. Our body thinks we’re in danger. When that happens, the cortisol starts pumping and our digestion slows down because it’s not a vital organ for survival. Thus, the difficulty digesting begins.

My mom always used say, “Don’t eat when you’re angry, you’ll give yourself a stomachache!” Many years later, I realize this is true on so many levels.

And then we have diet. For years, I was eating a lot of processed foods. I was drinking alcohol quite a bit. I was eating a lot of foods that were inflammatory for my body. Even though I’d cleaned up my diet in the 6 months before seeing Dr. Gin, the SIBO and leaky gut had likely already set in. Because of this, I was having trouble eating even the healthiest foods. More on this in the next section. Eating foods that were inflammatory (even healthy ones) while my body was consistently in a state of stress, made for a perfect storm. Since I wasn’t digesting my food properly; it was essentially sitting and rotting in my stomach, making me sick.

Finally, the Prilosec I took for over a year. The Tums I popped like candy. These really messed with my stomach acid. I learned that I’d actually lowered the acid in my stomach from taking acid reducers constantly. This contributed to my digestion issues because, without enough stomach acid, I wasn’t able to properly digest foods. The cure for this was digestive enzymes, digestive bitters, but most importantly (for me personally) was an apple cider vinegar concoction. Apple cider vinegar helps to neutralize stomach acid, so it essentially fixed my stomach acid problem. I still drink this 2-3x per week.

How did I heal SIBO and leaky gut?

Hard work and dedication. A variety of supplements; a strict diet; and healing my emotional stressors.

Supplements: Dr. Gin started me on a variety of supplements– a liver cleanse, probiotics, digestive enzymes, vitamin D, a powder mix to help heal my stomach lining, and others that were specifically designed to kill SIBO.

Diet: Like I said, there’s no easy fix. There’s a SIBO specific diet that Dr. Gin had me follow. SIBO feeds off of grains, starches, and sugars. If I wanted to kill the SIBO bacteria, we needed to starve them. That meant I couldn’t eat anything that they liked to feed off. Even if they were considered by most, a “healthy” food. This explained why I got sick from foods that I’d thought were healthy.

So, my diet was essentially no grains, no starch, no sugar, no dairy, no alcohol. Think Whole 30 style eating – for 7 months. Even within those guidelines, there were recommendations which foods were best to eat and which to keep to a minimum. And then within those guidelines, I still had foods that didn’t work for my body specifically. For example, squash was considered a safe food by the SIBO diet standards. For me, it wasn’t safe. Through trial and error, I created my own personal SIBO diet within Dr. Gin’s guidelines.

Healing my emotional stress: Most importantly, Dr. Gin identified the root cause of the stressors that were ailing my body. If this step was skipped, I wouldn’t have fully healed. This was vital to my healing. In each appointment, Dr. Gin pressed different acupressure points on my body and determined the emotional stress being held in each area. Of course, most all of mine were held in the different organs in my abdomen.

Once the stress was determined, we’d work with my subconscious to discover where the stress originally stemmed from. For example, one of the issues held in my small intestine is this desire to be perfect. I give myself stomachaches trying to do everything and burn myself out trying to be the best I possibly can be.

This issue partially stems from having a younger brother who’s super smart and easygoing. I always felt like the more difficult child because I was high strung and often getting sick; I felt like I wasn’t as smart, Because of this, I unconsciously overcompensated by trying to be perfect in every facet of my life. I felt that my worthiness came from being the best. This was manifesting itself in an unhealthy way in my body.

A Life Forever Changed

Working with Dr. Gin, I’ve had so many breakthroughs that I don’t think I would’ve had otherwise. Certainly not by age 26. I’ve discovered so many of the subconscious issues I hold onto that affect my daily life. I’ve gained such self-awareness from working with him and have become so in tune with my body. At this point, I can almost always pin point what makes my stomach hurt; head ache; chest tight with anxiety. Oh, there’s that issue with being on time that’s giving me the stomach pain!

It’s been almost three years since I’ve had SIBO. Life feels so normal that I sometimes forget stomach issues were once a big part of my life. When I started working with Dr. Gin, he thought we’d get about 70% of my normal diet back. I’m actually doing better than that.

I eat healthy, but in a way that doesn’t feel restrictive. I eat mostly gluten free, dairy free (except cheese), and I avoid refined sugar as much as possible. Because I eat the way that’s best for my body 80% of the time, I have the freedom to enjoy the occasional donut or slice of pizza. And when I do, I savor every bite. I say thank you to my stomach for digesting the food for me. It sounds silly, but I appreciate it so much because I remember how little I once could eat. I’m just thankful because there was a time I thought I’d never be “normal” again.

I still see Dr. Gin every 6-8 weeks. Not so much for my stomach anymore but just as a way to check in with my body; to identify any emotional stress I’m holding onto. He’s become a trusted part of my life and I genuinely look forward to my visits.

This experience has shaped me into the person I am today. Because of this, I’m wildly committed to taking care of myself– mind, body, and spirit. I know how badly it can crumble if I don’t make my health a priority. This is why I’m so passionate about sharing the importance of mental health, meditation, yoga, and essentially living a healthy life.

If you have anyone in your life struggling with frustrating health issues, I’d love for you to share this post with them. I was at the lowest point in my life while on my quest for answers. For a lot of people, holistic healing is where the search stops. It’s where I found my answers. My biggest hope is for anyone who’s suffering to find that relief too.

With love,