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Healing with the Earth: From Infancy to Maturity

by Allison Coulter

We all have a story to tell when it comes to our health. Whether you have been primarily healthy or struggled with different diseases, everyone’s journey is valid and worthy of understanding. When we understand our bodies, we can live life with more ease, comfort, and enjoyment.

I embarked on my health journey over 15 years ago, searching for relief. I had many issues surrounding my digestive health leading up to that point. At the age of 33, I now have years of experience with many different modalities to heal my gut. This is what I have learned.

GERD from Birth.

My journey with poor digestive health began in my infancy. As an infant, I had acid reflux and projectile vomit. I was colicky and in pain often. My poor mother, who was on her third of what would become six children, was burdened with an uncomfortable, whiney baby. I imagine it was tough for her to watch me suffer.

I honestly cannot say for sure what caused my infantile acid reflux, but I have a suspicion that it occurred because I was fed formula instead of breast milk. In the ’80s, baby formula was the norm, so I doubt my mom thought she contributed to this issue in me.

I ate the Standard American Diet (SAD) as I grew up, which means I consumed lots of refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and caffeinated beverages. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was experiencing acid reflux every day. It got so bad that I could no longer take NSAIDs, a class of medications that includes ibuprofen and aspirin. If I take those medications, I do not experience pain relief. I experience esophageal spasms, which are pretty painful. It feels like there is a smooth rock moving around in my esophagus. Ouch. 

In addition to painful acid reflux, I had an inflammation of my esophagus. This made it difficult to swallow at times. I even had food get stuck in my throat for hours on end. After calls to the doctor, I learned that if I chewed on a piece of bread without swallowing it, the trapped food would eventually go down as I stimulated my digestive system.

I would take antacids like TUMS during this time, but I did not adjust my lifestyle beyond taking out NSAIDs. 

Seventeen and incapacitated.

My unhealthy lifestyle came to a head when I was in my junior year of high school, so did the issues with my esophagus. 

It was summer vacation, and I got sick. Like, really, really ill. It began with a fever, chills, and GI upset. My esophagus was so inflamed I could not swallow for over a week. My mom had me trying to force down Slim-Fast shakes to get some nutrition in my body. I would chug the shakes and cry as it was so painful to try to swallow anything at all.

If I tried to eat solid foods, they would just get stuck, leaving me unable even to swallow my saliva. The saliva would build up so high that it would eventually make me gag, and I would regurgitate the stuck food. 

Looking back, I probably should have gone to the hospital because I lived this way for three weeks and lost almost 20 pounds in the process. However, eventually, the fever broke, and the inflammation subsided.

Rooting around in the dark for the source.

One positive thing that came from this illness was that it prompted me to see a gastroenterologist. She was the top pediatric gastroenterologist in the country and very thorough. I was on a mission to never be that sick ever again.

She ordered an endoscopy where she discovered that I had two peptic ulcers in the pit of my stomach and hundreds of tiny ulcers lining my esophagus. From there, I had every GI test there was. 

I had extensive blood work done, an upper GI test, CAT scans, MRIs… the works. However, none of these tests were conclusive as to a primary cause as to why a seventeen-year-old girl would have stomach ulcers at such a young age. My only diagnosis was GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), with no underlying causes.

Because of the lack of answers, my mother took me to a homeopathic doctor who had a suspicion that food sensitivities were going on. I started an elimination diet where I learned that dairy and certain nuts caused me stomach pain.

I began to eat with minor restrictions like cutting out caffeinated beverages, tomato sauce, and other acidic foods, but the acid reflux always returned. Even when I was prescribed prescription acid reflux medications like Esomeprazole (Nexium), it always returned.

Learning through the earth.

For some years after that terrible illness, I struggled on and off with acid reflux, that is, until I went to work on a farm in 2009. This is where my approach went from combative to holistic. 

I was lucky to find myself among stewards of the land who taught me what true mindful eating is. They taught me about herbalism, especially one specific witchy mama. She became my mentor in herbalism.

I learned about antispasmodic herbs to help with the spasms that cause reflux, and I learned about mucilage herbs that help the body secrete mucus to protect the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Additionally, I learned about herbs to help ease digestion and soothe and calm the nerves, as stress certainly exacerbates any health issues. 

At this point, my go-to herbs for maintaining my GERD are marshmallow root (a mucilage) and licorice root (an anti-spasmodic). I could write pages and pages on the many other herbs that have helped me along this journey.

Gaining peace and knowledge in whole-person wellness.

Around the time I first learned about herbalism, I also started practicing yoga, pranayama (breath control), and meditation. As I have grown in my health journey, I have grown to understand that combining modalities is the way to reach one’s total health potential.

Whole-person wellness is about being healthy in mind, body, and spirit. Stress causes dis-ease. Unhealthy eating causes dis-ease. Depression causes dis-ease. When I turned to a whole-food diet and cut out processed food, refined sugars, and anything artificial, I saw genuine, consistent improvement. I added fermented foods to restore my gut biome and added strengthening, alkaline foods, especially lots of leafy greens and miso.

Some of the pranayamas are pretty amazing for digestion, especially the detoxifying sitali breath (cooling breath). It is incredible what we can train our bodies to do, how we can truly work with our bodies, and not against them, to reach optimal health. Combine nutrition and herbalism with yoga for digestion and pranayama, and you go from surviving to thriving.

My health journey is a lifelong adventure, and I am by no means finished. There is always something new to learn or something to improve. Sometimes I fall off the horse and regress into bad habits again. But, I never give up. I have seen what hard work and consistency can do for one’s health. While I do not always do it perfectly, I always keep working at it.

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