My Vegan (Health) Story
Eeep! I'm finally laying it all out for you here - my health as it is now, and my past ups and downs over the years. I've alluded to struggles I've been dealing with on my previous website and in various Instagram posts - but never painted the complete picture.
Part of me was nervous to have others respond in potentially criticizing ways, another part was afraid of getting bombarded with dozens of diagnoses (even though I'm sure they would have been with the best intention, they tend to make me feel really overwhelmed), and a third part of me was unsure of how to put my struggles into words. This was because despite all of the doctors, tests, and protocols I had endured over the years - none had been able to identify what was really wrong.
This left me feeling pretty broken and hopeless at times, and I tend to deal with my issues best privately. But, I have learned through talking with others closest to me that opening up can help you to feel less alone and possibly even help someone else in the process. I know I am always so grateful to read other's health stories who I follow and look to for inspiration in the wellness community, and have decided it was time to add mine to the pile too.
Most healing experiences I read about tend to go like this: I was sick and in pain for years, no doctors could help me, then I switched to a plant based diet and was healed completely! However, as you'll read below, this wasn't the case for me. It wasn't a simple fix, my diet wasn't the only thing I needed to change in order to heal, and technically - I'm still healing! I've learned that your health is a journey, not a destination. Its something you have to work on day by day, year after year, for all of life. Making tweaks and changes as you encounter bumps on the road. To think we need an exact assortment of things to reach perfect health, and then are able to maintain it for our entire life, is deceiving.
Also, as I've learned, health isn't everything. Its wonderful, helpful, and enjoyable to be in good health - absolutely. But it doesn't deserve to be an idol it our lives, as so many of us make it to be, and here in America it is incredibly idolized. Being present in your life for what it is today, being grateful for all that you do have, and giving your love and attention to others is really so much more important. Yes you need to take care of yourself in order to love and serve others well, and it should be apart of your life, but (in my opinion) it should not be your life.
It's easy when your suffering to curl up in a ball and focus on only your problems. And at times, you may need to for a brief spell, but I promise if you look outward you'll find your purpose here is far greater than how you look and feel. It's amazing how much love and attention you can give to others in the midst of your pain, and how much greater your experience (and moral) throughout your healing process will be for it. I did not do this well for the longest time, and missed out on loving a lot of people who I care about well. I possibly even missed out on noticing and loving strangers in my life well too. But eventually my eyes were opened to what I was missing, and I begin to enjoy and live in the process - rather than spending my time cooped up dreaming of the results I wasn't sure I would ever receive.
The best way for me to explain where I am now, is to explain where I have been. Here is my story laid out chronologically, focused on my health over the years. To keep this from being a full blown novel I've kept my words pretty direct - a little less flowery than usual, but I hope you glean everything you hope to from it still. Thank you for your time, interest, love, and support - and know whatever it is you are going through, have gone through, or will go through, I'm cheering for you. x
Disclaimer: I am not a certified health professional in any way, and what I am sharing below is not to be taken as medical advice. If you are suffering from health issues, I recommend seeking out a doctor (preferably a natural one) that can help draft a specific treatment plan for your unique situation.
0 to 12 Years Old
I had a pretty standard American childhood, growing up in the 90's with a mixture of home-cooked meals and plenty of fast food, bags of chips, fruit by the foots, sodas, fruit punch, gushers, pizza, sugary cereals, candy, and macaroni and cheese. The only vegetable I can remember eating and enjoying were canned green beans. I was always very aware of my weight and had poor self esteem during years in between growth spurts when I would get pretty chubby. I remember envying my thinner friends, and even my mom, wishing I could look more like them! It was a big part of my life during the time, although I didn't ever speak about it to anyone.
13 to 17 Years Old
When I was thirteen I learned what calories were, and how if you ate less of them and exercised you could lose weight. This was exciting to me at the time because before I had never thought you could control what you looked like. So I began reading the labels on everything in our home, and would see how little I could get myself to eat during the day. I also began jogging with my mom in the evening and doing any exercises I could find time for during the day. I began losing weight and remember feeling really accomplished. But I was never 'skinny enough', and it turned into anorexia really fast. I hid it well from my friends and family. A YMCA opened down the street from our home and my obsessive workouts began.
By the time I was sixteen I was signed by a modeling agency and began doing runway shows. My obsession with my weight only got worse. I continued to decrease my calories down to the triple digits, and increased my workouts until I reached 2.5 hours a day. By seventeen I was emaciated, finally gained the attention of my family, and for the first time saw a photo of myself and realized I no longer looked pretty - but sick.
18 to 20 Years Old
I tried going away from anorexia and eating 'normal' before my freshman year of college, but I gained weight rapidly. When I had moved into my dorm I had relapsed into my anorexic tendencies, concealing them as just 'managing my weight' because I had a 'slow metabolism'. I was in design school and sleeping an hour a night at best. I was drinking 5 to 10 cups of coffee a day, and would chase my cups of java with sugar free energy drinks. I worked out for two hours every evening, and kept restricting my calories. By the end of my freshman year I was pale with thinning hair and yellow nails. I cut back on the caffeine over the summer, and returned back to school sleeping a bit more but still as anorexic as ever. I was always thinking about food, always tired, and always self medicating with caffeine.
When I turned twenty I decided to quit runway modeling, after four years of it wreaking havoc on my mindset and view of myself. I began working a new job where I met Scott, and he changed everything. He was the first person I was able to talk to about my eating disorder and how I viewed myself. He didn't judge me, he didn't make me feel bad or act shocked in any way, and most importantly - he didn't try to change me. He instead listened to me (really well), encouraged me whenever he saw me make small improvements, and told me I was beautiful - everyday. He also stood up for me when others would make slights against me about my odd food choices I'd bring to work, or have around his family and friends. He would also stand up for me when I would talk down about myself, he would defend me - even against myself. And above all, he noticed. He noticed everything. When I told him I couldn't mentally handle eating more than one type of thing on my plate at a time, he wouldn't make me feel weird or silly. But he would notice when I put two things on my plate and ate them - and then he would make a quiet comment to me afterwards 'I'm really proud of you'. Those words meant everything.
21 to 22 Years Old
The longer Scott and I dated, the more beautiful I saw myself and the more I let go of certain unhealthy tendencies. I cut back my gym time from 2.5 hours a day to 1.5 hours, which was huge for me at the time. I no longer fussed about the number of things on my plate, and I started to see food as a way to nourish my body, instead of as my enemy. I remember making a big decision for me at the time that really affected my relationship with food, and that was deciding I was only going to shop at Trader Joe's for all of my meals.
When I would walk into a standard grocery store I always felt like I was either being bombarded with junk food that made me want to binge, or with 'diet' food like low-fat, low-calorie, low-carb, etc. But when I walked into TJ's there was none of that, and I started seeing this new word 'organic' on everything that was supposedly really good for your health ;). I felt like I was taking care of myself when I entered one of their markets, and thus began my food swaps. No more binging on peanut m&ms at night after not eating enough during the day. Instead I stocked up on fruit & nut granola bars for breakfast, tons of fruit and greek yogurt for snacks, veggies and hummus for lunch, chicken with avocado for dinner (clearly wasn't' vegan yet, I don't think I had ever even heard of the term at the time), and tons of yummy trail mixes for dessert. I started feeling different, more energy and more balanced throughout the day. I remember getting really excited about food for the first time since probably my childhood, and it felt wonderful.
However, it was also during this time that I was struggling with bad stomach pains/aches. I didn't know why they were happening, and really just shrugged them off when they would come on at night. Eventually they got worse enough that I decided I needed to try a cleanse. I'm not sure how or why this came to my attention to do, but I did one for about a week (random rice and veggie based one I found online at the time, no clue where). I felt a lot better during that week, but the pains just came back afterwards.
Scott and I got engaged (woot woot!) and a few months before our wedding I began taking birth control. It screwed up my digestion pretty bad and I couldn't have a BM on my own for three months - it was pretty rough. I tried the same cleanse again during this time and felt good while on it, but it didn't have any lasting healing powers. Scott and I got married, and about a month afterwards a friend at work told me about how he had worked for a detox doctor. The doctor would always recommend people with digestive issues try a 'vegan cleanse' for a month. I loved the sound of loading up on a bunch of fruits and veggies, now that I had learned to love them, but knew it would be a big undertaking. So I decided I would take a month to research what eating vegan was all about, and how to make sure I was getting all of the nutrients I needed.
It was at this time I learned what a 'blog' was, and the first one was shared with me by another friend at work. It was Kathy's Healthy Happy Life. I remember spending multiple nights reading her blog and getting really excited to try her recipes. I had no idea there was a world of people out there eating like this! It was then I knew it wouldn't be so tough to do the cleanse. So I began practicing eating more veggies and cooking with tofu. I brought home cans of beans for the first time (no joke) and had my first bowl of homemade granola. I was ready. Two weeks into eating vegan my stomach pains had completely ceased. My digestion was incredible and energy levels were off the charts. I decided I was finally going to watch a few documentaries I had heard about but had been too nervous to watch while eating meat. I put on Forks Over Knives one afternoon and decided by the end of that film that I was going to be vegan for life (it was February, 2012). I remember Scott coming home from work that night and the first thing I said to him was 'we can't eat chicken anymore'. He was like 'what the heck are we going to eat?'. I told him what I had learned, and why I wanted to choose vegan for life. His response was the best I could have prayed for, he said 'as long as you make the food taste good, I'll eat whatever you make'.
23 to 24 Years Old
These two years were the smoothest sailing years of my life, health-wise. This is also when I became an environmental and ethical vegan, on top of a health-minded one. We had moved from Arizona to Southern California, where the produce was overflowing! I was shopping at the farmers markets every week, we had a huge garden and grew tons of our own produce, I made everything from scratch, sprouted all of my own nuts, drank more green juice than I though was humanly possible, and really hit my stride in long distance running. I was an energy machine, glowing, and full of life. I so wish my story ended here.
25 to 27 Years Old
We encountered some life-stress before my 25th birthday, and I began noticing my digestion was super sensitive. I slowly reduced my food options down to what felt okay until I was eating the same thing everyday. Eventually feeling frustrated vocationally, Scott and I moved on a whim to Denver, CO. We sold all of our furniture and both of our cars, rented a place sight unseen, and moved - it was an exciting risk that I think also caused a lot of stress I wasn't aware of internally at the time. From when we decided to leave California to the day we pulled the moving truck into our new apartment in Denver, it had only been three weeks. By this time I was pretty emaciated, my weight loss was super evident and the stomach pains began getting worse.
After a few months of being in Denver, I went to see a gastroenterologist. My symptoms were excessive weight loss (I was 25 pounds underweight), thinning hair, yellowing nails and teeth, diarrhea, crippling stomach pains, shortness of breath, fatigue, low energy, I could barely climb the stairs - having to catch my breath after every flight, brain fog, and excessive cravings at times for salty tortilla chips or coconut ice cream. I sat in front of the doctor, pled my case, and he looked at me and said 'you look perfectly healthy to me'. It took everything in me to keep my composure. I persuaded him to do a colonoscopy, endoscopy, CT scan, and blood test. After enduring all of these tests, they came back negative - a.k.a. without any definitive results. The only 'off' bit was my low red and white blood cell count. He told me to eat more fiber, and that was the end of me seeing this doctor.
My same symptoms continued for the next few months, but nausea came into the mix. I couldn't do anything past 3pm most days except lay on the couch and wait for Scott to come home with kombucha and pints of ice cream - I lay there covered in cold, nauseas sweats. Having emotionally recovered a bit from seeing the previous doctor, I sought out a naturopath nearby. She listened to my whole story and was very understanding and wanted to help. She asked to run a series of tests, but I could only afford two at the time, so we started with routine blood work and a nutrient panel. She called me after I had left from getting my blood drawn for the nutrient panel, telling me the facility couldn't scan my blood because my blood cell count was too low (both red and white - but particularly my white). She proposed I wear a mask when in public because of my high risk for infection. I somehow felt in-tune with my body enough at this time to not be too concerned about wearing a mask, and decided to mull everything over on my own for a bit. I had spoken with a few friends who had known someone who had similar symptoms as me and ended up realizing it was due to parasites - so I decided to entertain this possibility.
I tried a parasite cleanse for thirty days, not realizing it takes much longer to do so, but noticing an improvement nonetheless. My nausea went away, and I started to feel an increase in energy steadily over the next few months. I began slowly gaining weight, too. I still had occasional stomach pains, but nothing like before. My health was still super crappy, and I still could only eat the same thing every day, but I noticed enough improvements to coast on for a bit until we moved back to California. During this year and a half in Denver I had also began my previous website Faring Well and was blogging full time. This was incredibly stressful for me (trying to build a business), especially while feeling so ill, and I could never eat the food I actually made for the blog. We moved back to California and I had high hopes of healing and hopefully de-stressing a bit.
27 to 28 Years Old
By the time we arrived in California my symptoms consisted of digestive issues (pain and irregularity), easily upset stomach, lethargy, weakness, always tired, dry skin, unable to stop gaining weight (my weight issue had flipped), occasionally nauseous, and bloating. I sought out a doctor who practiced natural medicine, but was a certified MD and would therefore accept my insurance. She tested for parasites (which I still had), blood cell count (red was normal now, but white still low), food sensitivities (apparently I had 12), and infections (also had a few). She had me do an elimination diet, take an intense herbal parasite cleanse, and a few other natural supplements to kill of the infections. The elimination diet did absolutely nothing, the infections did go away, and the parasite cleanse sent my liver into complete overload. I was couch-ridden for a month with a bloated stomach and all sorts of other not-nice symptoms of an overtaxed liver (bad body odor, skin covered in breakouts, etc). I came out from seeing this doctor no better than I had gone in, but now I had pain where my gallbladder was located and I was struggling with digesting fats. What I was most frustrated with was my intuition years previous that something had gone awry with my thyroid. Yet no doctor as of yet would do the full thyroid panel on me. I took a break from doctors, and rang in my 28th birthday with a new perspective on what I was going to try.
28 to 29 Years Old
I turned 28 and reflected on where I had come from in my past, and when I had felt my healthiest. At the time of blissful health I once had, I had been eating very simply. I focused on whole foods and kept them unfussy, or with minimal ingredients. Things were simple, pure, delicious, and uncomplicated. I missed that. Blogging full time had turned me into a stress ball, constantly having to think creatively instead of being content with simple food. This I knew was something that did me good (eating simply, that is). But what had I also been doing to possibly lead to my current situation? I now knew that running long distance like I had been probably wasn't the best for my body's thyroid and hormones. Nor were the two to three cups of coffee a day I was still having, due to the constant lethargic and fatigued nature of my situation. I haven't mentioned yet, but 4.5 years prior to this I had gone off of the birth control that sent me down this spiraling path. Since then I hadn't had a single cycle. I knew I needed to make some changes.
I stopped running long distance and turned to daily twenty-eight minute strength training/HITT workouts. I cut back my coffee to one cup a day. And I returned to my 'simple food' lifestyle. The last part was the biggest change because I had been following Dr. Gregor over on NutritionFacts.Org and had been reading up on the whole-foods plant-based diet he promoted. It focused on eating plants in abundance, limiting anything isolated - such as oil - and emphasizing carbohydrates. The science made sense to me, and was as close to what felt natural and good for my body. So I jumped in head first, embracing my beloved whole foods diet, nixed the oil, kept my fats in whole-food-form (avocados, nuts, seeds), and focused on eating mostly carbohydrates at every one of my meals. My digestion improved almost instantly, my energy was climbing, I felt so alive and set free from my constricted relationship with food I had been enslaved to throughout this period of sickness. This is what my body, mind, and soul had been craving! I was beyond grateful. But not healed.
I still felt lethargic, had a really slow digestive system, felt muscle weakness, and no matter how I ate or tried to work out - there wasn't any effect I could have on my body. It was doing it's own thing and I had no influence over it (so I felt). I woke up one morning with a burning pain of hunger in my stomach, and a terrible ache in my middle back. I was unable to satiate my hunger no matter how much I ate for two days, and my back pain had me laying flat on the couch for most of the day. I did some research, and everything had pointed to a stomach ulcer. I was really stressed at the time with maintaining sponsored projects on my previous website, plus we were heading into the holiday season - and the stress of making plans with both sides of the family as well as ourselves was starting to overwhelm me. For the first time it hit me how poorly I managed my stress (I didn't really manage it, really, more like buried it inside of me). I had to cut out all acidic foods, including coffee, for at least a month. My stomach felt as if it was healing, and the pains went away. I started considering a break from Faring Well. After discussing this with Scott he was one hundred percent on board, and we decided once my last sponsored project wrapped up in the new year I would take an undisclosed amount of time to focus on my health wholeheartedly.
I began by seeing an incredible acupuncturist a friend had recommended, and she opened my mind to the mind-body connection I had been missing all of these years. She also knew of a naturopath who she believed would be a perfect for for my situation, and I made an appointment right away. We did so many blood tests I couldn't even recite them all to you from memory, but they revealed a great deal of what was going on. I had tested positive for both of the most common MTHFR gene mutations, and therefore couldn't activate B12 and folate properly. My levels were dangerously low, and so I began taking a methylated version of them both. I also had an extremely low level of T3 in my bloodstream (the active thyroid hormone). My TSH and Reverse T3 were normal, it was just the T3 (and T4) that wasn't doing well. My thyroid was hypoactive - this explained so much. I also had very low progesterone, hence the lack of a period for what was now 5.5 years. But why had all of this happened?
I discussed my past with my naturopath, and she was able to surmise that during the years of extreme anorexia, over exercising, and pumping my body full of caffeine, I had depleted my adrenal glands, squashed my thyroid's ability to produce adequate T3/T4, and put out my hormonal-fire. The genetic mutations were inherited from my parents. And thus with this cocktail of issues my current health situation had slowly manifested.
During this time I had also paused from doing HIIT workouts, feeling like they were too taxing on my lethargic body. I had turned to yoga and long walks to sooth my adrenals and my love for anything endurance related. After taking a few supplements to assist my thyroid, and methylated versions of the necessary B vitamins, I was noticing improvements. I began taking a natural form of thyroid hormone to bring my levels back up to normal, and help alleviate some of the stress on my digestive system (and the rest of my body). This is something we will wean me off of in the future, should my thyroid grown stronger and be able to produce enough of the hormone on its own. I also began taking Vitex (or Chaste Tree) to help balance my hormones and hopefully bring up my progesterone levels. My acupuncturist synced my bi-weekly treatments with the results we had gathered. Through this process my joint pain, and back pain, had thankfully disappeared. Though my hair is growing thicker and faster, and my energy is slowly returning, I still have some lingering digestive issues to deal with while we work on getting everything back into harmony.
This is where I am now. Healing, hopeful, and full of a strange amount of gratitude for this entire process. I still have a ways to go, and this is by no means the end of my story. I've come to know my body in a way I possibly never would have, and can relate to so many others who I've spoken with over these years struggling to find answers to their lingering health issues. I can only imagine how much worse off I would have been if I wasn't eating a diet rich in fiber, water, and minerals thanks to beautiful plants. This lifestyle has nourished my body through better and worse, and now that I've been blessed with others more intelligent than me to help guide me through the other aspects of health (mental, chemical, emotional) I feel as if it is finally getting its chance to shine. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to manage our stress. Take deep breaths, do activities that help you release your tension, and acknowledge your anxiety - get to the root of it, let yourself feel it, think through it, pray about it, talk it out with someone who loves you - whatever it takes, just don't let it be ignored.
This is why I left my previous website/blog behind. I built it with love and good intentions, yes, but also full of stress, pressure, and at times - inauthenticity due to all of the pressure and stress. Through my break I was able to see what I was truly passionate about sharing. I took away all of the requirements and labels and saw what I naturally did on my own that makes me feel alive. I began to see my simple approach to life as beautiful. My love for farmers markets, food prepping, and educating others about produce as valuable topics to share about - and most importantly, how natural it felt for me to talk about these things. I stopped comparing myself, and let me just be myself. It was only then that I was able to see clearly how I could best love and serve others with my passion.
My greatest bit of advice I could give to those in the midst of suffering with their health is to not lose hope. The human body is incredible once you learn what it needs in order to heal. Then you can step back and watch it work it's miraculous powers. Keep seeing new doctors, try natural medicine if it's a good fit for you, and make sure to view what you put in your mouth as building blocks for your body and mind. Food is healing, energizing, and life giving! And above all, treat your mind with the same level of importance as your physical body. To think of the two separately is to miss everything entirely.
Have faith. x Jessie