Healing My Gut Changed My Life. Here’s How + Exactly What I Did
I was vibrant and full of energy just a year prior. Doctors couldn’t figure out why my health was in sharp decline—especially because I was only 15 years old at the time, with no prior medical issues.
Being raised since birth on the village-style Mediterranean diet of my Greek heritage kept me healthy and strong. Many of my early memories involve food in some way – learning how to fish with my grandpa, the large village gatherings with roast chickens and lambs and yemitsa (stuffed vegetables), and horiatiki (village salad) served with psomi (stone-baked bread). I was a vibrant, healthy child, encouraged to eat good food, and spend time in the sun – running, climbing trees, swimming, and exploring.
When my family moved to the U.S. and I became a competitive swimmer (here’s my story in Vice), however, my eating habits changed drastically to a diet of mostly processed carbohydrates like muffins, pasta, and cereals.
My gut was in full swing dysbiosis without anyone knowing at the time. I suffered from bloating and fatigue on a daily basis, where just one year prior I had been the symbol of adolescent health.
Fast forward a decade later. I attended a digestive health seminar, which included individual testing for dysbiosis.
The results came in and I actually called the lab to make sure they correctly matched the test to my name because a “healthy” woman in her mid-20’s (with no known digestive diseases) did not fit the pathology.
Of course, they confirmed it was, in fact, my panel, which left me stunned. I had one logical path to take: explore why the gut reacted so drastically to a change in diet. This was almost counterintuitive in a sense because as nutrition students, we examined foods mostly as ‘calories in and calories out’, making sure, of course, to keep within ‘healthy’ guidelines.
A protein bar containing a laundry list of ingredients was still “healthy” to consume because protein is essential to humans is what we were told.
How to Improve Gut Health Naturally
During this time of feeling somewhat confused, voices from my past—mainly family members who lived in the villages of Greece—came to memory.
Grandma Stella’s voice came to mind, who always suggested freshly made stocks as a tonic for digestion; bathing in the seawater during summer months because it’s good for your immune system; insisting on taking afternoon naps as children; shopping for seasonal produce that made up a majority of our meals.
My grandfather Constantine’s voice who prepped my palette for “wild Mediterranean” foods around age three. My mission was to find again the age-old practices of what I experienced in the villages and combine them with science-new data on microbiome research to form a successful plan for the lifelong; no snake oil included. (Remember the colon cleanses circa 2007 that helped rid the body of decayed fecal matter in just 2 weeks?)
I assembled a large database of foods that are known to affect the microbiome. I first began to look at processed foods and their ingredients.
As I began to form my hypothesis on foods that disrupted the gut, I also looked into lifestyle factors as well as the use of hand sanitizers, skin care products that contained harmful chemicals, sedentary behavior, stress, etc.
All of the research brought me to the following conclusion: the ancestral Mediterranean diet is best for gut health. Professionally, I do not feel there is a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to a diet. If you look at the real Mediterranean way, it’s providing a foundation, to begin with, that can be tailored to your individual needs.
The Social Media Health Revolution
When smartphones began advancing around 2010, we also had a new wave of social communication spreading all messages loud and clear.
People felt compelled to showcase their love for ‘what is old is new again’ in approach to a healthy lifestyle through images, video, and text.
Wild Mediterranean is built on supportive pillars instead of dietary dogma. These pillars are similar to the phrase “it takes a village” to do something right; the same can be found in gut health.
You cannot bypass the simplicity of food—like plant fibers— which help strengthen the gut by creating more biodiversity. You cannot bypass the need for constant movement throughout the day which provides greater circulatory benefits in the gut by helping digest and absorb nutrients more efficiently. You cannot bypass the safety of our skin by using harmful products which can affect symbiosis in the gut. You cannot deny the benefits of positive human interactions, stress, and the gut.
Remarkably it was my very own health issues that helped frame the pillars of Wild Mediterranean and Hippocrates was one of the first to call it out: All disease begins in the gut.