How Traveling Made Me Chronically Ill: SIBO, IBS, Acid Reflux, and More
Traveling is a privilege and remarkable opportunity for those that can do it. However, it doesn’t come without it’s qualms.
Unfortunately for me, because of traveling, I developed some ugly gastrointestinal issues. My ex, with whom I traveled with for years, did as well. Although he and I aren’t together anymore, I still feel it’s important to discuss both of our gastro issues for those who are facing similar issues— whether traveling or not!
Matt's Chronic Illness Story
2013: College (New York State)
Junior year of college was when he first noticed some acid reflux symptoms. Sure, it could've been from the heavy drinking and garbage food-inhaling, but regardless, it was there. He would simply take TUMS (Calcium tablets) and the problem would disappear for the time being.
Our diet mainly consisted of a ton of rice, some meat, fruit, and vegetables in our six months in Thailand (we didn't have a kitchen in our apartment there. Here's the blog post/podcast on what it was like living in Thailand). Acid reflux was still there, just like in college, so not debilitating.
America (California and Home to NY)
While in California (we were only there for a month), Matt's acid reflux grew worse. He had this agonizing burning sensation in his stomach after eating or drinking anything and everything. It became a struggle because he couldn't focus on anything else but the nagging burning in his gut!
In desperation, Matt went to a doctor in San Jose, California. There, the doctor simply prescribed him tons of different antibiotics without even knowing what was wrong with him. Spoiler alert: bad move!
Too many antibiotics can severely alter the bacteria in your gut-- and not in a good way at all!
Matt then visited an actual gastroenterologist to get his opinion. He just took his blood and told Matt he'd need an endoscopy.
Before moving to Korea, he really wanted and needed to get his health issues figured out. We then flew to New York to visit a doctor there (he knew a gastroenterologist there through his sister). He got the endoscopy done with his nervousness and all. Afterwards, the doctor said they didn't find anything except for some esophagus burning. He then prescribed Matt some medicine to help with his acid reflux, which was called Omeprazole.
Omeprazole is a protein pump inhibitor that basically "cures" your acid reflux by making it so your stomach just ceases making almost any stomach acid. After taking it, Matt instantly felt cured! There was no acid reflux or burning sensation at all! He finally felt he found his cure for the rest of his life.
However, a month later while in Korea, Matt ran out of the medicine— and his acid reflux came back with a vengeance. Since his stomach had stopped making acid for so long, it now felt it needed to almost make up for lost time and produce far more acid than usual.
Luckily, his Mom then mailed him more Omeprazole, which only took about a week-- but that week felt like an eternity. Luckily, he discovered baking soda and water was a great help for acid reflux until he got his medicine again.
But then the questions arose that many people with long-term medicine often think to themselves: Am I going to have to take this for the rest of my life? And, if so, what will happen to me if I do?
After a bit of research, Matt discovered of course that it was something you really shouldn’t take forever. It could stop your body from absorbing nutrients, breaking down bad bacteria, and even cause dementia!
However, like so many people do, Matt continued to take the medicine because it just felt so good.
In January of 2016, we moved to Vietnam and lived there for seven months. During that time, Matt was continuously knocking back his glorious pills while constantly eating pho, stir-fried rice, fried spring rolls, and other goodies with no pain! His diet was mainly carbs for sure!
While in Vietnam, he did run out of his medicine once again. However, the mail just basically doesn't work in that country, so Matt went to the pharmacy and got the medicine over the counter no problem! Very handy.
In August of that year, we then moved to Japan and lived there for three months. During our time living in Osaka, Japan, Matt once again ran out of his medicine. The Japanese pharmacies didn't make it any easier since everything was in Japanese, there were no name-brand things we could recognize, and no one there spoke English!
Luckily, our friend from New York visited us in Japan and brought with him some more Omeprazole for Matt! Hooray! Then, Matt's symptoms were under control once again.
...Until they weren't. Even while taking his medicine, every time Matt ate or drank anything, he'd burp it up. And not the usual "oops, I ate too much" comfortable burps. Painful, irritating, burning, and frequent burps. Unnatural burps.
Nothing he did made it any better, either. But, at one point, he quit his Omeprazole. Eventually, the acid reflux did improve just a little bit, but the burping grew worse and worse.
All of these issues made Matt not fully enjoy our time in Japan. And it's really no wonder! How could he with constant burning and discomfort?
America (Home in New York)
Matt once again visited a gastroenterologist in New York to get another opinion on what was going on. However, he made it very clear he didn't want to take that medicine anymore, since they clearly weren't helping. But, the doctor prescribed him Nexium, which is basically the same thing as Omeprazole.
But, Matt refused to even pick them up from the pharmacy. Instead, he went to a different gastroenterologist.
Luckily, this doctor actually full-on listened to Matt and really wanted to help. A week later, he got another endoscopy and got biopsies there, but everything was negative. However, it could very well be something called SIBO, or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. SIBO is a condition where hundreds of thousands of bacteria from your colon find themselves in your small intestine, where they normally wouldn't be. Because of that, plenty of problems can then ensue.
The doctor gave Matt a two-week trial of expensive antibiotics called Rifaximin. However, like the doctor warned Matt, the antibiotics didn't work, which apparently in most cases, it doesn't.
When we moved to Prague, Matt finally made the decision to get off of his medicine for good. So, we slowly took less and less of what his prescription was. Instead of 40MG, he took 20MG. He got plenty of acid reflux and heartburn, but it was worth it to get off of the medicine. After a couple of months of 20MG, he completely got off of the medicine.
For about a month, the pain was excruciating. But, after that month, his problems did improve.
My Chronic Illness Story
2013: College (New York State)
Ironically, I had just met Matt at this point-- how perfect! After dating Matt for a few months, I had this burning sensation in my er,... lady parts, if you will. I honestly was afraid it was an STD or something!
But, upon going to the gynecologist at our college, she told me that it was a yeast infection, which is incredibly common in women, especially at my age. So, I didn't think much of it.
However, it didn't end there. Every month for about six months or so, I got yeast infections on yeast infections, even though I was a very healthy and clean person. It was very annoying because I would continuously have itching, burning, and discomfort-- and who wants that ever, especially in such a delicate area?!
We went to Thailand in October of 2014 while I was still battling continual vaginal infections. But, we were only there for six months, so I figured I would just wait to go to the doctor when we returned to America (never really a good idea to wait that long to go to the doctor, by the way). During those six months, I was still very uncomfortable, itchy, and feeling burning.
Finally, we returned to New York and I instantly visited the gynecologist. At my appointment, my doctor pretty much yelled at me for waiting so long with my yeast infection because it then turned into a bacterial infection. Then, he gave me medication, specifically antibiotics, and I was on my way.
It worked...until it didn't. My infections came back soon after, since the medication only temporarily helped the symptoms and not the underlying condition.
In June, we were in California for only a month, but at this point, I had developed different symptoms. It was now burning to urinate and I had to constantly go to the bathroom! Matt went to the doctor, so then I just decided to go, too, and apparently, I had a nasty urinary tract infection! The doctor then gave me medication after yelling at me for waiting so long-- and this was a different doctor! (Seriously: don't be like me and wait 'til the last second to go to the doctor!)
Even though I took medication for that one infection, from then on, I developed continual UTIs-- on top of the yeast/bacterial infections! It was...a gruesome and uncomfortable nightmare, to say the least.
Still, no doctors were explaining why this was happening to me.
I battled a UTI and yeast infection in the month we were in New York, which was only a month after our time in California. Yes, they were that recurrent.
We were in South Korea for 5 months and during that time, I was still battling my UTIs, yeast and bacterial infections. I had visited a gynecologists three times during our 5 months in Korea, which was actually kinda cool because one time, I was able to see inside of myself on a TV screen! Gynecological technology wins in Korea!
Anyway, I still had the same problems as before: UTIs, yeast infections, and bacterial infections.
However, my condition apparently escalated: a doctor told me during one visit that I had PID, or Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. PID is caused by bacteria traveling up from your vagina into your other reproductive organs, like the uterus, fallopian tubes, and such. Yep-- thanks for that, bacteria!
Luckily, when caught early, PID goes away easily with medication and it actually hasn't reappeared since I cured it that time, but it was still a little nerve wracking, especially since it can cause irreversible damage to your reproductive system!
Upon arriving in Vietnam in January, I had the same symptoms as always. Since I felt like an expert on my infections, I thought that I could just waltz into a pharmacy and get antibiotics myself while skipping the doctor's appointment. So, I did just that.
And boy, have I never regretted an action more.
After a few days of taking Flagyl, my intestines were a complete mess. I had debilitating bloating, gurgling, gas, constipating, and diarrhea. Plus, my vaginal infections didn't subside at all.
I then stopped taking the pills. Since then, I've had IBS symptoms. Whenever I eat pretty much anything, I have bloating to the point of looking like I'm 6 months pregnant, painful gurgling, horrendous gas (lovely, I know), and bouts of diarrhea and constipation.
While in Vietnam, I was then dealing with UTIs, yeast and bacterial infections, and now, IBS. I mean, I would eat pho (the best rice noodle soup ever) and instantly become bloated and have diarrhea a couple of hours later.
Torture. Absolute torture.
Seven months later, we wound up in Japan for three months total. There were no improvements or anything while in Japan. We continued our diet of eating rice, noodles, meat, vegetables, and other things. We also exercised almost every day. Luckily, I never had to go to the doctor, though!
New York (again)
While spending time at home for the holidays for a couple of months, I still experienced the same symptoms and issues, no matter what I did or ate. Nothing improved or worsened. I did see a gynecologist for yet another infection and got some medicine again.
When we moved to Prague in January, 2017, I was still battling all of these issues-- and still am today.
We haven't exactly solved our issues at this point (May 2018), but we are getting there. We're making improvements for sure! We've finally found something that is helping us heal-- and it's incredible.
Keto, Candida, and Fast-Tract Diets
The only thing that had given both of us relief was changing our diet. We started with the Fast-Tract Diet, but in each one of these diets, there is a basic overlapping theme: NO CARBS.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “I’d rather be shot than give up carbs.” Oh, trust me: I thought the same before starting the Fast-Tract Diet, but when you feel like you’re being tortured by your innards day in and day out, you’ll try anything.
And finally—fucking finally— we both saw incredible results and found relief.
Matt’s acid reflux slowly resolved itself and he could eat without constant pain. My IBS subsided slowly as well, which meant I could eat and not have to panic about a bathroom being nearby.
For my lady issues, I stopped taking my birth control pills and stopped eating sugary and carb-heavy foods, which all actually aided me a lot with my infections and I’ve only had a couple of issues since then— and it’s been almost two years since I quit them! The Candida Diet also helps with these type of issues and others.
As for Keto, which is a huge thing in the media currently, it’s a less-strict version of the other two. Basically, eat meat and vegetables. No fruit, no sugar, very little carbs, no processed foods, etc. Super healthy.
I’ve basically been cross-referencing them all and I’m so thankful that these diets exist because I’d be miserable without them.
And when I do cheat—which happens especially when I want to try that specific and unique food when traveling— I simply have to face those symptoms again (bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gurgling, etc.). However, once I get back onto my diet, I’m perfectly fine!
In summation, you can cure a lot of problems in your body by altering your diet and eating right.
Very profound, right?
But honestly, no one really thinks that’s the way to feel better. Everyone runs to medicine, which can potentially hurt you more!
You can read more on these diets, what they can do for you, and much more here.
(By the way, I’m not a doctor. You should discuss this first with him/her and see if it’s right for you. This is just my personal experience with these issues, medicines, and diets.)