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Ordinary People Taking Action
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Four days short of four months.
Almost four months ago, on December 14, I was seen in the ER. I left the ER with the diagnosis of diverticulitis and told that I needed to change my diet immediately. In the following weeks, I went through the holidays not being able to eat most of the holiday goodies or drink alcohol. At the same time, I would have a lot of doctor appointments, an uncountable number of blood and stool tests, a colonoscopy and endoscopy. It would take over eight weeks, yes, that is two months, before I would learn that I also have ulcerative colitis, and a massive bacterial overgrowth throughout most of my digestive system. It would be a few weeks after that two-month mark, that I would also learn that there has been a major amount of inflammation in my body for almost 17 years – yes, you read that correctly, 17 years.
I remember after my youngest was born, I didn’t feel right. I had a lot of stomach issues, back pain and my stools weren’t normal. After giving birth to a baby, I’m not sure any woman’s body is normal, so a lot of my symptoms were chalked up to me just giving birth. I remember clearly sitting in a doctor’s office and was told, “Amber, poop just isn’t normal after childbirth.” I had given birth to another baby and felt that something was different after this birth, but the doctor was dismissive. This was 2005.
In 2006, I would have a colonoscopy and endoscopy. I remember checking in for the procedures and the nurse saying, “You’re so young to be here.” A few weeks after my procedures, I learned that the biopsies taken came back normal. Aside from a handful of polyps removed, everything was in good shape. Still not feeling the best, an imaging test was ordered. I fasted for an evening, then swallowed a pill that took pictures of my entire digestive track and then timed how long the pill camera took to exit my body. The results, maybe a mild case of IBS, but nothing substantial. It was recommended that I take out all processed foods from my diet, particularly frozen meals, and preservatives. That was an easy change because I didn’t eat many preservatives or frozen meals.
After the GI procedures, I had a tremendous amount of pain, so attention went on my uterus. The pain had never stopped since the birth of my child, so at this point, with my digestive system in proper order, the pain had to be coming from my uterus. For 4 years, my uterus was questioned as the cause of my symptoms. The hesitation for treatment was real, it was recommended to me that I needed a hysterectomy. I wasn’t even in my mid-thirties, I was young, too young, for a hysterectomy I thought.
In 2010, with some level of desperation, I would undergo a hysterectomy. After the hysterectomy, things got better for a very short time but then, I had a series of health issues. Some that have never been explained. I have had spots of skin cancer show up more times than I can count. I’ve been seen in the ER at least two times for tingling in my arm and tightness in my chest, both times the ER doctors were concerned about the possibility of a stroke. I’ve had skin rashes, eye infections and for two years even wore glasses. After my glasses started to give me a headache, I went in to change the prescription and was told that I didn’t need glasses. It was the weirdest thing with my vision. The only impact that remains from my vision issues, nighttime driving is hard for me, my depth perception at night is not good.
Not understanding my health, I started to pay attention to food. This was at a time in life when I knew very few people who watched their food and those that did only did so because they had serious health issues or food allergies. I noticed little things about my diet would upset my stomach, so I started drinking lactose-free milk. When the family would get pizza, I would often opt for salad. I noticed that potatoes and rice made me feel blah. I didn’t always feel the best after pasta, soda would upset my stomach and bread seemed to get stuck in my digestive system. When I brought these things up with my primary doctor, I got little information about nutrition. I remember being told by the doctor that food isn’t making me sick, all my labs were normal, and I had no food allergies. It was stated so matter-of-fact that I started to question myself, was this all in my head?
In 2012, I landed myself a job at Whole Foods Market, the grocery store. I remember when I started working there people would tell me how bad my diet was and it was explained to me that I didn’t need all the gluten or dairy. I was introduced to hemp milk for the first time and really loved hemp milk in my lattes. We would eat lunch almost every day at the grocery store and it wouldn’t take long before many of my breakfasts were also from the store before I went into the office. And, yes, you guessed it, grocery shopping for the family was often from Whole Foods. I didn’t consciously change my diet; my diet was impacted based on where I worked and the people I worked with. I ate less gluten, very little dairy and the foods at Whole Foods Market, well, they are mainly whole foods. I look back at pictures from the two years that I worked at Whole Foods Market and my body looks the best it has since I’ve had kids. The unfortunate part, I didn’t realize this change in me in the moment. I mean, I knew I felt great working at Whole Foods Market, and I had a lot of energy, I just didn’t realize that the food I was eating was impacting how I felt, I thought it was the great people I worked with. The people were only part of it, I know this now, 11 years later.
I left Whole Foods Market and looking back over the last 11 years, I can see so many changes to my body that has happened, slowly, that actually are related to the food I eat. Hindsight is always so interesting, things seem obvious in hindsight but as you’re living through it, you can’t see them. I guess that is where the phrase “hindsight is twenty-twenty” comes from.
After I left Whole Foods Market, about 6-months into my new job at Amazon, I noticed weight gain. Several of us had stand up desks with treadmills under them, so I was getting in a ton of steps while at the office. I was also walking on average of three days a week at 5AM with a friend, 5-miles round trip with a huge hill on the trail by our house. My job was on the innovations team, working on Amazon Go and Amazon Books, so it was easy to say the weight gain was due to stress at work, not to mention, I was a working mom of two active school-aged kids. I knew my eating had changed since working at Whole Foods Market but I would never have said I was a bad eater. My Whole Food Market colleagues, probably would have said I was a bad eater though, not from a place of judgement but from a place of they had more education about food than me.
After Amazon, I worked for a non-profit where I spent a lot of time on the road. I was tired a lot. I was eating out a decent amount because of the work travel and still a mom to two busy kids. Between the Amazon and the non-profit job, that was a crazy five years of my life.
I would leave the non-profit to open my own consulting practice in 2019. While there were times that I didn’t feel good, I stopped talking about my health, stopped weighing myself and just focused on work, my family and eating the best I could. With my own consulting practice getting up and running, I was busier than ever in a lot of ways with work, and still traveling, now global travel. I was based out of my home so that did give me some flexibility. When I did have “down days”, I could eat homecooked meals for both lunch and dinner. I started to pay attention to food and consciously made a commitment to eat at least five salads a week. I had stuck with the advice from 2006 and never put preservatives back in my diet, and by now, in 2019, I was starting to limited anything that I thought was “heavy” and changed to lactose-free milk at home. However, I still enjoyed a great steak, cheeseburger, chocolate and peanut butter ice cream, oatmeal and avocado toast were some of my favorites. I did drink more water than a lot of my friends, limited soda and didn’t eat most candy, except for sour patch kids and spiced jellybeans, were still favorites. Hindsight now? I didn't change my diet consistently; it was random and now I see the up and down moments of how I felt and how I looked. My inconsistency in eating led to part of the ups and downs of my weight gain and loss of energy.
When COVID hit in 2020, I was the heaviest I had ever been. I never officially weighed myself because I had decided years before that it wasn’t about how much I weighed; it was about how I felt. Except what I realized is I felt crummy most of the time, lacked energy, always tired and my body ached. I had pretty much given up on my love of skiing after a fall in 2018 that hurt my shoulder and I felt like it took a very long time to recover from. My body just didn’t rebound as quickly and people around me, including the doctor, said “getting older is hard”. I never admitted to being middle-aged though, my brain felt much younger than my body felt and I guess I believe a bit in “mind over matter”. During the shutdown of COVID, I road my Peloton every day for six months and I walked a ton with my friends, it was often how we stayed connected, we walked outside. While most people overate and drank, I really watched my eating and limited my alcohol. At the end of those six months, I was a pant size bigger. I remember thinking to myself who rides the peloton every day and gains weight. Me, of course, me.
My business exploded in 2021 and 2022. And, once again, I worked more hours than I maybe ever have in my career and had to pivot my business several times to meet the demands of the ever-changing world and business environment. To keep a consulting practice not only up and running, but having years that would exceed my biggest dreams financially was no easy task, especially with the pandemic in the shadows. During this time, I decided to stop worrying so much about my health and just focus on what I’m really good at doing – my work and my family.
This strategy worked for about 1.5 years, but then, as I continued to increase my pant sizes and master the blousy shirt to hid my bloated belly, in my head, I knew that something wasn’t right with my body. I started noticing trends, like eating eggs made me feel sick, so I took eggs out of my breakfast rotation. A family favorite of chicken parmesan for dinner left me feeling blah. And, even my favorite peanut butter and chocolate ice cream didn’t seem to be a favorite anymore. In the summer of 2022, I started talking more to my friends about health and food. Several of them recommended I try a juice cleanse and fasting program. I tried both and felt horrible after both. I noticed that I exercised as much or even more than some of my friends and my body looked nothing like the bodies of my friends who worked out and walked with me. One friend told me that maybe I needed to incorporate strength training into my workout plan.
In mid-2022, I met with the doctor, who told me weight gain is a part of the aging process. Given my hysterectomy, I’ve been through medical menopause and that would impact my weight. I begged my doctor to test my thyroid and even to test me for diabetes. The doctor did several full panel blood tests. All my tests came back normal. After the series of tests, the doctor said he could refer to me to a nutritionist and mental health counselor. I declined both.
I would look at pictures and sometimes think I looked decent and other times feel like I looked like a big balloon, swollen. No one close to me really commented on my appearance. Yet, I knew something wasn’t right, my wedding ring often didn’t fit or was so tight that I couldn’t get it off. My favorite bracelets that I have worn every day for almost 15 years, were fitting tight most days. I would try on a sweatshirt, size medium, and it wouldn’t go over my belly, neither word the large. I stopped wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts, because they all were so tight and barely fit over my belly. I looked nine months pregnant and the doctor’s best advice was for me to talk to a mental health consoler. I went back to the doctor in August 2022, asking again about food. I was once again told that food isn’t the cause of my bloated belly and what I described as feeling puffy all over. I was once again told that I could be referred to a nutritionist who specializes working with obese patients. While I didn’t think I was obese, apparently my BMI said otherwise. I remember wanting to cry and questioning how I got to this point, I have never overeaten, had an eating disorder, my mental health was stable, I exercised, and the only answer is for me to meet with a nutritionist who specializes working with obese patients. It wasn’t shame of working with the nutritionist, it was embarrassment, that I couldn’t figure out my own health after trying so hard. I declined the nutritionist, but made a commitment to workout more.
A small group of friends knew my frustrations and gave me tons of tips. None of them worked and I read a bunch of information about exercise. All the articles stated that you can’t over exercise and many even said that food was more important that cardio. Many things I read talked about the importance of strength training. Finally in October 2022, I hired a personal trainer. If I couldn’t get myself feeling good, then hopefully a trainer could help me. I told the trainer that I didn’t care about my weight and it wasn’t even about my appearance, I wanted to feel strong and increase my energy. He weighed me at my first visit, 220. I was 123 when I graduated high school and 137 on my wedding day. I had gained almost 100 pounds since my high school graduation. Who am I in this body? The girl who has always been thin without curves, was told by the new trainer, that I’m just a curving woman. I promised to never admit that weight to anyone. I was deeply embarrassed and so confused as to why my body was in this condition. I was shamed but also determined to make a difference. I got to work with the trainer, quickly increasing from my once a week visit to seeing him three times a week. I did everything he told me to do.
I remember the trainer telling me how strong I was. I actually dismissed it as him just trying to motivate me, I didn’t feel strong at all. I felt frail, weak, and incredibly unattractive. Yet he was telling me I was strong. I lifted more weight than he thought I could and it wasn’t hard. It took him a few sessions to teach me proper functional movement patterns, but I caught on quickly. A month in, he said my body was moving much better and he continued to tell me how strong I was. I stood on the scale in the gym bathroom, expecting the number to be lower and it flashed 227. My trainer told me not to get discouraged, muscle weighs more than fat. He had been asking me about my diet, encouraging me to increase the amount of protein I was eating, encouraged me to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables I was eating and to limit carbs in the evening. I tried all his suggestions. I also tried to keep positive but by mid-November, I went to put on a pair of slacks for work, they didn’t fit either. My belly was so big. I was doing everything right, trying so hard, and yet, no results were being seen. It was like the opposite, the harder I tried, the bigger I got.
I committed to going into the holidays and not eating all the sweets and holidays festive meals. I didn’t overeat for Thanksgiving. The trainer had given me a workout plan of things I could do on the days I wasn’t in the gym. I was working a lot of hours and had my “final” push of 2022 for the business. Travel picked up, but I focused on doing my workouts in hotel gyms and eating smart on the road.
December 8, 2022, I would wake up on a travel day to find blood in my stool. I made a comment to my husband and ignored it. I reassured him that I would be okay and that I just needed to push through this last stretch of work for the end of 2022. That included two business trips, and a full-day facilitated program back home between the two trips. I’m based in Seattle, so between December 8 and December 12, 2022, I would take a one night trip to California for work, facilitate a program for a new client in Seattle, attend three holiday parties on a Saturday night, and fly to NYC for one night for a client event. December 12, 2022, I would be done more-or-less with work for the year and could relax, focus on my health and address the blood in my stool. To his credit, my husband didn’t approve of my plan to just push through and really wanted me to be checked out by the doctor. I pushed through anyway, focusing on just getting to December 12. December 14, 2022, I would end up in the ER. A trip that would change my life forever, I just didn’t know how big of a change would happen yet.
It's April 10, 2023, as I write this. Since that trip to the ER, I’ve been diagnosed with diverticulitis, small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, and ulcerative colitis. I’ve learned that I have several food allergies, including a major allergy to gluten. I’m what they call gluten intolerant, non-celiac. In the first month post the ER visit, I lost over 40 pounds of inflammation weight. Oh, the night in the ER, they logged my weight as 243. I had gained 23 pounds since starting with my personal trainer just two months prior. Now, almost four months post the ER visit, I weigh 191. That is a 52-pound difference in just under four months. The medical team I’m working with expects that I still have between 20 – 30 pounds of inflammation weight. A side note, watch all the influencers on social media that say they loose 100 plus pounds because of an exercise program, my guess is that many of them actually also figure out food sensitivities and change their diets to support the weight loss. Weight loss comes primarily from the food you eat, I know this now, one hundred percent.
I’ve changed my diet completely, I no longer eat grains and gluten, no dairy, no refined sugar (which was probably the hardest to remove because it’s in everything), no carbonated beverages, no shellfish, red meat, or pork, and no starches except sweet potatoes. I take a mixture of supplements that have been determined based on the specific needs of my body and I’m on mesalamine. I have had extensive work to get my lymphatic system draining properly and focused work to get toxins released from my body. I still see my trainer three times a week and in addition I get 30-minutes of movement in daily, whether that be riding my peloton or walking. My exercise isn’t focused on weight loss, it’s focused on pushing toxins out of my body and muscle strength.
What I know now, with confidence, is that I’ve had this autoimmune disease for the last 17 years, and I just didn’t know it. I didn’t know the signs. I didn’t know what to ask doctors. Doctors weren’t able to put all the pieces together. It’s probably a completely different article about how disconnected the American medical system is. Doctor’s are too specialized and our primary doctors, don’t see the full picture of all that is happening with us because our files are spread out amongst the variety of specialized doctors and most don’t have the time to properly listen to all our symptoms and connect each symptom to our overall health.
I’ve realized there is an entire diet industry built around overweight people, who I bet, like me, aren’t actually obese. I mean, my weight said I was, and my body looked like it was, but I wasn’t, it wasn’t fat, it was inflammation of a very sick digestive system.
The bloated belly is so common that companies like Spanx advertise to women to wear Spanx to make their belly look slimmer. The food industry, the medical industry, the insurance industry, the mental health industry, the pharmaceutical industry, they are all for profit and interconnected around the goal of profit. The systems around us that are meant to help us, well, they are unintentionally hurting us.
Our corporate jobs make it easy to distract us from our health. I know this all too well, I’ve lived this life. I’m an executive coach and corporate trainer, who focuses on helping people be the best version of themselves – our signature program is titled: It Starts With You. Yet, even as the lead facilitator and coach of this program, I failed to focus on the fact that it starts with me. I didn’t do this consciously, in fact, I actually thought I was focusing on me. Given that I couldn’t get a medical diagnosis I threw myself into something that I know best, how to help others. I wouldn’t have said that my job was a distraction, but what I see now, my job gave me a level of confidence that I couldn’t get from my own inner workings of my body.
If we ultimately want career success, family happiness, strong friends, and unconditional love with our significant others, then we must focus on ourselves first. And, after 24 years in the coaching, training and keynote speaking industries and working in Corporate America, I lost sight of the very first step in focusing on ourselves. We have to start with ourselves, always. It seems so obvious to me today, but just four months ago, it wasn’t. That’s hindsight, huh?
Today, I hope you prioritize your health. I truly do. If you believe something isn’t right with your health, push and push more, to get answers. If you believe you are healthy, confirm your health and then consciously maintain that healthy lifestyle.
For the record, I've cut back on my hours with work. I will never put work before my health, again. I'm sharing my entire journey on Instagram: hart_to_heart_journey. My maiden name is Hart, so my thought is that I move from Hart to Heart, which is where I'll truly learn to love myself and prioritize myself. It's not selfish ... it's because:
It starts with you, always.