I can’t remember a time when my stomach didn’t hurt. There’s always been a dull ache; a feeling so normal I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal. My younger sister and I used to joke that you could see my meals outlined perfectly in my stomach after I ate: There’s the hamburger bun! Is that the triangular outline of an entire pizza slice?
Part of it is genetics. My father and sister have similar stomach problems, which is probably why the constant pain in my gut didn’t concern me. Part of it is food-related. Growing up, my Italian-American family gathered around the dinner table for spaghetti with marinara sauce and a two-foot long roll of bread every single night. (And that’s not an exaggeration. Our house was spaghetti central, 24/7.) And part of it, it turns out, is energetic.
In my mid-20’s, I realized that something was wrong. My teenage metabolism was fading and my body was changing in some not-so-exciting ways. Bloating graduated to distention — I looked perpetually four months pregnant. The dull ache in my stomach turned into sharp pains after almost every meal, no matter how healthy said meal was. And my skin was out of control. I’d developed dermatitis (basically, a catch-all phrase for “we don’t know what’s wrong with you”), which manifested as dry, scaly patches of red skin in two big circles around my eyes and another one around my mouth.
I spent two years in dermatologists’ offices in an effort to heal my skin. Nothing worked, at least not long-term. A few months on antibiotics seemed to make the dermatitis worse over time, the medicated topical ointments dried out my skin, and the steroid cream — which seemed like the magic cure for months — eventually aggravated the condition and left my face drug-resistant. (There’s really nowhere to turn once you’ve outgrown steroids.)
At the same time, I enlisted the help of a primary care doctor to get to the bottom of my stomach issues. I explained what I was experiencing. I asked for allergy tests, blood tests, hormone tests; he didn’t think any of that was necessary, though. After a heated back-and-forth that ended with me literally begging for help, he suggested I “go to CVS and get a stool softener.”
Even though my gut was in the midst of rebelling against me, I had no choice but to listen when it told me that Western medicine did not have the answers I needed. I did what more and more people at the end of their metaphorical rope with the medical system are doing: I turned to alternative healing methods.
My first stop? An Ayurvedic nutritionist. Ayurveda is a centuries-old Indian healing system (yoga is its sister science) that’s based on the belief that there are three different energies, or doshas, in the body — kapha, pitta, and vata — and most of us have one that is dominant. This dominant energy will wreak havoc on your body until you bring it into balance.
I took an online quiz that told me my dosha was kapha, which could present as “aggravation in the digestive system including a sense of heaviness, an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in the stomach, indigestion, and a slow or suppressed metabolism.” Bingo!
Living in LA, the land of holistic health and woo-woo wellness, it wasn’t hard to find an Ayurvedic practitioner to take on my case. When we met, she evaluated my health in ways small and strange: she inspected the color of my tongue and the ridges around it, she massaged my brow bone, she inspected my fingernails. After about five minutes of this, I had my answer — and it turned out, my simultaneous gut issues and skin issues weren’t a coincidence. They were deeply connected.
My gut and liver were out of balance. My body wasn’t digesting properly (gut issue) so toxins weren’t leaving the way they should (liver issue) and were showing up on my face instead (skin issue).
My Ayurvedic guru also uncovered some other symptoms I didn’t think were related: brain fog and lethargy (I thought those were just personality traits) and constant congestion in my nose and ears (something I’d experienced since childhood and assumed was normal), both stemming from my compromised gut.
The protocol was untraditional, to say the least. Every morning I snorted a ghee-based oil called “nasya” and dropped garlic oil in my ears. I also performed breathing exercises, one of which required me to make a sound somewhere between a gargle and a yell while raising my arm.
Of course, there were dietary changes as well: no fruit, no raw juice, no bread; more cooked veggies and lots of rice; tea with ginger and fennel seeds; an onslaught of Indian herbs I couldn’t pronounce; sauerkraut for breakfast. I started feeling better almost immediately. There was just one problem: after swapping out my smoothie-for-breakfast and juice-for-lunch routine in favor of rice and meat, I gained about 10 pounds in a month. Oof.
In my alternative medicine research, I’d read that gut issues could also be energetic — physical manifestations of repressed energy, emotion, or creativity — so naturally, a trip to an energy healer was in order, too. I scheduled an appointment with healer and medium Alicia Lipinski.
After asking if I had a cat (yes) and revealing that my cat was actually an old ancestor of mine sent to guide me through life (I can see that), Lipinski guided a crystal pendulum over the areas of my body that represented the seven chakras. It swung effortlessly over my root chakra and sacral chakra before coming to a dead stop at my Solar Plexus — AKA: the gut.
That dead stop meant that energy in that area of my body wasn’t flowing freely. Lipinski was silent for a few moments before she asked about my dad. Okay… this is weird. “Did he have gut and stomach issues, too?” she asked.
He did. Lipinski intuited that I was connected to my dad through my Solar Plexus, which symbolizes self-esteem and overall satisfaction with life, and that his trauma in this area had been passed down to me.
It checked out. Physically, my father has very similar digestive issues. Emotionally, he has very similar trauma in his relationship with his father, like feeling pressured to be someone he isn’t. Lipinski took a moment to meditate over my stomach and “energetically cut the ties” between my dad and I. She said that I should start healing now that the energy had been cleared.
The combination of Ayurveda and energy healing kept me healthy for a while. But when the stress piled on (I hated my job, was freelancing all night to save up enough money to quit that job, had moved in with my fiancé, and was months away from my wedding), my gut pain flared up. I attempted to ignore it and push through — until I tried on my wedding dress two months before the wedding, and it didn’t fit. Like, at all. All of that Ayurvedic rice had taken its toll.
Somehow my stomach still hurt and I was 20 pounds heavier. How did this happen?! I went into full-on panic mode and spent my freelance savings on a “functional medicine wellness coach,” Colleen Baxter of Vessel and Soul. I begged her to help me feel better in my body (and lose two dress sizes) before my big day — I just wanted to feel beautiful and bloat-free at the altar.
Baxter had a slightly different approach than my Ayurvedic practitioner, and her analysis of my symptoms pointed to candida, an overgrowth of yeast in the body. When I asked what could’ve caused these gut issues to worsen, she cited “exposure to molds, pesticides, or other chemicals in the home or work environment” (black mold had been hiding out in my apartment), “common medications like antibiotics or birth control pills” (check and check), and “stress, like the chronic level of stress that’s become our new ‘norm’ today,” which “suppresses our immune system and gut balance as well.” It was like she was speaking to my soul.
After setting me up with an anti-candida diet — quinoa instead of rice; lots of fermented veggies and kefir; no dairy, gluten, or sugar; only cooked, easy-to-digest veggies; and a constant stream of bone broth — she stressed the importance of self-care and meditation.
This was the thing I’d neglected during my Ayurveda protocol; I just didn’t realize how much stress could affect physical body functions like digestion. Baxter opened my eyes to that relationship — I mean, she even swears that “deep belly breathing” is one of her favorite gut-healthy practices. I dedicated myself to 15 minutes of meditation every morning and a consistent yoga practice.
I also booked a private healing session with my Breathwork teacher, Michelle D’Avella of Pushing Beauty. D’Avella has led me in Breathwork for over a year, mostly in group settings. Weirdly, I had experienced so much stomach pain during my last session, and when I asked her about it she explained, “Emotional pain can show up in the body as tightness, numbness, discomfort, or physical pain.” Clearly, I had some deeper emotional work to do before I could fully heal.
According to D’Avella, “The gut is the hub for creativity, sexuality, and emotions. Gut issues can be linked to sexual trauma, being creatively blocked, unresolved relationships, and unprocessed emotions.” My gut told me that at least some of this pain had to do with the sexual trauma in my past.
Every woman probably carries some sexual trauma in her body — with one in four girls experiencing sexual abuse as a child, one in five women being raped in their lifetime, and 81% of women being sexually harassed, it’s likely that most of us have some unprocessed emotion hanging around in the gut.
I confided my past trauma in D’Avella, who guided me through a deeply personal Breathwork session to pinpoint my pain and release it.
I have never experienced anything like this. I went deep into meditation, floating somewhere in space and feeling all of the shame, sadness, guilt, and anger that had been building up inside of me for decades. All of these emotions translated into physical reactions: My gut was on fire, and I sweat through my clothing and the blanket I was lying on top of.
I swear D’Avella pulled this energy out of me. She often talks out loud to clients in the middle of a session to “get to the root of the pain, unlock the emotion, and clear the energy.”
While my mind was floating around, she kept bringing me back to the task at hand: Where do you feel the pain? My stomach. What color is it? Green. Who do you need to forgive? Incoherent sobbing.
By the end of the hour-long session I was soaked in salty tears and sweat and felt strangely light as if I shed something that had been weighing me down. I won’t say Breathwork is a quick fix for sexual trauma (as D’Avella says, “I don’t want anyone to think healing is a one and done Breathwork kind of thing”), but I did feel an immediate, physical release afterwards. Those moments of peace are enough to keep me coming back to do the work again and again.
What I’ve discovered about gut health through my long, winding journey is that, quite simply, it’s a long, winding journey itself. There are so many factors that can contribute to an issue like this, from energetic blocks to a compromised microbiome to sexual trauma or an imbalanced dosha. I feel lucky to have found a combination of practices that have eliminated my stomach pain, foggy brain, congestion, and chronic bloat for the first time in my life.
And, for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of alternative paths to healing, I have one suggestion: follow your gut.
Jessica L. Yarbrough is a writer based in Joshua Tree, California. Her work can be found on The Zoe Report, The Cut, Cosmopolitan, and Fashionista.com. When she’s not writing, she’s creating natural skincare potions for her skincare line, illuum.