Hey Sarah, thank you for interviewing with us! Firstly, can you please tell us a little bit about who you are (not what you do)?
I am 21 years old and currently finishing my Bachelor of Science at Western University in Canada. My background is in genetics and sociology, and my passion is investigating and influencing the future of healthcare. This stems from my experience dealing with digestive issues from a young age and understanding the impact that integrative and personalized healthcare can have.
I am an observant problem solver and after struggling with the pitfalls of conventional medicine, I am highly motivated to tackle the big picture problems. I consider myself a generalist and love diving into areas that are completely foreign to me, which makes entrepreneurship so appealing.
What are ‘3 daily essentials’ that you cannot live without?
My 3 daily essentials (at this point in social distancing) would have to be a Facetime call with a close friend or family member, my water bottle (I am terrible at drinking water) and a turmeric supplement for flare-ups.
You’re now interning with moxie and found us through FLIK (a community hub to connect female founders and apprentices). What appeals to you about entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is all about creating something to meet a need in the market and there is a huge opportunity for this in the healthcare space. I believe companies like moxie are the future of healthcare and companies like FLIK are a catalyst for getting there. This truly excites me, because entrepreneurship has the potential to overcome the obstacles of outdated and institutionalized systems such as healthcare and implement a consumer-focused model that will have a real impact on people’s lives.
You’ve had quite a long-term relationship with your digestive health issues. Can you please tell us what they are, and when it all started?
My digestive health issues began as a child, mostly with constipation and pain after eating, which then peaked in late high school. For a while, I suffered in silence, self-administering laxatives, suppositories, fibre supplements and highly restrictive diets, which only exacerbated my symptoms. This is when I began to seek out serious medical professional help, as I was in pain every day and would go almost two weeks without a bowel movement.
After consulting a functional medical doctor, naturopath and gastroenterologist, I underwent several diagnostic tests and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, PCOS, and SIBO/IBS. This sounds overwhelming but all I felt was a relief because a diagnosis finally provided treatment protocols, specialists and a community I could relate to. Since then, I have significantly improved my symptoms from day to day and feel in control of my condition.
How did your immediate circle of family and friends respond to your IBS/SIBO? Did you find it hard opening up to them?
Opening up about my condition was the main obstacle to seeking treatment and achieving a higher quality of health. Dealing with poop problems, bloating and digestive pain at a young age felt extremely shameful and it took me a very long time to share it with anyone. I felt especially isolated in high school when my symptoms were at their peak and I was constantly navigating social situations in silence and pain.
Once I began opening up to my family and healthcare professionals, I felt empowered to communicate with my friends and it completely changed my life. Not only did it reduce the stress of hiding my discomfort, which can be a major trigger of continued constipation, I immediately felt less alone as friends acknowledged, accepted and shared their own digestive struggles. While I still struggle being open about it with new people, I have found invaluable support from starting the conversation with friends and continuing it with the normalcy and acceptance it deserves.
What is one misconception people still have about IBS/SIBO that you’d love to change?
The major misconception I would love to change about digestive conditions is that it only affects older or unhealthy people. Digestion is the most important, dynamic and vulnerable system in our body and impacts the well-being of everyone in one way or another.
As a seemingly healthy teenager suffering from IBS/SIBO I never felt people would understand or take my condition seriously because nobody else seemed to be going through it. The reality is that 1 in 5 people suffer from digestive issues and it is not a reflection of age or health, but rather an internal state that we must be open about in order to manage.
Since diagnosis, what steps did you take to become proactive about your gut health?
For a long time, I was obsessed with finding one specific reason for my issues and trying to treat them. After my diagnosis four years ago, it was an extensive learning process to not only find what works for me but also shift my mindset from reactive to proactive.
My first real step towards achieving well-being was accepting that there is no cure and perceiving my symptoms as meaningful cues from my body. I became more aware of how my diet, habits and environment influence my digestion, which has allowed me to adapt and greatly reduce the day to day strain of managing my condition. Acquiring knowledge and consistently updating it through mindfulness, medical testing and research have been the most powerful tool for me to become proactive because gut health is so complex and constantly changing.
What (proactive) steps were successful for you, and can you please share them with us?
For me, knowledge is power and diagnostic tests gave me insight into underlying conditions that had been exacerbating my symptoms. Since being diagnosed with hypothyroidism and PCOS, I have been taking thyroid medication which greatly improved my fatigue, weight control, mood and overall well-being. This empowered me to focus on managing my SIBO for which I completed GI map testing, hormone tests and muscle testing with an applied kinesiologist.
I stopped taking the birth control pill due to its disruption with my endocrine system and chose a natural treatment route rather than pharmaceutical, in the hopes of achieving internal balance long term. However, this requires a lot more trial and error with antimicrobials, probiotics, diet and consistent mindfulness, because our bodies and environment are constantly changing.
I have found the most sustained success taking a pre + probiotic daily, rotating antimicrobials, using turmeric for flare-ups, greatly increasing water intake and cutting out as many toxins as possible including alcohol and cosmetic chemicals.
I also identified stress as a major trigger for my digestive issues, so focusing on respecting my limits, maintaining positive relationships and engaging in restorative exercise, has been hugely beneficial and is often overlooked when it comes to digestive conditions.
What are your main (flare-up) triggers, and how do you manage them?
I used to focus all of my energy into treating flare-ups rather than preventing them and I have tried everything under the sun. For me, most new treatments will work for a limited time and I have found short-term success with colonics, fibre supplements, probiotics, turmeric, caffeine and massage therapy. However, I have found more long-term success in taking a preventative approach, so paying attention to cues in my skin, stool and mood help me recognize when I need to take it easy and inform my next steps to avoid a flare-up.
My next steps usually involve increasing water, sleep, low-impact exercise and alone time to reset and allow my body to get back to a neutral state. If the flare-up is particularly bad, I will try to visit an osteopath to relieve tension and internal imbalance, or an applied kinesiology/naturopath to explore a new antimicrobial or supplement.
IBS flare-ups seem to be quite common at the moment. People believe that coronavirus could be the cause of this because their minds aren’t handling the stress/anxiety. What therapeutic things would you practice to decrease stress/anxiety?
I am absolutely experiencing this myself and I believe the answer is different for everyone. In such an uncertain and strange time, I think it is important to seek out new coping mechanisms because many of the things we used to do are no longer accessible.
For myself, I have been trying to find a new order and create a routine that feels comforting. I try to maintain healthy habits and be productive each day, but I am also practising compassion with myself by accepting feelings of anxiety and reaching out to others. I make it a goal to Facetime at least one friend or family member a day because such severe social isolation is not something we have ever experienced before and can greatly impact our nervous system, which has a significant influence on the gut.
You’re a fourth-year undergraduate in science with a keen interest in the healthcare space. What is the most fascinating fact that you’ve learnt about gut health so far?
I think the most fascinating thing that I have learned is the interplay of genetics and environment with our gut. I share half of my genetics with a twin brother who has zero digestive issues, while my older sister experiences similar conditions. We all share a genetic mutation that prevents us from converting B6 to its active form P5P, which manifests in my digestive system, my sister’s endocrine system and my brother’s nervous system. I believe this is largely due to how each of our bodies compensates for the mutation, combined with how we interact with our environment and process external stressors.
The main takeaway for me is that regardless of how much we know about the biological processes underlying digestive conditions, each person is completely different and must be treated as such. That is why I am so passionate about personalized healthcare and integrating genetics with a diverse range of therapeutic approaches.
What does a ‘gut-healthy routine’ mean to you?
For me, a gut-healthy routine is all about being mindful. For a digestive condition, the causes, effects and solutions are constantly changing, so I make sure to write down when I notice shifts in how I’m feeling or changes in my routine. In addition to maintaining a balanced diet, exercise, hydration and sleep, I think it is important to be mindful of stress, inflammation and toxins.
I experienced a huge improvement in my digestive health when I cut out endocrine disruptors, a mouldy environment and unnecessary stressors in my life. Many people don’t realize how much they are impacted by their environment and I believe cutting negative influences out is just as essential as adding positive ones.