The Birth of Athena

lift the weight. fight the power. eat the candy.

Gastroparesis

Or why I don’t eat vegetables.

Gastroparesis is a chronic illness that is not very well-known. Often, I am asked questions about my condition and what I eat. I thought I would write up a post for those who want to know more.  Some of this post might become an overshare and I apologize in advance if I gross you out, but what can I say? Medical conditions are never pretty.In the late fall of 2008, I was diagnosed was gastroparesis. I had been actively trying to get a diagnosis for my illness for about 6 months. My condition has so negatively impacted my life that I had to take a medical leave from school, leaving the fall semester early and completely missing the spring semester. Needless to say, it was rough.

Here are the facts:

Gastroparesis, also called delayed gastric emptying, is a disorder in which the stomach takes too long to empty its contents. Normally, the stomach contracts to move food down into the small intestine for digestion. The vagus nerve controls the movement of food from the stomach through the digestive tract. Gastroparesis occurs when the vagus nerve is damaged and the muscles of the stomach and intestines do not work normally. Food then moves slowly or stops moving through the digestive tract.

At this point, there is no cure for gastroparesis. Hopefully, some day, that will change. Making changes to your diet may help you cope with gastroparesis signs and symptoms, but it is not always enough. Gastroparesis medications may offer some relief, however, many of these medications can cause serious side effects.

Symptoms (I have bolded the ones I had):

  • heartburn
  • pain in the upper abdomen
  • nausea
  • vomiting of undigested food—sometimes several hours after a meal
  • early feeling of fullness after only a few bites of food (This is literally after like 3 bites of food)
  • weight loss due to poor absorption of nutrients or low calorie intake (I lost almost 15 lbs – mostly muscle)
  • abdominal bloating
  • lack of appetite
  • gastroesophageal reflux
  • spasms in the stomach area
  • hypoglycemia
  • white/discolored stools

Possible Causes

  • surgery on the stomach or vagus nerve
  • diabetes
  • viral infections
  • anorexia nervosa or bulimia
  • medications—anticholinergics and narcotics—that slow contractions in the intestine
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • smooth muscle disorders, such as amyloidosis and scleroderma
  • nervous system diseases, including abdominal migraine and Parkinson’s disease
  • metabolic disorders, including hypothyroidism

While there are many possible causes of gastroparesis, many sufferers have what is called “idiopathic gastroparesis,’ meaning the cause is unknown and cannot be found even after medical tests. I suffer from idiopathic gastroparesis.

Complications

If food lingers too long in the stomach, it can cause bacterial overgrowth from the fermentation. For me, this was a major complication. The few years following my development of gastroparesis, I had infection after infection; the worst were the kidney infections. Those fuckers are painful. I recommend never getting one.

Additionally, the food can harden into solid masses called bezoars that may cause nausea, vomiting, and obstruction in the stomach. Bezoars can be dangerous if they block the passage of food into the small intestine. I am lucky to have never experience a bezoar. They sound (and look) awful.

Gastroparesis can make diabetes worse by making blood glucose control more difficult. When food that has been delayed in the stomach finally enters the small intestine and is absorbed, blood glucose levels rise. Since gastroparesis makes stomach emptying unpredictable, a person’s blood glucose levels can be erratic and difficult to control. When my stomach is extremely slow, I have a real hard time controlling my blood sugar. I suffer from hypoglycemia. People often comment on the amount of candy I eat, but it is my method of controlling my blood sugar. Most kinds of candy are easily digestable and plain sugar is easily and quickly absorbed.

In addition to all of the complications caused by the illness, itself, the medication frequently prescribed for gastroparesis has its own set of complications. I was prescribed Reglan – a medication that works by having the brain shoot electrical signals down the vagus nerve. Unfortunately, the part of the brain that controls the vagus nerve also controls your emotions. A major side effect is depression and thoughts of suicide. My mom now refers to the time I took this medication as the time that I was a walking zombie. Additionally, tardive dyskinesia has been widely associated with Reglan. Look it up. It is an absolutely awful condition and I do not want to risk developing it.

To me, the benefits did not outweigh the risks of the medication, so I decided to control my symptoms with my diet. My symptoms are cyclical – meaning that they come and go as my digestive system speeds up or slows down. I try not to eat the food I shouldn’t, but if my stomach is doing alright, I do allow myself a bit here and there. I do need micronutrients, after all.

My Diet

Eating solid, high-fiber foods such as raw fruits and vegetables, fatty foods, or drinks high in fat or carbonation may contribute to these symptoms.

I tolerate fatty foods and soda alright, so if my stomach is doing okay, I allow myself to have these thing; but, when I am having a flare-up, I cut them out.

There are also other things that I do:

  • I eat smaller meals more often.
  • If I am going to eat vegetable, they will be well-cooked (think absolute mush) and peeled.
  • I absolutely avoid oranges and broccoli (even though I LOVE them) as they contain pieces your body does not break down, rather “passes” them through your system.
  • If I am having a really bad flare up, I get most of my calories and nutrients from liquid. Liquid leaves the stomach via gravity, so there is no need for my stomach to “pump” the contents out.
  • I drink a lot of liquid – it helps push the food chunks into the intestines.
  • Occasionally, gentle laxatives.
  • I try to exercise or lay on my right side after I eat if my stomach is having a hard-time emptying – again, to help move my stomach’s contents into my intestines via gravity.

And while my condition is pretty bad, I am thankful to have not had to rely on other methods, which include, but are not limited to: feeding tube, parenteral nutrition, gastric electrical stimulation, and botulinum toxin injections.

Well, that wraps up my summary of gastroparesis. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. However, I will state: If you are attempting to diagnose a condition, please don’t ask me to do it for you. I can give you information you can take to a doctor, but I am not a doctor and cannot make diagnoses. If you suspect that you have a medical condition, I highly recommend that you see a doctor.

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