Although Isabella Paulsen and I have never met before, we come straight to the point. Gut health. From the age of three, Isabella – now a mother of two and Hatha and Yin yoga teacher – experienced neurodermatitis (skin rashes), fatigue and increased sensitivity to foods. It is only now, at the age of 33 that Isabella has finally been diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome (or increased intestinal permeability), something that we both have in common.
In some areas of the medical community there is a high level of skepticism as to whether this is even a condition. Despite this, research continues to connect the compromised permeability of the intestine to a buildup of toxins in the bloodstream that can result in a wide range of physical and mental disorders. Dr Josh Axe’s book, ‘Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure It’ has been a fantastic help with my diagnosis and illustrating the connection leaky gut syndrome has to thyroid disorders.
Isabella shared her experience of living undiagnosed for 30 years and how she has empowered herself to follow her own selective path of healing – restorative yoga practice, meditation and bone broth. Bone broth, rich in minerals and amino acids, is known to heal the gut, and Isabella has finally encouraged me that having something simmering on the hob for 24 hours is really not anything to put me off.
How long had you been suffering with your symptoms before you were diagnosed with leaky gut?
It’s hard to say. I think I was three when I started to get neurodermatitis (skin rashes). The way my mother explained it to me was that I was allergic to sugar, food colouring and artificial foods. The doctors back then in the early 80s could only prescribe cortisone and she didn’t want to go down that path – so she started with homeopathic remedies – and I’m really thankful for that. She got really into eating whole foods as well, which back then was a completely different thing – it was definitely not en vogue! And this all helped to keep it in check.
I had neurodermatitis until I was 25, when I had my first child. After my pregnancy I didn’t get rashes or reactions any more, but then I felt very tired and I couldn’t always say what I was reacting to.
At first I thought it was because I have children – the process of giving birth and the sleepless nights. Then I started working. Everyone told me – don’t worry, you just sleep too little and work too much. But at some point I felt like there needed to be more, because when I got home from work, after I’d cut down from working full time to doing four hours a day, and even though I was doing a lot of yoga and meditation with my yoga teacher training, something still didn’t fit.
Five months ago I was diagnosed with leaky gut by my homeopathic doctor who carried out some tests. My gut was out of balance, which puts a lot of other things out of balance.
So at the age of 33 you realised you’ve been experiencing symptoms from leaky gut for your whole life.
It’s so hard to differentiate the causes, because it’s obviously not only food that makes you feel energised and awake, but it’s always how you manage what happens in your life – if you go through a break up, if you have a lot of stress, it all affects your digestion and how you feel. And at 33, I felt that I was clear about my family, my work and where I want to go – I needed to understand why I was feeling so tired and stressed out. I’d come home after 4 hours of work, and I had no energy for my children. That was the hardest part, as I really wanted to be there but I was too tired. Where was the energy going?
Could you describe how you became more aware of what was happening with your body?
Since I started doing yoga and meditation in 2008, I became very aware of my body. On some days I felt that I was cloudy and heavy and then on others I felt really good, with thoughts racing to my head. I could feel foods affecting me, sometimes I would eat something and get a tummy ache, and I would ignore it because I liked to eat it so much, or because I was used to eating it. And, obviously there is an emotional factor because eating can be comforting. But in a yogic life it’s not only asana and meditation – food is also a big part of it.
But I didn’t want to be the endless party pooper who’s always saying I’m not eating this, I’m not doing that. I didn’t want to offend other people around me, but it led to a lot of conflict. Already when I switched to being vegetarian it made people around me insecure. And as I’ve been a vegetarian at various points in my life, eating meat and bone broth was a choice I didn’t make easily. But people wondered, why is she changing? And it put things into motion that I didn’t expect.
Did you seek medical advice throughout and what was the reaction?
Well, no, I have to admit. I think it’s been very hard – since I was three years old, I’ve grown up seeing that food affects my health and wellbeing. In my early 20s, I was so tired of it, because I constantly felt that I was sicker than everyone else, and that I needed to fix things, and that’s probably why I just pushed it away. I needed to get some distance from it, to feel whole, like I’m OK the way I am.
I remember in 2011, when I worked full time I went to a doctor who did a full blood test, and they said that they couldn’t find anything, apart from a slightly lower iron count. So I got some additional iron, took that, and it was like someone flipped the switch – I felt so awake and energised and like I could do so many things. But you can only take it for a certain amount of time. I was constipated, which I’d never been before in my life – it was weird, I felt I had more energy but it was setting in motion an endless cycle, where you take something else and so on. And, when I went to the pharmacy to get more iron, they said that I couldn’t take iron all of the time and it became obvious to me that something else was wrong.
I was raised in a household where you’d rather choose natural remedies and be more likely to take responsibility for your health, it also meant that some decisions took more time – and you get used to feeling a certain way, and you arrange your life around it.
At first when you feel that something is off, or decide you want more out of life, you start to question your choices. And then if you see someone else, and you think how can they be so energetic when I’m not? What’s the difference? Since I was raised in a household where you’d rather choose natural remedies and be more likely to take responsibility for your health, it also meant that some decisions took more time – and you get used to feeling a certain way, and you arrange your life around it. And then you become motivated to go to the next step and I think that’s a very important part about healing – whatever way, physically or mentally – it has to be your choice, time and decision.
And how would you describe how you are feeling at the moment after your diagnosis?
I feel a lot better, more energetic. Although the diagnosis was shocking in the beginning, it was good to hear what’s actually happening, and that there is a way of healing. It’s my choice if I want to, and the pace I go. And so I feel more at peace with it now.
Food restrictions are so normal these days, I actually believe that everyone has phases in their life where they can’t eat certain things. Some might be aware of it but others might not feel it, or it might not be so bad for them. I have a friend, Deniz Fıçıcıoğlu who has fructose malabsorption and instead of drowning in sorrow she said “OK, let’s see what I can eat” and she has taken it as a creative challenge and that’s the most inspiring part. She now has her own site, Fructopia to try to help other people with a similar problem.
I actually eat more consciously now, because stress is also a big factor in how we digest food, and when you meditate you start to switch how you look at things. I realised I wasn’t even smelling my food any more!
When you start smelling your food, and when you prepare your food, your body also prepares itself for eating.
And so how did you come to the point where you now make your own bone broth?
I was on pinterest. And I found the GAPS diet – Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet’ by Natasha Campbell-McBride which recommended bone broth. It was talking about skin rashes – and although in 2013, I didn’t even have them any more, it was also talking about depression, autism, schizophrenia and dyslexia. This was the first book for me that talked about gut health and how it is connected not only to your overall immune system, but also to your mental health. It was such an eye opener.
So I would make bone broth, but my kids hated it. So I added it to other foods when I made things like spaghetti bolognese. I like the fact that you don’t throw things away and I’d collect the bones from any meat we were eating. You can make it out of what’s left over and cook it for 24 hours, probably even longer, and you really get this thick gel-like soup that is full of nutrients that can help your gut to recover. A lot of cultures have something like a healing broth and after you’ve given birth, or when you feel really run down or sick, it’s a good pick me up.
Two years ago when I went into yoga teacher training, I stopped eating meat – now I’m confronted with trying to find a way to heal. This seems to be a way despite my moral beliefs. And so within the past five months I’ve started eating bone broth again.
And do you feel there’s been a change already?
Already I feel that I’m doing better. The broth is really easy to make – I also started to eat a little differently – leaving out milk and making my own sauerkraut, to take my homeopathic remedies and I changed my yoga routine to Yin Yoga, a calmer practice with more meditation. I feel more balanced and energetic, and it’s brought me closer to myself. I’m taking care of myself! I’ve always been in this state of doing things, and you forget what it is to just be! Even in yoga practice, you can be constantly doing something, and putting effort into it, and then all of a sudden, you stop, take your hands off, and see what happens when you just are.
You can find out more about Isabella’s variety of open and private classes in Berlin at www.isabella.yoga.
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Be selective! Health is about everything you put in – it’s not only about food. I consciously choose what information I let in – I pick the books and films I watch, the conversations I have and the news I read.