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Healing Her Gut Through Bread Baking

After a stomach disorder (possibly ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease), Sarah Owens turned to baking and fermenting foods to help heal her gut.

A blight had crept into the rose garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Sarah Owens was beside herself. As a rosarian, or rose cultivator, Owens was in charge of the well-being of more than 5,000 roses at one of New York City’s largest public gardens.

The rose bush leaves were turning red, crinkly and brittle. Owens spent hours kneeling in the soil examining the plants and scouring research to formulate a recovery plan. At the time, Owens – now a baker, cookbook author and sought-after expert on fermented grains – was fresh out of horticulture school and working multiple jobs. The Botanic Garden had hired her to solve the rose problem, and she taught horticulture classes on the side. She was running herself ragged.

Soon, Owens too fell sick.

Severe bouts of diarrhea and vomiting frequently left her curled up on her apartment’s bathroom floor. Many days, she couldn’t go to work. She’d always had a sensitive stomach, but these symptoms were debilitating. “They cut into my work life and personal life, and forget about having any kind of intimacy,” she said.

Owens struggled with flare-ups for months. She’d be doubled over in digestive pain for days, then the pain would subside, only to start up again a few months later, and worse than before. It was a vicious cycle. One Friday after work, Owens planned to join co-workers at a Brooklyn bar to celebrate the birth of a colleague’s baby, but then her stomach started to convulse. She rushed home instead and spent the weekend in bed.

“I felt like I was missing out on life,” she said. “I couldn’t celebrate this really important life moment with the people who mean a lot to me.” That night was a turning point.

Owens was scared to get a bleak diagnosis, but soon after marched herself into her primary care doctor’s office. She tested negative for celiac disease and food allergies. Her doctor referred her to a gastroenterologist who ordered a colonoscopy – it was normal – and put her on antibiotics for bacterial overgrowth, which made the pain worse. Maybe it’s Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, her told her. He suggested steroids.

Around the same time, one of Owens’ close friends had been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and was taking steroids. Owens watched her deteriorate. “That’s when I decided I wanted to try to take my health into my own hands,” Owens said. “I started to take a more natural approach, and to tinker around with my diet.”

Owens cut out processed foods and started eating more fruit, vegetables and meats. She started noticing grains like quinoa were irritating her stomach. She stocked her fridge with fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi to boost the number of good bacteria in her belly. She made herself sleep more; she took on less side work. It was a holistic approach.

“I realized a leaky gut was leading to all these symptoms,” she said, referring to a condition that occurs when certain foods, stress or antibiotics damage the intestinal lining, allowing food particles and bacteria to leak into the bloodstream. “I was doing too much,” she said, “and stress was exacerbating everything. I needed to heal my gut.”

“I was doing too much and stress was exacerbating everything. I needed to heal my gut.”

Shortly after, it occurred to Owens that the same method might also work in the rose garden. So she got to work replacing its soil with an organic, pesticide-free variety, and brought in perennial plants to diversify the garden and attract helpful insects.

“Plants are like the human body,” Owens said. “If you don’t feed them with a long-term view in mind, you can end up with some very serious issues. For plants it’s soil, for the human body it’s our immune system.” Around 70% of our immune system is in our gut.

Owens has made a name for herself as a baker of artisanal breads.

Owens flew home to Tennessee for Thanksgiving that year feeling a bit better. One day she slipped away from family to browse in a local bookstore, and came across a worn paperback from the 1970s that caught her eye, “Adventures in Sourdough.”

Owens had always loved baking. As she dug deeper into the book, her background in horticulture helped her understand why fermented grains are easier to digest than others. Then a lightbulb went off. Maybe she could support her healing by combining her fondness for baking with her newfound appreciation of fermented foods.

She did just that. Owens started out baking with sourdough in her home kitchen. She found the fermentation process made it possible for her to digest the bread. “The alchemy is so magical,” she said. “I love creating in the kitchen. I love bread. I love a good crusty sourdough loaf made with heirloom or ancient grains.”

Soon, friends were asking for loaves. Eventually, she contacted the owner of a local CSA who agreed to include her bread among its offerings. Then, she took the plunge. She rented a wholesale baking space in Queens and started a subscription-based bakery – BK17 Bakery – after leaving her job at the rose garden. She uses only heirloom, stone-ground flours from small mills across the country and supports sustainable agriculture.

Now, she sells her handmade artisanal bread and cookies to customers around the U.S., including to those with chronic diseases. Sourdough has a lower glycemic index than other breads, and Owens counts people with diseases like diabetes as regular clients. She’s written two cookbooks, one a James Beard award winner, on sourdough and rustic baked goods and spread. A third book is forthcoming.

“Plants are like the human body. If you don’t feed them with a long-term view in mind, you can end up with some very serious issues.”

On a given day in her kitchen, Owens might whip up a batch of chocolate buckwheat cookies with sourdough and walnuts, or a grain-free and refined sugar-free tahini cookie with molasses, cocoa, almond flour and orange zest. Another favorite: a honey lace cookie with dark chocolate and bee pollen on top. Her cookies were recently photographed by a national magazine. She also experiments with homemade vinegars and brews kava, a fermented drink made from stale bread.

Sarah Owens hard at work in her kitchen.

Owens travels the globe to encourage an interest in fermentation. In Syria, she taught refugees to bake with sourdough. A bakery in Russia invited her to teach this year. She’ll also give workshops in Mexico and Australia.

She misses the Botanic Garden, but nurtures her passion for roses by caring for private gardens in New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut.

“I loved my job at the garden,” she said. “Sometimes letting go is one of the hardest things you can do, but one of the best things you can do for yourself.”

Ultimately, the rose garden recovered, and so has Owens. Since her foray into the world of sourdough, her extreme diarrhea and vomiting have disappeared. “My immune system is a lot stronger,” she said. But she’s still susceptible to stomach trouble if she doesn’t take care of herself, and it’s the same for the roses.

“Once the roses are infected, disease never really goes away,” Owens said. “But if you take care of them, there aren’t as many detrimental effects. Their lifespan is longer.”

Health & Fitness Profiles

Running With Peaches

In a single weekend, Jennifer Rio went from running marathons to almost dying. Now she's proving doctors wrong about running with an ostomy bag.

Three weeks before her 26th birthday, in June of 2015, Jennifer Rio woke up in a hospital bed at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan. Her colon had been removed in an emergency surgery. High on morphine, she turned to her father and said “Dad, I have a bag!”

What she was referring to was an ostomy bag, a small bag connected to the outside of the body near the abdomen that collects waste. It was a memento of a surgery that was as unplanned as it was unexpected.

She calls it Peaches. And it’s her constant companion, even when she’s training to run marathons.

“For most of my life I was always told I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but it was never something I couldn’t deal with,” Jennifer remembers. “I always went to school; I always went to work; I was always running – I’m a big runner. I still had energy to do everything. It never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do. Even though I always seemed to have a stomach ache, it was never too severe to prevent me from functioning. I did have difficulties along the way, but everything always turned out fine. I never had any idea that I had Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.” (Her doctors still aren’t sure which.)

Jennifer Rio after running the Ann Arbor marathon.

The signs that Jennifer had something more than IBS began to mount in the weeks leading up to her unexpected surgery. A graduate school student at University of Detroit, Mercy, studying to become a therapist, a marathon runner, and a bride-to-be, there was no time to be sick. She says she was on “autopilot” and assumed she had the stomach flu or food poisoning. She knew something was wrong, but she “kept on plugging through,” hoping her symptoms would eventually disappear.

Then she started vomiting and having problems breathing. “That had never happened before; everything was way off,” Jennifer recalls. “My future mother in law came to pick me up because I didn’t feel good enough to drive to the doctor. I was tachycardiac, my heart rate was very high, and I didn’t look very good.”

She was rushed to the emergency ward, where blood work revealed her white blood cell count was high: a sign of infection, and her stomach was as distended as a woman six months pregnant. A CAT scan revealed colitis, but everything was so inflamed that they chose not to do a colonoscopy for fear of rupture.

“I had the symptoms of sepsis, including the racing heart and shortness of breath,” she explains. “My body was shutting down. I spent the weekend in the hospital, being pumped full of IV steroids and antibiotics. But my symptoms only exacerbated.”

It turned out that Jennifer had something called ‘toxic megacolon’, a rare and often fatal complication from inflammatory bowel disease. Before Jennifer even had time to process what her doctor was saying, she was whisked down to the ICU to have her colon removed.

The emergency surgery saved her life; Jennifer estimates she would only have lived another day or two if she hadn’t gone to the hospital. When she spoke to the surgeon several days later, he showed her pictures of her colon. “Your colon was not made for this world,” he quipped.

After the surgery, Jennifer was devastated.The bag hanging outside of her stomach was hard to get adjust to–she discovered it could gurgle, puff up with gas, and even leak. With this new permanent addition to her life, it was hard to imagine how she could get her life back on track. Particularly hard for her was the notion that she might have to give up running. She had run five or six marathons before surgery; now, her surgeon joked, the only way she could safely run a marathon was if she did it with an IV pole trailing behind her.

“It should’ve been the happiest time of my life. Instead, it became the worst.”

“Why is this happening to me?” Jennifer remembers asking herself. “My life had been on track: I was taking my two final graduate school courses, my practicum was in progress, I was physically fit and I was engaged. It should’ve been the happiest time of my life. Instead, it became the worst.”

It took Jennifer six to eight weeks to get used to her ostomy bag. After her sister joked it looked like a peach, she named it Peaches. Then, a month and a half after surgery, she went for her first run. That first run resulted in a hernia, but she tried again a few weeks later, and kept at it. Just three months after her surgery, she ran a half marathon, and a month after that, she ran one of her fastest half marathons ever, averaging 8:30 minutes per mile.

In October 2016, less than a year since her surgery, Jennifer completed her seventh full marathon, her first post-op. As she crossed the finish line, tears streamed down her face. Those tearswere about more than simple completion. For Jennifer, they were about  overcoming what many told her was impossible, and was riddled with setbacks. She’s since completed two triathlons and has no plans to stop.

“Going back to running taught me how resilient I am,” she explained. “People tell me they could never run a marathon, yet I do it with an ostomy bag. Now, I appreciate life a lot more. I appreciate that I am healthy and able to do things that others take for granted.”

“People tell me they could never run a marathon, yet I do it with an ostomy bag. Now, I appreciate life a lot more.”

Now married and graduated, Jennifer is now a licensed outpatient therapist who works with children and adults that suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues. On occasion, she’s had to explain Peaches to patients. It’s made farting noises in front of teenagers, filled with gas creating a large poof under her clothing or even leaked during sessions. But she takes it all in stride.

Rio is now contemplating a try at the Boston Marathon.

For Jennifer, this entire ordeal gave her a new lease on life. “People tell me I’m an old soul and that I have the perspective of a 50-year-old. The way I approach the world and handle relationships has really changed. If I had a bad day at work, I deal with it and move on, I don’t ruminate on it. I just don’t worry about the little things as much as I used to. I’m optimistic.”

“I also appreciate my husband a lot more than I did,” she continued. “The fact that he stuck by me means a lot. I have someone that really stuck by me through thick and thin and I value what I have. For the most part, I thank god that I’m alive. Sometimes I do have moments where I think it’s not fair, but usually I’m just grateful for what I have and that I’m here. I think life will bring everyone something and that this was just my time and what I had to go through.”

These difficulties are nothing compared to what’s contemplating next: training for the Boston Marathon. And if she qualifies, Peaches will come along for the ride.

Essays

How A Comic Book Disease Helped Me Come To Terms With Lupus

When it comes to getting people to treat sickness seriously, a fictional disease can sometimes be more powerful than a real one.

My cousin’s daughter is a willowy redhead with a long neck like mine. She has come to visit me with her husband and two little girls.

I notice he’s a little hands-off as a parent, letting her do all the heavy lifting. She makes breakfast for the kids, fixes their lunches, makes dinner and bathes them at night. He doesn’t.

She and I have a moment alone. Sitting over a glass of wine in my dining room she tells me that she has ulcerative colitis. Boom, I think, strike three of deadly autoimmune diseases in our family. Her little brother had another autoimmune disease that killed his liver and thus him, before he was 30. She is 32.

When I was 25, doctors told me that lupus nephritis would kill me before I turned 26. My own antibodies were mistakenly attacking my healthy kidneys and couldn’t be stopped. A miracle saved me, but that’s another story; the point is, there’s a family tendency towards autoimmune disorders, and as she sits in front of me, I realize I need to get her to focus on saving herself before her disease flares.

It could be her life.

She has to have less stress. She has to take care of herself and allow herself to be taken care of. She can’t be a martyr. Her husband has to step up. Neither of them are treating this seriously yet, I can tell. She needs to advocate for herself. How can I break through to her before it’s too late?

So I tell her a story.

Brenda Starr dreams of the mysterious Basil St. John.

When I was growing up, I always wanted to be Brenda Starr, the red-headed female reporter out of the comic strips.

When I was growing up, I associated myself with another willowy red-head, Brenda Starr, the fearless female reporter out of the comic strips. Brenda was in love with the mysterious Basil St. John, who had a disease that needed the nectar of a black orchid to keep him alive. If he didn’t fly back to the jungle every so often to get more of his black orchid serum, he would die.

It wasn’t always opportune for him, or for Brenda, who eventually married St. John. If you didn’t know he was sick, Basil’s sudden disappearances could seem selfish; likewise, flying back to the jungle constantly could be inconvenient for both of them. But his life was on the line. He needed to take care of his health first, and his health required Black Orchid nectar.

I tell my cousin’s sister that I have always tried to treat myself as if I had the Black Orchid Disease. Then I tell her countless little anecdotes about the ways my life had changed, and the many small sips I had to take from my own vial of Black Orchid serum, since I first found out I had an autoimmune disorder.

I have always tried to treat myself as if I had the Black Orchid Disease.

I tell her about the last time I went with friends to a concert, and had to have them drop me in front while they walked back from parking. I tell her about how sometimes the fatigue coming home from work is so bad that if I can’t get a bus seat, I’ll take a taxi; it’s cheaper than kidney failure.

Sip sip.

I tell her about how, when the joints in my fingers swelled and couldn’t type as well anymore, I went to my boss and asked him to get me better equipment. I tell her about the time I couldn’t grip the doorknob hard enough to get out of my New York apartment, and had to call the super to let me out; because of my Black Orchid disease, I always now keep the door partially open all the way.

Sip sip sip.

Basil St. John needed to return to the jungle periodically to refill his vial of Black Orchid Nectar, which was the only thing keeping him alive.

I explain to her that because of my prescribed steroids, I always have to walk in the shade. I wear a hat all the time and use an umbrella in the sun. Foods I love are now off-limits. My face sometimes puffs up, my clothes don’t fit, and the tiny hairs on the back of my neck grow out in corkscrews, even though my hair is straight.

Autoimmune diseases are no joke. They require vigilance.

These are the symptoms of my own personal Black Orchid Disease. Hers will be different, I tell her, but she needs to keep her vial of serum ready. Even though she still feels fine and still looks beautiful, she will have to change her life to stay alive. Because autoimmune diseases are no joke. They require vigilance.

When she said her goodbyes, I wasn’t sure she understood what I was trying to say. But several weeks later, she mentioned the words “Black Orchid Disease” on the phone. Later, I saw an Instagram she posted of her husband folding laundry with the girls, something he’d never done before. The next time they visited, she left the dinner table to put the little one to bed and when she came out she said to her husband, “Your turn.”

I smiled at her. She got the memo and so did he.

Health & Fitness

Racing From Pain To Passion

When she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, Sarah McPherson thought she might never do sports again. Now an indomitable triathlete, they call her the Fearless Warrior.

The day before the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, triathlete Sarah McPherson’s ulcerative colitis flared up after months in remission.

She had been training for this event for half a year and had traveled more than 3,000 miles from Banff, Alberta, Canada, to Kona, to compete in the grueling race — a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run.

Now, the day before the event in 2013, she was doubled over in pain, her bowels and colon on fire, not sure if she’d be able to race, let alone leave her hotel room.

Triathlete Sarah McPherson crosses the finish line, despite her ulcerative colitis.

“When (the ulcerative colitis) is really bad, it’s so painful it’s like you’re getting a knife stabbed into your stomach,” says McPherson, 39. “It’s like someone scraping your insides. You (feel) gassy, but all that passes through you is blood.”

Almost as bad as the pain is the emotional kickback from a recurrence, the last thing McPherson needed before the physically and emotionally demanding race.

“You get scared (the disease is) starting again,” she says.

For years, fear, born after her diagnosis, had kept her from things she loved.

Her symptoms began in 2003 when she was in her early 20s, although the illness took a few years to diagnose. It started with digestive difficulties and evolved into excruciating abdominal pain. Then, she started bleeding from her colon.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me,” she says. “I was so sick, and I was in so much pain… It progressively got a lot worse.”

An inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis is without a cure. If a patient is lucky, it can be regulated with the right medication. Numerous ulcers form in the digestive tract, affecting the inside lining of the large intestine and rectum. The sores often swell and bleed, causing debilitating pain.

“It was so hard to get going in the morning,” McPherson says. “I was in so much pain, and by the time you get through the pain, you’re exhausted.”

To prevent flare-ups, she adjusted her diet and lifestyle and tried different medications. It took nearly seven years to find a combination that worked.

In 2010, the medication Infliximab showed promise to regulate ulcerative colitis. It worked for McPherson. She went into remission and, as her health became more stable, she began the process of overcoming her fear and learning to trust her body again.

Initially, McPherson was scared to race with her condition. “I was so scared that if I pushed my body too hard I’d go out of remission, and I’d get a flare up. I was always nervous about that, so I’d hold myself back,” she says. Photo: Ken Anderson.

She also started rebuilding her identity. Around the time she went into remission, a colleague of McPherson’s at an arts organization participated in a short triathlon. McPherson’s curiosity was piqued. She’d been a competitive swimmer when she was younger, and she could bike and run. She wondered if her body could handle the strain of doing a triathlon, could handle being pushed to new limits.

She decided to give it a try and enrolled in a short race in Calgary, the largest city in the province of Alberta, 80 miles east of her home in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

She finished the race and was hooked. She amped up her training.

Because training means “putting your body through stress…I was so scared that if I pushed my body too hard I’d go out of remission, and I’d get a flare up. I was always nervous about that, so I’d hold myself back,” she says.

But, week after week, as her body proved it was able to withstand the physical training, McPherson turned to training her mind.

“I had to get out of that mind frame that ‘I can’t push my body,’” she says. “I need to push my mind. I can’t let my disease get in the way.”

“I had to get out of that mind frame that ‘I can’t push my body,’” she says. “I need to push my mind. I can’t let my disease get in the way.”

The support of her partner, family and loved ones was imperative throughout the training and during races and was a key source of strength for her.

“Just seeing my family out there (on the sidelines), all these people who support you for a year while you’re training, is amazing.”

Since her first triathlon in 2007, McPherson has completed 11 Half Ironmans and is a two-time finisher of the Ironman 140.6 Whistler in British Columbia — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride, and a full marathon, a 26.2 mile run that took McPherson just under 15 hours to complete.

When it comes to doing an Ironman, everyone has their own story, she says. “Everybody’s going through something, or someone in their family is. They are doing it for some reason.”

A swimmer in college, McPherson is a natural in the water.

Her story is not letting ulcerative colitis hold her back.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could complete (these events) and not get sick. It was a way to empower other people… to not let a disease run your life.”

McPherson calls herself a Fearless Warrior; the words are tattooed on her left forearm. It’s also the name of her business. Through her journey to becoming a triathlete, McPherson discovered her vocation: she is now a certified triathlon coach and a personal coach, helping people find the mental strength to reach their goals.

She coaches everyone from ordinary people looking to do their first triathlons and “age-groupers” — people training to achieve top times in their age categories.

“I love seeing people do something for themselves, create changes in their lives.”

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could complete (these events) and not get sick.”

Her reputation for being fearless and courageous in the face of her disease has drawn others with health challenges to work with her.

“They relate to me,” she says, noting that their faith in her was an unexpected bonus to the joy of discovering her passion for coaching. “You never know who you’re inspiring.”

Reflecting on her disease, McPherson traces a path from past to present that shows how ulcerative colitis led her to achieve more than she ever dreamed. She doesn’t romanticize the disease or think she’s only achieved her success because of it, but she recognizes — and respects — the role it played in helping propel her forward, prompting her to decide who she wanted to be and what kind of life she wanted to live. In other words, she turned a painful problem into a passion. She found a bright and shiny silver lining that she keeps polished with every stroke, pedal, stride.

“If there are people out there who have dreams and things they want to do in life, just do it,” McPherson says. “What do you have to lose?”

“I was a very shy and timid person who didn’t have this audacious dream of what she wanted to do. But doing a triathlon, it built that confidence, determination, tenacity and courage to pursue other things in my life… to follow what I wanted to do in life, follow my dreams.”

This kind of personal transformation is what she desires for her clients — for them to overcome fear and become warriors of their own choosing.

“If there are people out there who have dreams and things they want to do in life, just do it. What do you have to lose?”

Before the Ironman 70.3 Hawai’i, when her ulcerative colitis reared its ugly face at the most inopportune time, it was McPherson’s mental training, the work she’d done on her inner life, that got her to the race’s start line. And what is more, it got her to the finish.

That day, she proved to herself every moment of that gruelling, seven-hour race, every inch she moved forward, every pang of pain she fought through, that she was a warrior.

“I worked through the fear,” she says. “It was really hard. But I did it.”

Top photo by Katrine Maurer.