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My Healing Journey: Navigating Autoimmune Gastritis and Iron Deficiency Anemia

Updated: May 4

The greatest gift you can give someone is your story. So, here's mine. Learn how I navigated a diagnosis of autoimmune gastritis and iron deficiency anemia.

I have a chronic illness. I started experiencing gut related symptoms in middle school, around 11 or 12 years old. I grew up eating the typical 90’s kid diet of home cooked meals but also processed foods. I struggled with a constant upset stomach, fatigue, gas and bloating for years. I would only go to the bathroom once a week (but at the time did not know this was not normal!). This slowly progressed through high school and in college more symptoms started popping up - insomnia, skin rashes, brain fog, eczema, joint pain, deep ridges in my nails, hair loss, dark circles under my eyes, intense fatigue, restless leg syndrome and eventually severe nutritional deficiencies. My gut was so dysbiotic (aka imbalanced) I was not absorbing any nutrients when I was eating. This lead to iron deficiency anemia. At the time (around 21 years old) I was seeing a GP who did not listen to me when I discussed my symptoms and continued to tell me to take more oral iron supplements. She would completely shut me down and dismiss me when I was sick, lost and asking for answers. I was shuffled around the western medical system from specialist to specialist with little to no support or answers. I was misdiagnosed. I was over prescribed. I was told nothing was wrong with me while my symptoms continued to progress. Eventually every time I ate I had intense stomach pain and bloating which then lead to anxiety. I was losing trust in my body to function properly and would be fearful every time I ate, not knowing how my gut would react.

During these times I couldn't help but feel completely alone. I had support from family and friends but couldn't shake the feeling that "something was wrong with me." In all honesty I thought I was dying.

The iron deficiency anemia got so serious my blood work eventually came back life threateningly low which finally got the attention of my doctor. My hemoglobin (a protein that carries oxygen to organs in your body and needs iron to function) got down to 5.1. The normal range is between 12-15. My body was suffocating.

At this time I realized I needed a new GP & fought tooth and nail to get into UCSF. I started seeing a hematologist there who decided to dive deeper and to find out why I was so anemic. I look back on photos of myself during that time and look like a ghost of who I am today – frail, pale, massive dark circles under sad looking eyes.

I have a very distinct memory of sitting in my hematologists office at UCSF. I trusted her - she was one of the first doctors who had listened and explored with me. At the age of 26 I received the diagnosis of Autoimmune Gastritis which is a chronic inflammatory disease in the stomach. She then told me that it is typical for people with this condition to later develop carcinoid tumors in their stomach. My heart sank. How can I process this information? Why was she telling me this? Was this my future?

I felt defeated and alone.

I thought the diagnosis was the end of the world. In reality it was the beginning of everything and my healing journey began. My hematologist decided to start me on intravenous iron which was necessary to save my life. The iron would slowly increase my hemoglobin back to a normal state.

By the age of 30 I had experienced

  • 2 colonoscopies

  • 2 endoscopies

  • 20 sessions of intravenous iron

  • 1 capsule endoscopy

  • 2 hip MRI’s

  • 3 hip X-rays

  • 1 stomach MRI

  • 1 lumbar spine MRI

  • 2 foot X-rays

  • Cortisone injections in my hip

  • 10 trips to the ER

  • Multiple stool tests

  • Hundreds (I mean HUNDREDS) of doctors appointments and blood draws

Iron IV at UCSF
Iron IV at UCSF, April 2014

Living with an autoimmune disease means doctors appointments, hospital visits, bills upon bills upon bills, frustration with insurance companies, infusions/injections and chronic pain all while trying to live a normal life. Duality and paradox is something I have struggled with my entire life. With many autoimmune conditions you do not look sick on the outside. When I was sick, I didn’t tell many people. I put on a brave face. I was not vulnerable. There is a layer of isolation, fear and loss of self of self while trying to navigate a chronic illness.

I had a gut feeling I needed to take my health into my own hands & started researching digestive health. I started changing my diet. Eating real, nutrient dense foods. I discovered Ayurveda - a 3,000 year old healing system, that combines food, mindset and spirituality. I started eating more cooked soups and stews and less cold smoothies and salads. Experimenting with herbs and supplements. Practicing yoga and pilates. Physical therapy. Spending time in nature. Asking for help. Acupuncture. Talk therapy. Processing trauma. All the things. Biodiversity played a huge role in my healing journey. Biodiversity of food, movement, beneficial gut microbes, conversations and experiences all helped me to get to where I am today.

Iron IV
Iron IV at UCSF, June 2016

What I didn’t realize was the IV’s of iron while were saving my life were also rusting me from the inside out. Ferritin is the measure blood protein that contains iron floating around in the body but also a marker of inflammation. When I started out my ferritin level was 1 and after the infusions my ferritin level hovered around the 600-750 range for 5 years. The normal range is between 12 – 150. I had no idea this was unsafe, when I had bloodwork done doctors didn't say anything. My right hip joint started hurting around the age of 31. I was diagnosed with Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI) which caused damage to my hip joint, stiffness and pain. The pain got to be so debilitating that at 33 I had arthroscopic hip surgery to remove a cyst, bone spurs and sew up torn cartilage in my right hip. These injuries are typical in hockey players and baseball catchers, neither of which are me. I also have multiple bone spurs in my left foot. My theory is that the damage to my hip joint was caused from the iron infusions which increased my ferritin to dangerous levels and inflamed by body, specifically my joints and connective tissue. Recovery from hip surgery was slow and painful but successful.

Arthroscopic Hip Surgery
Prep for arthroscopic hip surgery, March 2020
Arthroscopic hip surgery
Post arthroscopic hip surgery, March 2020

My darkest period let to my ultimate purpose in life, my dharma, of working in health and wellness. At the age of 31 I decided to quit my job at a non-profit in San Francisco and go back to school for nutrition. I graduated from Bauman College with my Nutrition Consultant Certification in July 2020 and have been hustling ever since. I started by own business, Lauren Emerson Wellness, where I work 1:1 with clients as a health coach to help them achieve their health goals. In December 2021 I became Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition with the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. I teach Affordable Nutrition classes with Bauman Wellness where people learn how to eat healthy on a budget. I also teach kids cooking classes with Kids Cooking for Life and am a nutrition educator at the Ceres Community Project.

Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition
Board Certification from the National Association of Nutrition Professionals , Dec 2021

Autoimmune gastritis taught me a deep sense of empathy. Gratitude for the small wins. Resilience. Compassion for others – you never know what someone is going through. And the incredible healing powers biodiversity. It also taught me to listen to your body. Listen to your gut. Do not give away all of your power to medical professionals. Currently I manage my condition with diet and lifestyle practices. My hip hurts still. My foot hurts. I deal with gut flare ups. I will be gluten and dairy free for the rest of my life and will have to always be mindful of what I consume (both physically but also mentally & emotionally). But the bad days make you really really appreciate the good ones.

I always come back to a quote from The Artists Way by Julia Cameron that says “ The trick is to metabolize pain as energy. Learn, when hit by loss, to ask the right question: "What next?" instead of "Why me?”

I lost the ability to trust my physical body. "Why me" was a theme in my life for two decades. And slowly regained it back. Now I ask, "What next". I feel strong enough to share my story through the place of coming out of the other side. How did I get to the other side? BIODIVERISTY. By focusing on my health from a holistic perspective. By eating real, nutrient dense food. By moving my body. By prioritizing rest. I slowly started building in healthy habits which built up my confidence. Now, I strive for balance, not perfection. I take care of myself but also am realistic about life.

I have a chronic illness but it no longer defines me. If you are experiencing health issues, know you are not alone. Things can get better, the bodies ability to heal is incredible.

If you are interested in working with me and learning more about healing the gut using a holistic perspective I offer free introductory calls where we can discuss your health goals and how I can best support you. Book your free 20 minute call here.

go play in the dirt podcast
Go Play in the Dirt Podcast

I share about my personal healing journey in Episode 1 of Go Play in the Dirt, a health and wellness podcast I created where we discuss the importance of biodiversity and its impact on our gut, overall health, soil and community. Tune in to the pod here.

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