‘The goal of “perfect digestion” dominated my entire life’

2 Mins read

Dietician Imogen Wolsey describes how her obsession with gut health took the fun out of her twenties.

Sinking into a plush armchair tucked away in the corner of Le Pain Quotidien, 29-year-old Imogen Wolsey gifts herself a moment of rest. Amongst the hustling commuters she devours a generous mouthful of carrot cake before wiping the foamy lip of velvety cappuccino off her face.

A few years ago, it would have been impossible for Imogen to indulge in something as trivial as a piece of cake.

For almost a decade, food caused Imogen nothing but stress, discomfort, and anxiety. Only now in 2022 can she enjoy a consequence-free snack; a million miles away from the dictatorship she once held over her food choices and eating habits.

Gazing out of the window overlooking the Thames, her leopard-print dress and sparkly lip-gloss glimmer in the frosty rays of October sunshine.

Imogen dedicated most of her teenage years and early twenties to competitive athletics – training multiple times a week alongside her studies. She completed an undergraduate degree in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Surrey, followed by a master’s degree in Applied Sports Nutrition at St. Marys’ University, Twickenham.

Soon after she graduated, Imogen started to experience several health issues. Multiple tests uncovered that, over time, running at such a high intensity played havoc on her gut microbiome – causing inflammation in the body. This led to crippling discomfort in her abdomen, extreme bloating after eating and fatigue that affected her ability to function in everyday life.

“I was prone to injury, I had debilitating tummy issues and my gut health was becoming progressively worse the more I trained,” she told Artefact.

At the age of 23, Imogen had no choice but to stop running. However, hungry for achievement and determined not to be defeated, her focus quickly shifted.

“My goal switched from being the best athlete I could be to having the best digestion I could have.” She tugs at her sleeve wearily as she elaborates. “It became my new obsession. I needed a new high.” She ruminated on the idea of ‘total emptiness’ – ridding her body of all sustenance to control her gut symptoms; the preliminary stepping stone towards ‘perfect digestion’.

With a flare of practicality, Imogen created a roadmap of rules and routines: using laxatives after every meal, skipping meals altogether when alone and purging the food she’d consumed at social events.

“The goal of pursuing ‘perfect digestion’ dominated my entire life – I couldn’t think of anything else.” Nevertheless, her symptoms only intensified. Her new ‘high’ wasn’t working. She turned to self-harm and alcohol to numb the dissatisfaction she felt towards her progress.

Waking up with blood on her sheets, scars on her arms and nausea from the alcohol she had used to knock herself out the night before, Imogen eventually hit rock bottom. “Ultimately, I just got sick of myself.” Her behaviour was affecting her relationships, social life, and work ethic. She’d had enough.

A year or so ago, Imogen committed to full recovery. She invested in weekly sessions with a CBT therapist, who guided her through various tools and techniques to reframe the narrative of her thought processes around ‘perfect digestion’. She began actively challenging her relationship with food, engaging in daily journalling practices, and reciting positive affirmations to herself every morning.

Today, Imogen prides herself on a more balanced approach not only to food, but to life. She looks back at her younger, more vulnerable self with compassion. Nearing the end of 2022, she’s set a new goal to make a comeback – not as a runner seeking perfection, but as a multi-faceted human who can embrace every part of herself.

“I’ve got a way to go, but I’m starting to believe that life is to be lived to the fullest (haha!). Let’s leave our obsession with gut health in 2022.”

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