Hi, I’m Sarah Kay Hoffman - A Gutsy Girl. This is my story.

Before we get cozy, I must tell you one quick thing: My story is really long. 

I'm serious; it's really long. You’re going to need a combination of water (add lemon if you’d like - because, digestion), broth (again, lemon if you’d like), and maybe a snack or seven. Fair warning.  

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Can’t You Just Keep it Simple?

No, I can’t keep my story simple. You can skim through it to find the pieces and parts that are relevant to you, though. I’ve broken everything out in clear headers to make it easy. 

Each time I’m asked to “share my story,” I tend to fumble and mumble because the story is so long and there are a lot of moving pieces and part to it. 

The truth is that I’d love to just share one part of my story or another because honestly? Way always leads to way. One thing lead to the next in my story; it likely has or will in your own story as well. 

With that, let’s get on with this, darling.  

I haven’t always been this way.

I haven’t always been this way. 

I sort of fell into it. 

I grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota, about an hour from the Iowa border. I had an amazing childhood and a family (mother, father and brother) that I wouldn’t trade for the world. 

Physically, there is nothing major that stands out to me from my early childhood, except for the fact that I was always tired.  

I mean, I was the child who would be sleeping on the couch at family gatherings (I have a huge extended family – mostly boys – which rocks by the way) while the rest of the cousins were running around into the wee hours of the night. My Godfather, Jack, used to always say, “Sleepin’ again?!” 

In junior high I was a gymnast; in high school an ice hockey goalie. I was good – eh – very average, not great, at both. Back then, I ran a 14-minute mile. I enjoyed the inclusion of sports but being physically active was a chore. It always drained me of my energy too much, and thus, I was never highly athletic. 

I was just so tired. Looking back, my story did begin there. However, when you’re young you think nothing of the actions you do or do not take.

But I know my story began back then because:  

  • 1. I lived off of processed foods in the early days. Nope. Not shaming anything or blaming anyone; stating the facts as they are. 2. My obsession with weight began long before high school. 3. By the time I reached high school, I had done all the yo-yo diets and taken Ephedra to make sure the metabolism stayed high and my energy would not tank. 4. Was treated for Perioral Dermatitis (though they never called it back then) a few times with antibiotics and facial creams.  

Freshman Year of College

I was such a homebody that I wasn’t even able to spend the night anywhere. Literally. In the 6th grade I even went to counseling to understand what made me so ill thinking about staying anywhere but with my mom and dad. It took a very long time, but eventually towards the end of high school, I overcame it. 

Just in time to go away to college. But fact remained, I left home - pretty much the only place I’d ever been to in my life – for the first time. That was coupled with a breakup that left me completely heartbroken beyond anything I ever knew.

So once college came, things took a sharp turn and headed south.

Early in my freshman year, I got very ill. I got the flu and tonsillitis so badly that I was out for nearly two weeks, unable to get myself to the doctor, answer Mother’s calls or anything. I eventually found myself in urgent care, took a round of antibiotics and life continued on.

At this point in my life, the vicious cycle really began. Not only was I always sick, but I ate anything and everything in sight (dorm room food for the win!), smoked a lot of cigarettes, and didn’t care about much of anything except family, friends, coffee shops, and late-night pancakes with butter and syrup galore.

One thing I didn’t do a lot of was drink. I tried. I really wanted to drink, but in college, you know the usual beverage of choice: beer; all-night “keggers.” Beer made me incredibly ill. I’d have one or two and feel as though I needed to throw up. Off of just a couple, I’d be hungover the next day.  

That first year of college I lived alone in a dorm room. In hindsight, I am so thankful for that. I struggled for the first major time in my life with digestive issues. Most days, my dorm room would smell of rotten eggs so badly that even I became depressed living in it.

I would alternate between bloat/gas and everything running straight through me. I also gained 10-15 pounds that year, as I struggled with all things physical and emotional.  

Hello, Weight Watchers

After my Freshman year, I went home for the summer and went on Weight Watchers (but by this time, I was no stranger to disordered eating). The shame I felt when I looked in the mirror, a bloated and distended belly, eventually pushed me over the edge.

With Weight Watchers, I was eating low calorie, low-fat foods like they were going out of style. In fact, I made sure I never went over 18 points (about 900 calories) per day. I worked two waitress jobs, so I’d be constantly moving. And the answer is “No. No, I did not get more points with all the activity. I had to stay at 18 points.” You know, otherwise I’d stay bloated and miserable forever.

That’s what I told myself. These were the stories that filled my mind on a daily basis.

I was sure I had found my “cure.”

After all, in just one summer, I did lose all the weight I had gained, allowing me to return for sophomore year of college hearing, “Wow, you’re so skinny.”  

Sophomore – Junior Years of College

Throughout my sophomore and junior years of college, I continued on the yo-yo road and an unhealthy lifestyle.

The closest to “health” I got was smoking American Spirits at one point and smoking just one on the way to the University of Minnesota Rec Center (for a 1-mile jog).

Nothing changed; same things, different days.

Simultaneously, my gut began getting worse. I was chronically sick with tonsillitis, pharyngitis or strep throat during my junior year. I was always at the hospital and was, literally, on antibiotics every single month.

The doctors decided a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy was necessary. By the time my tonsils and adenoids came out (the summer before my senior year of college), they were rotted. The surgeon told my mom that there were so many scars and infections that I barely had either one of them anymore.  

Just prior to the removal, my breath was awful, and I had tonsil stones frequently coming up. Don’t know what they are? Good. They are nasty little boogers (almost literally), also known as tonsilloliths or tonsilliths. They are benign accumulations of bacteria and debris in the crypts of some people's tonsils. 

Post-Tonsillectomy / Adenoidectomy

It took me awhile to recover, but once I did, I was sure I had found my “cure.” No tonsils and adenoids? Perfect. Illness gone.

Turns out that just because you fix one thing, doesn’t mean the underlying issues go away. In fact, in many ways I got worse. 

{Interjection note: Sometimes when I tell my story live, this is a common place I’ll start because it actually went from bad to increasingly even worse (later it would go from worse to awful – hang on, that’s later).}

It was only a couple weeks after my surgery when I drove back to Minneapolis to live a new “healthier lifestyle.” On the drive up, I noticed my tongue started feeling off. I called my mom and told her, “It feels like something is pulling my tongue and scraping it against my teeth."

This awful, burning and pulling sensation didn’t quickly go away. It kept getting worse, escalating in pain and frustration.

So, I began to see a whole new slew of doctors for this newly developed mouth problem.

They had no idea since everything looked completely normal. The only thing they could conclude was Thrush. However, they actually had no clue. And even without having any clue, they put me on Nystatin. Nystatin is an antibiotic to clear thrush.

While I didn’t care about real health and healing at that point, I was already a fantastic detective, researcher, and total investigative nerd. I knew the Nystatin was wrong; I took it anyways.

The mouth problem didn’t get better. In fact, it got worse – much worse.  

The Very First Ah-Ha Ever in My Life

Several months later (on into my Senior year at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities), while at the dentist, I talked to him about this mouth issue. I told him about the Nystatin, thrush diagnosis, all of it.

He told me there was no thrush. “But,” he mentioned, “perhaps you simply have an intolerance to food.”

I dismissed the idea and him immediately. And I gave up hope that any doctor or dentist could help my mouth.

But still, I never forgot what that dentist said. 

That dentist changed my world just by speaking up, thinking outside the tiny box which is the mouth.

And yet still, old habits die hard.

Post-College

Life continued on.

Senior year of college ended, and I was offered a job right out of college with a division of News Corporation in Los Angeles, California.

Talk about yet another massive transition in my life. While I always wanted to move to California, I had never been further than 1.5 hours from home. In addition, I moved all alone, not knowing a soul, except a girl I had met through the interview process who was offered a position in the same office. We decided to find an apartment together.

Don’t be jealous, but I should tell you now that I lived in the Beverly Hills “adjacent.” That’s right, I paid $800 a month to live in a shack apartment basically. But I was adjacent to Beverly Hills with rows and rows of Palm Trees.

So, clearly I was so going to make it. (If you haven’t gathered this about me yet, I’m sarcastic and love to join in the jokes about myself. It’s the way to get through life with extra pep, ok?)  

Los Angeles

Anyways, I moved to Los Angeles in August of 2005.

At this point, my tonsils and adenoids were gone, but I was a mess.

Within the first couple of months living in Los Angeles, I was stressed 24/7 and broke.

I missed home; hated LA (so many people can’t understand this, but it’s true – hated it). Nothing about LA is me, even if I tried to mold myself into it at one point. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and not for the good reasons everyone wants to stand out in LA.

I ate.

And then I didn’t eat.

I worked out. And then I didn’t work out. Heck, I even fell into the LA gym life. You know, the one where valet parks your car, your trainer tells you carbs are going to keep that spare tire, and smoothies are life. Yes, that one. 

And that job I moved for? Yeah, I was miserable in my corporate suit and nylon hose each day. My stomach pain was horrendous. Sometimes the bathroom wasn’t close enough; other times I could only wish a bathroom break would hit. All along, my mouth was on fire; even talking was a chore.

But all of this, I never let anyone see. Maybe I was embarrassed or maybe I thought it was normal; I’m not really sure. 

San Francisco Will Save Me

I moved to Los Angeles in August and by October, my then boss was asking if I wanted to move to San Francisco and be part of the brand new office there.

Barely thought about that one and I was out of LA. Literally, I could not have gotten out quicker.

And here’s the thing. I actually believed that if I just moved away from LA everything would get better.

Some brutal honesty: 

You can physically get up and move your entire life, but your life won’t change at all unless you change.

So, I moved in late October, 2005 and by early November I was already miserable.

Same job, but now I had no one to live with, and I could never afford to live in San Francisco, so I lived in a town called Pleasant Hill. It’s a nice area, but I lived in a dump studio apartment where I got fleas and sat on a porch each night with Kahlua and Coke plus cigarettes galore. Yes, those are all facts.

Ever had fleas? It’s miserable. And it took me probably a week before I realized what was going on to have the Landlord flea bomb the place.

During my time in the San Francisco area, I never saw a doctor for the GI issues.

However, also during this time in San Francisco, I ‘met’ my now husband, Ryan.

Meeting Ryan is a story in-and-of itself but knowing the timeline of when we “met” helps bridge to the next phase of my story.  

Let's Go Home to Minnesota

I “met” Ryan (my now husband) in December of 2005 and moved back to Minnesota in 2006.

Do you see what happened there? Once again, I barely lasted in San Francisco. It was only several months, and I got up to leave.

After talking (dating?) for a short while, Ryan took a one-way flight to California and together we (and my little dog, Fiona) drove the Jetta (that I couldn’t afford but had to have while living in LA) back to Minnesota. 

Early 2007

I struggled all along but was happy by then so fixing myself didn’t seem as imminent any longer. Later in life (at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition) I would learn that healthy relationships like the one I had found with Ryan can make all the difference in healing or a lack thereof. 

Early in our relationship, I decided to start taking some sort of action for me. Something in me provoked a 21-day detox in January of 2007. From January 1 – January 21, I did the first “detox” I had ever done in my life. 

  • • On days 1- 18, I was on autopilot. • Day 19, I felt worse than ever before. • On day 21, every single “problem” I ever had was gone. • Then, on day 22, post detox, I went back to my “old life.” That night, I fell terribly ill post-dinner (out to eat at a restaurant). • On day 23, I was back to misery.

I knew then that there must be more to everything going on inside my body. 

A few short months after that, Ryan found out that his job would move him to Northern California. Yes, you are reading that correctly. His job would move him to the place I had just come from. 

He asked me to go with him, and for me, there was no other option; together we went. 

Almost as soon as we moved, I began digging into the mess that was, and I started a journey that would actually begin to change my life. (Because of this, California changed my life forever.)  

Late 2007 through 2009

In the beginning, I: • saw an allergist who confirmed via scratch tests that I was not “allergic” to anything • attempted to work with that allergist on food intolerance, but was unsuccessful because she had no clue on elimination diets • went to a GI specialist who ordered an endoscopy and colonoscopy • through the colonoscopy, it was determined that I had Proctitis, which is a form of Colitis affecting the lowest part of the colon, the rectum (this was in 2008 just shortly before our wedding; November 1, 2008) • took the GI’s advice that “food didn’t matter,” but suppositories and medication would help • quickly realized that suppositories and medication didn’t help, in fact, they made me worse, so I QUIT all Colitis suppositories forever

In 2009, I found a nutritionist and I worked with her for several months. She gave me a lot of great tips, thoughts, and ideas, but my stomach was still a mess.

After a few months of working with her, I stumbled upon the GAPS Diet. I brought it to her attention. She said it made sense, so we completely changed our direction.

Finally, it was the direction that would begin my real healing journey forever. (I stopped working with her shortly after because I was rapidly healing, and she was moving.)

My world got turned upside down at that point. I became obsessed with healing myself via food and lifestyle vs. drugs and medication.

I became obsessed with the gut and the entire digestive system, along with knowing everything possible so I could heal myself for good this time.  

2010-2012

I had another endoscopy in late spring of 2010. I was not really consuming gluten at the time and even still, the endoscopy showed that I still had inflammation in my upper digestive system.

This told me that it wasn’t just the Colitis and lowest part affected, but everything. It scared me, so I got even more serious.

On June 20, 2010, I gave up gluten for good.

In 2011, I began studying at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I already knew so much about the digestive system, but I didn’t know enough about how the “lifestyle” component could help (or hurt) me. I was confident that a holistic school would show me the path.

And it did.

I graduated from the school in 2012 and began a Health Coaching business. 

Through the business that was started then, I have helped thousands of women through various programs, and (mostly) through The Gutsy Girl’s Bible: an approach to healing the gut.

{Make note that during this time period, I also went through the ringer with infertility. It’s a story in and of itself. You can read the IVF story HERE. While it might not seem like it has anything to do with my Gutsy story, it actually has everything to do with it.}  

2013

In July of 2013, I embraced 101 days of intense gut healing.

I progressed like never before…..until late 2013 when our first baby arrived. Remember, if you read through my IVF story, every single insemination and even the IVF cycle failed.

Thus, our first baby was born in my heart, not in my belly.

She was the greatest blessing in our lives. After a bumpy, lumpy infertility road, she made our lives complete, filling it with love and hope and all that is beautiful in this world.

But because she was a Preemie, and because we were totally unprepared, my health suffered.

I spent the better portion of her first year with us running on 3-4 hours of sleep, caffeine and high stress. It was burnout central like I had never experienced before.

Ultimately, I reversed most of the progress I had made.  

2014

In late 2014, I put my foot down because I reached the point where I was the worst I had maybe ever been in my entire life.

My face proved it so, as did a growing, distended belly (not from pregnancy).

And it was then when Dr. Schweig from The California Institute for Functional Medicine was highly recommended. I drove over 2 hours that first visit to see him.

And on my very first visit, he could tell something was very off.

We went through all the testing, and within a short amount of time, I was diagnosed with a sluggish thyroid, severe adrenal fatigue, and advanced SIBO.

When I say "advanced," what I mean is that the SIBO had even robbed me so highly of B12 that I would go on to need B12 injecitons to the stomach.

But still, from that moment on, my life began to change (yet again, health wise) in brand new ways, and I got a new lease on life.  

2015 - 2017

2015-2017 proved to be the long and intense, deep and explorative years.

In a nutshell: • finalized three adoptions in three years (so yes, yes, we took in via the foster care system and then adopted two more after that first precious baby angel that came to us in 2013) • studied, researched, and wrote • had two SIBO relapses • moved across the country back to our small hometown in Southern Minnesota after 11 years in Northern California

Probably the most critical thing that happened during this time period (that I could never have anticipated or prepared for) was the Colon Cancer diagnosis my dad would receive in November of 2017. 

You remember what I said at the beginning of my story, right?

I wasn’t always this way.

I sort of fell into it.

Here I was, falling even deeper into this story I was not born with.

After Dad was diagnosed with Colon Cancer, I expedited that move back to Minnesota.

There would be a whole new road to travel and story to share.

For me, at the time, it never even clicked.

Here I was, A Gutsy Girl, working on healing myself and sharing the journey with thousands (millions?) of women worldwide. But I never connected these twisted dots with my dad’s diagnosis.  

2018

2018 was one of the hardest years of my life.

There is a lot of blur from that year. But looking back on it, it’s the year of my story when I can honestly say that seeds were being planted even though I never saw the fruits of their labor until later.

{I’ll interject here to let you know that there are a few pieces I have left out from my story. This is because they are pieces I am not ready to share yet. Some of those pieces land during 2018, and some earlier. There will be a point in time when I share – hopefully through a main book which gets published someday. This is my dream book, A Thyme for Milk and Honey.}

So anyways, during 2018, I: • relapsed one last time. • studied, researched, and devoted every last extra second to answering the question, “What is gut health and healing?!” • spent a lot of time with friends and family after years of not being able to do so • went through the motions with my dad and Cancer treatments

At the end of 2018, it all became very clear.

There was a key hidden to a door I’d been waiting to open for years; I began to slowly unlock it. 

And when it was unlocked, I fully realized what I live and breathe today,

Heal your gut. Heal your life. 

The below image is a slide from a recent presentation I gave on my story, gut health and gut healing in Los Angeles.

2019

I made it a full year, all of 2019 with zero relapses. 

This was a major feat because also during 2019, I lost my dad to his (almost) 2-year battle with Colon Cancer.

My dad went home to be with the Lord on August 13, 2019.

The shock and grief that filled July 9 (the day he went home to hospice) through the end of 2019 was really an incredible amount for me to handle.

But somehow, I did it all without relapse. 

It was this beautiful mess of a situation to have the incredible honor of publishing my very first book with Rockridge Press, The Leaky Gut Meal Plan, at the same time I was saying good-bye to Dad. 

Yes, that actually happened. I was approached to write my very first gut healing book the same year my Father, my hero, would die from Colon Cancer.

And again, 2019 is a year where more stories will fill my book someday. 

Today, 2020 - Brand New Decade

Today, I am still symptom-free, functioning at 100%. 

And now, here I am, fully understanding and connecting the twisted dots – all of them – from things that happened in early childhood to the adolescent years, college, adulthood, my dad’s diagnosis, (even) landing in the natural foods industry for several years – everything, all of it.

Here I am, A Gutsy Girl, healed and understanding what it all was, what it all meant, and (mostly) what it all means for the future.

I am committed to you via A Gutsy Girl, and I am able to do this because I am free from almost all the things that plagued me for years.

I no longer follow (because I don’t need to follow) any specific diet or rules. Breaking free from all of it, including disordered eating, has been so freeing.

I am still gluten free-ish – yes, just -ish. On the day-to-day, I don’t eat gluten, but I also don’t claim or identify with Paleo, GAPS, Low-FODMAP, an AIP Protocol, or anything else (even though I help you navigate those lifestyles daily).

These days, though, I will admit I’m far more Vegetarian than ever before. If you want the truth, I am so grateful for that because there were years when I thought I had to survive on just meat, fat, and broth. (Spoiler alert: I didn't; you don’t, either.)

I feed my body (and my family) with real food, whatever that means, and I make it delicious.

It has been a very long journey, and I know I’m in it for the long haul.

It is my PASSION, my OBSESSION to spread every single little bit of knowledge I have and have lived to women (and people) everywhere because if I can cut misery out of someone’s life in a fraction of the time it took me to finally get it, then this journey certainly has been worth it. 

I am going to be brave forever, and just as soon as there is a book publisher who will let me tell my full, real and raw story, I will.

Mark my word.

For now, stick with me here on A Gutsy Girl. I’m about to show you how you, too, can….

Heal your gut. Heal your life.  

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Listen to the Short Version of My Story + Inspiration

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