It's not unusual to feel fatigued, bloated and generally unwell in your early 20s. Socialising, working, eating a poor diet and generally burning the candle at both ends has certainly taken its toll on many of us at this stage of life.
But Georgia Lawson knew something was out of the ordinary when she was 24, reports news.com.au.
"It all started when I began developing food intolerances" she recalls.
"It was awful … I was so self-conscious of my body because I was always so bloated. If I went to the beach I covered up and wore loose clothing. I was so embarrassed by my stomach. I exercised every day, but it made no difference."
She started trying to identify particular foods that were triggering the bloating and discomfort.
"Around that time a lot of people were doing low carb diets to lose weight, so when I'd avoid rice, potatoes and bread, people would accuse me of being vain and boring which upset me a lot," she recalls.
For two years she battled her extreme stomach issues, and then the fatigue kicked in.
"I had constant brain fog and bouts of insomnia," she recalls. "I was always tired".
She went to countless doctors, naturopaths, gastroenterologists and dietitians to try and find the cause of her symptoms.
At the time Georgia was working two jobs — one during the week and another on weekends.
"A lot of the advice people gave me was 'you do too much' … which wasn't helpful as I am a doer," she says.
"They did blood tests, looked at my diet and activity levels and concluded that I needed to 'slow down and eat more fibre'. They basically told me to have All Bran for breakfast. I was tested for coeliac disease as I became bloated when I ate gluten, but tests showed I didn't have it. I was told it 'must be in my head' as I didn't have an actual allergy."
Despite following the doctor's advice, Georgia's health spiralled over the following years.
"I would get every virus under the sun and I eventually got chronic fatigue," she recalls.
"I had to take time off work and spent three weeks in bed, which drove me crazy.
"That's when I had the realisation that something had to really change. I took a career break and went travelling but no matter how relaxed I was — even chilling out on a beach doing nothing — I still had the same symptoms.
"I came back to Sydney and decided to completely change my career path and do a bachelor of health science (majoring in nutrition) so I could do my own research into what was wrong with me."
While studying, Georgia came across an article on "leaky gut syndrome" by naturopath Tania Flack, and felt as if a light had been switched on.
The jury is still out on leaky gut syndrome — a digestive condition in which bacteria and toxins are believed to "leak" through the intestinal wall. Some health professionals swear it a legitimate condition while others are dubious as there is very little scientific proof.
Regardless, Georgia says she related to all the symptoms that were listed.
"I was reading it and it felt for the first time that someone finally understood. Then I looked up the woman who had written it and her address was in Edgecliff (in Sydney's east), the same suburb I was living in. It was so bizarre, I couldn't believe it. I immediately made an appointment."
Georgia says Tania was "gobsmacked" that nobody had ever sent her for a stool analysis.
Upon getting the results of this test it was discovered that Georgia had a parasite living in her gut, that had most likely been there for more than a decade. It was deduced that the parasite had been picked up on a holiday to Bali or Thailand in her early 20s.
It was so well established in her gut that it was destroying all the good bacteria and bad bacteria had taken over. This caused inflammation and in turn, Georgia's immune system was compromised. The advice doctors had previously given her, to eat more fibre and carbohydrates, was stunningly detrimental — this was simply feeding the parasite.
Upon discovering the cause of all her digestive issues, fatigue and subsequent illnesses, Georgia went home and cried with relief.
But getting rid of the parasite was no easy feat. She started with two different courses of oral antibiotics that caused extreme nausea.
"They likened it to chemo for your insides," Georgia recalls.
Unfortunately the first two rounds didn't work, so she was hospitalised for a colonoscopy where they internally infused three types of antibiotics.
"It was like napalm for all the bacteria in my gut … good and bad," she explains.
Then began the process of building up the good bacteria back at home, with lots of fermented food and an expensive course of probiotics. She estimates the total cost of medical bills and treatments to find out what was causing her illness and get rid of the parasite was between $20-25k.
After the stint in hospital it took around six months to get back on her feet and she was able to introduce "normal" foods to her diet gradually. The physical symptoms also started lifting one by one.
"It was amazing to feel well after such a long time. The first thing I noticed was the brain fog lifting," she says.
Despite the years of feeling wretched, Georgia, now 35, credits the parasite with bringing her to her current passion — working as the COO for The Clean Collective, an online store which sells toxin-free products and educates people on living an eco-friendly life.
"Another thing that can impact your gut health is exposure to toxins," she explains.
"Part of my journey to health was cutting out toxins in my makeup, skincare and household cleaning products. I started speaking about the link between toxins and gut health with my friend Charlie, who also has a passion for the subject, and from that we started The Clean Collective. So really, I wouldn't be in the amazing position I'm in now if it wasn't for that parasite."