food and health: why you literally are what you eat

It’s funny how one seemingly insignificant event can change your life forever.  Five years ago, I found myself ill with what I was told was glandular fever.  I couldn’t get up from bed, I couldn’t stay awake, and I had difficulty taking care of even my most basic needs.  I had to be medically excused from work, and I remember casually mentioning to my HR representative that this was the second time I experienced this in my life.  She told me, “you can’t get glandular fever twice.”  No, you definitely could, because I had these same symptoms 11 years before.  She assured me that I couldn’t, and suggested that I ask my GP for a test to confirm a diagnosis.  It turns out that I never had glandular fever before.

After two months in bed, countless blood tests, specialist referrals and appointments and steroid treatment, I was diagnosed with Sjogrën’s Syndrome.  Made famous by Venus Williams, Sjogrën’s occurs when the body starts attacking its exocrine glands.

This includes tear ducts, salivary, sweat, and mucous, among other glands in the body.  Some of the basic symptoms Sjogrën’s sufferers experience are dry eyes, dry mouth, dry skin, muscle and joint pain, and fatigue.  Luckily, autoimmune symptoms come and go for most people affected.  When we are actively feeling symptoms, it’s called flaring, and when we aren’t, the condition is called dormant or managed.  Some are lucky enough to have symptoms disappear for very long periods of time, which is called remission.  It doesn’t help me much in the sympathy department that Venus Williams has gone on to continue to play tennis professionally and win titles despite her condition, but trust me, it’s pretty horrible.

My rheumatologist said that the only long term way to manage my condition was by taking medication.  The specific medication most commonly prescribed for Sjogrën’s can build up in toxic levels in the retina, causing vision changes including blindness.  It wasn’t something I was keen on taking long term, but I was lead to believe that this was the only way to effectively manage my condition and avoid flares.  I was told that without the medication, I would not be able to function normally.  Despite Venus Williams’ success, many people with Sjogrën’s end up on disability and are unable to lead normal lives.  With a family to support, this wasn’t an option for me.

Fast forward to a few months later, and I was pregnant with my daughter.  Having issues with absolutely everything pregnancy related, a friend suggested eliminating gluten as a way to increase energy levels and alleviate stress on my digestive system.  After about a week, I realised that not only did I have more energy and a less taxed digestive system, but I felt happier as well.  I started looking into food as a way to help with my Sjogrën’s symptoms.  Another friend suggested the book , by Alejandro Junger.  Junger, a cardiologist who became depressed and began searching for the root cause of his depression, suggests that in food lies the cause of most illnesses, as well as the cure.  Studies show that food affects not only our physical health, but our mental health as well.  Foods affect our physical bodies, our response to illness, and our mental well-being.  When it comes to food, our avoidance of certain foods would come from a physical reaction: swelling, rash, difficulty breathing.  Junger states that because a lot of foods can cause emotional, psychological and physiological reactions instead of physical ones, we tend to ignore or not notice them.

Eating Clean
The most important factor in any diet is to understand that we are unique in how foods affect us.  While some people thrive as vegetarians, for others, it can cause deficiencies and make them ill.  In order to really understand our unique optimal food intake, Junger suggests an elimination regimen of “clean eating” to reset our gut, followed by a reintroduction of foods, paying close attention to our body’s reaction.

Include Avoid
Fruits & Vegetables Unsweetened fresh or frozen whole fruits, fresh squeezed fruit juices, sea vegetables (seaweeds), avocados, olives, and raw, steamed, sauteed, juiced, or roasted vegetables Oranges, orange juice, grapefruit, bananas, strawberries, grapes, corn, creamed vegetables, nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes)
 Dairy Substitutes Hemp, rice, and nut milks (such as almond, hazelnut, walnut, etc.) and coconut milk, coconut oil/butter Dairy and eggs: including milk, cheese, cottage cheese, cream, yogurt, butter, ice cream, non-dairy creamers, ghee
Starch & Non-Gluten Grains Brown, red, black and wild rice, millet, amaranth, teff, tapioca, buckwheat, quinoa White rice, wheat, corn, barley, spelt, kamut, rye, triticale, oats (even gluten free)
Animal Protein Fresh or water-packed cold-water fish (trout, salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel, sardines, pike, kippers), wild game (rabbit, pheasant, bison, venison, elk, etc.), lamb, duck, organic chicken and turkey Pork (bacon), beef, veal, sausage, cold cuts, canned meats, frankfurters (hot dogs), shellfish, any raw meats and fish
Vegetable Protein  Split peas, lentils, legumes, bee pollen, spirulina, and blue-green algae Soybean products (soy sauce, soybean oil in processed foods)
 Nuts & Seeds Hemp, sesame, pumpkin, chia, and sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia, pistachios, brazil, nut and seed butters such as almond or tahini Peanuts and peanut butter
Oils Cold-pressed olive, avocado, flax, safflower, sesame, almond, sunflower, walnut pumpkin and coconut Butter, margarine, shortening, processed oils, canola oil, salad dressings, mayonnaise, spreads
Drinks Filtered water, green, white or herbal tea, seltzer or mineral water, yerba mate, coconut water, green juice Alcohol, coffee, caffeinated beverages, soda, soft drinks, fruit juice (unless freshly pressed)
Sweeteners Stevia, coconut nectar, xylitol, whole/fresh fruit, dried fruit (in moderation) Refined sugar, white/brown sugars, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, Splenda®, Equal®, Sweet’N Low®, juice concentrate, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, honey
Condiments Vinegar, all spices, all herbs, sea salt, black pepper, carob, raw or dark chocolate (dairy and sugar free), stone ground mustard, miso, coconut liquid aminos, wheat free tamari and nama shoyu, unsweetened whole jam Regular chocolate (with dairy and sugar), ketchup, relish, chutney, traditional soy sauce, barbecue sauce, teriyaki, breath mints, chewing gum

The Elimination Diet
Junger’s Cleanse Diet consists of three basic steps:

  1. Eliminate all foods on the right side of the table above, focusing only on foods on the left side.  You will do this for three weeks.
  2. Reintroduce foods on the right, one at a time.  You will eat the food for two days as part of your normal diet, and then take a three day break.  Keep a food diary and note any changes in energy levels, emotions, or physical changes.
  3. If a food causes no reaction, you can add it to your permanent “diet” and continue to eat it.  If it does cause a reaction, Junger suggests permanently removing it from your diet as if you had a physical allergy.

Other Considerations
Besides food, Junger says we are lacking nutrients and habits necessary in order to be able to have optimal health.  While on the elimination diet and beyond, he suggests the following:

  • Maintain between 10-12 hours between your last meal of the day and your first meal of the morning.  This allows your digestive system to reset.
  • Consider taking probiotics or including fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut in your diet to promote gut health.
  • Eat sea vegetables often to maintain optimal iodine levels.  Iodine helps regulate thyroid function and promotes healthy immune system responses.

Another thing that Junger suggests, but I am against, is supplementing with synthetic vitamin D.  Although many of us are lacking in D vitamins (which is actually a hormone), it is more important to get D from natural sources like meat, fish, meat products like cheese and eggs, and sunlight.  I personally had a vitamin D deficiency for many years which I corrected when I stopped supplementing.

Lastly, I would add a magnesium supplement to any health overhaul.  Magnesium is present in every cell in your body, and is responsible for hundreds of chemical processes.  Nearly everyone is deficient in magnesium due to commercial farming and soil depletion.   combines magnesium with malic acid, which helps to detox the liver, maintain efficient absorption, storage and transport of nutrients and minerals, and increase energy levels.  You can also use mineral drops to  your water.  It adds essential trace minerals, including natural anti-fungals to assist the body in the healing process.

Food as Medicine
It’s been five years now since my initial diagnosis, and nearly five years of being almost completely medication free.  It’s taken a lot of tweaking and figuring out what works for me, in some cases even stricter than Junger’s plan (I can’t have grains at all for example).  You might be thinking, “I don’t have an autoimmune condition and I feel fine.”  While that might be the case, I guarantee that you will find benefits in overhauling your diet, and in turn overhauling your health.  Whether it’s more energy, feeling happier or less anxious, getting ill less, or getting rid of a few extra pounds, everyone can benefit from a food reset, especially in our modern society.

Feel free to leave questions or comments below.

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