Today I’m turning over my blog to a Nutritional Therapy student who is graduating next month. Her background makes for such a compelling story about why real, whole, natural foods are so critically important to us all! She’s had a long journey, and it’s much too interesting for me to chop it into shorter posts, so set aside a few minutes to read it through. When you’re done, please send this on to anyone you know that may be helped by her information.
I Used to be Crazy: How a Traditional Whole Foods Diet Saved my Life
You are what you eat. An expression we all know, but seldom take to heart. It seems we don’t start paying attention to our health and what we put in our bodies until we are struck with symptoms we define as an illness. What if I told you that the majority of us are living far below our optimal health? What if I told you heartburn, gas, asthma, allergies, menstrual cramping, and all the general aches and pains you live with on a daily basis are not normal; that these symptoms of biochemical imbalances only appear normal because they are so prevalent in our culture? Do you believe fate grants you your health? Do you believe you are destined to fall prey to the same ailments as your relatives? That is the belief I was indoctrinated into just like you. These ideas are so deeply embedded in each of us that we rarely think critically about our health. You get sick, and depending on the severity of the symptoms, head either to the pharmacy or the doctor to obtain a pill or drug. It’s that simple, right?
I didn’t start thinking about the cause of my health concerns until all the standard approaches of treatment failed me. I was convinced there was more to life than illness, and with this resolve I came to the conclusion that there must be a way for me to stop my disease, not just learn to live with it and wait until it killed me. I went to my diet. I looked at what I was eating and started identifying changes in my well being with the foods I put in my mouth.
Do you have a kitchen or have access to one? Then you can save your own life.
DIS-EASE: THE BEGINNING
I went vegetarian when I was 12 years old.
I was an extremely positive kid, to the point of annoyance to most of my peers. I was actively involved in theatre from the age of eight and could be described as outspoken and outgoing. Most years I was painfully unpopular, struggling to make friends, but was blissfully ignorant of this fact and it never got to me. I did well in school and took extreme pride in my work. Halfway through 8th grade I started to slip through the cracks. I could no longer keep up with my workload and started taking “mental health days”. I started to distance myself from people. This change occurred within a year of removing meat from my diet.
I went vegan when I was 14 years old.
By the end of 9th grade I was no longer the sweet, thoughtful, and energetic youngster I had previously been. I became distant, indifferent, and erratic. I had started abusing drugs and alcohol and skipping class. I cut off all my hair and lost my virginity. I was the stereotypical angst-ridden rebel teenager, but I had begun to spiral out of control. And fast.
DIS-EASE: THE MIDDLE
Freshman year was the year I turned on myself. I hated myself with a ferocity that is now hard for me to comprehend. I hated how I looked, who I was, and the fact that I was alive. I started to restrict my food intake to punish myself. I wanted to become as small as I felt. I wanted to be an innocent child again. I wanted to be invisible. This became an obsession I would struggle with off and on again for many more years.
I was suicidal and had very specific fantasies of dying every night before bed that calmed me. Near the end of freshman year I put this fantasy into action. I drank a cup of bleach (thankfully, drinking bleach will not kill you). I told my grandmother what I had done in a moment of regret and guilt and she rushed me to the ER where they told me I was fine and sent me home. I was excused from the last two weeks of class and finals. I refused to see anyone and never changed out of my pajamas. At the beginning of summer I experienced an emotional trauma. My life became surreal. I wanted to be as detached as possible and I constantly felt I was playing a role in a movie rather than living my own life.
That summer I came out of my shell long enough to make new friends. I constantly found myself between states of extreme mania, with a lack of fear that would scare most people, and complete unresponsiveness where I felt nothing. I was a lost shell of a person. Self-medication of various forms was a constant. Stress was unbearable and I combated it with self-mutilation, even if it meant finding a private place to do so during a social situation. I burned my skin with cigarettes and lighters. I cut myself with razor blades and scissors. My therapist suggested I go to an inpatient psychiatric ward. I took her advice. The ten days I spent there felt like an eternity. The doctors and staff had no patience for my crippling depression and were frustrated with what must have seemed like a lack of will to improve.
I missed the first week of 10th grade because of this hospitalization. Once back in school, I kept to myself, except for the three friends I had. I had lunch alone and sobbed in the bathrooms. I started abusing over the counter drugs during the school day, once passing out in the nurse’s office. At 5’6” and 89 pounds, I was having an exceptionally hard time with eating. My best friend moved in with my guardians and I. Summer came.
Death was always in the back of my head. One day after work, my friend came home to tell me of something that I found very upsetting. Despite the fact I had just enjoyed the weekend with a close friend, I was tipped over the edge. I locked myself in the bathroom. There was no thought process, my body acted on its own. I took a brand new bottle of extra strength Tylenol out of the cabinet. I got into the shower with the bottle and all my clothes on. I remember swallowing handfuls of pills at a time, filling my mouth with them and tilting my head back to let the water wash them down. After consuming over 400 pills, I took off my clothes, wrapped myself in a towel and went to my room. I felt serene. An ambulance came.
After being hospitalized for a week, I was admitted into a psychiatric unit. Surprisingly I was in fairly good spirits for someone who had recently tried to commit suicide. I wanted to get help.
Those feelings were ephemeral, as my hospitalization dragged on for six long months. The longer I stayed, the more the hospital staff became frustrated with me and my inability to improve. I spoke with many different doctors, all of whom told me different things. A specialist was brought in just for me. No one knew what to call my depression. The idea of Electroshock Therapy was brought up. I was put on a cocktail of drugs, one of which was to keep the other pills from making me physically sick. I didn’t eat anything except soymilk and carrots for days at a time. I became the proverbial psych ward zombie. I started refusing my medications because they made me feel worse. I found new, absurd ways to hurt myself. I became capable of scratching away at my own skin until it bled. I experienced fits of uncontrollable sobbing that would continue for hours on end. After about four months, I was moved to a different unit with new doctors because of lack of options. At age 16 I was given the nebulous diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. Not much changed for me at this new unit, but encouraging words from a friend finally got me motivated to get myself discharged.
Upon my return home, I was to start attending a small private school. I refused to go. I sat on the couch. I watched TV. I did not move. A week later the day came that will live in infamy in my mind. My therapist at the time contacted my grandmother and told her she must bring me to see her that day if I was not going to attend school. We went to her office. I went silent. I lost the ability to talk. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to her even when she told me she was going to call the police if I did not answer her. In my mind, all hope in trying to communicate with someone was lost. She called the police. Paramedics and a police officer came into her office. I’m sure I looked as if I was in a trance, and the paramedics took my vital signs. When the officer said I was coming with them, he started to handcuff me. This is when I launched into a full-blown psychotic episode. I screamed at the top of my lungs, flailed my body, tried to get away. Outside there were police cars, and a fire truck. When they forced me into the back of the cop car, I started to bang my head on the plastic shield in front of me as hard as I could. An officer put her hand over my face and I bit her. She slapped me and I started to cry uncontrollably from the depths of my being. This was rock bottom for me. I never more genuinely wanted to be dead than this day. I was alone. Without an evaluation, I was readmitted to a psychiatric unit by the end of the day.
I eventually returned to school, but decided to dropout after my junior year. I moved out at 17 and got a job, but my life became entrenched in my eating disorder. At 18 I got accepted to culinary school and moved to New York.
Throughout these years I experienced an abundance of physical ailments as well: urinary tract infections, yeast infections, cellulitis in wounds, mononucleosis, and ovarian cysts. I experienced insomnia coupled with sleep-filled days. My skin was poor with cystic acne. I experienced menstrual cramping that was among the worst pain I have ever felt.
DIS-EASE: THE END
Little did I know the start of culinary school would be the beginning of the end of my dis-ease. I was wildly dependent and still moderately self-abusive while in school, but I had found something I was passionate enough about to fully commit myself to. My unhealthy relationship with food dissipated during this time.
The program I attended was based around whole foods and natural healing. This meant that during preparation, food was kept as close to its original state as possible. This was the first time I had been introduced to the idea of a whole foods diet. I remained vegan, but started eliminating the processed foods in my diet such as white sugar, flour and soy products, and started eating more vegetables, and soaked grains and beans.
I was now armed with the knowledge that food could heal you. After I graduated I started reading every book on nutrition I could get my hands on, and began trying new diets. At age 19 I experimented with macrobiotic cleanses and a 100% raw food diet without much success and some regression, but I was still motivated to heal myself. By this time I had been vegan for 5 years. With my research and my still less-than-optimal health, I had finally reached a point where I felt it was irrefutable that humans were meant to eat animal foods.
Once I incorporated animal food, I truly began to heal. Before I was 20, I was able to say I was depression free. At the age of almost 22, I can say I still have health related goals, but I am no longer the person I used to be. I am happy, confident, and independent. I can say with honesty that I love myself and my body. I am fully capable of maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. I can proudly say I am prescriptive, over-the-counter, and recreational drug-free. And I no longer get infections or the slightest menstrual cramping!
WHAT DO I MEAN BY A TRADITIONAL DIET?
When I refer to a traditional diet, I am referring to the foods humans have thrived upon for thousands and thousands of years. The majority of all foods in the center of your grocery store were not part of the human diet until about 100 years ago when they were created by the burgeoning food giants. This is an extraordinarily short blip in the timeline of our species. From a biological perspective, we are still hunter-gatherers.
WHAT YOU NEED TO THRIVE
On my transformative journey it became very clear there are nutrients that build health that I was missing for years. The proper function of every cell in your body is dependent on being properly nourished. Lets take a look at some of these vital nutrients:
Don’t be scared: Cholesterol is essential to your well-being and happiness. In fact, cholesterol is so important that your body makes it itself. The more dietary cholesterol you intake, the less your body must work to create it. The less dietary cholesterol you intake, the more cholesterol your body must make with whatever fats it has on hand to keep up with the constant demands.
Our sex hormones are derived from cholesterol. Our hormones are what drive our perspective on life; they are how we filter our reality. The composition of the wall of every cell in your body includes cholesterol, giving them their rigidity and shape. As put by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades, “…if all the cholesterol in your body were suddenly to vanish, you would dissolve into a puddle…”The brain is particularly rich in cholesterol, taking around 25% of all bodily cholesterol. You are probably familiar with the fact that sun exposure is a source of vitamin D. When exposed to sunlight, it is the cholesterol in your skin that is transformed into vitamin D. Cholesterol is produced under stress and functions as an antioxidant (yes, just like the popular vitamins).
In her book “Put Your Heart in Your Mouth” Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride summarizes the results of multiple studies regarding cholesterol and mental health: “From the beginning of cholesterol lowering trials, an increased number of deaths from violence and suicide have been recorded. Historically, from animal and human studies it is known that low blood cholesterol is associated with aggressive behavior and suicide.”
Traditional food sources highest in cholesterol are: caviar, cod liver oil, fresh egg yolk, butter, salmon, and shrimp.
Fat is the long-burning fuel of the body and the preferred fuel of the heart. Fatty acids (along with cholesterol) are the building blocks for our cell membranes. A healthy cell membrane has the ability to let the good guys in and to keep the bad guys out. A healthy cell membrane is also necessary for cellular as well as hormonal communication. Adequate fat must be present in order to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. Fats are imperative to your body’s ability to manage inflammation.
We need the full variety of naturally occurring fatty acids in our diet: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. There are two polyunsaturated fats that are known as the essential fatty acids (EFA’s) because our bodies are unable to make them: Linoleic Acid (LA, omega-6) and Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA, omega-3). Under optimal conditions in the body, other forms of omega-3 and omega-6 are derived from LA and ALA. These other forms, known as the conditionally essential fatty acids, are GLA, AA, EPA, and DHA. We are often unable to make the conversion to the conditionally essential fatty acids because of inflammatory or immune problems, and thus must consume them directly. EPA and DHA are critical in brain structure and functioning. AA, EPA, and DHA are only available from animal foods.
Traditional fats include: all animal fats (such as lard and tallow), butter, raw cream, eggs, fish oils, raw nuts and seeds.
Minerals give us vitality. Restoring mineral balance can often be the first step in gaining perspective on one’s self. Minerals facilitate the transfer of nutrients across cell membranes and maintain the electric transmissions in the nervous system. Macrominerals, or the electrolytes, include calcium, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and sodium. Trace minerals are needed in smaller amounts, but are equally as important. The trace minerals lithium, germanium, and rubidium are pivotal in mental health. Deficiency of any one mineral will throw off all mineral functioning.
Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist in the 1930’s who studied indigenous people eating their native diets, found that they were consuming four times more calcium and other minerals than we get in our modern diet.
Traditional sources of minerals: homemade bone broth, Celtic sea salt, vegetables, and spring water.
Probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, live throughout and coat our entire digestive tract. They play active roles in the digestion and absorption of our food as well as protect us from invading micro-organisms. These bacteria are responsible for providing nourishment directly to the walls of our gut. When the friendly bacteria are compromised, the gut wall is unprotected and unnourished, leaving it open for attacks that lead to chronic gut inflammation and a host of other digestive ailments. There is an extraordinary relationship between the health of the gut and mental and emotional functioning. For a thorough explanation of this gut-brain connection, please see Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s book, “Gut and Psychology Syndrome”.
Unfortunately our friendly bacteria are often destroyed by common threats, such as high sugar and starch diets, antibiotics, prescription drugs, stress, and low stomach acid (often perpetuated by low protein intake such as in the vegan diet). The good news is we can work to repopulate our friendly bacteria by consuming lacto-fermented foods, a staple in most indigenous cultures that has long been forgotten by the mainstream.
Traditional fermented foods include: live yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, and apple cider vinegar.
Dis-ease manifests itself differently in different people. If you find yourself wishing for a higher quality of life, or recognize yourself in this story, these foods may be what save you. Start incorporating them into your diet today.
Jessi Dulude is currently a student of the Nutritional Therapy Association and a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Art.
“Put Your Heart in Your Mouth” By Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD
“Gut and Psychology Syndrome” By Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD
“Know Your Fats” By Mary G. Enig, Ph.D
“Nourishing Traditions” By Sally Fallon
“Staying Healthy with Nutrition” By Elson M. Haas, MD
“Why Stomach Acid is Good for You” By Jonathan V. Wright, MD