3 years ago this month, when I left the Department of Nutrition in UNC’s School of Public Health and School of Medicine, a brilliant new hire was bringing in millions of dollars for microbiome research.
7 years ago this month (December 2011), I began a transformative health journey to reverse candida overgrowth and strengthen my digestive and immune systems after years of battling food allergies, sickness, and IBS.
As the years have gone by, more friends and family members have come to me curious about healing their gut and replenishing the microbiome with the AIP and paleo diets for a variety of chronic issues, diseases, and syndromes. If you follow health and wellness writers and blogs, the same info is everywhere. I think interest is increasing for a combination of reasons
1) My peer group is aging into more issues and syndromes like PCOS, Hypothyroidism and Hashimotos, fungal overgrowth, IBD/IBS, etc. and we have a higher standard for optimal health, both mental and physical
2) The knowledge and understanding of the microbiome and the influence that our gut bacteria balance has over all of our body systems is starting to become more common knowledge and food therapy is also more common. Of course, you will still come across the occasional 70 year old OBGYN (like I did) who says verbatim, “There was one article written in the 1980’s about microbiome and asthma and it’s not substantiated.” (Really sir, when did you last use your downtime to read journals containing microbiome research- 35 years ago?) But overall, a quick look on PubMed will show you that attention to microbiome research and nutritional therapy is actually uncovering a lot of helpful solutions for all kinds of chronic and inflammatory diseases.
In fact, This article on Autoimmune and cardiovascular disease as they relate to microbiome was published just last week! Point being, if you are facing a syndrome, disease, or just general “unwellness” and your doctor doesn’t know anything about the microbiome research surrounding gut bacteria and its effects on inflammations and triggers on the immune system, you can either politely site what you’ve read on PubMed and ask that she read it too, or you can spend time to find someone who will help you dive into alternatives and support a journey that is more fruitful to you than just treating your symptoms with pharmaceuticals.
A huge aspect of strengthening the microbiome is in probiotics and prebiotics. It’s common knowledge that a lifetime of frequent antibiotic use can do serious damage to the good bacteria we carry around in our guts from birth. This is why the SCD diet, which I began on, emphasizes homemade yogurt. Because I’m not a huge yogurt fan, I have include kombucha and pickled vegetables in my daily routine in order to keep probiotic consumption up. It is amazing how much better I feel with pre and probiotics, in addition to my doctor recommended VSL3 probiotic.
Some great prebiotics to feed your gut bacteria? cacao, apples, oats, chicory root, garlic, and dandelion greens.
Frankly said, the pre/probiotic routine is just not enough to combat putting certain foods into your body. I think everyone knows that fried foods and fake foods (highly processed/packaged foods with long lists of ingredients that aren’t based in real food) are corrosive to our gut health (and microbiome). For the most part, they make us feel not great, and so we don’t eat them often, and that feels like a “good enough” approach to nutrition. However, the most common nutritional healing and therapy advice you will come across when dealing with alternative healing, holistic doctors, functional medicine, and Chinese medicine is to GIVE UP SUGAR AND DAIRY, and often WHEAT. So in the rest of this post I’m going to be addressing:
- Why these 3 things are inflammatory to our systems and how that works
- What changes you can expect from elimination if you need to try it for health reasons
- Clarifying some incorrect notions of what eliminating these foods mean.
– ie a gluten free diet is NOT necessarily an anti-inflammatory diet
– most people can give up lactose and NOT dairy entirely, which means eating almost nil lactose containing foods like yogurt, butter, and aged cheese. This of course does not apply to the population of real dairy allergies.
I mentioned on social media last week that my husband suffers from chronic kidney stones. He also has chronic eczema that he has been able to control after giving up lactose. After visiting a biological medicine practitioner and acupuncturist, Matt was encouraged to give up the other two ghosts: wheat and sugar (in addition to receiving some herbs and treatment). So why is this specific nutritional therapy almost always the suggestion from professionals for everyone who is suffering from systemic syndromes and sickness?
The basic answer is simple: because all disease is linked to inflammation, from obesity and hormone disruption to cardiovascular and autoimmune disease. And food-based healing of inflammation leans heavily on giving up the hard-to-digest, short chain sugars (fructans, lactose) that appear in dairy, some grains and processed foods, and obviously in refined sugar, which is a favorite food of bacteria to feed on. Food-based healing is increasing in popularity since we have studied and determined the correlation between the Standard American Diet, inflammation, and increasing disease for 30 or more years now. Even if you don’t have an “allergy” or “intolerance” to any of these inflammatory foods, the truth is that ANY body must work harder in order to digest the short chain sugars, and if your body is fighting a syndrome, disease, imbalance, or inflammation (including obesity), then your body should not be feeding gut inflammation and working extra hard just to process these sugars.
First of all, elimination and “letting go of what does not serve us” is freeing and empowering. It does NOT have to feel like deprivation in any way. Other people will try to make you feel that way, but controlling your own health is invigorating and delicious! You’re not missing out on anything, you’re gaining better health, which is why I continue to create fun recipes without the above listed ingredients. I eat MORE and better now than I ever did before giving up lactose, sugar, legumes, and wheat. I struggled to maintain my weight on very low food intake as a teen and college student, and now I NEVER measure calories or quantities.
If you’re thinking about food-therapy, don’t be scared of depravation! You will not feel deprived or miss these ingredients after 2 weeks. After 3 weeks, you will begin to feel better and notice differences in your health. After 4-6 weeks, you will not look back! A part of my success is replacing eliminated foods with alternatives that aren’t inflammatory, like almond and coconut flour in breads and cakes, and maple syrup and honey to sweeten appropriate foods. Anecdotally, I’ve seen and talked to people who have noticed less joint pain, fewer skin problems, more comfortable digestion, increased energy, and better hormone function after 3-4 weeks. Personally, I had markers for IBD and PCOS that I reversed in my follow up integrative medicine appointments after a couple of years on a paleo/ AIP/ SCD diet.
I am not “gluten-free” and “gluten-free” diets are not necessarily anti-inflammatory. I mark my recipes as #glutenfree because by definition, they are, and people with Celiac’s can enjoy anything I make because I never, ever eat wheat, and I want to reach a wide audience, including some of Matt’s family who face Celiac’s. HOWEVER, many gluten-free foods and breads contain starches, gums, refined sugars, and other unnecessary, inflammatory ingredients. Eating a homemade, whole food, bread loaf containing gluten (if you do not have Celiac’s Disease or gluten sensitivity) would be much healthier than eating something packaged, processed, and labeled as “gluten-free.” You can think of it like a Venn Diagram. Paleo, AIP, keto, and SCD are always gluten-free and anti-inflammatory, but gluten-free is not always paleo or anti-inflammatory.
At the beginning of my journey, I eliminated all dairy. I recommend this to anyone who is facing inflammation manifested in digestive or skin issues. However, as indicated in elimination diets, I slowly added back in certain forms of dairy and found that my digestion only suffered when I ate dairy containing significant lactose. I found this to be consistent with many of the people within the the AIP community and paleo community. SCD, created by a doctor for IBD and AID, includes many cheeses. Aged cheese like brie, cheddar, and gouda, organic butter, and yogurt, all have trace amounts of lactose (like 0.0001 %) and giving up lactose rather than entirely giving up dairy is much easier! High lactose foods are milk, cream, and fresh cheeses like mozzarella.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, I just want to add that nothing is black and white, all or nothing, 0 or 100. Matt is anxious about giving up these foods, but I tell him, it’s not like he can never taste them again! I ate processed gluten-free stuff when I was pregnant, and yes, I have gluten-free pizza and cupcakes on rare (often celebratory) occasions. There is no guilt or issue in this. It doesn’t make me a hypocrite or nullify the work I do daily and the healing food i put into my body daily. You can also be thankful for the medical help you get from hospitals IN ADDITION TO the added benefits of functional and holistic medicine. It is all good. And all there to help you. And I regret that my friends in the medical field may feel that seeking alternative help for your health is a rejection of western medicine. It’s not.
People will ALWAYS take issue with your choices, whether we’re still talking about food and medicine or anything else! People who have not done the research will not always be supportive if you choose to go on an alternative food-based health journey. I have found that food and diet is really personal to people, but your health is the most personal thing on earth to you, and you alone are responsible for cultivating it. No one understands your journey, and no one can possibly understand what you’ve been through or how much information you have synthesized to achieve optimal health nutritionally.
I have also found that it is sometimes the people who are closest to us, who have known us the longest, and who have witnessed our incredible health and body improvements first hand, who are the most negative and least supportive. That has to be their issue and not yours. If people see you thrive and choose not to celebrate it, they’re not your people. And maybe later in their life when they are facing a health issue that can’t 100% be solved by their doctor, they will come to you for help!
I hope to start work on my NTP (Nutritional Therapy Practitioner) certification next year, and let me tell you, I will be here for ANYONE with open arms! The greatest thing I have learned on this journey is that it is All. About. Community. I have learned so much from cooking with my friend Lesley who started cooking SCD around a decade ago! And every single week I look forward to the Balanced Bites Podcast with Diane Sanfilippo and Liz Wolfe, and updates from Danielle Walker’s kitchen.
Finally, we know there is a genetic component to this stuff: Celiac’s, IBD, Hashimoto’s, cardiovascular disease, etc. and because I write this blog and save all my recipes, if any of my children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, etc. face any of the issues that Matt and I have faced, then they will have a spiritual and physical guide for nutritional healing. And that is the absolute best thing I could give to them. Part of who I am is that I love the pursuit of knowledge, and I can’t get enough of it. I hope to continue to seek degrees and certifications in the areas I love. But an even bigger part of who I am is sharing that knowledge. And If I help one person then it’s really all worth it!