My journey to health

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I’ve had a lifelong interest in nutrition and health. My mom, a Swedish hippie, raised me on homemade, from-scratch food. We had chickens and pigs, and a big vegetable garden. No TV dinners in my house, thankfully! As a teenager and young adult, I explored various diets (vegetarian, vegan, raw, macrobiotic) and eventually settled on a health-food version of a mostly-vegetarian, low-ish fat diet. I thought I was doing the right thing when I poured soy milk over my granola and soaked mung beans to combine with brown rice.

My views on food dramatically changed when I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I realized that all my reasons for being vegetarian - health, environment, and animal-welfare - did not apply to responsibly-raised meat. Luckily, Vermont is a local-food paradise. I began buying meat from local farmers.

My food philosophy had another dramatic turnaround in 2009 when I read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. I was shocked and angered to learn about the history of America’s food politics, the shoddy science which led to the low-fat agenda, and how the obesity, diabetes, and chronic disease epidemics had exploded as a result. At the same time, I stumbled upon the Mark’s Daily Apple website, which introduced me to the paleo/primal diet. I was hooked. An ancestral way of eating made sense to me on every level. These twin discoveries launched me on a passionate quest for knowledge about health and nutrition which continues to this day.

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At the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium at Harvard with two of my heroes: Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson

I was pretty healthy before switching to a paleo/primal diet, so I don’t have a dramatic story of regaining health. However, I immediately dropped the 5-10 extra pounds which had been dogging me for years, my joint pain went away, and I stopped getting the painful canker sores in my mouth which had plagued me since childhood.

I felt great for a few years on a paleo/primal diet, using Mark’s 80-20 rule pretty liberally at times. When a 23andme test revealed I had two high-risk genes for celiac disease, I decided to eliminate gluten from my diet completely, forgoing the occasional piece of bread at a restaurant. You can’t develop celiac disease without exposure to gluten, so I believed eliminating gluten would also essentially eliminate my risk. So when I got sick with mysterious gastrointestinal symptoms in 2014, my differential diagnoses included everything BUT celiac. 

My sudden onset of symptoms included bloating, dyspepsia, and upper abdominal and chest pressure, along with fatigue and exercise intolerance. Every time I ate, my food sat like a rock in my stomach. I lost nearly 20 pounds, which is a lot considering my small frame and healthy starting weight. I struggled to figure out what was going on. Was it reflux? SIBO? Irritable bowel syndrome, but confined to the upper GI tract? I tried a vast array of herbs, supplements, and medications. I spent months trying several different elimination diets. Every test I had came back normal. After months of no improvement, my mystified doctor told me I should consider having my gall bladder removed, even though my symptoms were not very consistent with gall bladder disease. He wanted to do an upper endoscopy first, though, and when the biopsies came back, we were both shocked when the report indicated I likely had celiac disease. I’d been completely gluten-free for over a year - how was this possible?

Although I had eliminated gluten from my diet, I had not concerned myself with cross-contamination. Now that I had a diagnosis, I had to tighten things up big time. I replaced my cutting boards, colanders, and cast iron pan and tossed all my plastic, silicone, and wooden utensils and containers. I became that annoying restaurant patron who asks a billion questions. And my symptoms went away.

My next challenge came a couple of years later. 

For the past decade or so, I had gotten migraines every 6-8 weeks. It was unpleasant, but manageable. Suddenly (around the same time my periods started getting irregular at age 49 - probably not a coincidence) I began having migraines several times a month… and then several times a week. I saw a neurologist at a headache center who put me on a regime of supplements and tried me on nearly a dozen different medications. I went from an avid hiker to a recluse who went home from work and got in bed most days. I considered a medical leave from work.

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At my neurologist's office getting my first sphenopalatine ganglion block. Fun times!

But I was not willing to go down without a fight! I pointed my research efforts towards the complicated world of migraines. After experimenting with various options, I settled on a combination of acupuncture, the Heal Your Headache elimination diet, and the SpringTMS transcranial magnetic stimulator (prescribed by my neurologist). I got something right; within a couple of months, my migraine frequency had plummeted to once or twice a month! Since then, I have reintroduced every potentially problematic food without finding a trigger, and returned the SpringTMS, and while I still get regular headaches more often than I  would like, I haven’t had a real migraine in a couple of months. I’m still getting acupuncture every six weeks. It was a massive effort to cope with and troubleshoot my migraines, but I came out the other side stronger than ever!

I have done a LOT of experimenting and tweaking since with my diet over the years, but have maintained the basic foundation of the paleo/primal diet: focusing on whole, unprocessed foods while minimizing grains, added sugar, and vegetable oils. I say “minimizing” because I am definitely not a purist. There's a reason my social media handle for the past several years has been "prettygoodpaleo", not "superstrictpaleo"!