If you have ever been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you know the struggle of trying to get through the day when your body is attacking itself. You perfect the act of hiding your symptoms and covering up your pale skin, so no one knows you are sick. You continue saying “yes” and pushing through each day to live a “normal” life until you run yourself so thin, you flare even worse. You then miss out on even more plans. I owe it to the autoimmune paleo diet for giving me much of my life back. This is my story.
I have dealt with gastrointestinal problems for as long as I can remember, which really complicated car-rides, sporting events, and everything in-between. Growing up, one of my biggest fears was that I would never be able to go on a “real” date, since a stereotypical date involves going out to dinner and whatever happens next. That’s pretty hard to accomplish when I would always get sick after eating out. Even as a child, I remember having a major accident all over the floor of a small, family-owned restaurant. Somehow, my family still brings me back there.
The Diagnosis Was A Relief
After years of hiding and dealing with the nasty gastrointestinal symptoms, gastroparesis, SIBO, mononucleosis, parasites (perks of studying abroad in Ecuador), infections, and more, I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January of 2016. While the diagnosis of a chronic illness may seem like a life-sentence to some, it has reinforced my desire as a future physician to help patients take control of their own health. If it were not for my struggle with Crohn’s disease, I would never have discovered the autoimmune paleo diet and become a food blogger, recipe developer, and health advocate.
While the Crohn’s diagnosis is recent, I have been dairy free for five years, gluten free for three, and somewhat paleo for about six months before I was diagnosed. My mom was the one who encouraged me to try the autoimmune paleo diet. She was completely steroid dependent to treat her autoimmune eye and colitis conditions, and after watching her completely come off of high dose prednisone simply with diet, I was inspired to give it a try. I did not strictly follow the autoimmune paleo diet until I was diagnosed. For me, diet has not been a “cure,” but it has significantly relieved many of the symptoms. I cannot imagine how bad of shape I would be in if I had never changed my diet. My symptoms would have been much more severe, which could have potentially led to an earlier diagnosis, but I shudder to think of what damage I would have done to my intestines during that period.
My senior year of college was when everything really started to go downhill. I was 21 years young and struggling to keep up with my friends. My stomach was a hot mess, I had to change my clothes several times a night from the night sweats, my knees hurt so bad even just sitting, and in a couple short months, I had dropped 17 pounds that I did not have to lose. Between Thanksgiving and Spring of that year, I had pneumonia twice and a bad bout of bronchitis that I couldn’t shake. My energy was draining, I was struggling to keep up with school, and I was really disheartened that I was missing out on so much of my senior year. After spending three out of my four weeks of winter break at the hospital, in an out of doctor’s offices, and undergoing procedures, I welcomed my diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. I knew if what plagued me had a name, my doctor and I could come up with a treatment plan and get me on the road to recovery.
The Doctor’s Answer for Crohn’s Disease
Soon enough, I was put on a high dose of steroids and slowly improved. My stomach aches began to decrease, and my knees began to feel better, but this improvement was short-lived. After more tests that showed the inflammation worsened, I was put on a chemotherapy drug (immunosuppressant) in addition to the steroids. The new medication did knock out some of the inflammation, but it also made me feel like I had the flu nonstop. The worst part of it all was during my senior week, right before graduation, when I was supposed to be having the time of my life, but I was violently ill. I am not one to give up on anything, so even though I was weak, extremely nauseous, and barely able to eat, I completed a very difficult six mile hike with my classmates. I got violently ill the day before graduation and completely missed out on all of the big family events and the last night of partying. I remember laying in my bed, barely able to move from the pain, and crying hysterically. It was definitely a combination of not feeling well, being sad about graduating, and missing out on my last night that made me so upset. Luckily I had an amazing group of friends who checked on me throughout the night and made me feel better. I almost couldn’t walk at graduation the next day. But I did. Take that Crohn’s!
Getting Off Meds Was My Only Answer (or so I thought)
A month later, a blood test showed that my chemotherapy drug levels were so high to the point of bone marrow toxicity that I immediately had to stop taking them. For a couple months, I tried to go medication free and completely manage the disease with diet. I did not want to take a biologic because of the scary potential side effects, but another colonoscopy showed that the inflammation had spread from my small intestine to three places in my colon. As much as I wanted to give myself more time to heal naturally, as a medical student, I cannot afford to be sick or I will fall behind. I hope to go medication free some day and purely manage my disease with diet, but as of right now, I am giving myself weekly Humira injections, in addition to following the paleo diet.
It can be very frustrating and disheartening when I follow the diet perfectly, sleep more than eight hours a night, exercise, and still flare, but autoimmune diseases do not play by the rules. I am very thankful to finally have a diagnosis, a supportive family and friends, and to have found the paleo diet. To me, being paleo is not a diet but a primal lifestyle. While I still have bad days and flare-ups, I cannot imagine how bad of shape I would be in if I did not listen to my body, eliminate inflammatory foods,
and feed my body the natural nutrition it craves. Thankfully, due to modern medicine and living a paleo lifestyle, I no longer fear going out on dates. I have gotten back into my exercise routine, and on my blog, I share my journey and passion to empower my readers that they too can take control of their lives, feel well, and improve their health. I hope my experiences will lead me to become a compassionate physician who treats the whole patient, not just the disease. My goal is to empower my patients to take action and live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives regardless of their diagnosis.