Early in 2012, at age 38, I was diagnosed with primary Sjogren’s Syndrome, an incurable, inflammatory, autoimmune disease characterized by fiery joint pain, fatigue, and severely dry eyes and mouth, among other potential symptoms and complications. This diagnosis followed a much earlier diagnosis, in my early 20s, of perniosis, an autoimmune disease which causes sensitivity to the cold, and manifests as painful swelling in the fingers and toes. Not content to be a passive patient in facing these little-understood diseases, I started this blog as a way to chronicle my active participation in managing my health. I believe it’s my responsibility to be my own best health advocate, to educate myself, and to actively engage my doctors and other health care providers in finding the best answers for me.
Crafting a Personalized Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Phase I
The Strategy: During the first six months after I had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, I set out — with my doctor’s approval — to craft an anti-inflammatory diet that might improve how I was feeling. I started by cutting out added sugar and limiting my consumption of foods with very high concentrations of natural sugar, like dried fruit. Most nutritionists recommend that healthy, adult women eat no more than 26 grams of added sugar daily, while most Americans eat up to ten times that amount! I set myself a goal of consuming no more than 20 grams of added sugar per day. In order to achieve this goal, I also had to cut out most processed foods, which was a good idea anyway in order to avoid food additives, chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA), and trans fats, all of which promote inflammation. In the first six months after my diagnosis, I resolved to:
- Limit added sugar intake to 20 grams per day
- Cut out almost all processed foods (although I do still buy some, such as almond milk and the occasional can of beans, e.g.)
- Cut out all baked goods made with refined flours, and limit consumption of baked goods made with wholegrain flours
- Cut out all fried foods and refined oils
- Refined oils are laden with inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids, so I rely on mono-unsaturated oils like olive oil, avocado oil, and grapeseed oil in most of my cooking. I avoid canola oil because it is so heavily refined that all of its health benefits have been stripped.
- Increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables
- I start each morning with a breakfast smoothie packed with frozen fruit and fresh greens, and try to make sure vegetables make up the biggest part of each meal
- Add more spices to meals, especially heavy-hitter anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric and ginger
- Eat only free-range, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, organically raised meat and eggs
- Since organically-raised meat is usually more expensive, I prefer to eat meat less often so I can make sure that when I do eat it, it’s the best quality I can afford.
The Results: Within the first month of changing my eating habits, I started to notice a pronounced difference in how I felt. On a scale of 1 to 10, my pain went from being in the range of 6-8 to the range of 1-3 on most days. Being in less pain on a daily basis gave me the energy and will to start being active again, so I started attending hot yoga classes, which in turn helped increase my mobility and energy. I was feeling better, sleeping better, and enjoying my life more. Best of all, my rheumatologist agreed to take me off the controversial drug he had prescribed, and to let me try managing Sjogren’s with diet and exercise, along with a few vitamin and probiotic supplements.
Crafting a Personalized Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Phase II
The Strategy: Even though I was feeling much better on my new eating plan, I still wasn’t satisfied. I felt a lot better, but I was still painfully aware that I was “sick.” The more I read about nutrition research, the more I worried that undiagnosed food sensitivities (which are very common in patients with autoimmune illnesses) might be contributing to my inflammatory conditions. Then I read Julie Daniluk’s Meals That Heal Inflammation, and decided — again, with the support of my doctor — to go on an elimination diet to identify the inflammation triggers particular to my own body. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: the elimination diet was really hard to stick with, especially because it makes going out to eat (whether at a restaurant or a friend’s house) almost impossible. However, it was so worth it. Here are the foods I eliminated from my diet:
- Wheat and other gluten-containing grains and products
- Corn and corn-based products (including cornstarch, corn syrup, xantham gum)
- Nightshade vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, white potatoes, eggplant (this includes not only nightshades in their whole forms, but also anything containing ground pepper or potato starch, e.g.)
The Results: The elimination diet made me feel amazing. My joint pain completely disappeared, and I experienced more sustained energy than I have felt in years. In my yoga practice, I experienced a sudden and noticeable increase in strength, stamina, and flexibility. After eight weeks, I started adding the “forbidden foods” back into my diet one at a time, recording my reactions in a food journal. The process clearly revealed a sensitivity to dairy, and a strong intolerance to gluten, which is further supported by these studies:
Now I’m living gluten and dairy-free, exercising daily, and feeling better than I could have imagined. I still have ups and downs, but I’m enjoying many more good days than bad since making these lifestyle changes, and I recover far more quickly from flare-ups than I did pre-diagnosis, which keeps me motivated. Thanks for reading my story, and I hope you’ll visit again to exchange insights and experiences with healthy eating and active, joyful living!