I am one of the quarter million people in the U.S. diagnosed each year with an autoimmune disease. About 3% of Americans have an autoimmune disease and there are as many as 80 different autoimmune diseases that have been discovered. They are difficult to diagnose because they often have symptoms similar to other diseases. Some of the more common disorders are Celiac's Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Pernicious Anemia, Lupus, and Type 1 diabetes. Most people with an autoimmune disease have another one as well (but may not even know it). This is because when you have an autoimmune disease, your body can't tell the difference between an antigen (a toxin, virus, bacteria, or tissue from outside the body that leaks into the blood stream) or healthy tissues in your body.
I began to develop arthritis in my joints about 10 years ago. It began in my knees and moved to my shoulders, first the right shoulder then the left. I had trouble biking and even hiking was becoming difficult. My shoulders became so painful, I couldn’t find a place on my body to sleep at night that didn’t hurt. When I got up in the morning, I could barely walk to the bathroom. My joints would stiffen up after short rides in the car. I just chalked this up to middle age arthritis, and accepted that this was my new reality. I finally went to a doctor for some relief and he treated me with corticosteroid shots in my shoulder joints, and it really helped for a while. But the pain always came back. Sadly, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to get very many shots in my lifetime because there were many bad side effects from using steroids.
In this same period of time I seemed to have a very weak immune system. I got every cold and flu that came around. Many of these would hang on for weeks at a time. Often they would develop into bronchitis or pneumonia, which could go on for weeks with painful coughing episodes. After years of bronchitis/pneumonia episodes I had severe scar tissue in my lungs and developed asthma. Now I was having breathing issues and was taking asthma medications and inhalers.
This was a really hard time for me. I never felt good, I didn’t sleep well, and I was stressed out a lot with going back to college and raising teenagers. I often went to class sick. I remember taking a final when I had bronchitis and was coughing uncontrollably. I was so tired from not sleeping that I almost fell asleep while driving my car to get to the testing center.
Finally, I got my degree and got a teaching position at a local elementary school. My health continued to go downhill. I was sick a lot that first year, which you are told is “normal” for a new teacher. My face was always red and blushed looking and my eyes began to be bloodshot all of the time. I began to notice that my hair was falling out, particularly on my arms and legs. My scalp was inflamed and itchy. One of my fingernails was dissolving. I was gaining weight.
My doctor told me my cholesterol was high and put me on statin drugs (Heart Disease too...you've got to be kidding!). He suggested a dermatologist for my weird skin problems. So I went to a dermatologist. His diagnosis was a rare autoimmune disease called “Graham-Little-Piccardi-Lassuer Syndrome”. He told me all my hair would eventually fall out because my immune system was attacking my hair follicles and systematically destroying them. Once they were destroyed, scar tissue would develop and the hair would never return. My fingernails would degrade, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was given a topical steroid to slow down the hair loss but was given no cure for my disease, and no hope that I wouldn’t continue to loose the hair on my head. I was just glad that it wasn’t something life-threatening like Type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
I began devouring literature on autoimmune diseases and reading the scientific research gathered by medical doctors like Dr. Joel Fuhrman. I poured through health blogs, and books about nutrition and determined that diet was the key to my health. Around this same time. I watched a documentary on the internet (at earthlings.com) called “Earthlings.” This film depicts the inhumane treatment often found in the cattle, pork, dairy, and poultry industries These animals are often treated unethically and cruelly. They are fed food that isn't their proper diet (like "corn fed beef"). Then they are pumped up with antibiotics because they are always sick. They are injected with hormones to bring them to puberty more quickly so that they can be slaughtered sooner. They live in filthy barns with little space or sun. We treat them with no respect as if they are our slaves, and then we eat their sickly meat. So I became vegan and quit eating meat, dairy, and egg products. I thought, "nothing has to suffer or die so I can eat."
But what should I eat? I had heard of vegans who were unhealthy and some who were remarkably healthy. What was the difference? My nutritional research was pointing me in the direction of “Nutritarian” eating as the solution. A “Nutritarian” is someone who eats foods with high nutritional content and leaves out foods with low nutritional content. The foods with the highest nutritional density were foods like dark green vegetables, colorful vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, berries, seeds and nuts. So my plant-based diet became focused on what Dr. Fuhrman calls G-BOMBS. This acronym means eating a daily diet that includes Greens, Beans/legumes, Onions/garlic, Berries (all kinds), and Seeds and nuts. These foods are full of phytochemicals and antioxidants needed for superior nutrition and for boosting the immune system.
The changes didn’t occur overnight. But in a few weeks I began to feel better. The more plants (G-BOMBS, in particular) I ate and the less animal products I consumed, the better I felt. First I gave up meat products. Then I began using nut milks (soy, almond, rice) instead of cow's milk. I cut out cheese and butter next. I replaced everything with whole plant foods, eating raw green salads, beans, mushrooms, curries, stir fries, and mexican food. It was a little challenging to eat out, so I mostly cooked at home. (Since then, we have found many great vegan options at our favorite restaurants). I wasn't counting calories or limiting the amounts of food I ate. I only tried to eat whole plant food sources. Soon I began to effortlessly drop weight. My hair quit falling out. My fingernail returned to normal. The pain in my joints vanished. My red face and bloodshot eyes healed. I rarely get a cold, let alone pneumonia, and my asthma is gone. My cholesteral is normal.
My parents raised me on fresh vegetables and fruits from our garden. I decided to return to those roots and put together a cookbook with all healthy family recipes using whole foods and mostly plants. I discovered many delicious recipes that took the sting out of not eating dairy and animal foods. It has been a fun and remarkable journey.
Along the way, my passion and enthusiasm have infected many people in my family. My husband is my biggest supporter and fan. He had already made dietary and lifestyle changes that had lost him 50 lbs. When we became vegan he promptly lost 20 more. He loves all the new dishes that I prepare and gives suggestions for improving them (like,”hey, let’s throw some cashews in that curry"). He loves to make and eat smoothies that are power-packed with spinach and blueberries and other fruits. Most of my 6 children eat plant-based diets now. Some of my sisters are also getting interested in these ideas and making changes in their diets.
Some friends are openly hostile to the idea of a plant based diet, even when they can see my transformation. People are as passionate about their diets as they are about their religions. And there is an enormous amount of disinformation about diet out there.
I would like to share my growth and experience as I continue managing (and even reversing) these autoimmune diseases and learning how to cook healthfully from a vegan perspective. I welcome your comments and experiences. Following posts will cover many health related topics including; Resistance to Veganism, Blue Zones, Supplements; Do we need them?, Recipe of the week, You Might be a Vegan If....