Growing up, I had what I considered “growing pains” from as far back as I can remember until I was in my 20s and realized that I had stopped growing a loooong time ago (reality check to being only 5’1”). They were these internal bone aches – often in my joints – that would really only go away when I took a painkiller. My sophomore year of college, there were a few months were I had a consistent, moderate to painful ache in my shoulder joint that I just couldn’t shake. Around the same time, my little brother was diagnosed with CRMO, an autoimmune bone disorder where the marrow of his bones inflames and puts pressure on the bone itself. My mom in her 20s battled rheumatoid arthritis and tests always came up flagging for lupus or a mild rheumatoid factor. We kind of put two and two together and realized that myself, my brother and my mom all seem to have some of the same genetics (duh) which manifest into some form or another of autoimmune inflammatory bone disorders.
Throughout college, my flare ups of rheumatoid arthritis came and went. I never really pinpointed what would trigger them. Sometimes it was not sleeping enough, sometimes it wasa night on the town with a few too many drinks, sometimes stress, sometimes they came out of nowhere. I learned that an Aleve or two would generally quell any pain. I never really considered changing any aspect of my lifestyle, since I could never really pinpoint when I would have pain or not. This all changed when I started my job after college, and I was traveling from Washington, DC to New Orleans every week. I put on weight (something about the food in New Orleans…unsurprising, right?) and the arthritis was consistently really bad. But I was exercising almost every day, and trying my best to be as healthy as possible. In November, I got a bad bout of food poisoning and had to take antibiotics. I have NEVER experienced such a bad flare up as I did when I had to take antibiotics. I had to have some teammates come into my hotel room in New Orleans to help me put on my jacket and sweater in the morning, and it hurt to sit, type, everything. No amount of Aleve fixed it. It was quite a scare, especially when I was far away from home.
Throughout the year, the arthritis waned from moderate to mild, but it never went away. I started experiencing a lot of digestive issues. Doesn’t it seem like everyone in their twenties has some form of gastrointestinal issues these days? My symptoms were identified as possibly Chrone’s Disease, possibly Colitis, possibly IBD – you know, the works. Tests came back negative, but I still experienced symptoms and bad arthritis. Haven’t we all been there, with that un-diagnosable digestive distress? I was still taking doses of Aleve pretty heavily for the arthritis as well, but I didn’t really correlate the two.
In the springtime, my mom sent me the NYTimes article “The Boy with the Thorn in His Joints”. It BLEW my mind. So many of the symptoms this boy experienced – additional pain with antibiotics, etc – mirrored mine, while of course his disease was much more severe. This family tried multiple pain killers and arthritis medications, and nothing seemed to work. The Aleve I was taking regularly (almost like a vitamin at the beginning of the day) didn’t seem to do much anymore. It was when his mom made the conscious decision to change his diet that his world changed. I was floor by his story.
Two summers ago, inspired by the article, I completely cut out gluten and dairy. I started taking a probiotic pill and two fish oil pills daily. The arthritis went away almost immediately, and I was pain-free all summer. It honestly seemed like a fricken miracle, and it was in those months that I learned the power of nutrition and the impact that the food we choose has on how our body functions.
After three months of no gluten or dairy, I started integrating those foods back into my life again. I continued with the supplements. I lost the weight I had gained in New Orleans. I fell in love! I learned what foods my body reacts well to, and the foods that cause the digestive distress. I really started to pay attention to when I feel good, and when I do not. The arthritis pain only comes back every now and then, and when it does, I know I have a way to manage it that is outside of the hard-on-the-belly Aleve. I can often predict and prepare for when I will have gastrointestinal issues, which makes life so. much easier.
The point of my story is not that diet is a cure-all. However, we can’t think of food as calorie-for-calorie anymore. Especially for those folks who battle with autoimmune disorders and gastrointestinal issues, slight modifications to the foods we choose can make an enormous difference. I think that it is really important to experiment with all kinds of nutritional balances to figure out what works for you, especially since the inflammation food causes can often be something that isn’t immediate to notice. But I noticed a huge impact once I started to actively take note of how I feel based on how I fuel up, and the awareness that I’ve gained has changed my life. So that is my story!
If any of you would like to chat about your experience with autoimmue/digestive disorders and nutrition, please feel free to reach out to me. I would love to hear your stories and compare notes and recipes!
Disclaimer: These are not professional medical opinions. I do NOT believe that diet can fix all medical issues, as there are many autoimmune disorders which require medical attention and pharmaceuticals.