I feel like revamping my diet is a constant and ever evolving process. I don't mean "diet" as in a weight loss program, but in terms of using proper diet to treat my Sjögren's syndrome. About a year ago, I embarked on a Paleo eating plan, with the first month dedicated to the autoimmune protocol of the Paleo plan. The autoimmune protocol of any plan is super strict and is not even a diet. You can find an excellent explanation of the autoimmune protocol (AIP) HERE. It is a thirty day elimination period of the foods that are most thought to cause inflammation in the body. Due to a death in my family on Day 2, things did not go well. I know it is an excuse, but the amount of stress I was under was off the charts. I did however stick with the Paleo plan for the first half of the year, and I had some good results from it when I was compliant: most notably less pain and fatigue.
Things pretty much went to hell for me in the nutrition department (I like that word better than diet) when I went to Disney for my honeymoon. We came back the beginning of October 2013, the holidays came, etc. The worse I ate, the worse I felt. At first, it wasn't noticeable because I was on a hefty dose of prednisone to quiet down some symptoms prior to my honeymoon, but as I started weaning the prednisone, it became apparent that my food was affecting my health.
Part of the issue is not autoimmune related at all. At least I don't think it is. Once I came back from Disney, I began to realize that some of my food issues had resurfaced. By "issues" I mean addictions to certain foods. I know being on the prednisone didn't help with this, but things seemed to be worse. I was constantly craving processed food that were laden with carbs, sugar, and the such. This was not a new issue for me, but it seemed like now, the more I ate these foods, the worse I craved them. My weight creeped up and up and I felt like I was no longer in control. I know part of the carb cravings was related to the prednisone and that a lot of the foods I was eating are MADE to be addictive (i.e. McDonald's), but at the end of the day, it was still my decision to eat them. They were my choices and I was making some poor ones at that.
Meanwhile, since coming back from Disney, I had started exercising on a regular basis because I was on prednisone and that afforded me the ability to be able to do more with my body. The exercise actually helps my autoimmune symptoms, but I began to wonder about how much better I could feel if I reeled in my diet again. On a blog I follow, I read about the book: It Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. This book changed my life. Seriously.
It Starts With Food talks about the Whole 30 eating plan which is basically a Paleo diet with some tweaks, mostly eliminating any type of sugars (except in fruit and veggies). The premise of the whole plan is that you need to eat whole foods in order to optimize your body's health. While Paleo talks about how our ancestors ate as a premise for the eating plan, the Whole 30 talks a lot about the effects that these processed foods have on our bodies. It is a no-nonsense approach to getting healthy. No excuses.
I decided that I was going to do a Whole 30 (meaning you do the plan for 30 days with absolutely no cheating) and I was going to step it up by adding in the autoimmune protocol of the Whole 30. My plan was to start the day after Christmas but I had my first race, a 5K, scheduled for New Year's Day and the authors suggested not starting a Whole 30 before any big physical event, because the plan itself can take a toll on your physical body the first two weeks. As much as I HATE starting a new lifestyle change on New Year's, that was my start date.
Today is Day 16 for me. I will be honest, most of the 16 days have been pure hell because really, this is HARD!! I have a few expletives for it, but I will try and refrain...for now. Being on a Whole 30 AIP means I can eat only certain foods for 30 days and then I can start to reintroduce some healthy foods I omitted over a period of a few months to see if my body can tolerate them. By reintroduce, I mean like eggs, nuts, and seeds....not pizza, soda, or bread.
What I can eat: meats (chicken, turkey, beef, fish); all vegetables except eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, and all forms of peppers except black pepper; fruits; and healthy fats such as coconut oil and olive oil. Oh, and spices that are not seed or pepper based. That one gets tricky!
Yeap, that's it.
No grains of any sort, no dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, sugar, artificial sweeteners, sauces, additives of any type. I am sure I am forgetting some things, but you get the gist.
And this means I cook, ALL THE TIME! It is insane how much I have used my kitchen lately.I try to double up my cooking so I have something to eat for breakfast and lunch the next day, but when you are making your own salad dressings (olive oil only!) and cannot grab a protein bar when you are starving after a run, it gets tricky...and time consuming. Cheating is not allowed because even the slightest bite of an inflammatory food can have a negative effect on your gut, which is thought to be the primary source of injury in autoimmune illness. Eating out is next to impossible although I was able to twice at Red Robin. I knew they were probably cooking in forbidden oils such as canola or safflower oil, but I didn't think that would be enough to trigger me. And, I had to protect my sanity.
The first ten days or so was a nightmare for me, physically and emotionally. I had physical withdrawal symptoms, despite having had cut out gluten and dairy after Christmas. These symptoms included dizziness, dehydration, increased fatigue, headaches, and joint pain. For several days, it felt like my blood sugar was dropping several times a day. I stopped doing all exercise for the first week until I felt that things were more stable. I became extremely moody and restless as I started to crave all the unhealthy foods I was previously dumping into my body. Honestly, I couldn't even be in the same room as some of my trigger foods such as pizza, chocolate, even gluten-free bread!! I even went as far as asking my husband to take some Kit Kats we had gotten at Christmas to work with him. He forgot. I was home alone. I tossed them in the trash. Swear to God.
Things have gotten better though. The physical symptoms went away and despite weaning down my prednisone from 20 mg/day to 10 mg/day over the course of the past few months, my autoimmune symptoms are actually improving. The improvements have not been that drastic yet, except for my sleep. I am sleeping like a rock most nights for one of the first times in four years. I even dream now! And as anyone with an autoimmune illness knows, more sleep=less symptoms. Despite increasing my running mileage, most of my muscles and joints are pain-free on most days.My energy level has improved and despite having some mild respiratory issues around the holidays, my breathing is now 100% fine. No migraines and my mood is on an even keel. I have not noticed an improvement yet in my Raynaud's or dryness issues and I would say that my dryness issues are even a bit worse. But it is January in New England; that is what always happens to me.
The past forty-eight hours has seen a dramatic improvement in my food cravings. This has been quite the blessing. Although temptation is still a challenge more times than I would like, I find that I am not thinking about food so much. I have also become quite a better cook over the past two weeks! It feels freeing to feel in control.
I don't know what the next few weeks are going to bring, but I am cautiously optimistic. While I do not think that this eating plan will likely "cure" me of Sjögren's, I am hopeful that it will help control my symptoms enough to further improve my quality of life. Because as hard as this Whole 30 AIP plan is, it's not half as hard as living with a debilitating, chronic illness.