My name is Ruth and I want to share with you the reason why I follow the Paleo diet, and what it has done for me.
Effect of Stress
In 2012 I suffered a traumatic bereavement. This had an immediate physical impact – in particular, on my digestive system. When your body is under stress, it produces a hormone called Cortisol, which triggers the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response. And when your body switches into this mode, it dumps non-essential bodily functions such as digestion and reproduction. As far as your body is concerned, it is more important to run away from that sabre tooth tiger than it is to finish digesting food.
Cortisol causes your blood flow to be rerouted from the stomach, which suppresses the appetite. Have you ever felt gut-wrenchingly nervous before an important meeting or a big day? Did you get that feeling of butterflies in your stomach? It is no coincidence that these metaphors for stress reference the digestive system. When your body is stuck in a hyper-aware state, the last thing you feel like doing is eating.
Stress hit me hard, and it hit me in the stomach. Here are some of the more distressing symptoms that I suffered during this period:
I was also struggling with a low mood. Now this, I quite naturally assumed, was a consequence of the grieving process. However, I was not just feeling sad; I was completely sapped of energy, and very irritable. I found it difficult to be patient with people, and would snap over trivial things, or withdraw into myself in order to prevent this. I was not getting any enjoyment out of life, even when socialising, playing sport, or just generally doing the things that I used to look forward to. I was so fatigued that I struggled to walk the one-and-a-half miles home from work. We even asked a carpenter to give us a quote for rebuilding the stairs in our house at a lesser gradient, as my knees used to ache going up and down them each day. I was twenty-nine years of age.
Search for a Cure
With no idea what was happening to me, I continued going back and forth to my doctor. I was eventually diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I was told that this was a chronic condition, which could not be treated, and that I would just have to live with it. On a positive note, it would probably go away when I hit menopause. So that was something to look forward to then! In the meantime, my doctor advised me to take a dose of peppermint oil at mealtimes, as some people reported that it helped ease their symptoms. Needless to say, this did not help, and is pretty futile advise for someone suffering from a digestive meltdown. But, unfortunately, this was all the treatment that conventional medicine had to offer.
Luckily this was the point at which my in-laws stepped in and recommended that I see a functional health practitioner. Functional medicine takes a system-based, holistic approach to illness. When our bodies are under stress, they send us warning whispers. If we ignore these whispers, they turn into insistent shouts, which manifest themselves in a physical or mental malfunction. Conventional medicine follows a very direct treatment path, employing highly-trained specialists who focus on the ailing organ and treat it in isolation. This model treats the symptoms of illness, but does not delve into the root cause. While this is appropriate for acute disease or traumatic injury, it is not appropriate for treating chronic health conditions. It’s a bit like having a stone in your shoe. You can keep walking on it for a long time, gradually suffering more and more pain, but it is only when you reach the crisis point at which the stone wears a hole in your foot that conventional medicine steps in. The skin will get stitched up, and you will feel better for a time, but you still have a stone in your shoe.
Following the functional medicine approach, I completed a family medical history, lifestyle and environment questionnaires, and submitted stool and blood samples for analysis. I discovered that I was intolerant to gluten and casein, had an overgrowth of bacteria in my small intestine, and a leaky gut. This, then, was my ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome’.
When you have a food intolerance, your gut wall becomes damaged and porous, allowing undigested food particles to pass through to the bloodstream. Your body rallies by producing antibodies to mount a defence against the foreign invaders. Unfortunately the antibodies are unable to differentiate healthy human tissue from the foreign particles that need to be destroyed. This means that the body ends up attacking itself, leading to inflammation throughout the body and a host of health problems seemingly unrelated to the gut. At this time I also suffered from eczema, asthma, blepharitis, spots and regular bouts of sinusitis.
My functional health practitioner put me onto a supplement regime to rebalance my body and heal my gut. I was also put onto the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which cut out the complex carbohydrates that my body was unable to digest. The effects of the new diet were felt immediately. It was so obviously the right thing to do that I did not find it difficult to follow.
By the end of the first year, I had clawed back a close semblance to my old life. I once felt that losing a dearly loved soul had ruined my life, and that things would never be the same – a hundred-foot concrete wall had been erected, separating my life into two parts; Before Death and After Death. Well, things will never be the same when you lose someone, but you can at least hope that the pain that remains is of an emotional rather than a physical nature.
This is not to say I am completely cured of IBS. The doctor was correct in stating that it is a chronic condition. I will always have a nervous digestive system. I cannot drink strong coffee or a large glass of wine without triggering a digestive malfunction. But I can successfully manage my condition by avoiding dietary and lifestyle stresses. I can travel! I can play sport! I can lead a full and happy life!
I know I am lucky to have discovered at a relatively young age that I was unwittingly poisoning my body. But I wish I had known sooner. Because when you are intolerant to gluten or casein your body reacts in a strange way. When undigested gluten and casein proteins escape from a leaky gut and enter the bloodstream, they form substances called gluteomorphin and caseomorphin. As the names suggest, these are opiates, which can travel to the brain and mimic the effects of morphine. They cause fatigue, foggy brain, anxiety and depression. This also explains why some people feel much worse for a while after giving up gluten and casein – they are effectively going ‘cold turkey’, and suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
My sister also suffered from IBS. But she was not as lucky as me. She never discovered the underlying cause, although she suspected that she was intolerant to wheat. She died in 2012. She took her own life while suffering from depression.
For so many of us, the modern western diet and medical treatment approach simply does not work.