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The “Paleo Fantasy” That Saved My Life

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story [1] from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here [2]. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

Dear Mark and the Paleo community,

This post has been a long time coming. What motivated me to share this story now is all of the current criticism of the Paleo diet in the mainstream media and from certain scientists. I read through some of their findings and felt the wave of fury and frustration crash down on me. It made me think once again, “Am I doing it all wrong?” But upon reflection I realized this (following a modified Paleo diet) is the only way there is for me. If I chose to take those findings and bloggers at their word I would thus begin my journey back down a tunnel of sickness and most likely a very short life.

One and a half years ago my body felt and looked very different then what it does today. I was 21 years old and my body and mind started to turn on me. My last semester of college was on the horizon and I was set to graduate from the University of Arizona in December. In order to graduate early I enrolled in summer classes to complete needed credits. So the summer of 2011 consisted of summer school, training for my first marathon and boxing 1 or 2 hours per day. Seriously, some days I would wake up at 4am (the only time you can run during an Arizona summer) and run 13 miles and then go to class in the afternoon and go to boxing classes for a couple hours in the evening. To top it all off I had seen “Forks over Knives” multiple times and read excerpts from The China Study and had been a vegan/vegetarian for nearly 2 years. I didn’t eat a lot of junk though (or so I thought). A lot of rice and beans, granola with rice milk, oatmeal with mounds of peanut butter, and tons of salads and fruit. I shopped at co-ops and tried to buy local and organic when my budget would allow. This was my summer, a summer to tackle school and also train to run that first of many many marathons.

The first change I began to notice while I was saturated in this nonstop cycle of mental and physical motion was my weight began to plummet. I am 5 feet 9 inches tall (female) and I stayed around 140 most of the time. That summer I dropped down to 115/120. I noticed all of my clothes and belts did not fit anymore, everything just draped over my withering frame. Of course I thought, “Great! I’m going to be so thin and fit for my marathon!” I was finally developing that emaciated runner physique I had always wanted! As the summer ended and a full school course load began I started to increase my mileage and add some interval training into the mix. It-was-insane. I would wake up most days and lead an interval run with the running club, go to class all day and box in the evenings. I will also still eating a heavy-grain low-fat diet. Is it any surprise my body began to crumble?

Within the first month of school this is what I began to feel everyday: headaches, brain fog, joint pain everywhere, exhaustion, no menstruation (this had been going on for 1.5 years), shooting pains down my legs, hair loss, my toe and fingernails stopped growing, eyes were always bloodshot, depression, constant night sweats, major chest pain, constant pain in the back of my neck, major collarbone and hip pain while running, receding gums with shooting pain along my jaw line, low back pain so terrible I could not sit up straight, I could only sleep 2 hours a night due to discomfort, major pain in my face, my fingers began to look very bony and sickly and the list goes on, but those were the main offenders. I had no idea what was going on, I was terrified. After many calls home that ended with my parents being as confused as I was I set up appointments at Campus Health to evaluate why I was no longer menstruating and also see if I could get some answers about everything else I was feeling at the time.

I had loads of blood work done to test for reasons why I no longer menstruated. According to the doctor, everything they tested was within normal range and in order to begin menstruating again I should stretch daily and meditate to try to calm down; once I adopt those habits my cycle will return. At the same time I was seeing another doctor who told me my neck and facial pain were due to a sinus infection and also from bending my neck over textbooks while studying. I was promptly put on a round of antibiotics and told to adjust how I sat while studying. I took all of their instructions to heart and figured I would be good to go in a week or so. I wish. The antibiotics made me sick, so I went back and he put me on a different type. My poor poor gut flora. I was also offered a prescription for a very strong pain reliever to ease my constant headaches. I was told, “It’s normal for some people to have constant headaches, soon they go away, I can prescribe you something in the meantime to make you more comfortable.” That was the breaking point, I was furious. It had been 4 months (August to November) that I had been feeling this way and this was their solution? I spent so much time and money in campus health that semester. I would say 8 visits total, which is a lot for me. I was 21 and felt like an 85 year old with arthritis and crippling depression preparing my last words.

I stopped the running then and defaulted to the half marathon. I only boxed 3 times a week and focused more on resting. These changes, however, did not ease any of the pain. The last thing I thought I had to focus on was diet so it didn’t even cross my mind to change that. I was a brown rice and beans eating vegan who had all the answers about nutrition, right?

As December came I had spent almost 5 months in more physical and mental pain than I had experienced in all my other months of living combined. I was ready to accept this as the new normal and leave this earth young. On my graduation day I didn’t care at all that I had finished college. I wanted to be flown to the best researchers in the country so they could solve all my problems and make me who I used to be. Instead I walked across the stage with a pounding headache; my graduation robes draped over my boney frame, faked a smile in a few pictures and flew back to Colorado for the holidays with my family.

At this point I had accepted what I felt like and just tried to be as normal as possible. I started doing yoga and went skiing with my family and helped cook breakfast and dinner, I assumed this was just my fate. I thought that relaxing and changing my exercise routines would do the trick but my body still felt like it had been drenched in lighter fluid and set aflame.

The moment of change occurred at Christmas Eve mass. I was sitting between my Mom and Dad and the shooting pains in my legs were so strong I couldn’t move. I burst into tears and went running out of the church. My mom followed me out and comforted me in the best way she could. It was impossible for me to explain exactly what I was feeling, that it wasn’t just depression, it was very much a physical reaction too. One week later I was out shopping; while mulling over a tortilla purchase this thought popped into my head, “What if I’m gluten intolerant?” I went with it and bought corn instead of flour tortillas. That day I began to keep a journal of what I ate and how I felt afterward. Through the record keeping I also found that if I ate dairy during the day I would wake up drenched in sweat during the night. So I cut that too. For a while it was just dairy and gluten that I eliminated, and my gosh – I started to come back to life! Two nights after being gluten/dairy free I slept a full 8 hours and 1 week later my cycle returned. I was shocked, I started reading gluten free blogs and stories and felt this sense of power I had not had for a while.

Though so many things began to get better, I still had lingering issues, my headaches still came daily and I was still really underweight. So I decided to keep my food log going to see if I could find any other connections. It was the corn tortillas 2 months into this new diet that did me in. I had some for dinner and they seemed to rip through my digestive track and the next morning my face was broken out with pimples and I had lost 2 pants sizes in one night. It seemed like my whole body has been emptied.

After that I cut out corn and slowly began to realize the only things I could stomach and not react to were meat and vegetables (he vegetables had to be cooked). My vegetarian/vegan habits went out the window and I just ate meat and veggies. As I was explaining this whole experience to a relative they said, “oh! You’re on the Paleo diet!” I was amazed that such a diet existed. With that I began to follow blogs about Paleo and GAPS and have broadened my palate and knowledge by learning from so many who have found the true freedom that comes with this way of eating and living. I am more sensitive than most people who follow a Paleo model and too many nuts, sweet potatoes, nightshades and citrus will cause noticeable inflammation so I typically avoid those. Coffee had to go as well as I have similar reactions to it as when I eat gluten.

What has changed since incorporating this new lifestyle? I have gained 20 pounds! I am back to my normal weight. I no longer run, I walk a lot, do yoga, drop and do 20 pushups and flip large car tires at the nearby park. I sleep like a baby now. I can go for 10 solid hours without moving a muscle; it’s amazing to experience this wild shift. I also have a head of thick hair now and have to keep nail clippers nearby because of how quickly they grow. My moods are more balanced and most importantly I have a normal cycle. My headaches are few and far between. When they happen I can usually pinpoint the food or stressful situation that triggered it.

What has also been a huge help in understanding what I have gone and am still going through is meeting people with shared experience. I am doing a year of service as a volunteer in Portland, Oregon (and anyone who says Paleo is too expensive can talk to me because I manage on a very limited living allowance). The Paleo movement here is strong and I have been to meetups at the Cultured Caveman foodcart, a class on the Paleo diet taught by Jason Seib, author of The Paleo Coach, lectures by Joel Salatin of Polyface farms and Dr. Shannon Weeks, and a Paleo tour of a local grocery store. I have talked to so many people who have found healing and new internal and external strength from the Paleo diet and lifestyle. I’ve learned what works for one person in the Paleo framework does not work for another, but the shared experience of wellness and vitality is something to be continually celebrated and honored. I’m going to keep living my “Paleo Fantasy” because I want to feel well and I want to help others who have been given band aids to their health their whole life. I may have majored in English but nutrition, wellness, and healing are my passion. Thank you to Mark and many other Paleo and GAPS bloggers who have made this journey so much easier!

In peace and healing,

Caroline K.