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Using Diet to Help With an Autoimmune Disease

How One Woman Transformed Her Diet in Order to Save Her Life

In 2007, a mere two months after graduating from college and marrying my high school sweetheart, I found myself in the emergency room suffering from unbearable pain in my abdomen, heavy bleeding, and a slew of other digestive complications. Until then, I had been a perfectly healthy young woman with no family history of digestive disorders and only the occasional upset stomach as a child. The hospital discharged me without a diagnosis and prescribed medication that ultimately intensified my symptoms.

A few agonizing weeks, multiple specialists, and one lengthy hospital admittance later, I was finally given a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis — an incurable autoimmune disease similar to Crohn's disease. The prospect of living the rest of my life, through careers, motherhood, and grandchildren, with an irreversible illness was an extremely disheartening prognosis and left me feeling hopeless and alone. I had always dreamt of being a wife and a mom, and those dreams seemed to be crashing down around me. I was ushered out of the hospital with very little information as to what the disease was, how it was caused, the symptoms, or the forms of relief. I was not aware of the inexplicable episodes that were to come, which I now know as flare-ups. I also was not aware of the drastic side effects that the medications would begin to cause.

About six months later, while on a humanitarian trip with my husband, I found myself in a hospital room in Kampala, Uganda, pleading for my life as I lay precariously near death. I was racked with debilitating pain that forced me into a wheelchair, became severely anemic, and dropped 20 pounds in 10 days. I was administered a daily dose of intravenous steroids, which provoked more side effects than the symptoms they were intended to mitigate. After a weeklong stay in the two-room hospital, the doctors concluded that the 36-hour journey back to the US for a blood transfusion was imperative.

That episode was the first of many that landed me in hospitals over and over again and launched me into a world of harsh drug therapies that only exacerbated my condition. When my oldest son was just nine months old, I had an extreme flare-up that caused me to be hospitalized for 14 days and require multiple blood transfusions, and it debilitated me for nearly four months. It was the darkest point of my life thus far and still conjures a flood of emotion when I recall it. My son was not allowed to visit me in the hospital, and there were many times when I was at home in bed that I had to turn him away because I was too sick or exhausted to entertain him.

We all have a revelatory moment in our lives right before committing to an extreme lifestyle alteration. That was my moment, the point in my life when I realized that being incapacitated for months at a time was not an option now that I had a helpless life relying on me to care for him. There was a tiny human being who needed his mother, and during that final hospital stay I made the commitment to always be there for him. Left with a choice between major surgery and lifelong frequent IV treatments with harsh side effects, I began my own research to explore other options, and my diet was the first to change. Although no doctor would suggest, or even support, dietary change as a part of my treatment, I realized that I had to take things into my own hands to achieve real results.

I started working with a naturopath and began eliminating food groups that are often common triggers for some, including all grains, dairy, refined sugar, and legumes, following a plan very similar to the Paleo diet. She also suggested eliminating eggs, nuts, and nightshades for a period of time until I had recovered, and prescribed supplements to replenish the lacking nutrients and heal my gut. After seeing dramatic progress after just 48 hours, I committed to the diet wholeheartedly. It took a couple of years to heal fully, but I can proudly say that I haven't been hospitalized since 2011, have weaned off of the harsh medications, and avoided surgery and immunosuppressants.

It can be hard at times to stick to it, but what keeps me pressing onward is the knowledge that the Paleo diet allowed for such a drastic personal health transformation and how much it is benefiting those that follow it. Because of this, I dedicate my days to creating delicious comfort foods that can be enjoyed on a restricted diet and, in an attempt to ensure that no one else would have to feel as alone or lost as I did, decided to share my story and recipes on my blog, Against All Grain, and in my cookbooks Against All Grain and Meals Made Simple.

A Paleo diet has not only given me back my health, but it's allowed me to be present as a mom and wife, and given me the opportunity to impact the hundreds of thousands of people who have bought my books and read my blog. I never would have imagined, while lying in countless hospital beds, that everything I went through could be used to help bring hope to so many people. As unbearable as it was, Ryan and I both agree now that we would not change any of it for the world. To be useful in such an impactful way, and out of such misfortune, is one of the most rewarding experiences I will ever have.

For a more in-depth look at my entire journey to health, visit my blog, Against All Grain.

Image Source: Danielle Walker
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