Is eating well with chronic illness a luxury? When I first got diagnosed, I thought so. The significant pain I was experiencing in the muscles around my shoulder blades made it impossible for me to chop, stir, or sauté a whole meal – basically, to cook. My partner was more than happy to help (as long as I showed him how!), but it felt unfair. After all, he was now supporting me financially and doing the majority of the housework – since laundry, vacuuming, scrubbing, and dusting were similarly impossible for me. We tried to eat the healthiest convenient foods we could. Unfortunately, convenience isn’t healthy, at least when it comes to eating. In a previous post, I wrote about how my processed diet failed me, even though I was making supposedly healthy choices. In one year, I gained about 20 pounds, ate four times the daily recommended allowance for sugar, was woefully short on fruits and vegetables, ate too many servings of grain and too few servings of protein.
I also had hypoglycemic attacks if I did not eat on time. I remember that panicky feeling of being on transit, far away from a convenience store, and starting to feel shaky and sweaty. I also developed a number of food intolerances. I felt anxious about eating out or trying a new recipe for fear of having an ‘episode’. Not only did I have unpleasant digestive symptoms but also strange neurological ones – sweating, pulse racing, excessive salivation, skin-crawling, restless legs, and others. It was these two problems that made me feel like I needed to understand what was going on in my body and to regain control over my eating. It’s important, to begin with, a good understanding of digestive problems that affect spoonies (people living with chronic illness).
Firstly, we need to avoid food intolerances (also known as food sensitivities). Food intolerances are defined as a physical reaction to eating certain foods, such as digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, or stomach cramps. These reactions do not occur because of an immune response to a particular food – that would be defined as a food allergy. In the case of food intolerance, some people may be able to eat a small amount of the trigger food without having a physical reaction, up until they reach a threshold level. Food intolerances may occur because of the absence of a necessary enzyme (such as lactase to break down the lactose sugar in dairy), having irritable bowel syndrome, having a sensitivity to food additives, having a problem digesting certain carbohydrates (acronym FODMAPS), or for no known reason. Food sensitivities may be more common among people living with fibromyalgia and CFS/ME because of the overall sensitization of the central nervous system associated with these conditions. Research indicates that at least half of people with FM or CFS/ME experience significant relief by eliminating certain foods.
How can you figure out what foods you are sensitive to? Naturopathic doctors, integrative doctors, and nutritionists can offer tests that pinpoint sensitivities. However, the least expensive way is to do an elimination diet. You begin by cutting out the most common foods that cause intolerances and any foods that you are suspicious of for a period of time, usually 2 to 4 weeks. These foods may include dairy, gluten, eggs, soy, corn, sugar, citrus, peanuts, shellfish, and coffee. Then you gradually reintroduce one food type at a time to notice your physical reaction. If your symptoms reappear, then you know you are sensitive to that type of food. In my case, I am intolerant of eggs, red meat, and to a lesser extent, wheat. I am also sensitive to high concentrations of fiber or resistant starch. The elimination diet is best done with the guidance of your healthcare professional.
A second problem associated with the digestive system and chronic illness is the development of Leaky Gut Syndrome. Essentially, a leaky gut occurs when the lining of the intestines becomes more permeable, which allows particles of partially digested food or waste to leak into the bloodstream. Increased permeability occurs because of damage to the tight junctions between intestinal cells. When the immune system encounters foreign particles in the bloodstream, it launches a response, including inflammation. Symptoms of leaky gut syndrome include digestive symptoms, gas, bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, joint pain, and rashes. In addition to chronic inflammation, leaky gut syndrome affects the ability to digest food and absorb nutrients. Furthermore, it compromises the immune system by tying it up responding to foreign particles in the blood, which leaves it less able to respond to actual pathogens. The intestinal lining actually is a significant site of immune activity, but when it is damaged, overall immune function is impaired. How does the intestinal lining become damaged? Through food intolerance, stress, medication, flora imbalance, and autoimmune disease. Emerging research shows that several autoimmune diseases share increased intestinal permeability as a characteristic.
In terms of diet, the usual recommendations include treating Leaky Gut Syndrome through clean eating; in other words, avoiding commonly allergenic/intolerant foods, inflammatory foods, pesticides, herbicides, additives, or sugar, and rebalancing intestinal flora by consuming probiotics. For autoimmune diseases, in particular, some experts recommend the paleo diet, which emphasizes protein and vegetables, while cutting out grains and legumes. For example, Dr. Terry Wahls has written a book on how she reversed her MS through a nutrient-dense paleo diet. Supplements that can help to repair the damaged intestinal lining and reduce inflammation include l-glutamine and DGL.
When it comes to diet recommendations, I think the most important thing to remember is that we are all genetically diverse. We will all have unique responses to different foods and there is no one-size-fits-all diet. For example, I feel terrible after eating eggs or after eating a large portion of cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, etc) because I have a food intolerance to eggs and am sensitive to large portions of insoluble fiber. The paleo diet isn’t for me. However, a high-protein vegetarian diet keeps my digestion happy, hypoglycemia at bay, and generally gives me more energy. The only universal truth when it comes to nutrition is that nobody benefits from eating a diet high in processed foods, sugar, sodium, or fat. We all feel better on a whole foods diet. It can seem overwhelming to change your diet when you are dealing with the multiple, uncertain symptoms of chronic illness. The potential to improve your quality of life is worth the effort in experimenting to find what works.
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