If you have spent much time in the rheumatoid arthritis community, or researching natural remedies for chronic illnesses, you have no doubt seen the claims that a change in diet can do everything from improve symptoms to cure the disease entirely. While I’ve personally not found any evidence that food can cure RA altogether, I have both seen and experienced the often talked about reduction in inflammation that a proper diet can give.
The fact is, there are many foods that can and will increase the level of inflammation in your body. The list of potential “trigger foods” (things that increase pain and inflammation by causing an immune response from the body) is long and somewhat perplexing. Common trigger foods include such things as sugar, gluten, dairy, nuts, and various fruits and vegetables, and depending on who you ask, meats and many oils and fats as well. Upon compiling a list of potential inflammatory foods, in fact, one might end up with the impression that all food is inflammatory. Luckily, not all “trigger foods” trigger symptoms in all people, great news as food is an essential part of staying alive and variety is rather nice if not entirely essential to one’s survival.
Unfortunately, the variety of possible trigger foods paired with those individual responses to said foods, can make it a rather daunting challenge to sort out what foods are doing you more harm than good. As a firm believer that plants are indeed the best medicine for many ailments and that your body is only as good as the blocks you build it from, sorting out what foods I personally should and should not eat has been at the top of my list of ways to help manage RA from the start. Several years, and many different anti-inflammatory diets and elimination trials later, I can solidly say that sugar, gluten, corn, some dairy, sweet potatoes and bananas should not enter my body. Notice I say should and not don’t, because, well I am human, a human with a complex relationship with food, as many people have.
Ask me for a list of my favorite comfort foods and the problem quickly reveals itself. I have developed a habit over my lifetime of taking comfort in the things that feed the fires of my body. As it turns out, this is, in the long run, not so comforting. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and old crutches are easily picked up when life smacks you in the face. Doubly so if those smacks from life result in stress and an increase in inflammation, making dietary restrictions to slow that down feel futile and not worth the willpower. Since you feel like hell anyway, might as well eat the cake, right?
I’m sure some of you are baffled that I would choose to eat something knowing full well it will cause me pain later, I’m just as sure many of you agreed wholeheartedly, eat that cake and take the short-term comfort. Having lived all my life in the latter group, I am finally, after years of work on self-love and building healthy stress responses, leaning toward the more reasonable, less damaging choice, leave the cake and take a walk to clear my head. That shift, and the trials that lead me to know for certain that the cake was not helping me, were not simple, straightforward journeys. Like every journey worth taking it has been full of ups and downs, and more than a few dense thickets that I had to chop my way through. So, when my most recent foray into figuring out how to better feed myself ended in a briar patch , it was not entirely surprising. What was surprising, was how well I’d done up till then.
When people talk about elimination diets like the oft touted AIP, they go into great detail about all the things you remove from your diet. What they tend to gloss over is, how much of a challenge it is for many of us to change our daily eating habits. My first several toe dips into sorting out my trigger foods ended quickly and pathetically, leaving me feeling like a failure. They made it sound so easy, you just eat what is on the list and avoid what isn’t. Without any need to calorie count or limit the amount of food you eat; it sounds simple enough to fill up on foods that should be good for you. I’m sure for some people it is, however, those people obviously have a different relationship with food than the rest of us.
For the rest of us, filling up on good for us food does nothing to diminish our longing for that forbidden fruit. When food has become much more than nourishment for you, when it has also been a security blanket you use to soothe the wounds of day-to-day life, breaking those habits and sticking to the plan can be a massive challenge. A challenge I have circled and poked at most of my adult life. The key, it turns out, was learning how to treat myself with love and value my independence. I’m pleased to say, my most recent foray into sorting out food triggers proved to me that I have finally climbed to the top of that mountain. I know how to keep loving myself and caring for my needs even in crisis. A huge shift from my former smother it in sugar and keep moving self.
My most recent attempt to determine what I should eat and shift into more healthy eating habits, a 6-week run at Keto, went better than any previous attempt at giving up foods that include cake. Having figured out that substitutes just make me crave things more, I shifted into a whole foods diet free of “treats” and, after the adjustment period, enjoyed several weeks of reduced inflammation and increased energy.
Just how much it was helping proved itself around week 5 when my husband’s rare autoimmune blood disorder attempted to take his life, as I stuck to the plan through the entire harrowing journey and 10-day hospital stay that followed. Knowing my stress level was through the roof, my routine was blown all to hell and my activity level was walking the halls trapped in a hospital…I was amazed at how alright I felt. Leaning into the things I could do to support myself, was getting me through the most stressful experience of my life, without so much as a limp to show for it. I stuck with it, right up to the end of our stay, when I finally thought to check my own patient portal. There I discovered a message from my doctor expressing her concern over my latest liver and kidney function numbers, which had drastically spiked in the past month. A short email conversation with her later, we felt fairly sure of the answer, ketosis added to the strain of medications, tipped the scale and landed me in the danger zone. The following month’s blood results confirmed that suspicion.
As good as it was making my joints feel, it seemed keto was not going to work for me after all. The good news? I had affirmed that I could feel better if I avoided certain things. More importantly, I had learned that I could avoid the things that caused me pain, even in a crisis. Unfortunately, I still landed in the briar patch at the end. This time, though, I didn’t feel like a failure, because this time, I didn’t falter, though I did have to give it up in the end. One great thing about facing a problem proud of how you got there, knowing you can handle it makes the task ahead feel less enormous. I may not know what diet my entire body will tolerate quite yet, but I have many new clues. More important, now I know I can let go of what is not helping me. With a little work and the right tools, I feel sure I can sort this out. So, back to the food and symptom journal I go. Having trouble sorting out what is helping and what adds to the fire? Download my free printable symptom journal today.
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