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Autoimmune Stories:

When Food Sensitivities Catch You
Off Guard

Margaux Thieme-Burdette June 10, 2019

Living with Food Sensitivities

For those of us with food sensitivities, nourishing ourselves is walking a tightrope. Even a previously “safe” food can trigger symptoms, depending on when and how it was eaten, what it was eaten with, and the amount consumed. Diet and other lifestyle changes also play into this disorienting balancing act.

The following account is a common occurrence for me. When I’m tempted to ignore my intuition, this scene floats to the surface as a gentle reminder to listen to my body and act upon what it’s telling me.

Rough Start

It was a dark morning as I went into the kitchen for breakfast, groping the walls for a light switch. A cyclone of to-do lists and worries had jolted me out of a deep sleep, insisting that my brain was alert enough to take on the day.

I warmed my porridge on the stove, ignoring the waft of nausea that fluttered up my throat. I was used to this sickly feeling at mealtimes because of chronic reflux, but after just waking up? This was odd. Still, I shrugged my shoulders and kept poking at the frozen cylinder sizzling in the pot.

Using Food to Heal

A few weeks ago I’d made a large batch of “noatmeal” and stuffed my freezer full of single portions. This version was a cozy breakfast porridge made with acorn squash instead of oats, coconut milk, and a few spices. It’s a comforting, grain-free option for those of us on certain elimination diets, like the Autoimmune Protocol (a.k.a. AIP).

The AIP approach excludes anything that could cause inflammation or exacerbate intestinal dysbiosis, like dairy, gluten, processed foods, nuts, nightshades, and sugar, while adding in more nutrient-dense foods. It involves a primary elimination period, followed by multiple reintroduction phases.

AIP has helped me get a better handle on the foods I’m sensitive to, alleviated some symptoms, and allowed for more control over my illness. I’ve since combined it with a low-FODMAP diet and other adjustments, according to what my body can tolerate. If you’re considering an elimination diet, I highly recommend working with a registered dietitian who can guide you through the process.

How Not to Relax

I was attempting to calmly stir the squash, but that long list of to-do’s invaded my headspace, circling like vultures. Don’t forget to… Review that list before the call… Gotta write that down!

Thus commenced the studio apartment verison of the hundred yard dash – kitchen to office to kitchen to office. Stirring the pot. Writing on laptop. Stirring the pot. Writing on paper. Adding raisins. Writing on phone. Stirring the pot. You get the idea. My neighbors were probably wondering if running a kangaroo daycare was my primary occupation.

I was just trying to generate a new superpower where you sprout an extra brain and limbs, and suddenly have the ability to cook, check email, write, and put on makeup all at the same time.

Just stop working by 4pm today, a voice echoed in my head, then you can relax.

Relax. This is code for spending two hours cooking dinner and eating while researching air purifiers. Speeding over to a coffee shop to meet a friend. Falling asleep while scrolling through articles about Candida overgrowth and estrogen mimickers. Waking up at 4am with a fiery, burning throat and equally burning desire to right down all my brilliant ideas before they disappeared. Falling asleep for another hour. Opening my eyes to Instagram and emails. Diving out of bed at an ungodly hour to get back on that hamster wheel.

When your body has been a mess of imbalances and inflammation for years, you start to understand that there is an emotional component to healing. Finally accepting my role in this stress-pool I’d been drowning in, I realized how much it was impacting my body’s ability to heal. Though I still lacked the tools to properly manage it.

Pushing the Limit

I dug into my to-do list while slopping spoons of squash into my mouth. Creamy, nutty, easy fuel. No time for an elaborate meal. No time to notice that I was breathing through my mouth to avoid the smell of it.

About halfway through the bowl, I had the feeling that I should stop eating. It gradually started to taste – not just smell – like vomit.

That makes no sense. You ate this two weeks ago, it’s fine.

As I continued, a low roar muffled deep within my gut. I nearly finished it, forcing the spoon up to my mouth, when the pain shot into my torso. Oh no.. not again.

When this happens, I imagine a noxious little creature crouched inside my belly, slowly wringing out sections of my intestines like wet socks. He dries them with a few thrusts of an air pump, stretching the tissue so taught it almost pops.

I got up to rid myself of tight yoga pants and put a dress on, walking gingerly to my closet as if the floor was made of broken glass. Stomach acid was crawling up the walls of my esophagus, threatening to shoot out my mouth. Every object in front of me flickered like a hologram.

When I got back to my chair, I folded over my searing, swollen bump thinking, I don’t want to do this anymore.

WHY didn’t I just STOP eating it!?

But if you were to see me in that moment, you would’ve assumed that I’d had some iffy shrimp. Or my goldfish died. Or that I’d gone a little overboard on wine Wednesday. The pain wasn’t written all over my face in streaky tears or a hot, bumpy rash.

Part of what made me feel dysfunctional was the pain, but there was another, less familiar, element. As if my brain had been taken over by a 2-year-old playing with a rubix cube. I lost my ability to focus or process clear thoughts. And I happened to be in the middle of a meeting.

Recovery

Thankfully, the work I do is centered around autoimmune disease, and therefore, moments like this when I’m on a call and can barely put together a sentence, are greeted with compassion rather than judgement.

Many of us are not so lucky, as it’s all too common for autoimmune patients to lose their jobs because of their illnesses. Instead, my symptoms serve as a catalyst for the work we do, and a constant reminder that you never know what someone else may be going through.

I stayed on the call and after about two hours, the pain, brain fog, and general malaise faded. The next day or two it would be crucial to avoid all trigger foods. But apart from a little extra bloating and stomach upset, I would go on as if nothing had happened.

I ran hot water over the rest of the frozen “noatmeal” and barely felt a prick of guilt as I dumped it into the compost bin. Now I could pretend to be normal again – until the next time.

There’s still a long way to go, but through some deep internal work and lifestyle adjustments, these debilitating episodes have become less and less frequent.

How I Prevent and Manage Unexpected Food Reactions

  • Listen to my senses. The subconscious mind is constantly giving us hints, which are important to distinguish from fear. Fear is emotionally-charged and based upon past experiences or future uncertainties, while intuition is a clear signal anchored in the present. I casually check in with myself if I’m unsure. Do I see, smell, hear, taste, or feel something that gives me pause? And I always have an ear out for that little voice.
  • Accept the unexpected. Accidentally (or intentionally) eating a food on the “no” list is inevitable. It will happen at some point. Instead of creating fear and frustration around it, I try to reframe my reaction. I can’t uneat it, I can’t turn back time. So I pay attention to the internal language rotating through my mind, and repeat, It’s ok, it happens. Nothing is permanent. This is where I am now, but it’s only temporary. What can I do to move forward? How can I treat myself with kindness?
  • Enjoy meals in a calm state of mind. I love sharing meals with others, but since I work from home and am alone a lot, I’ll read a fun book that helps me unwind and forget about the pressures of daily life. It’s also soothing to play some nature sounds in the background.
  • Eat at the table. Mealtime is a ritual for me, like my bedtime routine. Where I eat is where I eat. Period. I don’t pick at food while I’m cooking, snack at my desk, or try to multitask during meals. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are eaten at a clean, simply-set table with placemats and little bunch of flowers or small plant. It helps me stay present and focused on nothing but relaxing, tasting, chewing slowly, and digesting.