“Real People, Real Paleo” is a series of posts written by real people who were inspired to share their paleo story with you. There is such diversity in the challenges that bring us to a paleo diet and lifestyle and in what we hope to achieve by adopting them. These stories are intended to be a place of inspiration, written by real people, showing the diversity of our needs and our approaches to this way of eating and living, and explaining how each individual’s implementation of paleo meets their needs. By sharing these people’s stories with you on my blog, I hope to redefine what paleo success is. I do not believe that eating paleo is purely about losing weight, gaining muscle, and having 6-pack abs. I believe that paleo is about being healthy enough to thoroughly enjoy life, whatever that means for you, and about sustainability for our entire lives. If you are interested in writing up your story, contact me using the form on this page.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2007. Until that time I had no medical problems. I proudly drew a straight line through the ‘no’ section of any medical form where it asks for existing or previous conditions. Of course there are no questions like ‘Are you overweight?’ or ‘Do you drink too much?’ or ‘How are you sleeping?’ I was overweight my whole life. I drank my face off and slept mostly during the day. But medical problems, not yet…
My first symptoms of MS were optic neuritis and hand numbness. My vision was washing out when my heart rate rose. I couldn’t ignore the vision problems any longer so I went to the ophthalmologist. He sent me 2 hours away to Duke University Medical Center to a neuro ophthalmologist and an MRI. After an exam given by a student in training, the Dr. literally walked in the door, threw a starter pack of Rebif in my lap and said ‘you have MS, you need to get on this medication right away.’ What?!?!?! Have I mentioned all this was happening 2 weeks before my wedding?
I never started the Rebif. I collected my thoughts, brushed myself off and found a neurologist who specialized in MS in my town. What I had read about the disease modifying drugs for MS did not impress me. My new Dr. agreed that I could hold off on taking the meds until I had a baby. While trying to get pregnant I developed new MS symptoms like bladder urgency, leg weakness, muscle spasms and SEXUAL DYSFUNCTION!!! Sexual dysfunction while trying to get pregnant, yes, MS is a gift that keeps on giving. What I didn’t realize until it went away was that I also had brain fog and fatigue.
After a couple of months, I got pregnant (which is miraculous considering the state of my digestive health and immune system at the time) and then I got pregnant again. I gained 60 lbs both times. My MS went into remission for both pregnancies. It came back about 1 minute after I had my 2nd child in November of 2009. My legs were floppy and I was huge. I was doing all the ‘right’ things to lose the baby weight. Kashi high fiber cereal for breakfast every morning, cardio 3 times a week and weight lifting twice a week on the machines with some dumbbell work. I was working really hard for very little return. I was even having trouble producing breast milk despite my diet rich in whole grains and dairy.
Let’s get down to business. Let’s get down to the healing. Around the same time I was birthin’ babies, my little sister was discovering crossfit. And while she was doing pull ups with a 45 lb weight tied around her waist, I was reading a book called ‘The MS Recovery Diet’ by Ann D Sawyer and Judith Bacharach. At crossfit and in the MS diet book, gluten was demonized. Dairy was also demonized. That’s bread and cheese. My staples! I said ‘I would rather have MS than quit eating bread.’ And I really felt that way. Then I lost control of my legs. I needed help getting out of the car and getting started walking. My sister had given me a month free at Crossfit Wilmington for Christmas (knowing I would never shun a gift, the sly minx). I finally went in January 2009 thinking I better get started before I completely lost my ability to walk. But I went kicking and screaming.
I should add here that I was vehemently opposed to the paleo diet and crossfit at this time in my life. I resented my sister’s instant, starry eyed love for ‘the cult of crossfit’ and I really resented hearing her give me half information like ‘beans are bad.’ I would ask why and she would say ‘I really don’t know, I just heard that at the gym.’ I needed answers. I finally looked at her and said ‘I will probably, eventually decide to adopt this diet but until I do, please do not say one more word to me about it.’ She stopped harping and I started to open my mind a tiny bit at a time.
Crossfit Wilmington is just south of Camp LeJune and just east of Ft. Bragg. The owner is (semi) retired elite military. Needless to say, I saw a lot of soldiers at the gym. Combat veterans who had suffered serious injuries. But guess what these guys were doing? They were lifting incredible amounts of weight. They were completing grueling endurance work outs in record times. And they were all eating paleo. The owner had taken Robb Wolf’s nutrition seminar/ certification and he was preaching meat and vegetables only. With some berries.
I took the Crossfit nutrition class but it was geared toward athletes. I knew I was going to go ‘paleo’ but I needed more specific information geared towards a sick mom, not an athlete. I hopped on my trusty computer for further investigation and found Chris Kresser, Kurt Harris, Art Devany, Loren Cordain and Mat Lalonde. And of course Robb Wolf. I bought a video from Loren Cordain called ‘How to Treat Multiple Sclerosis With Diet’ (no longer available, but check out this link) along with 2 papers, one about why people with autoimmune disease should avoid eggs and one about why we should avoid tomatoes. I had to watch the video about 6 times and take notes but essentially it said the same thing as the Crossfit Wilmington nutrition class with even more restrictions! I thought if I found more information, I would find fewer restrictions. It was a huge awakening. I started realizing and accepting that I was about to eat only meat and vegetables for the rest of my life.
In podcasts, Chris Kresser would get all excited about incorporating buckwheat into his diet but then as an aside he would quickly say ‘of course if you have an autoimmune issue you should avoid all grains, even non gluten grains.’ And in those 2 second long asides during podcasts, I figured out the autoimmune protocol of paleo. I knew from Loren Cordain there would be no dairy, no eggs and no nightshades. Further research revealed I would be avoiding fructose, yeast, alcohol, nuts, seeds and sugar. Also, NSAIDS, birth control pills, and body care products containing gluten.
I eliminated one thing at a time over the course of about 2 months. Gluten first which wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Once I decided to do it, and after reading about what it was potentially doing to my body I put it right down. Learning about leaky gut and thinking about whole particles of undigested food floating through my blood stream grossed me out and pissed me off, frankly. Why had I never heard this before?!? I cut eggs and nuts last because I was cooking with them so much. Eliminating those was a little harder. The hardest thing to eliminate was nightshades. In Southeastern NC, where I live, the soil really lends itself to growing spectacular nightshades. They are everywhere down here, including in my own garden. Eggplant, peppers and hot sauce had become foods I ate almost every day. Losing those was really hard.
The first thing I noticed that indicated I was healing was that I started kicking everyone’s butt in Words With Friends. I remember my mom telling me how surprised she was at how bad I was at WWF which really hurt my feelings, though I too was surprised by my elementary performance considering I have a degree in English and a serious love affair with books and words. Suddenly though, I was on fire. I repeatedly trounced my mother, winning games by over a hundred points sometimes. I also started noticing not just more energy but explosive energy. I finally fully moved into my house. I had been putting that off for almost a year, but one weekend I just unpacked everything, went to a bunch of stores and did some decorating. Having those things happen really motivated me to make even more changes to my diet. I committed to sourcing grass fed and pastured protein sources and I decided to only eat local, in season vegetables.
The numbness in my hand went away and I stopped having to race to the bathroom to avoid peeing myself about a month after eliminating gluten and dairy. Around that time, my husband came to me and announced he and the rest of the family were going to eat this way too. Their support catapulted me into my ’30 day MS push.’ I committed to getting a handle on supplements, which I had been avoiding. It was and still is incredibly hard to find credible information about supplements. I found guidance on the MS Direct supplement page (found here http://www.direct-ms.org/supplements.html). My husband and I scrutinized our budget and found that with me quitting drinking, him temporarily quitting golf and all of us stopping our take out/ eating out habit we could afford to buy most of the supplements on the list for at least 3 months. That’s when the healing and weight loss really accelerated.
By February of 2011, 1 year after implementing everything, all my MS symptoms were gone. I had gone from a size 14 to a size 4 and I started a web site and Facebook page called Nutrisclerosis where people with MS could find all the resources I used to figure out how to heal. At that point, I still ran the risk of experiencing a huge set back if I ate a trigger food or let myself get stressed out or if I didn’t get enough sleep. I realized pretty early on that adopting this lifestyle meant fully committing. If I skimped on food, stress or sleep I would get an MS symptom back, sometimes one that I had never even had before. One time after eating coleslaw that turned out to have bleu cheese in it (part of me knew it was in there but I kept eating it) I lost my ability to talk because my tongue muscles were seizing up. Much contemplation that week made me realize that the cleaner you eat, the cleaner you have to eat AND that I was in this for life.
Today, I am the picture of health. I do have lasting damage from having MS. My balance is horrible (I discovered while trying to learn to snowboard and when attempting to roller skate), my eyesight is permanently compromised. Now though, I have to consistently eat trigger foods to feel an MS symptom come on. Why do I know that? Because yes, I have had times where I started eating French fries, or let a longing for babganoush manifest itself. I eat it once, feel fine and keep eating it but sure enough, a symptom presents itself. Why do I do that to myself?!? I don’t know but I suspect it has to do with human nature.
These days I am not as gung ho and rigid with the supplements. If I get glutened (which would have to be accidentally because it is something I don’t cheat with) I ramp up the resveratrol and circumin to tamp down the inflammation caused my contamination. I will probably always supplement magnesium and fish oil but I go in cycles with those. I take it religiously for a few weeks, get lazy about it then my body will tell me (usually with cramping) that it’s time to get back on them again. If I’m not taking probiotics then I am drinking my homemade water kefir or kombucha and I am always eating sauerkraut or Bubbie’s pickles. I spend time outside in natural light every day paying particular attention to morning light. If there are long periods of rain, I supplement vitamin D. I also want to stress the importance of organ meats from grass fed, chemical free animals. It took me a while to incorporate those into my diet, I started with liverwurst from US Wellness Meat which has beef liver, heart and kidney. They can be gross but they are essential.
I used to hate when people would say they feel blessed by their MS diagnosis. It made me so mad! I am beyond getting mad about such things after a few years of meditation and contemplation but I am not quite ready to say I feel blessed by my diagnosis. I am happy to feel better than I have ever felt in my life but I do still resent the damage MS has left in my body. I will continue to try to repair it and I will always try to help other MS’ers find the information they need to perpetuate this lifestyle. This lifestyle, whatever you want to call it, the ancestral model, paleo, etc. definitely saved my quality of life and my family’s quality of life.
Whitney Ross Gray is a Jersey girl at heart who now lives in North Carolina. She has a family with 2 sons, works full time running her family’s corporation and started the web site http://www.nutrisclerosis.com/. For fun she likes reading, shooting pistols, training protection dogs, volunteering with the Literacy Council and cooking. She is especially passionate about providing people with alternatives to conventional wisdom.