When a mom in my support group (for what, I'll detail in a moment) wrote that she was chronically exhausted and didn't know how the rest of us get through our day and that "even five Red Bulls" couldn't help her keep up, I knew I had to take time to share my path with her with the hope that I might be able to reach her.
Some backstory: I turn 42 next month, am married, and have two daughters: an 11 year old and a 6 year old. We have two new puppies and live in suburban California. We own our own theatrical production company, producing events and live theatre throughout the West Coast with plans for our Off-Broadway premiere this winter.
Probably reads like a regular ole' family but of course, what family is regular? Our second daughter was born with severe brain damage after a completely normal pregnancy. A lack of in-utero oxygen caused her brain damage. She is 100% non-ambulatory, non-communicative, g-tube fed, and dependent on others for everything. My story about my daughter is what I'm usually asked to blog or talk about: telling others about our birth story, sharing how I get up and live each day in the face of such struggle, yada yada yada. ;)
But now, after a year of enlightenment about our country's food options, I'm eager to share my story about how, in just one year, I went from lost and barely able to function, to found and happy and inspired.
Last March I went to my OB (who knew my birth story and was aware of my then five years with a brain injured child). I wrote her a long letter explaining how I was just in terrible shape. I was exhausted, moody, depressed, short tempered, overweight (I was 5' 2" and 170lbs.) I also told her that although I was probably a candidate for the Anti-depressants Poster Child, I really wanted to explore other options before making the choice to start drug therapy. She listened. And then handed me a scrip anyway stating my neuro-inhibitors simply weren't firing and that the drug would help me feel better. I asked when I could come off the drug. She said, "well, never."
I left and sat in the car for an hour crying on the phone to my mom. I just didn't want to take the drug. I've never considered myself a health nut but have always had an instinct that told me chemicals weren't my solution. At that point I was resigned to thinking I'd be exhausted and angry forever. A week later, while in the hospital with our little one for a 72 minute-long seizure, I saw one of those infommercials for a juicer. It talked about how great they are for all sorts of ailments. I thought, I could do that, and there's no way my family gets enough veggies. (I'll note here that I was NOT a cook. My idea of cooking was a box of mac and cheese and some frozen broccoli. When asked what I'm making for dinner, my answer was usually "reservations." We ate out A LOT. Like, sometimes two meals a day with breakfast consisting of a bowl of dry cereal.) So, I bought the Ninja 5000 or whatever it was called and started eating smoothies and juices; not exclusively, just here and there like for breakfast.
A month later I caught that PBS special with Dr. Amen talking about the Omnivore diet and how the body and mind reacts to food. It was quite illuminating and another dose of awareness for me. I didn't buy their DVDs or books, but I made some other small changes to my diet like limiting dairy, knocking off sodas, and increasing my veg portions.
Now, once you start posting comments on your facebook page with words like "smoothies", "healthy", and "green", like-minded posts start showing up your feed. Suddenly, I was seeing images with graphs and reports about aspartame poisoning and unclean food and GMOs. Again, very enlightening and enough to compel me to stop drinking diet soda and, quite a bit more shocking, convince my very diet Coke-addicted husband to do the same.
But the real kicker for me happened late 2013 when someone on Facebook shared a TedTalk by Robyn O'Brien. That's when I woke up. She was saying everything I was thinking about what I was putting into my body, and shining a light on the amazing crisis in our country with regard to syndromes and diseases that are very likely being brought on by the massive amounts of processed foods we eat on a regular basis.
In March 2013 my list of daily complaints included those already stated above about chronic fatigue, mood swings, and depression (all of which I readily chalked up to "life with a brain injured child") as well as constipation, gas, reflux, headaches, back pain, tired eyes, skin sensitivity, crummy looking hair, red blotches on my face and other cosmetic gripes, nasal allergies, and the worst PMS a person could have. I could not keep from dozing off during therapy sessions with my daughter. I felt whooped by the middle of the day. I felt like even a good night's sleep did nothing - I woke up exhausted. I thought I was eating well but never lost the extra weight I was carrying. And once a month I turned into an even more unrecognizable person because of such severe PMS.
Today, in March of 2014, I can tell you with sincerity that ALL of those symptoms are gone. Today, I have energy and lots of it, especially considering what I deal with on a daily basis. I am even tempered, far better at managing stress, and do not lash out at others anymore like I used to. (My 11 yr old sure noticed that change!) Gastro issues? Gone. Daily sneezing and painful swallowing from allergies? Gone. Skin, hair and nails? Strong and clear. Weight? Lost 15lbs in three months. Headaches, back pain, neck pain? All gone. And most of those changes happened within less than a month of my finding this miracle cure.
Now it probably sounds like I'm about to sell you some magic pill or tell you to join an online cult. Nope. The beauty of this miracle is that it is 100% attainable without any drugs or quick fixes or brain washing. My answer to that original question, 'how do you do it?' is simple: the overabundance of processed foods and absence of whole foods in my diet was absolutely responsible for everything that ailed me, especially feeling exhausted.
I didn't make the change overnight but over the course of a few months I started to change the way I ate. I started to really understand how food is used by the body and I also learned how what most of us consider to be food isn't really what the body needs and craves.
For me, food was an addiction. I know we use that phrase a lot but I believe there really are foods with addictive properties that make the body think it wants more of it. Once I stopped eating those foods, my body calmed and I was able to hear its demands. Once I met the demands, the cravings for pasta and rice and pizza and cereal stopped. Completely. Those were ALL of my go to "foods." Now, I don't see them as food at all because there is nothing nutritional in them at all. For me, those items are just something to have in the same way you'd have a glass of wine. You wouldn't substitute wine for water and call it hydration. That's how I feel now about processed grains.
It's hard to summarize all of what I've learned but here are some high points:
> My 41 year old body (and come to think of it, my body at ages 25-40) is not able to process processed foods. If I eat them, I have immediate physical and emotional changes, none of which are pleasurable. Once I started eating real, clean, whole food my body thanked me for it in multiple ways that make getting through the day entirely manageable now.
> My body seemed to constantly cry out for something - and because I didn't know what it was, I fed it more bread and pasta and cereal and sweets. It was really saying, "I want the nutrition you're not giving me and I'm going to keep triggering your craving button until you put the RIGHT food in me."
> I was incapable of losing weight while eating fake food. Once I started eating all whole food, the weight fell off.
> My kids have caught bad colds numerous times in the past year that I did NOT catch, even though I would usually succumb to everything those cute little petri dishes brought home. And the one cold I did catch over the summer followed a weekend of pizza eating when I "fell off the wagon."
> I also noticed an IMMEDIATE change in my neuro-typical child and husband when I started serving them real food. (Yes, I cook everything now.) They aren't fully on my band wagon because change is very hard but even the reduction of processed foods and the increase of whole vegetables and fruits made a huge and noticeable in their behavior and gastro health.
I could on and on but for me the miracle was in finding whole food (meaning, making sure that two/thirds of every meal I eat is comprised of real fruits and/or vegetables with the other third a whole protein like chicken, turkey, beef, fish, or quinoa), and avoiding all processed foods whenever possible.
This isn't a diet, this isn't a fad. Yes, you can label it an edited "paleo diet" or "omnivore diet" but to me, it's more than that: it's about realizing that our country is failing us by repeatedly assaulting us with a barrage of marketing for products sold by corporations telling us what to eat.
Is weight loss a nice byproduct? Of course, if you need to shed the excess for the purposes of good health. But what's far more exciting to me is remembering what life felt like before and realizing I don't ever have to feel that way again.
Over the past year, I've advocated switching to an all-clean food intake plan to those in my circle and am met with varying levels of interest or denial. I get it: it's entirely daunting because it probably seems like you'll be depriving yourself. And assuredly: if someone had told 2013 Shannon that she would no longer eat pasta, pizza, rice or cereal, she'd have laughed in your face.
My hope? Maybe just one or two generations from now, people will say things to each other like, "Can you believe we used to poison our people like that with processed foods???" "I know, right!? I can't believe we EVER put things like that in our body."