We Literally Are What We Eat

Few modes of healing have the power to transform us as quickly and profoundly as eating the right foods for our bodies. I have literally thousands of stories to tell, including my own, to substantiate this claim. And, hey, who can refute the fact that the molecules we put into our mouths become—quite literally—who we are. That’s just simple, plain, hard science and truth that defies argument.

What we can argue about is what constitutes the best eating strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all program here. This is genetic and biochemical individuality in action. What is best depends on our genes, our level of function, our needs, and, yes, our desires and preferences. Food is not only a mechanistic strategy for fueling our lives and cultivating health, it is also a source of profound social, emotional and creative culinary artistry, which must be respected and nourished. Food should support and elevate us. It is also fun and joyful.

Meet Joy and Gary

Joy came to see me for severe back pain for the first time at age 52. It had plagued her for years. She had seen many medical specialists about it and received many therapies that did not work. At one point she was diagnosed with bulging lumbar discs at several levels and underwent multi-level lumbar laminectomies with spinal fusion to correct what was thought to be her problem. The discs were surgically extracted and the vertebrae, now missing the cushions between them, had to be fixed into alignment by screws. Sadly, this procedure did not help her pain, in fact it created a great deal of suffering and trauma and created new problems, as you can imagine the hardware in her spine might create.

She came to see me as a last ditch effort after reading about Functional Medicine and hearing that I saw people with “mysterious” chronic, complex problems. After taking a very thorough history starting with her birth and early childhood, it became clear that she had long standing problems with inflammation. It started with recurring upper respiratory and ear infections as a child for which she received numerous rounds of antibiotics. She had asthma. She received antibiotics for years as a teenage to treat cystic acne. She suffered from intermittent bouts of diarrhea and constipation through out her teens and up to the present time. She had experienced terrible PMS and migraine headaches until menopause just one year prior to our first encounter. She was also profoundly tired, depressed and felt like she had lost her way in life.

I did a thorough evaluation and exploration of her nutrition, stool analysis and a metabolic workup. There were a handful of nutrient deficiencies, very low diversity of her gut flora, though no overt pathogens, her thyroid was mildly deficient without elevations of thyroid antibodies and her inflammatory markers, CRP and ESR, were very mildly elevated. I decided to start her with the basics: a nutrient dense food plan that would also reduce inflammation and contribute to healing of her gut. Her years of antibiotics, NSAIDS and SAD more than likely resulted in impairment of her intestinal permeability. This would be the genesis of the systemic inflammation she had been experiencing her entire life. She felt a bit daunted by the number of restrictions possible as I explained the “ideal” food plan to her. We settled on strict elimination of gluten, cow’s milk, processed grains and sugar for a one-month trial while we waited for lab tests to come back. We also started a supplement regimen to address the nutrient deficiencies (in addition to food), added EPA and DHA from fish oil and curcumin to help with the inflammation.

To my delight when she returned in one month, after having observed the food plan closely, she had experienced complete resolution of all back pain. Her energy was soaring, her head was clear and headaches were gone. She felt like a new woman. Repeat lab work showed normalized thyroid tests and normal inflammatory markers. Because of the dramatic nature of her response to these relatively simple interventions, she was highly motivated to continue them for life. We decided to follow her closely and to explore additional food eliminations in the future if it became necessary.

This is not an unusual case at all. I see people like this and share this kind of journey with them all of the time. It’s come to be what I expect. Food is powerful. It modulates our genes and every aspect of our physiology. There is no health condition that we can’t use food as part of our approach in very powerful ways. That this is not mainstream medicine at this time in our history is shocking. But it’s coming. Functional Medicine is here to stay!

Some folks need more intensive food plans to heal. Gary came to see me when he was 64 years old and had been through decades of severe joint and muscle pain. The pain was rather diffuse but seemed to concentrate along his spine and sacroiliac joints. He had been diagnosed with multiple autoimmune disorders, including sarcoidosis, ankylosing spondylitis, autoimmune thyroiditis and celiac. He followed all of the instructions provided to him by his various doctors and subspecialists. He had taken immune suppressive drugs to reduce the inflammatory response but still felt “crappy.” He was tired of throwing drugs at the problems when they clearly were not working. He had renal insufficiency and liver damage from the inflammatory process and was very concerned about where this might all be going. Most importantly, his energy was very low, he felt depressed, he was short of breath, he felt lonely in the throws of a divorce, had retired early due to his illness and was trying to find a better way in his life. What he really wanted was to be out of pain and happy again.

His journey to recovery took some unexpected twists and turns before we got somewhere good. We put him on an intensive food protocol designed to treat autoimmune conditions (the Gut-Immune Recovery Intensive Nutrition–GRIN–Food Plan). This helped but he continued to have a very stiff back and hands. It was hard to move around. We discovered that he was sensitive to coconut, which he had been using as a healthy fat source and an alternative protein since he was off all grains, beans and legumes. He was also “cheating” with coffee regularly (a bean and potential inflammatory trigger). Once he excluded coffee and coconut he experienced complete resolution of back pain and his hands were much better. He had extensive erosive osteoarthritis in his hands so was at a mechanical disadvantage there, though he was quite happy with the improvement. Of course we optimized nutrition and supported his adrenals and detoxification (particularly in light of liver impairment). To our delight his kidney and liver tests all improved with subsequent lab evaluation in addition to the improved function, energy and wellbeing. Here is how he describes how he feels today: “Since going strict on the food plan I feel better than I ever have. I have more energy and after a good workout, I may feel a bit sore but still have an invigorated feeling.  Prior I was too sluggish to even work out.  Today I walk somewhere between 6 and 12 miles a day, workout at a gym at least 3 times a week and do yoga once a week.  I also try to meditate although so far this has been sporadic but when I do it the day seems to go better.”

My own story was similar, though I fortunately did not have to submit to devastating back surgery for what turned out to be a systemic problem. I also had become a metabolic disaster from a myriad of functional problems that evolved and snow balled over the course of my life. My healing depended greatly on a meaningful food plan that addressed nutrient repletion, reducing inflammation and repairing my gut. Eating well for me, and for so many of the people that I work with, is a non-negotiable part of our healing and very much a part of our ability to reach a higher state of vitality and live happier lives.

The Tenets of both the Liftoff Foundational Intensive Nutrition Food Plan and the Gut-Immune Restoration Intensive Nutrition (GRIN) food plans are Simple:

  1. Eat Real Food Only and Always
  2. Avoid All Processed and Refined Foods
  3. Avoid All Sugars
  4. Eat healthy fat
  5. Eat enough healthy protein to meet your needs
  6. Eat mostly plants
  7. Feed your microbiome
  8. Eat fresh food, farm-to-table, seasonably
  9. Eat mindfully, joyfully and socially
  10. Don’t eat too much of anything

In addition to these basic tenets of healthy eating it is important to avoid all harmful food, that is foods and food contaminants that can promote injury or inflammation, such as food allergens, irritants, pesticides and plastics.

Your food plan needs to be individualized so that your eating strategy best addresses your special needs such as gut repair, detoxification, methylation, reversal of inflammation or autoimmunity and support of energy production.

The Liftoff Foundational Food Plan is available here. The details of the GRIN food plan is available by signing up below.

KARYN SHANKS MD

Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the science of Functional Medicine, body-mind principles, and wisdom gleaned from the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-five-year career. Her work honors each individual and the power of their stories, their inner wisdom, and innate healing potential. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves. She is the author of Liftoff, a manual of energy recovery and healing through essential self-care practices.