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Just doing a little health inventory… Apart from a couple of patches of eczema on my hands, and an imprint of my yoga mat pattern on my forehead from an over-grateful Child’s Pose this morning, I seem pretty whole and well.
3 years ago though, this was not the case. The eczema had got to an unbearable point. It infiltrated all areas of my life, and made every single second a misery.
I could never make up my mind if it was worse to have eczema on my face, or on my hands. If it was on my face, I’d feel ashamed about going out in public, looking as if I’d suffered 2nd degree burns, or I had face-planted in a bowl of acid. But if it was on my hands, the mundane tasks of the day became insurmountable mountains. I remember once breaking down and sobbing because I’d picked up a cup of tea, and I felt my skin break in about three places.
Anyway, during this particularly terrible time, I didn’t even need to make up my mind, because I had eczema everywhere – hands, face, neck, arms, knees and back.
I decided it was finally time to take action. I decided it was time to undertake an elimination diet.
Although I had tried cutting dairy from my diet when I was 8 or 9, it had only lasted about a week or so before the attempt was abandoned. I think my mother was secretly scared that I would die of starvation if I couldn’t eat cheese or butter.
An elimination diet is pretty hard core. I did a lot of research and isolated the foods that were commonly known to be allergens, plus a list of foods that I had always suspected weren’t my friends.
The list looked something like this: Soya, eggs, nuts, seeds, cereals (oats, barley, wheat), beef, pork, chicken, anything cured with sulphur (ham, bacon, salami etc), shellfish, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, chillies, aubergines, ALL dairy products, ALL fats and oils, sugar, yeast, corn/maize, all legumes – peas, beans and pulses. It could have been subtitled – ‘My Favourite Things’.
The idea was I exclude all the above products for 2 or 3 weeks, and then reintroduce each item, one by one, documenting every single response – pulse, digestive health, sleep patterns, any allergic reactions, and mood. This was a looooong-term commitment, but I was determined to get to the bottom of any food sensitivities I might have.
I was left with a tiny list of food that I COULD eat – mainly leafy greens, fish and rice. Which sounds so healthy, right?
I was not prepared for the immediate and visceral reaction of my body to the new regime.
I woke up the next day, having hardly changed my diet at all, with a raw, angry-looking face, swollen eyes, and aching limbs and joints. I assumed that I had coincidentally caught a virus or similar, but the symptoms weren’t constant – they changed and shifted, almost by the hour.
I was grumpy, tired, emotionally unstable and suffering from a hayfeverish wheeze and itchy eyes.
I was also very confused. I had expected to find it difficult to be strict with myself, to turn down my favourite foods, to eschew meals out at restaurants… but I hadn’t expected to feel like crap the moment the diet started. In fact, I thought I would feel instantly better after removing all those possible allergens from my daily intake.
I went through several elimination diet forums, and found that many people had similar experiences, but they put it down to sugar-withdrawal. The thing is, I don’t eat much sugar. I don’t eat cereal, drink tea or coffee with sugar, I don’t like sweets or even chocolate that much. What on earth could be causing this physical deconstruction?
Having tried to approach this scientifically, I’d overlooked the fact that I was a sentient human being with thoughts and memory. I KNEW what was going on, and my brain was sabotaging the experiment in every way it knew how. It was a rather terrifying, instinctive reaction from my body – the mindless snarl of a wild animal protecting itself from intrusion and change.
Over the next few days, the situation worsened. I could barely see, my eyes were that swollen, and the skin on my upper body felt as though it was being eaten alive by fire ants. And yet, I’d hardly made any changes to my life – in fact, just good changes. I was eating fish, green vegetables and brown rice, plus variations of the above. It really wasn’t that different to my usual diet.
I felt as if I had split into two parts. One part wanted to move on and make positive changes to diet and attitude. The other part hated the idea, and felt threatened by these new concepts. In the ensuing tussle, my physical body was the collateral damage. If my body was a control room, those two thugs were battling it out in there, like the climactic scene from a James Bond film; crashing into levers and buttons, causing malfunctions and sirens to blare, tripping circuits and releasing poison gas into the system.
That experiment proved to me, beyond doubt, that the mind and body have to work together to achieve health. They ARE separate things, but they each hold the life of the other in their palms. Forcing a new, healthier diet on my body was pointless until I had dealt with my psychological food hangups, because part of me would resist the change and make progress impossible.
I did stick it out for several months, however, and the violent reaction gradually calmed down. When I reintroduced some foods, there were a few surprises. I assumed that wheat and dairy would definitely be triggers…but they weren’t. There was no reaction whatsoever. But I DID react adversely to potatoes and barley. However, none of the reactions were significant enough that it was worth making any permanent dietary change. I went back to my usual diet.
The conclusion: My experiment was inconclusive.
My advice to myself now? ‘Eat what you enjoy – IN MODERATION. If there are foods that make you feel bloated or uncomfortable, then leave them out. But don’t think of them as banned foods, otherwise you’ll crave them 24 hours a day. Think instead of substitutions – enjoy the challenge of creating recipes which use approved ingredients. Be creative. Be clever.’
P.S I have LOTS of recipes that I devised and perfected, through trial and error, during those difficult months. I was determined not to be deprived of the meals I liked, so I was at my most inventive, conjuring up gluten/dairy/fat free biscuits, creamy curries, chocolatey treats with no chocolate, cheesecake with no cheese, and flatbreads and pizzas with no flour. Please message me if you find yourself in a similar position and you’d like any of these recipes and tricks. xx