I thought I had a pretty good idea how to eat.
As a ten-year vegetarian, I learned to order side dishes in places where meat dominated the menu, relied heavily on pasta and other grains to feel satiated and took advantage of California's ample fresh fruits and vegetables. Then things got complicated when I married into a traditional Greek family where meals were an all day event and meat avoidance was highly suspect. I endured the jokes and practiced congenial resistance to carnivore conversion That is, until my first child died at birth.
Such emotional loss caused me to question everything.
Could it have been a lack of protein that caused my baby's hydrocephalus? I remembered reading about the need for vegetarians to combine certain food categories to ensure adequate intake of essential amino acids, but hadn't given it much thought at the time. My life was busy enough. Did I want to take on complicated eating rules? I decided, instead, that while we tried for our next baby, I would add some meat back into my diet.
Fast-forward and two healthy babies later, I was now cooking for a household of four. I retained my discomfort around meat, always preferring fruits, vegetables and grains, but I couldn't help notice that my oldest daughter, in particular, craved meat with the same intensity as my husband.
This should have been my first lesson in bio-individuality.
But, that lesson would come later, after my daughter's painful and confusing journey through complicated digestive disorders. At age 13, she was diagnosed with food allergies to gluten and dairy and told to remove these from her diet. I did my best to eliminate these at home, but it is difficult to restrict a willful teenage from eating culturally dominate foods, especially when spending time with her peers. Her intake continued as did her digestive troubles. We did not understand then, how her food allergies would morph beyond physical discomfort into mental imbalances - ADD, anxiety, mood swings and eventually addiction.
As one therapist so aptly put it, "people who are most susceptible to addiction are the ones who receive the greatest relief from their first drink, joint, pill etc…"
Research on the connection between digestive and mental disorders has exploded in the last few years, especially in the integrative and functional medicine realm, but OUR journey preceded this explosion of research on the brain / gut connection. Access to practitioners who understood the connection was rare. Mostly, we traveled back and forth between standard medical and mental health systems that treated her mind and body as separate entities - an all too common division in our healthcare system, resulting in misdiagnosis and mistreatment.
Around this time, I began to notice a larger social trend. As a high school teacher, I began to notice that too many students were struggling with anxiety, ADHD, ADD, depression and substance abuse. Why? I researched and wrote my master's thesis on the need to incorporate social / emotional learning into secondary curriculum to provide what seemed to be missing for young people in our culture. This included mindfulness training, self-awareness and self-regulation techniques.
I did not, however, fully understand the connection between diet and these troubling mental health trends until I witnessed my own daughter's miraculous recovery.
After 4 years of ill health, she was ready to remove from her diet - completely - foods containing gluten, dairy, sugar and GMOs. This was the initial suggestion by the doctor who had first diagnosed her food allergies when she was 13. Within days, her physical, mental and emotional symptoms simply disappeared. The transformation was astounding. I had to learn more. Did food really have that much power to harm or heal? I enrolled in a holistic nutrition program at Bauman College, and for the next 18 months, studied the complex dance between food quality, nutrients, genetics, digestion, absorption, lifestyle, stress and the accumulation of toxins in our bodies. It awoke in me a passion to help others navigate through these complexities, to understand root cause resolution, and to heal.