In early August 2014, a few days after my birthday, I began to change my diet.
I’d been on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for two months now. Although it was not curing my colitis, I still had some anxiety about changing it. There was comfort in knowing what I should and shouldn’t eat. Since I was now off all my meds, diet was my medicine. What would happen if it changed?
At the same time, I was excited. Weary as I was of the now-familiar roller coaster of hope and disappointment, the new diet would be unlike anything I had yet tried. I couldn’t help thinking my same hopeful thought yet again: Maybe this will cure me.
Also, despite my fears, I looked forward to getting off the SCD. My symptoms had definitely plateaued. I consistently had three very bloody BMs a day, and although there’d been moments of excitement over “having my energy back,” that energy always departed again after a day or two. I was still often too tired to even go for a walk. Ron’s joining me on the diet had revealed that my fatigue might be from the diet itself, rather than from being sick: Within days, he complained of the same catastrophic energy crashes I’d been experiencing for months. After a week he’d abandoned the diet. I’d reluctantly supported that decision. As good as it felt to share food, we couldn’t afford for both of us to be listless–not with our move looming in less than two weeks!
Now I’d finally be abandoning the SCD, as well.
I’d be switching to macrobiotics, which is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the SCD. Macrobiotics is vegan with Eastern roots, while the SCD is paleo and developed in the United States, so, as Kipling says, never the twain shall meet.
I’d first learned of macrobiotics back in May. A friend in California emailed me a gripping, inspiring blog post by Sarah Yates Mora, a gal who brought her Crohn’s disease into remission with macrobiotics. Her story had stuck in my head. Amidst the ups and downs of the SCD, I began rereading her post.
Much of Sarah’s experience resonated profoundly with me. i was becoming a shadow of myself, she writes, too weak to do much of anything and too sick to do much about it. i was so scared. Upon first being diagnosed, she says, i started googling like it was my job. the more research i did the more scared i got. i learned that crohn’s is an incurable autoimmune disease in the same family as ulcerative colitis…i was horrified to learn that i would live with this for the rest of my life…i was even more terrified by the treatments which my doctor told me were standard, the only option i had: steroids & immune suppressors. At first she followed her doctor’s advice and tried steroids, but, as had happened with me, they just made things worse. At last she decided to deviate from her doctor’s advice and try healing through diet. She says, even though it was scary to veer away from western medicine, i knew that i was facing a quality of life i could never be happy with.
All of this was achingly familiar.
The diet Sarah chose was macrobiotics. It worked for her. Following Sarah’s recommendation, I bought Virginia Harper’s Controlling Crohn’s Disease the Natural Way, an engrossing memoir. Harper brought her Crohn’s into long-term remission with macrobiotics–at the time she wrote the book, she had been symptom-free (and med-free) for twenty years. There are stories like this with the SCD, too…but perhaps, I thought, some bodies need one diet and other bodies need another.
Macrobiotics originated in Japan, and was brought to the US in the 1950s by Michio Kushi. The diet became a popular health-food craze in the 1970s. Its name comes from its emphasis on whole foods and a whole, balanced lifestyle: macro-biotic, or large-life. It is different from the SCD in almost every way.
As with the SCD, many things are to be avoided in macrobiotics–but they’re different things. Sugar is to be avoided, while the SCD allows honey, to sweeten your probiotic yogurt. Probiotic yogurt, and all dairy of any kind, is forbidden by macrobiotics. So is meat–no more plain, broiled turkey patties for me! Caffeine and alcohol are also to be avoided, which the diets have in common. Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes) are another no-no.
The biggest difference is grains. While the SCD forbids grains of any kind, macrobiotics teaches that each meal should be at least 50% grains. And they should be whole grains! This meant that macrobiotics completely departed from everything I’d heard elsewhere, from the SCD and Dr. Dahlman’s diet and even my conservative Western doctors. Go back to eating whole grain brown rice, that evil food sure to scrape up my inflamed gut with all its nasty fiber and make things even worse? This was madness!!!
These differences stem from the diets’ different philosophies about healing inflammatory bowel disease. The SCD’s goal is to starve bad bacteria that feed off of carbs, replacing them with the good bacteria in probiotic yogurt. Bad bacteria are seen as the culprit. Until inflammation is reduced, all foods must be low in fiber, with skins, seeds, and peels removed.
Macrobiotics, meanwhile, says that IBD is caused by an over-acidification of the gut. Meat and dairy require uric acid to be digested, and that acid builds up and acidifies the whole gut, which causes damage. Some foods, themselves, are also acidic, like citrus fruits and tomatoes. To counter this damage, the gut must be brought into balance through “balanced” foods, and here is where macrobiotics takes the plunge off the deep end for me. Because “balance,” in much of macrobiotic literature, refers to yin vs. yang.
Yin and yang was a familiar concept to me, ever since my days studying Kung Fu in my teens and early twenties. I vaguely understood that yin means feminine energy, which is softer, more fluid, more relaxed and forgiving, whereas yang is masculine, harder and unyielding and aggressive. This concept made sense to me, and lingered in my mind even though I had abandoned Kung Fu long ago. The more I read about macrobiotics and saw references to yin and yang, and the need to bring the life and body into balance, the more sense it made. I was likely too yang. I tend toward ambition and anxiety and productivity, and often default to anger when I’m stressed. I had long thought I needed more softness in my life.
But I could not get behind macrobiotics’ assignments of yin and yang to food.
In macrobiotics, meat and dairy are yang, while sugar is yin. I could see that somewhat–meat is often associated with men and aggression and muscle, while women often speak of having a “sweet tooth” or a chocolate addiction. But macrobiotics treats the yin and yang of food as a science, with charts showing where, exactly, an eggplant falls on the spectrum vs. a cup of green tea vs. a French fry. To me, the assignments seemed arbitrary–I couldn’t make them stick in my head. And my inner scientist was deeply skeptical.
The point of it all is to aim for balance, though, which I did understand. You want to eat the foods that are supposedly neither very yin nor very yang: the whole grains and root vegetables and seaweed, which all fall near the middle of the spectrum. Refined grains are digested more quickly, releasing more sugar more rapidly into the bloodstream, causing more extremes in the body. We must eat whole grains instead, to get their slow, balanced release of energy. Despite other diets’ admonishment to stay away from whole grains during a flare, macrobiotics insists that an inflamed gut can still digest them–they just need to be well cooked, and possibly pulverized in a blender, and well chewed.
Speaking of chewing, here was another bizarre but sensical thing about this diet: Macrobiotics’ trademark is extensive chewing. Proponents advocate chewing each bite perhaps 50 times–50 times!–because saliva is alkaline and will help alkalinize the digestive process. Not as much digestive acid will be needed to digest a well-chewed bite.
By consuming balancing foods, macrobiotics believes, gut and body and whole being are brought into balance. Inflammation calms down. And along with diet, macrobiotics involves lifestyle changes such as meditation, therapy, massage, and keeping a simple, tidy house. Doing whatever is needed to reduce stress, creating a calm life and infusing your life with balance.
While I was skeptical about the yins and yangs of my food, I could believe that the results of the diet, and the lifestyle, would still be good. As I wrote to Mom and my sister, “Coincidentally,” these also happen to be the healthiest foods by Western standards too: whole grains, legumes, and veggies, especially root veggies for people with IBD. It’s basically a vegan and largely wheat-free diet. I mentioned the stress reduction piece and added, I figure, even if the diet doesn’t work, all of the above will be really healthy in the meantime!
I didn’t start macrobiotics cold turkey, so to speak. Unwilling to waste food, I did a slow transition, eating my way through the last of my probiotic yogurt, mushy carrots, and turkey patties while beginning to add well-cooked whole grain brown rice, seaweed, and miso soup into the mix.
The results, at first, were mostly unpleasant. For the first few days, I had bloating and discomfort and pain in my gut, while I had largely been pain-free for the last few weeks. Then I began to feel an ache in my head and my neck, and as it worsened it dawned on me that this was my first-ever migraine. I’d heard about them, but had been spared them all my life. Not anymore. Only now did I grasp what sufferers go through. The crippling, debilitating pain. The need to shield oneself from all light. The inability to think, to stand, to watch TV, to read. The throbbing, pulsing waves of pain would come and go, thankfully, allowing me time to do a few meaningful activities. A farewell gathering with friends on our back lawn. Stand-up paddleboarding, one of the few bucket list items we would manage to do. Then the pain would return and send me reeling back to the couch, praying it would end soon and never return. As I lay there, Ron cooked, ran errands, and boxed up the house all around me.
And yet, despite the obvious downturn, I still felt stubbornly optimistic about this new diet. Beneath my pain, I did notice some changes for the better. I seemed to be having fewer BMs per day. And I was tired, but the crashes that had plagued me for months had subsided. I must be digesting my whole grain brown rice, after all. It was performing its slow-release energy magic.
There was something else: The macrobiotic food felt good. When I ate the miso soup, or drank the exotic umeshokuzu tea made from pickled plums and kuzu powder, a subtle burning sensation I often felt in my gut seemed to ease. I had gotten so used to this burning that I didn’t think of it as pain–it was more like a buzzing energy. When it subsided with these soothing liquids, it was like I could actually feel my inflammation going down. Was I imagining it? Somehow I didn’t think so.
I wasn’t sure what caused the migraine and the bloating. I imagined the change in diet must be shocking my system the way a massive weather event can shock the landscape. The storm last month had left our lakeside strewn with downed trees, the skeletons of warped docks sticking at odd angles out of the water, houses ribboned with police tape where roofs had blown off. Maybe that havoc was like the disease in my colon. And maybe each new diet was like a fresh rain atop the debris, causing even more strain and adjustment, but working, always, to saturate the soil and infuse it with new life.
In spite of my headache, in spite of my discomfort, in spite of my ongoing fatigue, some spark of hope in me was blossoming. Intuition told me I was on the right track.