THE BLOG

Looking Beyond Medicine: How I'm Fighting Chronic Illness With Diet

10/06/2014 09:01 BST | Updated 09/08/2014 10:59 BST

Exactly a year ago my life started to change.

I have always been ill. I grew up with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that caused me unbearable pain and frequent dislocations. It had a huge impact on my life. EDS stopped me participating in most of the normal kid/teenage activities that my friends did, limited the amount of travelling I was able to do, the sports I (couldn't) play, and even the future I wanted. I'm still totally bitter about my inability to go to drama school in New York. And y'know, being in pain your entire life kind of sucks.

I pushed through to the best of my ability. I graduated, I worked, I started working on my own business, I began my MA...and then a year ago something else happened. I started to get symptoms that were entirely new to me. I started getting dizzy, lightheaded, tight chested, constantly nauseous. I couldn't stand without needing to pass out, I couldn't eat half a banana without thinking I was going to die and needing days to recover, rolling around in bed in agony.

Over the course of the year I got progressively worse. I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and Histamine Intolerance. I stopped being able to work (even on my own projects on my own terms), get out of bed, or even think. I was severely depressed and insanely unwell.

And then in January, I reached a point of desperation. I was being put on more and more drugs that were making me increasingly unwell. I wasn't being offered anything of substance from the field-leading professors I was seeing...beyond more drugs to experiment with. I thought I'd never be able to get out of bed again, let alone work. I didn't feel like I was living on this planet.

When you get to that point, you look for any answer you can, and are willing to try anything. I had been to see a dietician because I couldn't eat and was losing a huge amount of weight. Honestly, at the time that was my silver lining. Being in too much pain to exercise regularly I was never happy with my physical appearance, and this was what I called 'the easiest diet in the world'...until it really wasn't. She suggested the I try the low-FODMAP diet, which is specifically focussed to help people with IBS. I have a lot of gastric issues, but IBS is not one of them. Half of the foods I was told to eat made me insanely sick, while many I was told to cut out were ones that I could tolerate. I was almost at the end of my tether with the medical profession at that point. No matter who I saw, it seemed like nobody could help me.

I remember the day things changed. It was January 1st. The night before I was so miserable. I was too unwell to go out and have any semblance of a social life, so I stayed home and just ate. And ate. And ate. Whatever I wanted. Who cared? That had been my 'thing' in December. I was starving, I was miserable, and everything made me ill. I might as well eat the foods that made my mouth happy. I overdid it so much on the 31st that I realised I needed to find something that would help me.

I've always felt that food had to play a role in illness, but I was never really given any advice, no matter how often I asked. Luckily, I do love a bit of a Google, and after a few days, I was starting to find something. I came across the incredible Kris Carr, who is managing incurable cancer through dietary changes, Deliciously Ella who is now in remission from POTS, and Yasmina Ykelenstam, who had managed to get histamine intolerance under control by focussing on healing through food.

Honestly, when I started, I didn't really know what I was doing. I had no supervision and overnight just decided to change my diet. I cut out everything: gluten, dairy, meat, sugar, high histamine foods. There's probably more. Basically, I cut out everything and focussed on a very small list of 'safe' foods.

This wasn't really much help to me. The first 3 months were kind of self-experimentation and research time (online, in books, and on myself). There was a huge amount of self-sabotage, and although I did see improvements, it wasn't anything marvellous. And then, I started taking things seriously.

I decided to focus on only feeding myself foods that were going to help me heal. High nutrient, anti-inflammatory, natural, plant based foods. Tell this to a girl that had an addiction to peanut butter grilled cheese sandwiches, and it's not the easiest transition, I'll tell you.

I started off slowly. I made a green juice every day, and was inspired by Clean by Dr. Junger. My system needed a reset, so I had about 80% of my meals as liquid for quite a while. Although this might sound quite extreme, I was actually 'eating' way more than I had been in months, and giving myself the nutrients I needed (I love you, green juice) without my body needing to use up a day's worth of energy in digestion. Even today, when I'm feeling unwell switching over to mainly liquids helps me so much.

And after a while, I started seeing results. Like, crazy results. It has been slow going and extremely difficult, but I am now actually able to eat full, proper meals like a normal person. And it's awesome. Not only that, but I'm able to work (small amounts from home), go out a few times a week for short periods of time, and exercise again. I feel like I am incrementally getting my life back on track.

I strongly believe that diet, exercise and lifestyle play at least an equally important role in managing and living with chronic illnesses as anything else can.

I don't have any crazy expectations. I don't know how many of my illnesses or symptoms can go entirely into remission, especially the EDS because it's structural. And I'm not saying that this is a 'cure'. But if I'm able to live a life that has some semblance of reality, I will be happy. I'm still unwell, and find every day a very real struggle and I know I have a long way to go. But focussing on my diet and lifestyle has allowed me to feel as though I am taking control (in my own way) of my illnesses. I am doing everything in my power to help myself. Personally, I don't feel like medication is right for me. While it definitely has its place, and many people have had a huge alleviation of symptoms, it's just that. Drugs treat symptoms and not underlying causes. I may have felt differently if I hadn't been so ill every single time I was put on a new pill (you know the rarest, weirdest, most unpleasant side effects that no one gets? I'm the one that gets them), but for me, I'd rather put my energy into doing what I can to treat my systemic problems.

I'm now on a plant based, gluten free, sugar free, high nutrient, anti-inflammatory, juice infused, smoothie obsessed, rotation diet. I very rarely eat anything out of a packet (even if it fulfils my diet criteria), and I spend most of my daily energy on preparing my food. I have slip ups (it's normal when you make such dramatic changes), but I know that what I'm doing is right for my body. I self-sabotaged a few days ago (thank you, hormones) and noticing how unwell I got after eating 'bad' foods made me realise just how far I have come, and how much what I have been doing is helping me. In just a few months I have seen such progress, and am so curious about what will happen if I continue on this journey.

If you're interested in seeing how this all works on a day-to-day basis, you can follow me on Instagram at @nutritiouslynatasha and read my blog at www.natashavseds.com.