Lyme disease has been in the limelight lately (homophonic pun intended) as celebrities have begun speaking out about their battles with this tick-borne illness. For those of us who have been fighting the disease for months or years, it is frustrating that it takes a Hollywood star to shed light on a crippling, controversial disease. But little is known about Borrelia burgdorferi. And so regardless of what it took to bring Lyme to the attention of scientists and policy-makers, we are ecstatic that we now have a platform for our voice.
Four years ago in rural Kendalia, TX, I acquired Lyme disease (read more about that here). The joint pain and muscle spasms I was experiencing caused me to be unable to function up to my normal standards at the wildlife facility I was interning at. Though a struggle, I completed my internship, returned to Ohio for treatment, and then moved on with my life. But, like so many others who have grappled with Lyme, the disease moved with me. In Florida, I had a resurgence of the symptoms brought on by high stress. A trip to the ER left me with a hefty hospital bill and a lack of answers, including a doctor who would not listen to my medical history with Lyme. I took it upon myself to mitigate the pain and discomfort.
Cutting gluten, sugar, dairy and meat out of one’s diet has been scientifically and clinically proven to help patients with a myriad of illnesses, including those that cause joint pain, like arthritis and Lyme. This is all based on the science that these foods feed pathogens. Pathogens sit in our joints due to a lack of circulation brought about by inactivity. This is why keeping active is so important despite joint pain; exercise gets our blood circulating and diminishes this pocket of pathogens. Bacteria feed on refined sugars. Acid byproduct from foods like red meat builds up in these pockets as well, conveniently creating a feeding zone for bacteria in our body. Gluten is difficult for our bodies to digest, creating additional food waste that resides in our joints. The bacteria eat and poop just like you and me, and all that excrement has to go somewhere, so it finds refuge in our joints, resulting in further pain. Digestion of dairy causes a release of mucus inside our bodies which, due to its sticky nature, traps pathogens. See how it’s all connected?
One of my vegan mentors explained the science of veganism with this succinct description: “The theory behind a healthy vegan diet is to starve pathogens and provide the body with all the nutrients it needs without impeding normal digestion.” So a balanced, non-processed vegan diet can help an individual maintain a strong immune system and avoid succumbing to illnesses. Living off of canned beans and veggie burgers didn’t make my discomfort go away because I was still ingesting a lot of preservatives like corn syrup and sugars with long, unpronounceable names. But for anyone who thinks a vegan diet is unsustainable for the human body, I implore you to research vegan body builders. No one ever asks an elephant or an ape where it gets its iron and protein.
Months into adjusting my diet, I ran my first race since being diagnosed with Lyme disease in July 2011. The euphoria I experienced upon crossing the finish line is indescribable. I used to wake up in the morning not knowing what state my joints would be in, but I would push through my cardio, knowing the importance of keeping my bones moving. Now, six months into my dedication to being dairy-free, meat-free and relying largely on local and unprocessed foods, I wake up feeling comfortable in my own body. If I cheat on a meal, opting for a pasta dish at a restaurant or accidentally eating a dish with cheese, my wrists, knees and jaw are often painful for the next 24 hours. But I can trace the cause and effect.
Sometimes the best proof for a widely unaccepted, foreign idea is a case study, a personal anecdote. I miss cheese, ice cream and the ability to choose anything off a menu at a restaurant. But I don’t miss it enough to put my body through hell all over again. I will never let a disease dictate my life. Lyme disease does not define me any more than my vegan diet, but they are chapters in the story of my life, and I’m happy to share them with you honestly and entirely.