Thanksgiving to My Health, Part 1: Being Vegetarian Made Me Sick
It’s November now, and with T-Give coming up, I’m naturally thinking a lot about the things I’m grateful for.
But actually, there’s one thing specifically I’ve been particularly grateful for every day since 2011, and that is my restored health. See, people (and no one could’ve been guiltier of this than me) take so much of their physical capabilities for granted — that is, until those capabilities are stripped from them by illness or accident. You only have one body, and you won’t know how much it really does for you — or how much you’ve truly taken it for granted — until it fails you.
That’s exactly what happened to me, and in honor of finally being a darn near regularly functioning human body again (some of what now ails me has no cure) after nearly a year of desperately searching for answers, I’d like to share some of what happened to me, in the hopes that someone else who’s going through or will go through what I did can save themselves a lot of trouble that I couldn’t.
Super-important disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, and I can only detail what worked for me. No matter what, whether you’re sick or just considering a new dietary lifestyle, you’re still going to have to educate yourself as well as see a medical professional of some kind — Western, Eastern, homeopath, naturopath, shaman, whatever. People think they can just hop into any old diet and everything’s going to be OK, but this is simply not true — especially if you have any kind of pre-existing conditions (in which case, I urge you to pay extra-special attention to what I experienced, because you may complicate your health issues further, depending on the diet you choose).
Still, in the quest to heal, I absorbed loads of information — both helpful and harmful — that might assist others.
There are many ways people go about understanding their bodies. In other words, there are lots of dietary regimens out there that seek to optimize one’s physical being via focusing on a particular element. There’s the Eat Right for Your Type book by Dr. Peter D’Adamo, which focuses on using blood type to determine one’s optimal diet. There’s also Dr. Elliot Abravanel’s Body Type Diet, which focuses on body shape and cravings to identify what type of diet might best suit a person. (And just for clarification, when I say “diet,” I mean what a person eats, not what a person does to lose weight.)
These are just two resources I’ve found particularly helpful to me, especially in light of the both rather extreme vegetarian/vegan and Paleo/Primal diets that seem to be popular right now. A really old Italian man (the only kind of Italian man that should ever be listened to, incidentally) once told me, with great gusto — complete with the raised, shaking fist — “Eat everything!” Well, that isn’t going to happen — I’m too picky an eater — but there’s a truth about health hidden in his words, as evidenced by the Italian matriarch of my family, my grandmother, who literally did eat everything — I’m talking bone marrow, rinds of fat off meat (along with the meat, of course), sweetbreads, dandelion leaves she actually had me pick out of our lawn, and more — and lived to be 93.
At this point, it might be helpful to provide a few facts in order to understand a little bit about where I’m coming from when I say everybody has to find what works for them from a dietary perspective, and there is no one diet that will work for everyone, no matter what anyone out there says about it. The proof, for me, is simply what I’ve lived through, and I’ll always believe my own personal experience over any propaganda — educated or otherwise — anyone else has to deliver. While the title of this blog may mislead you to believe I am against vegetarianism, I am not, except in my own case. I realize there are many health benefits to, as well as admirable spiritual and political reasons for, being vegetarian or vegan for some people. Some people can get away with being vegetarian or vegan, but for me, it made me sick as a dog — twice, in nearly exactly the same manner, which I do not consider to be a coincidence. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced this.
Now, circling back to those two books I referenced earlier, here’s a brief profile:
- Always either underweight or right in the appropriate BMI place for my height
- Type O blood
- Thyroid-type body shape (according to the assessment in Dr. Abravanel’s book)
The last two items alone, if you look at the two resources I mentioned above more in depth, would indicate that I should eat meat and cut out a lot of carbs for optimal health, and the fact that those two different resources — considering entirely different sets of data — have so much overlap in what they suggest is right for me to eat is rather eerie. But again, I said I rely most upon my own personal experience, so let me detail what happened to me that convinced me that I could never be a healthy vegetarian.
Round 1: I meet my first vegans… and my first battle against my intestinal flora
At 22, I found myself at a terrific little literary press, working on events as an intern. This was before “vegan” was a household term, so imagine my surprise when J and K, two coworkers slightly younger than myself, announced that they were. “What’s that?” I asked.
If you’ve ever actually known a vegan IRL, you won’t be surprised by the much more than an earful I got about veganism, amongst other things (like this little urban legend about a McDonald’s chicken sandwich that did indeed fool me at the time). Nevertheless, I like animals and am not a fan of slaughter (unless it’s this Slaughter), so I thought I could at the very least give vegetarianism a try.
With far less literature available and easily accessible on the subject, I began this first stint without vitamins. And did they even sell probiotics back then? (If they did, I certainly didn’t know about it.) But I did have youth on my side. I stopped eating meat entirely, but kept dairy and eggs.
In a few short months, instead of glowing, I was graying. No, literally, my skin was actually losing its youthful glow. My hair started breaking, if it didn’t completely fall out. And no, this wasn’t my body going through a “healing crisis” or “detox,” as most vegetarian or vegan propaganda will tell you. My body was going through a severe malnutrition crisis.
Of course, I did lose weight; in fact, my stomach started sinking in, my boyfriend at the time pointed out to me. This was again due to a lack of proper digestion and a subsequent lack of nutrients that just reinforced the lack of proper digestion. It was a downward spiral for my health in those few short months I sustained the diet.
So it’s no surprise, then, that I got the first bacterial infection I’ve ever had in my life outside of strep throat I caught from a friend at school as a kid. My digestive tract was completely jacked from this vegetarianism thing.
It got worse when I had to take an antibiotic — so much worse, because then I essentially had no good bacteria left to help me digest and heal. I then began experiencing terrible pain in my lower abdomen, along with a yeast infection.
Then I had to take an antifungal medication — killing off even more organisms that might’ve helped me digest and heal. The pain in my belly, however, remained.
Unable to find a Western doctor with any explanation for my experience (everyone just wanted to throw more pills at me), I sought counsel from a recommended Chinese medicine practitioner and acupuncturist. After 6 months of acupuncture, taking a tea called tan kwe gin, eating red meat as rare as I could stand it once a week, drinking a glass of red wine once a week for circulation, and eating a small square of dark chocolate every day (also to improve circulation), not only did my health return, but I was doing better than I was even before I stopped eating meat. I put some weight back on (digesting again!) and felt great.
Round 2: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, I’m a moron.
Fast-forward about a decade. I was still at a healthy weight, and I’d even gotten some muscle definition from working out at the gym for a year (first time in my life). I was literally at peak performance, seeing improvement even in minor but chronic health issues I’d dealt with since I was a child. All was right in my little world.
And that’s when I got the brilliant idea to try to be a vegetarian again.
“I could do it better this time around,” I convinced myself. After all, there was so much more literature out there, so many more people living the lifestyle to learn from, supplements galore, etc. I would still eat eggs and dairy, and I would take vitamins to supplement anything I would miss out on from the meat.
I remember so distinctly the many people who told me not to do it — and I’m even talking people who were vegetarians themselves, believe it or not. But I was certain this time would be different, and I didn’t heed the warnings.
And I was actually right. This time, it was different. This time, in addition to the gray skin and breaking hair, I got horribly dry skin and these weird little bumps on my forehead, like pimples without heads, that would bleed when squeezed. This time, it took me longer to develop the exact same bacterial infection I’d gotten in my 20s. But this time, getting sick knocked me so hard on my tuckus that it took me over a year to recover to mostly normal again; I’m still not where I was two years ago health-wise, and I probably never will be.
I went through the same antibiotic and antifungal treatments as before, starting November 2010; oddly enough, the antifungal cleared up the rash on my forehead, which I can only assume now was yeast-related. But by March 2011, I was having terrible pains in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen, right near my ribcage. And you know that song you sang as a kid about No. 2? Well, try having that for months on end.
Worst of all — I know, like everything I said before wasn’t bad enough, right? — I began experiencing strange bouts of lightheadeness, physical weakness and sensations I could only come close to describing to others by using the word “weird” — as in, “I’m feeling weird; I think I’m going to pass out.”
Sure enough, I’d become a reactive hypoglycemic seemingly overnight.
It was dark times for little Rae Rae, that’s for sure. My vegetarianism — begun both times with such good intentions — had rendered my body susceptible to infections, and once I started taking any sort of prescription medication, things got even worse than I ever could’ve imagined they might.
Thankfully — though it took many months, many doctors, many frustrations, and many tears — I did find some answers, which I’ll include in later installations of this blog, to appear throughout the month of November, in honor of recovery.