Last winter, inspired by Michael Pollan’s Cooked, I started slow-cooking stews and enjoying them over organic brown rice or quinoa, a diversion from my Paleo-ish diet. About the same time, however, I was experiencing an achy-empty feeling in my gut that would come and go, then come again, only worse. I ought to be soaking my grains, I thought, maybe they’re upsetting my stomach.
Why soak grains? Like nuts and legumes, grains contain enzyme-inhibiting phytic acids, which are nature’s perfect way of keeping grains, legumes, and nuts from sprouting until there’s enough precipitation to ensure their success. By soaking these foods you mimic optimal growing conditions and minimize phytates, which, along with lectins, another anti-nutrient, often irritate the gut lining. Phytates can also cleave to minerals including calcium so that we can’t absorb them.
But soaking my rice and quinoa didn’t help. I stopped eating them and recommitted to a Paleo diet. My discomfort only increased. Soon I was suffering from the symptoms of nighttime reflux, which made sleeping through the night, well, impossible. I felt horrible and went from 115 pounds to 103—that’s ten percent of my body weight.
The allopathic solution to reflux problems is a superficial one: limit the acid in the stomach and keep it from reaching the esophagus with antacids or Protein Pump Inhibitors (PPIs). Neither drug addresses causative digestive problems. And most people with reflux have too little not too much stomach acid, but that’s a subject for another blog. At any rate, repeated episodes of reflux can do a lot of damage and eventually lead to esophageal cancer. I knew I wasn’t going to fill my Kaiser doctor’s prescription, but I had to do something.
I’ve always believed that food is medicine, and I was certain all I needed to do was find the right diet and my digestion would improve. I tried everything: juice fasts, Alejandro Junger’s Clean Gut diet, then for months, ate bone broth accompanied by lots of fermented foods à la Nourishing Traditions.
Bone broth is made by slowly cooking bones at low temperatures (a crockpot is an ideal vessel), for a long time, so that the connective tissues dissolve and the healthful minerals found in the bones enrich the broth. The problem is that by cooking the bones—especially those of larger animals, such as beef or bison—for so many hours, making sure all the tendons and cartilage break down and contribute their nutrients to the broth, you end up with lots of glutamic acid. Glutamate, too, can irritate the gut, causing leaky gut and “leaky brain.”
With bone broth bars popping up on both coasts, this latest superfood may be excellent in moderation, but having it daily, as I was, is a dangerous prescription and did my gut far more harm than good.
Finally, after several visits to a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and getting some benefit from acupuncture and Chinese herbs, I turned to another traditional medicine—Ayurveda—for the dietary guidance I still believed the key to restoring my health. Deepak Chopra says the 5,000-year-old Hindu medicine is about balancing your system so that you have healthy desires, and your wants actually match your needs. Within weeks of seeing an Ayurvedic physician, and following her recommendations, my digestion improved and the reflux all but disappeared.
Ironically, the Ayurvedic diet I follow relies very heavily on soaked grains, nuts, and beans, includes very few leafy green vegetables, discourages fermented foods, and asks that I avoid animal proteins, except for dairy. Ha! It’s been years since I’ve eaten much dairy, and when I did, it was yogurt, kefir, or raw cheese.
Now, I can see that the Paleo diet recommended by many of today’s most respected wellness gurus, including Mark Hyman and Chris Kresser, wasn’t right for me. Here, I thought I’d been eating so healthfully, building lean muscle and preventing inflammation—but all those kale-infused smoothies, kombuchas, sauerkrauts, robust proteins, and omega 3 fats from grass-fed animals were wreaking havoc with my body, mind, and soul. (I’ve always been a vegetarian at heart.)
Eight weeks after starting the dosha balancing Ayurvedic diet, herbs, and breathing, I’m feeling ever so much better. I soak my grain of choice overnight, cook it in the morning then enjoy it with roasted nut butter and a touch of maple syrup. Lunch, my biggest meal, is comprised of moist, comforting vegetables like squashes, yams, asparagus, beets, and parsnips, sometimes an egg, legumes, or cheese. I’ll even have a small portion of seafood or chicken now and then.
With all the science behind it, I still don’t think the high protein-low carbohydrate Paleo diet is a fad but from now on I’ll be very careful about subscribing to any new thinking about what to eat. When it comes to healing with food, I’ll turn first to the ancient medicine systems, which focus on the individual, have been around for thousands of years, and are truly holistic.
Note: The Ayurvedic doctor I saw is Aparna Dandekar (she’s also an osteopath and a medical doctor). You can learn more about her and her practice at ThreeRiversAyurveda.com.