Two summers ago, after a year of freshman comp teaching and a life-changing decision to move across the country, I developed an anxiety-related skin condition. I’d suffered from stress-induced breakouts before, and I knew getting rid of this one would call for daily exercise, lots of vegetables, and diligent water drinking. Instead of doing any of that, I went to a dermatologist, got a prescription for an antibiotic, and took it every day for two months. As it turns out, this was not such a good idea.
I didn’t know it at the time, but even as the Doxycycline was clearing up my breakout, it was killing off the good bacteria in my intestines that helped me break down and process food properly. One night after taking my dose, I found myself hunched over the toilet in my apartment, vomiting up my dinner whole. A few days later, I had to swing across three lanes of Los Angeles rush our traffic to throw up by a tree in a Ralph’s parking lot.
I’d started the pills in June of 2011 and I took them every day until the end of July. By September, something as little as a sip of water left me feeling like the monster from Alien was about to birth itself through my belly button. Garlic fries at dinner meant a night on my knees on the bathroom floor. The prospect of the holidays, which I usually spent with my boyfriend’s family outside Boston, became suddenly horrifying. Things went on more or less like this for over a year.
This past August, my friend Laura suggested I read the book Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gotschall. Laura’s boyfriend had gone through a similar illness years ago, and the book saved his life. Gotschall invented something called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which involves cutting out difficult to digest carbs like wheat, corn, sugar, starches, soy and most dairy. The gist of her book is that these foods feed harmful bacteria that irritate your digestive tract. Cutting them kills those bacteria and realigns your intestinal flora. Gotschall claimed to have cured her seven-year-old of Crohn’s disease and dozens of IBS-afflicted bloggers seemed to swear by it.
The old me would have stopped listening at “sugar,” but by this time, my metabolism was screwed up to the point where nothing I owned fit around my waist anymore. I spent most of my time in pajama shirts, trying to figure out ways to avoid having to leave the house. After a visit to a shady doctor’s office near my apartment, I’d found myself $50 poorer, and still no closer to an answer.
Curious, I checked the Breaking the Vicious Cycle website. Gotschall’s foods to avoid list included basically everything I’d learned to live on since college: Canned vegetables, chickpeas, corn, pasta, tofu, tortillas, black beans, bread, quinoa, chocolate, couscous, corn syrup, ice cream, store-bought yogurt, potatoes, ketchup, oatmeal, rice, canola oil and soy sauce. I was ready to close the window and go back to suffering in not-quite-silence (I had, at this point, moved on to trying to cure myself by complaining all the time) when I had a thought:
My graduate stipend was about $23,000. Of that, $866 a month went to rent on an apartment in Brooklyn, and every dime left after bills, books and savings went to snacks. I’ve always been a compulsive grazer, and I felt better wasting cash on iced coffee and Vietnamese sandwiches than I did on drinks and clothes. This meant, on average, a day working from home meant dropping $12-$20 on bagels, Thai delivery and double Americanos from Konditori. Going into Manhattan meant spending that plus $5 or more on, say, egg tarts and steamed buns at the Chinese bakery near my subway stop.
If I went on the SCD, I couldn’t duck into Starbucks anymore to hide from deadlines with yet another pumpkin spice latte. No more impulse-buying almond croissants. and lemon bars at the cafes where I spent too much time. No more Trader Joe’s pre-made Asian noodle thingies. No more pre-made anything, really, since every convenience food seems to contain corn syrup, or agave, or “evaporated cane juice.” Instead of putting off trips to the grocery store in favor of browsing the shelves at the bodega, I would have to think consciously about what I was putting into my body, and what it was costing me
I gave it a shot. Three months later, I’m not entirely better, but I can eat without immediately wanting to throw myself through a window. The things I can digest involve actual labor and advance planning, instead of the random purchasing of expensive pre-prepared food. I can’t eat peanut butter, so if I want something like it, I have to haul my ass down to the store for almonds, and grind them up myself. I’m cooking a lot of butternut squash these days because it’s cheap and hard to mess up, which means staying in the kitchen for half an hour, steaming the squash, cutting it in half, and dicing it. If I want to eat meat, I leave a whole (organic, free-range, expensive-but-worth-it) chicken in my slow cooker in the morning so it’ll be ready for dinner in the evening, then I stretch the leftovers to last the weekend and use the bones to make broth. I make my own almond milk, and I’ve also started making my own yogurt out of goat milk. It’s a lot of time and work, but when I cook successfully, I get to feel for a little while like a Laura Ingalls Wilder character.
Besides saving money, eating this way makes me feel better. For the most part, the SCD cuts out junk food, processed foods, and foods with scary genetically modified components like soybeans and canola oil. Giving up pasta sucked at first, but replacing it with whole foods that don’t hurt my body was worth it. The breakouts that never cleared properly with the Doxycycline show up less frequently, as do the random patches of dry skin on my elbows and shins I’d thought were genetic. I can’t drink coffee, but I don’t get tired in the middle of the afternoon anymore, so I don’t really need it. My lips, for some reason, have stopped getting chapped. The whites of my eyes are (I swear to God) getting whiter. I also can’t really drink anymore, which means I’m not broke all the time, or at least not as broke as I usually was.
More importantly, instead of sourcing my food from TJ’s frozen food aisle and the falafel place next door (and telling myself junk food doesn’t count if it’s vegetarian), I’m forced to consider what’s in what I eat, and what it’s going to do to and/or for my body. More conscientious shopping has helped me get my grocery budget down to around $60.00 a week, where last year around this time, I was regularly spending twice that.
In some countries, doctors prescribe a course of probiotics to be taken concurrently with antibiotics, to build back up what the drugs kill. My doctor never mentioned probiotics, and I didn’t find out about them until the damage was done. This is a bummer for me, but the upside is that, on a national level, this trend seems to be shifting. In the past year, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Economist have all run investigative pieces on the importance of the human microbiome, and doctors who once praised antibiotics seem more inclined now to see the harm they can do.
There’s a reason bacteria have inhabited our bodies for hundreds of thousands of years, and there’s also a reason why murdering them en masse may not always be the best tactic. I wish I hadn’t had to learn this the hard way, but I’m glad I at least learned it at all. And surprisingly enough, so is my bank account.