Facing Failing Health As A Vegan

January 20th, 2013 - filed under: The Food » Food and Health



I have been trying to write this post for ages, and I do mean ages. I’ve spent enough hours staring at this blank page, blinking cursor, to have written it many times over and still been able to bake a gluten-free vegan cake. Okay maybe that’s not true, but you get my point.

You’d think it would be a relatively easy story to transcribe. It’s a linear progression of factual events, right? Well, sort of. There are actually a number of ways I can tell this story, is the thing. For example I could very simply lay out the series of events, the way I got sick and why, and how I got better (I did). But that would sort of miss the point.

Or, I could write a scathing assault on our modern medical system which refuses to look at holistic health or even to pause at the quiet insistence of a new mother saying “No really, something is wrong.” Yeah, I could definitely write that story.

Or I could muse about the fascinating interplay of mental and physical health, wax New Age-y about the mind-body connection; wonder which causes which and ponder where it all begins (though I don’t think I’m the girl to write that article, ‘cause I’m not all that New Age-y and it’s all just Ouroboros anyway.)

Obviously, this is going to be a long post, can you tell?

The truth is that there’s only one way it feels right tell this story, and that is to contextualize it in the exact way that the entire thing was contextualized in my own life. It’s a story you don’t hear much in public, but I sure have heard it over and over in confidence. And I feel like it’s a story that needs to be told.

So this is my story: the story of how my veganism, held in deepest conviction, hit the wall of health crisis, and cracked with doubt.

~~~

Before I begin I want to acknowledge that I leave some things vague, mostly when it comes to my blood tests/numbers and what led to my diagnosis. This is because, well, it’s in the past now and I’m just not up for debating the specifics of how or what I could have done differently. I know everyone on the Internet is an expert (hey, me too!) but please respect that I don’t wish to argue about what I did or didn’t do.

I can imagine about a million and one ways in which people might be offended by what I’m about to say. I can also imagine another million and one ways in which people might want to invalidate my experience (Psychosomatic! Placebo! Armchair RD!). And you know? That’s fine. I’m not here to defend myself. I can’t please everyone, eh? I’m just trying to speak my truth and tell my story, exactly as I experienced it. Here goes.

Breastfeeding in a farm field. You now, like you do.


So, everything started a few months after Waits was born. But it was hard to get a handle on at first, because I was a) dealing with postpartum anxiety [certainly intertwined with my health issues], and b) a first-time mother who was attachment parenting a colicky baby, and c) still trying to “do it all” [ie maintain my blog and speed-write a book while keeping on top of all of the mom/wife/house stuff]. Which is why it took me so long to figure out that something was really wrong.

It began with the fatigue, and I don’t just mean that new mom exhaustion that’s born of too many sleepless nights. This was different, so that on my “bad” mornings my limbs were like lead, and moving into my day felt like so much work, it almost seemed unbearable. Like I said, the physical and the mental stuff was all tied up together.

The fatigue was often accompanied by a splitting headache, and after that came the rashes. My skin was suddenly hyper-sensitive. I had to stop using all lotion and even coconut oil – everything caused me to break out in itchy little red bumps. But even without any stimulus, the rash would come. Often it would be a fatigue day followed by a fatigue + headache day, with the rash setting in a few days after that. Or sometimes the rash would just show up, unannounced.

All of this compelled me to talk to my doctors; first to a midwife and then to an MD.

The midwife said that it sounded like typical new mom stuff. That I should come back if it hadn’t cleared up in a few months. It felt like the brush off.

The MD suggested that I had picked up a virus, any one of the many (like fifths and that cohort) that are common among small children. I asked about the strange recurrence, almost like a cycle, and he said that it could happen with these viruses. Even when I spoke to him again, six months later and it was still happening at regular intervals, he said it was just a virus. I felt like he wasn’t hearing me.

There were other symptoms as well, things that at the time seemed like maybe they were “normal” (in that new-mom sort of way), but as the year wore on and they all got worse, a bigger-picture of the problem began to emerge. My skin was often itchy and dry. I had these extreme mood swings. EXTREME. Often they seemed related to food, which was part of what prompted The Great Grand Diet Trial of 2011. I would get hot flashes, too. Clammy skin. Intense sugar cravings. And of course, anxiety and depression. Lots of anxiety, lots of depression. And eventually by the end of it, complete self-loathing.

This continued through the second half of 2010, and on into 2011. It only got worse. But my symptoms would ebb and flow, enough so that over and over, I would think it maybe had passed. I would feel better for a spell, and I would begin to believe that it had ended. Then, one evening my skin would feel a bit dry, and my heart would sink. And sure enough, the next morning, I would wake up with that same extreme fatigue, feeling like I literally couldn’t get out of bed.

That was the worst part of it all – the over and over up and then down, hope and then despair. That roller coaster, it wears you away. Does damage to the psyche.

I would have done almost anything to feel better. Anything. And when you’re vegan, eventually you start to wonder if your diet is part of the problem. Or maybe, everyone else wonders for you. But I couldn’t help it – I wondered too. I talked to my father, who is a well-respected doctor of Chinese Medicine. He advised eating meat. My Qi was weak, he said. “Just a little bone broth?” or, “Maybe some fish?

No” I repeated over and over. “Dad, I can’t do that. I’m vegan.” It became a point of contention in our relationship. He saw his daughter suffering and he wouldn’t accept my refusal of his solution. I felt like I was suffering and he couldn’t step outside his narrow paradigm to try to help me. But I’ll admit, his words and the words of everyone else wiggled in, and I worried that they were right. Was I making myself sicker because I was stuck in this ideology?

In March of 2012, over a year and a half into this, I spoke again with the MD. He still maintained it was a virus. Or, “Sounds like typical new mom stuff to me.

I felt completely alone. I felt like I was screaming for help and nobody was listening. And I felt like I was living a lie, blogging about the good stuff in my life (trying to practice gratitude, trying to be positive), while omitting this enormous struggle. It felt disingenuous and contributed to my shriveling self esteem.

In February of 2011, I quit blogging. I needed to figure out how to get myself better. Because I was truly, completely, hopelessly miserable. And I’m having trouble walking the line as I write this now, not wanting to sound melodramatic, but needing to express just how horrible it was, and how much it affected me. Quality of life? I had none.



Finally, in April 2012, I made an appointment with a Naturopathic Doctor.

I’d held off for a lot of reasons, mainly because of money (insurance doesn’t cover most naturopaths) and also I don’t know, maybe a sort of prejudice? I mean, I’m a hippie girl at heart, raised that way and totally accepting of alternative modalities. But homeopathy is something I could never really get behind (it just DOESN’T make sense to my scientist’s brain) and since I have both an MD and a Chinese Medicine doctor in the family, I just never really looked into Naturopathy.

But this was different, because I wasn’t getting the help I needed and very simply put, I was desperate.

I found a list of naturopaths that were covered by my insurance, and cold-emailed the ones that sounded like a good fit. This is what my email said:

“Hello, I’m wondering if you are currently accepting new patients. I am
dealing with lots of weird health/mental health issues which have come
up following the birth of my son. He is 25 months and the problems
started around 5 months postpartum.

I am “medium crunchy”, which means I’m actually very crunchy and
prefer alternative medicine techniques, but I’m also very grounded by
traditional science. You sound like you have a similarly balanced
approach and I’m wondering if we could have a consult and see if we
“click”.

Thanks so much! Cheers,
~Sayward”



Dr. Lasse called me back within a few hours. She left me a message, laughing at my “medium crunchy” remark, and sounding so kind. I felt right away that she could help me.

My first appointment was at the end of April, and I wept as she did my intake. I cried A LOT in that first session. I just felt such relief at finally speaking to somebody who looked me in the eye, who said “Yes, you’re obviously sick, let’s figure out why.” I had hope, real hope, for the first time in ages.

I told her my story and she agreed with my suspicion that my hormones were the underlying issue. The cyclical nature of the symptoms – and the symptoms themselves – seemed to indicate a hormonal imbalance. She was alarmed to hear that I wasn’t menstruating, something I hadn’t paid much attention to. I assumed that since I was still nursing I was just experiencing lactation-induced amenorrhea. Also, I hadn’t had regular periods in years, since way before getting pregnant (and since before going vegan, in case you wondered). I wasn’t actually menstruating when I got pregnant with Waits.

But she felt strongly that I should be, and so this became a starting point in our initial treatment plan. I left her office that morning armed to the teeth with a battery of the crunchiest crunchiness you ever did see. Herbal tinctures. Bitters for digestion. 3 different homeopathic remedies. Castor oil. A “prescription” to eat certain seeds on a lunar cycle in order to induce menstruation. I know! And of course, orders for a whole battalion of blood tests.



Two weeks later my blood work was back. Let’s pause and take a moment now. Try to imagine the absolute worst, the most ridiculous, the most comically ironic diagnosis that a vegan could receive.


No, it wasn’t B12. My B12 and D were great.


However, my cholesterol was abysmally low. And on top of that, I had blood markers for protein depletion. Seriously.

Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a type of fat found only in animal foods. Vegans do not intake ANY dietary cholesterol. Human bodies do produce cholesterol, however, that’s only if the body is healthy. Cholesterol is produced in the liver. My liver had been abused by many years of drinking, smoking, caffeine, and then eventually, pregnancy.

Cholesterol is the precursor to all sex hormones (like estrogen, progesterone, etc). Without adequate cholesterol, the body cannot make hormones.

Protein Depletion
You’ve probably heard vegans (and pretty much every vegan “leader”) scoffing at the protein question. “The protein myth!” and “How many cases of Kwashiorkor have you seen this year?” they’ll quip sarcastically. Basically, “neener neener, duh” is the attitude towards people who question protein.

But you don’t have to develop complete protein deficiency to be protein-depleted. And I, living an active lifestyle, nursing, and eating a sometimes-high-raw, always-vegan diet, was protein depleted.


I was devastated. Devastated. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. To hear “cholesterol” and “protein” as a vegan, well it just shook me to my very core. I was reeling.

My naturopath knew that I had some rescued hens, and she suggested that I start eating their eggs.

And maybe you’re thinking the same thing? It sure would solve all my problems, right? That’s a perfect little packet of pure protein and cholesterol, right there. In my very own backyard. Guaranteed cruelty-free.

The thing is though, it wasn’t about me. Because, sure, I could eat those very specific eggs that I don’t necessarily have an ethical objection to, and it would probably help me. Maybe even heal me. But then . . . what would that mean?

If I had to eat animal foods in order to get better, then that would mean I was not capable of being vegan. And if I was incapable of being vegan, then that would mean that the vegan ideology was fundamentally flawed. Because if I HAD to eat animals to be healthy, then eating animals could NOT be morally wrong.

So do you see? That this wasn’t just about me? Wasn’t just about my own health?

Veganism is the cornerstone of my life. It is my framework, it contextualizes my actions and informs my every decision. I believe in kindness and non-violence with the wholeness of my being. This is everything to me.


Those next few days, I was in a stupor. I cancelled a speaking engagement at the Mad City Vegan Fest, an event I’d been so looking forward to. How could I stand in front of a room and talk about veganism, when my own health was failing and my own faith was in crisis?

And then one night, just a few days after I received my diagnosis, I was making dinner and listening to a very popular vegan podcast. The host is one of my greatest mentors, and her discussions always calm and inspire me. This newest episode was all about talking to people who might misuse our words: people who call themselves vegetarian but eat fish, or people who call themselves vegan but eat occasional “humane” animal products, etc. And, there was a section on people who stop being vegan “for health reasons”. What a coinkidink.

One thing I’ve always loved about this speaker is the compassion that she seems to radiate in everything she does – it’s something I’ve worked hard to emulate. She’s just got a way with non-judgment, which was why it came as such a shock to hear the callous, almost mocking tone she took when speaking on this particular topic. She seemed to imply – no, she definitely said – that if someone gives up veganism for health reasons, it’s because “. . . they felt inconvenienced . . . ” and “. . . [they] didn’t really embrace it enough . . .”, ending with, “. . . and so the easy way out is an excuse that appears legitimate.”

This is, essentially, victim-blaming people during their most vulnerable time. And hearing this from someone that I so admire? Well that was just sort of my breaking point.

You don’t know!” I wanted to scream. “If you’ve never been sick you don’t understand! I would do practically ANYTHING to stop feeling like this!

So that’s the night I found my anger. And oh boy, was I angry. I resented everyone, everyone I’d trusted. All the vegan leaders and vegan doctors and vegan gurus who’d insisted over and over that I was eating the healthiest diet on the planet. They lied to me! FUCK THEM!

Well, that lasted about 12 hours. I’m not really one for anger and thus my self-righteous indignation didn’t make it past morning. The second I let myself remember why I was vegan in the first place, was the second my anger melted away (literally). Because, remember, it’s not about me.

I am vegan for the animals.

Period. I’m not vegan for the leaders and doctors and gurus, for the approval of my mentors or even for my own health. I’m vegan because I believe with all my heart and soul that it is wrong to inflict violence and suffering on innocent beings. Period.

So that was that. I’d uncovered my reserve strength. And now I had to find a way to get better while staying vegan. I mean, if anyone could possibly re-imagine, get creative, and think outside the box for a nontraditional solution, well I think that I’m just the girl for that job. I’m pretty freakin’ persistent.



I came to my next appointment with a renewed sense of purpose. “We have to make this work within the framework of veganism” I told my naturopath. She was supportive. We devised a plan.

I’m not going to go over every detail of my particular treatment, but in general it went something like this:

• Seeds. Within 3 weeks (seriously!) of starting the cycling seeds program for hormonal balance, I got my first period in over 3 years. I don’t even know what to say about this because it makes the scientist in me raise such a skeptic’s eyebrow, but listen. Dudes. It worked.

• Liver support. We wanted to help my liver efficiently make its own cholesterol. The regimen included castor oil packs, omitting alcohol, coffee, and black tea, and omitting refined sugar. I also cut out gluten because it very much exacerbated my most troublesome symptoms (fatigue and moodiness).

• Fat. Eating as much saturated fat (coconut products, cacao butter) as possible (SORRY NOT SORRY, DR. CAMPBELL) because saturated fat stimulates cholesterol production. Also, eating plenty of other healthy fats, like olive oil, nuts, and avocados (SORRY NOT SORRY, DR. ESSELSTYN). [Of course, I’m just being playful “apologizing” to these amazing doctors. I mean no disrespect – these are great men. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that although I believe a low-fat vegan diet is excellent for reversing and curing many chronic diseases, that does NOT mean that it’s the right diet for everyone. A diet for healing is different than a diet for maintenance, is different than a diet for building (pregnancy) and is certainly different than a diet for growth (children). I feel like a lot of vegans, and vegan leaders, overlook this important point. And in my own anecdotal experience, the vegans who most often get sick are of the low-fat and/or all-raw variety. Maybe this warrants it’s own post in the future, eh?]

• Protein. I made a conscious effort to include plenty of protein in my daily menus, with the aim of eating something protein-rich with every meal. During my intensive healing period, I was eating high-protein foods all day (beans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, lentils, and more beans beans beans) and fixing myself a “protein & saturated fat” shake every morning and every night before bed.

• Additional emotional/physiological support, via herbal tinctures and homeopathic remedies. Because well why not?


And the results? Following this protocol, my progress was so immediate and so monumental, it felt like nothing short of a miracle. Within just a few weeks I felt like a different woman. I could hardly believe it.

And as the months passed, I only continued to improve. I was able to lay off some of the stricter guidelines (reintroduce black tea, drop the late night shake, etc). There was a lot of other very difficult stuff going on in my life back then, but my health remained strong and continued to gain strength, and that made all the difference in the world. Much of my anxiety and depression was relieved just by physically feeling better. So much.

When my blood was retested in September 2012, my cholesterol had moved up into the healthy range, and the markers for my protein depletion had mostly normalized (still room to improve, but much better). By the end of October I felt like both my physical and emotional health had made a complete recovery, and I scheduled my last session with my naturopath.

In some ways, I really feel like she saved my life. For those of you in the Portland area: Dr Raina Lasse, ND. I simply cannot recommend her highly enough.

~~~

These days I feel strong. I am healthy and I am happy. It’s actually not something I think about much anymore, which is more of a relief than you can probably understand. When you have your health, you just don’t realize how much you have to lose.

As for my current diet, I still eat coconut products (saturated fat) more often than most folks, but not every day. I’ve also retrained myself in the way I approach my meals, so that I always include some protein (it’s become second nature now). I do believe that every person requires a slightly different diet/macronutrient ratio, and that there’s no one set way that is a guarantee for good health. Some people only need very little fat, others don’t do well with carbs, and still others require lots and lots of protein. VIVE LE BEANS!

But all of these individual needs, I think, can be accomplished within the framework of a vegan diet. I do believe that now. Because I’m proof.

“I adore myself and everyone else.” Affirmation on the mirror at Cafe Gratitude, Hollywood.


If you are vegan and sick, please know that you are not alone. This is happening to others. This is even happening to leaders in our community. I know, because I’ve talked to them.

And you know what? It’s is a damn shame that there is such a stigma attached to this, that people feel the need to suffer in silence. I mean I get it, I do. As vegans we deal with enough skepticism from the “outside” world, and it can start to feel like you need to be a shining example of vegan health and perfection at every moment, or else you’re damaging the cause. But it’s a mistake, I think, that the leaders and bloggers and writers and others, are not sharing more of these sorts of struggles. Because we cannot fault people for giving in and going back, if they have no examples of how to persevere.

If nobody shares their stories, then everyone feels alone.

And if I, a deeply committed ethical vegan with a reputation and career on the line, living in freakin’ Portland Oregon, can actually consider going back . . . well, then I can’t blame isolated vegans in small towns who have no support system at all, for doing the same.

Losing your health is the scariest thing. When you’re sick, it consumes everything. But you don’t have to feel like hell just to stand by your beliefs, and you don’t have to stop being vegan in order to feel better. Find a medical practitioner – whichever type you prefer (I’m naturopath-for-life now!) – one that will actually listen and really wants to help. Get your blood tested! Don’t play guessing games, just pony up and pay to know what’s really going on. Then educate yourself, reach out to experts, reach out to the online community, find support, and work with your doctor to figure out a treatment plan that will fit your needs.

Once you’re better (and you will be), share. Leaders and bloggers and writers and everyone else, please share! We will never be able to figure out the whole puzzle, until we are looking at all the pieces. This is not a matter of veganism failing; this is simply a failure of information.

~~~

So that’s it. That’s the story of how I got sick, had a crisis of faith, found my strength, and fought my way back to health and happiness. My hope in telling this story is that it may inspire you to stand firm in your own convictions, whenever those convictions are rooted in love.

So with all my love,

*cheers*

To your health.



Edited to add: I am completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of support I have received today. Thank you all so much! It is downright scary to put yourself out there, but you have all reaffirmed my intuition that this was a story that needed to be told. And I am honored to have been able to share it.

As of now, tonight, this post has garnered almost 10,000 hits. Amazing! Please, keep sharing, because it’s obviously resonating with people out there. Again, I’m just so honored.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to respond to each comment individually, but please know I have read and appreciate every single one. Thank you so much again – it feels great to be back! ♥

  • Audrey Yarper

    Oh, I get it. I was vegan for a decade. I get it very well. THey way she talks is the way a cult memeber talks and she very clearly talks about her vegan community rejecting here.. I lived on a vegan community for half a year and there was one guy who was getting very ill and needed to eat meat (which immediately improved his health) he had to secretlly cook it at night and when he was discovered it was like the salem witch trials. I’m not ignorant. I’ve seen this stuff first hand.

  • Joe spicer

    Great read. It turned around when you was eating seeds nuts and good fats, is that the secret I hear

  • veganamericanprincess

    I’ve read this post several times in the past, Sayward, and I’ve just read it again after reading about Carrie On Vegan going un-vegan. This post is amazing, and you are a shining light to the vegan community, and to the world! I so admire your honesty and authenticity. xoxoxo

  • Evangelina

    Stumbled across this while I was looking for articles about people who stay vegan. Great read, so informative and SO encouraging. I’ve never been as sick as you were, but I’ve been vegan since 2000 and I’ve come across so many “ex-vegans” it’s maddening. I love this! Congratulations for you and I hope you and your family are happy and healthy. God bless!
    If you’re interested, check out my blog. It’s not always about vegan stuff, but I do talk about it sometimes. http://veganvita.wordpress.com
    -V

  • Alex

    I have read this post and the one linked above where you quit blogging many times over the last couple of weeks. I just wanted to say never doubt the power you have to inspire with your positivity and stories. My diet has bounded around in terms of vegan or vegetarian but more significantly, I have had long term disordered eating. Now I have developed protein deficiency and low blood pressure. Combined with inordinate work stress, this culminated last week in me passing out, hitting my head hard, having a middle sizure and ultimately being taken to hospital. Your story has given me much hope and inspiration, and perhaps most importantly, shown me that I can not hide my eating problems behind veganism or any other way of eating. I can, and will be, ethically healthy if I want to be (and I do). Thank you and best wishes.

  • Stefan Lay

    Brave post. Well done x

  • http://www.LorenzFineArt.net Heidi Lorenz

    Awe, this is great to hear/read…thanks for sharing your story…I’ve been going through my own health issues severe migraines and am vegetarian…bordering on vegan, but, still love that honey…anyway, have suffered severe debilitating migraines…my doctors just throw out the meds…doesn’t fix the problem though merely masks it for awhile…I talked to herbalist and started formulas and really working with foods…similar to what you’ve mentioned here…it’s like night and day for me. Anyway, just thank you for writing this and sharing…it’s affirming just to know someone else is going through this too!