- Nicole Vulcan cleaning up trash after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The cleanse was awful. And I'd do it all over again.
Most of us spend our lives staving off one calamity or the other... and that brings inevitable effects of stress, weight gain, indigestion, irritability, and even chronic disease and cancer. The incredible thing about the human body: be mean to it and it sends signals. Be nice to it and it usually responds in kind. Probably like you, I've tried various methods to mitigate the effects of all that calamity-hopping. This is one of my "wellness journey" tales.
It was 2010 and the massive 7.0 earthquake had just hit the south of Haiti. I joined a video project documenting relief efforts in the wider reaches of the country. I didn't initially go to serve, but to observe—and yet, not serving was not an option.
There I was, shoveling construction debris and livestock offal and shit in the market of Limbe, in the northern part of the country. While away from the earthquake zone, things like trash service, schools and government were still on hold country-wide. People had dumped trash in the marketplace for weeks, with no service on the horizon. Limbe-born Rosedanie Cadet, leader of the group I documented, arranged a garbage truck, and we shoveled that stuff in.
At the end of a hard-fought day, I passed out. Lights out, on the street. I didn't really stop though—not until three trips to Haiti and back, when I found myself in a health crisis, brought on by stress, travel and lack of rest.
Let's pause here to note this crisis was not necessarily about traveling to a developing nation—one some might erroneously call a "shithole" country. Yes, there was an emotional and physical toll to being in an earthquake-ravaged country with foreign-to-me bacteria and viruses. As far as diet though, Haiti's food was incredible. Meals involved fresh vegetables, eggs and other delights from the gardens of my hosts—far from the Standard American Diet some believe is the root of much ill health.
SAD, as it's often called, involves too many breads and simple sugars; not enough fresh foods and too many processed ones. (I would be remiss in not mentioning that many Haitians, too, live on a version of SAD; limited means forcing them to subsist on starches such as manioc, or cassava.) At home in Oregon, more of a SAD diet, coupled with a heavy workload, brought on general ill health. Coincidentally, I was working a PR job for a naturopathic clinic at the same time.
The Elimination Diet
The docs put me on an elimination diet—pretty standard protocol for naturopaths identifying the trigger foods causing, or adding to, crises. As its name suggests, it involves eliminating foods that commonly cause irritation or inflammation. Along with taking herbs supportive of the liver and kidneys, you eliminate sugar, gluten, dairy, eggs, nightshades, caffeine, soy and alcohol for around 10 days. You then re-introduce each food one at a time, noting any side effects after re-introduction. You may have heard of similar eating plans with the Whole 30 diet, or nearly any liver, kidney or colon-cleansing protocol. In short, it kinda sucks, but it's worth it.
In that spirit, here's what the Elimination Diet felt like.
Day 1: I'm going to be feeling awesome after kicking all that crap out! I SO don't even need caffeine. I am PUMPED! Screw all that money I spend on espresso!
Day 2: Were this boring hole in my right eye socket [editor's note: from lack of caffeine] to go away, everything would be just great. Today I had my second helping of brown rice with steamed veggies. But no soy sauce? Brutal.
Day 3: Wait, caffeine withdrawal is supposed to subside, right? You sure I can't pop an Ibuprofen for the pain, doc? You're so mean. Wait, I have to meet the girls for Ladies' Night—I've earned a cheat night, right? God, you suck. So... I am just supposed to go out and NOT DRINK? What will I do with my hands?!
Day 4: Today was the pit of despair and there wasn't even an espresso to look forward to. My friends are going out again, but I think I'll stay home and take an Epsom salt bath, followed by a castor oil pack to the belly, to extra-underline how anti-social I am. Lettuce wraps for dinner tonight. Check.
Day 7: I may actually LIKE staying home and reading and sleeping at night, instead of going out. And I am starting to figure out more creative foods to eat. And I feel really great—I remembered my dreams last night! Who wants to go for a run?
Day 9: One more day-ish until I can bring something back into my diet—what's it going to be?! Totally cheese. For the love of everything dairy-licious, if I feel triggered by eating cheese, I may just give up. O, wait, coffee. Coffee!! It's been so long since we hung out.
Day 10: Feeling super good and yet kinda anxious. Maybe I want ALCOHOL first?
Day 11: I settled for re-introducing dairy first. My tongue felt phlegmy afterward. Does that mean it's a "trigger," doc? You knew I didn't want to hear that.
Day 14: Yes! Trying eggs today! ** Eggs gave me heartburn. Why haven't I noticed this before?
Day 17: This. Is. Getting. So. Old. Brought back wheat. It gave me instant inflammation in my hands.
Day 20: Dear, sweet coffee. Let us never part again. You won't betray me, right?! O good. We're good.
So what happened? I found out all the foods that made me feel crappy, and I reset my body to crave more whole, non-inflammatory foods. Have I stayed away from the SAD diet completely? No, but I try to do so a lot more often, and I've learned a valuable lesson in what stresses not to put on my body—especially when there are other stresses present. Since then, I've endeavored to do a version of the Whole 30 a couple times a year, and I should even do it more.
The cleanse was awful. And I'd do it all over again.