Though it’s hard to generalize tips for everyone, there are well- and widely-accepted dietary guidelines for health, and these especially apply when you are facing a mystery illness or a chronic illness diagnosis.
Food is delicious, and a comfort, yes. But food is more than something yummy. It’s information that turns our genes on and off. The right foods contribute to our wellness and healing by providing the right kind of information to our cells, while the wrong foods give our genes and cells the opposite message.
But what are those right foods? They are unique to your own body and constitution. If you take the time to really delve deep to answer this question for your own body, your ability to manage or heal your health challenges will get easier.
Most of us eat several times per day, every day. If we are continuously eating food with low nutrient density, lots of chemical ingredients, or foods our bodies are reacting to, we feed the fire of symptoms and inflammation. But if we choose properly prepared foods that our bodies evolved to eat and avoid the foods that feed inflammation for our unique body, we give ourselves a fighting chance to repair damage already done, and to recharge our wellness reserve so we can move towards healing.
Because I practice functionally, and believe whole-heartedly in bioindividual solutions for each unique individual, not ALL of the following tips will be useful for you. I will note which tips should be used with caution, and in which circumstances. It’s always a good idea to consult with a practitioner who is familiar with your case before adopting a new change.
I know for many, this list may seem impossibly long, or new and confusing. Never fear. I’m willing to bet that one or two of the items really stood out to you. Start there. Your life with chronic illness is a marathon, not a sprint.
Begin with something that feels manageable and work it into your life. When you feel really comfortable with that, add something new. Doing a little something is better than doing nothing. Each of these pieces pays dividends, and the more you add, the more momentum you will build.
Here are my top 15 tips to use food-as-medicine for chronic illness.
Ditch the gluten
Gluten is the number 1 food I ask my chronic illness clients to remove. Not only are many people sensitive to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, and barley, but gluten by default increases intestinal production of an substance called zonulin.
Zonulin increases intestinal permeability, or leaky gut. A leaky gut is one of the necessary conditions for developing autoimmune disease. Some researchers and scientists believe that all disease, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease begins with autoimmune reactions.
Because gluten is ever-present in commonly-available foods, truly avoiding it can be a challenge to get used to, but I can almost guarantee that removing gluten will help your symptoms improve, and support your body in heaing.
- Pro Tip: Eliminate gluten entirely. Check food labels carefully, it hides in plain sight, with confusing words. Check out the list available at www.glutenfreesociety.org. Only avoid the items starred if you are diagnosed or suspected celiac. Use gluten free substitutes, whole gluten-free grains, or even try ditching grains altogether.
Ditch the dairy
Right next to gluten is dairy. Some people DO tolerate dairy just fine, but many others do not. And if you are continuously eating something your body doesn’t like, you may not be showing any overt signs of sensitivity. People can be sensitive to the protein in dairy (casein), or the sugars in dairy (lactose), or they can have an allergic reaction to dairy proteins (IgE sensitivity). Some reactions can be delayed by 1-4 days after ingestion. Many people who react to gluten also react to casein. This is common in people with a variety of chronic illnesses, including thyroid disorders, fibromyalgia, celiac disease, and autism.
A good way to test for dairy sensitivity is to do a complete elimination for 3-4 weeks, and then trial various dairy products one by one, waiting 3-4 days in between, while tracking symptoms, including changes in your stool. Use a Food-Symptom Tracker to help.
- Pro Tip: Eliminate dairy for 3-4 weeks, and reintroduce one at a time, checking for symptoms.
Ditch the sugar
Though sugar rarely causes allergic-type reactions or sensitivities, it does tend to aggravate or flare many chronic illness symptoms. One possible reason for this is because sugar requires vitamins and minerals to be processed by the body, and in this way acts as an “anti-nutrient”.
If we eat a lot of sugar, including natural sugars such as maple syrup, turbinado, and coconut sugar, our body uses up magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin C, chromium, and calcium to deal with them. Magnesium is a key co-factor in hundreds of detox and maintenance functions in our body, and can be badly depleted by sugar. Vitamin D and C are key immune supports, and are especially important nutrients for succeeding in healing chronic illness. Chromium is an important nutrient for balancing blood sugar, and balanced blood sugar is key for keeping inflammation in check.
Guess what fuels chronic illness? If you guessed inflammation, you get a gold star!
Calcium is, of course, important for maintaining bone integrity as we age. Calcium deposition requires Vitamin D, so the depletion of both is a double whammy. Vitamin D is also essential to our immune function, especially people trying to heal from autoimmunity.
- Pro Tip: Check for added sugars on your food labels and don’t buy foods with added sugar. Rely on sugar in its pure, complex forms: fruits, vegetables, winter squash, sweet potatoes, whole grains.
Reduce or eliminate refined carbs
This tip goes hand in hand with quitting sugar. Carbs, no matter their source, elevate blood sugar. Whole sources of carbohydrates, such as nuts, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits contain fiber. The fiber prevents the carbs and complex sugars from elevating blood sugar too quickly. But refined carbohydrates, or simple carbs (including grain flours and starches, high glycemic fruits like mango, and high glycemic vegetables like potatoes) can spike blood sugar as badly as refined sugar.
Elevated blood sugar creates inflammation in the body. Your body reads this as irritation. Not only does this reduce the effectiveness of insulin over time, which can lead to adult onset diabetes, it irritates the lining of blood vessels and is a huge contributor to heart disease and cancer.
- Pro Tip: Obtain your carbohydrates from whole food sources, such as whole grains, whole vegetables, whole fruits, and nuts and seeds. (All if tolerated, of course!) Remove or minimize processed carbs, such as bread, crackers, pretzels, baked goods, pasta, and tortillas from your diet in favor of whole carbohydrate sources.
Choose the right fats and oils, and support healthy fat digestion
Despite the bad rap fats have received over the last 50-60 years, we need healthy dietary fats to maintain our brains, joints, and hormones. Fats also help us feel satiated and full.
Americans generally consume way too much Omega-6-rich vegetable oils, such as canola, soy, and cottonseed oils, and not enough Omega-3-rich oils, such as from fatty fish, grass-fed meat, and nuts and seeds. This balance of oil intake is inflammatory, and the combo of refined carbohydrates (often gluten based) with high omega-6 oils is a recipe for massive inflammation. Also, many foods are still manufactured with hydrogenated oils, which are extremely damaging and inflammatory to the body.
Contrary to public opinion, we do need saturated fats. A moderate intake of these fats is also important to maintain brain and hormone health.
Along with using the right fats, we also need to select the proper fats for cooking to avoid oxidized and rancid fats. Heating the wrong oils creates inflammatory oxidation, which can contribute to the inflammatory effects. And though the vegetable oils like canola have a higher smoke point than say, olive oil, they go rancid easily after pressing and processing into snacks and processed foods. They are also often highly sprayed with pesticides.
And though incorporating a lot of healthy fat into your diet is a great thing, it’s important to maximize fat digestion. Fats are broken down by enzymes secreted in saliva and from the pancreas, and bile from the gall bladder. Many Americans have sluggish (or missing) gall bladders! Be sure to support fat digestion with your additional intake.
- Pro Tip: Avoid hydrogenated fats and industrial seed oils such as canola, cottonseed, soy, and safflower oil at all costs. Stick to olive oil, coconut oil, butter or ghee, lard, duck fat, or avocado oil, and sesame oil. For cooking, keep to avocado, butter/ghee, or coconut oil, as their high smoke point allows for less damage in cooking. Olive oil should only be used at low temp or as a dressing. Same for sesame oil. If you are someone who struggles with fat digestion, incorporate some gentle liver support, such as enzymes containing ox bile or lipase, castor oil packs, digestive bitters, or gentle liver massage.
Fiber not only prevents blood sugar spikes by slowing glucose’s entry into the bloodstream, it also helps feed the ecosystem of bacteria in your gut. If we want to encourage a healthy population of good bacteria in our gut, we need to provide them with food. Similar to when you provide some form of fertilizer or compost to your soil in your garden for your plants, you need to do the same for your bacteria.
Some people do not tolerate fiber well. This may include people with IBD, IBS, SIBO, or other gut conditions. There are different types of fiber, and in this situation, you will need to experiment with which fiber-rich foods are tolerated.
- Pro Tip: Increase fiber by including raw or cooked vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and whole grains (if tolerated) into your diet. If you are some one who reacts to raw or cooked vegetables, a good place to begin is by exploring the Specific Carbohydrate Diet or the low FODMAP diet.
Include probiotic foods
Maintaining and restoring our health from chronic disease almost always has a digestive element. People with chronic illness commonly have mild to severe gut dysbiosis. If you’re already including lots of fiber (food for your good bacteria), then you can also add in probiotic foods to help populate your gut with beneficial gut bugs.
Most traditional societies included probiotic foods in their regular fare. They are an insurance policy against intestinal illness and help keep us well. Some beneficial gut bugs are also responsible for creating some of our vitamins, or translating them into a form our body can use.
- Pro Tip: consume small amounts of probiotic rich foods, like sauerkraut, beet kvass, water kefir, cultured pickles, kimchi, or dairy kefir and yogurt (if dairy is tolerated) regularly to keep your gut well stocked with healthy good gut bugs. If you are someone prone to bloating, or have SIBO, you may not be able to tolerate probiotics or probiotic rich foods until you sort out the root causes.
Eat real foods
By now, you can likely tell I’m advocating that you eat a fresh, REAL food diet, free from rancid or hydrogenated oils, processed carbohydrates, sugar, gluten, dairy, and this includes chemical additives. The best and cheapest way to do this is to prepare your own food, or choose pre-made foods that contain nothing but whole grains, grass-fed or wild meat, poultry and fish, healthy oils, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices. Subject your food to the “grandma” test: If your grandma could have pronounced and understood all the ingredients, you are on the right track. If there are weird words she would have no idea what they mean, it’s best to avoid it.
These are the foods our body was designed to eat, and gives your cells the information they need to repair function and heal from the inside out.
- Pro Tip: If you don’t already know how to cook, try a local cooking class. Or check out the WHOLE30 cookbook by Melissa Hartwig for ideas. You could try meal preparation services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, or Sun Basket, which send ingredients and instructions to prepare a meal.
Unless you buy organic food, your food has likely been sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, and other potentially harmful chemicals. Many of these chemicals haven’t been adequately tested for human safety, and some are known carcinogens. I still find it confusing that I need to recommend this, and that our governmental agencies haven’t seen fit to generally outlaw toxic chemicals being sprayed on our food.
Though it’s impossible to avoid all chemicals in today’s world, a simple action you can take to protect your health, and support your body in healing is choosing organic. If you can’t afford to buy ALL organic food, choose organic meats and dairy products, stick to the Clean 15 produce list, and avoid the Dirty Dozen list, put out by the Environmental Working Group for produce choices.
Identify trigger foods and stop eating them
I’ve covered a lot of the common food symptom triggers earlier in this article, but any food or ingredient can cause symptoms. One of the greatest empowering skills for gaining control over your experience with your chronic illness is in correctly identifying your food or behavior-related triggers and removing or stopping them.
For example, I have found that chocolate, no matter the form, triggers gut pain for me. As much as I LOVE chocolate, and would love to eat it daily, I’d rather be pain free. So unless it’s a really special occasion, I avoid it.
- Pro Tip: Use a Food-Symptom Diary to track your food, supplement, and medication intake alongside your symptoms and your stool to identify possible culprits. Behaviors to consider as symptom triggers include exercise, sleep habits, hydration habits, and stress habits.
Calm eating space
Digestion is the center of good health, and our bodies are designed to eat at rest, without stress. If we eat on the run, in the car, standing up, while reading political news, or about children dying somewhere, our digestion will be less efficient, and this will not support our healing.
- Pro Tip: Eat while sitting down, in a calm state of mind. Take a few cleansing breaths before eating. Center yourself and give thanks for your food.
Chew your food
Digestion begins in the mouth with our chewing. The act of chewing mechanically breaks down our food, but it also mixes it with saliva, which begins the process of breaking down the complex carbohydrates and fats in the food. In fact, the longer people chew, the more they find that it their food releases sweetness.
- Pro Tip: A guideline is 25-50 chews per bite. Chew until the food is well liquefied. This act of meditative chewing also helps you bring your body into the calm state necessary for good digestion.
Cook in bulk
All this eating of whole, unprocessed food can mean a lot more cooking, and many people, especially if fatigue is part of their symptom picture, struggle with this piece. Cooking in bulk is a strategy for dealing with this. Make multiple servings of a dish, and freeze or refrigerate for later extra servings. Make use of a crockpot or rice cooker. Make a huge pot of soup. Prepare the staples for your diet in bulk, and then whip up a fresh veggie side dish, stir fry, or meat to go with it.
- Pro Tip: If you seem sensitive to leftovers, you may have a histamine intolerance, as foods tend to increase their histamine as they’re stored, especially meat and fish. Avoid bulk cooking and leftovers in this situation.
Bone broth is slow and long-cooked broth with a little bit of vinegar. The vinegar helps draw the calcium out of the bones, and the slow cooked fats and gelatin dissolve into the broth. These elements make bone broth very healing for a damaged or leaky gut.
- Pro Tip: Make a large pot of bone broth. Store 1 quart in a jar in the fridge, and sip with your meals, and freeze the rest to add as stock to soup, or for plain eating. Bone Broth may not be suitable if you are struggling with SIBO or histamine intolerance.
Though food can make a profound difference in how you feel, and your ability to heal, it’s often only one part of the equation. For years, I made the mistake of thinking that if I changed my diet, I would heal completely.
Diet is really and truly only one piece of the puzzle. If you are struggling with complex, chronic symptoms, find a skilled practitioner trained in Functional Nutrition or Functional Medicine to work with who can help you untangle the web, and find a path to recovery.
About the Author
Amanda Malachesky is a Functional Nutrition Coach, who helps people solve their chronic or complex health mysteries so they can heal at the root cause level.
When her lifelong health issues took a sudden turn for the worse after the loss of her best friend to cancer, she had to unearth the root causes of her condition herself, because conventional medicine failed to offer anything useful.
She is the owner of Confluence Nutrition, a virtual Functional Nutrition Clinic, and works with clients one-on-one and in online group programs, is a teacher and speaker in her local community, and is the host of the private Facebook group Hope for Healing Chronic Illness.
Download your free copy of The Healing Chronic Illness Roadmap to learn more about how to work toward remission or an effective long-term management plan.