“I don’t think we need to see you here again,” the doctor said with a smile, obviously thinking that I should be celebrating that the NHS no longer wants to monitor the state of my ovaries. Well, I wasn’t all that happy. I still had two fibroids growing on my uterus but the doctor was not concerned. What mattered to him was the fact that out of the three blood-filled cysts on my right ovary, only one was still existent and has shrunk to half its size over the past year. I remembered a colleague of his a few years ago trying to convince me to consider taking contraceptive pills to have my periods eliminated – “That’s the only way,” he said,“ to prevent these cysts from growing.”
My cysts had to do with a condition known as endometriosis when tissue normally growing inside the uterus for some funny reason starts growing elsewhere in the body. Every month, when the period arrives, the tissue bleeds and the cysts get bigger.
“Normal cysts may disappear but endometriomas never do,” the guy said. “You should consider surgery as there is a risk of ovary torsion.”
I didn’t like what I was hearing and being as stubborn as I am and generally not a fan of any hormonal pills (that’s another story), I chose to do it my way.
Three years of experiments
It all started three years ago. I turned 30 that year and my periods, which had always been uncomfortable, suddenly got unbearable. I remember lying on the floor in a fetal position, praying and thinking whether I shall go to hospital. Pain killers were not working. At the same time, I developed terrible cystic acne. My face was full of deep painful cysts that took ages to heal. I had never suffered from acne as a teen and this was a real blow to my confidence. Only later did I learn that adult cystic acne in women is a sure sign of serious hormonal imbalances as much as fibroids and endometriosis.
After receiving the diagnoses, I turned to the Internet. There must be a way to deal with this shit, I thought. I was vegetarian at that time and considered myself seriously health-conscious. First I discovered the website of Melissa Turner, an endometriosis sufferer who embarked on a holistic healing journey to manage the condition she had suffered from for most of her life.
Here I found some basic wisdom – that’s is cut gluten, dairy, caffeine and alcohol. Limit sugar and processed foods. Consume blackstrap molasses and apple cider vinegar daily. Comments left by other sufferers on Melissa’s website where overwhelmingly positive. I implemented her advice and …. Yes, the horrible period pains stopped almost immediately. Something was happening with my hormones as I noticed my breasts not getting so insanely painful before my period. But my face was still full of acne. And to make things worse, three months into my Melissa-inspired protocol, hair shedding, which I have been suffering from since my teens, worsened in a way that got me seriously depressed. (That’s again another story though quite related to the one I am telling now).
Being a vegetarian and now not even allowed dairy left me with too little protein in my diet. I was not aware of that at the time. I was eating eggs, sprouted lentils, even beans but it clearly was not enough. I was also suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and to be honest, the beans were not really in agreement with my tummy.
Desperate that I will become bald, I visited a trichologist. The visit was not cheap but worth it. The lady ordered a battery of blood tests and persuaded me to get tested for food sensitivities. The results came back and the doctor believed there was a clear smoking gun: My ferritin levels – the measure of iron stores in the body – were at about 30 ug/L. Not low enough for a GP to get concerned but too low for what is considered sufficient for good hair growth. Apparently, low iron stores are quite a common problem in women, especially those with heavy periods as are most endometriosis and fibroid sufferers.
The trichologist prescribed florisene iron tablets to get my levels up to 70 and eventually 100. Also my vitamin D was too low (that’s what you pay for living in the UK) – another supplement to become an indispensible part of my daily health routine.
“It will take at least three months for the ferritin levels to get where you need them to be,” the trychologist said. “Afterwards, you will have to wait another three months to see the results. And make sure you eat protein with every meal.”
The food sensitivity tests showed problems with eggs, which at that time I was eating daily.
So now I was minus dairy, wheat, eggs and still trying to be vegetarian. It was slowly dawning on me that maybe, being veggie is not the right path for me.
A year passed, I had a couple of pelvic scans. My cysts and fibroids were still there, not really growing but not shrinking either. I had my ferritin rechecked. It had barely changed and my hair loss was showing no signs of stopping. My skin was much clearer though. I would only get a spot or two around my period. Another tiny victory.
Discovering Terry Wahls
I have to admit that my female vanity was a bigger driver in my quest for the best way to eat for health than concerns about my fertility at that time.
In a hairloss ebook I downloaded from the Internet I learned about a woman called Terry Wahls – an American Professor of medicine who healed her multiple sclerosis through a carefully researched diet. Wahls’s story is captured in her book the Wahls Protocol as well as in her Ted Talk Minding Your Mitochondria.
The guy who wrote the hair loss ebook swore it works for hair as well. Well it made sense to me. If you can cure something as serious as multiple sclerosis, sure you can deal with hair loss as well. I was sold.
Terry Wahls used to be vegetarian herself and she believes that together with severe stress it contributed to her developing the condition. Her diet eliminates gluten, dairy and eggs, as these can increase inflammation and trigger autoimmune reactions in the body. The diet can be implemented in three modifications, the first of which can be vegetarian. But Wahls doesn’t really recommend that. I made peace with the fact that animals will once again be dying because of me and went for somewhere between the second and third level, which are both paleo-inspired diets. The third level is ketogenic.
In the heart of the Wahls way of eating are three plates of fruit and vegetables a day. A plate of dark leafy greens, a plate of sulphur rich vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage or kale and a plate of coloured fruits and veg. You eat three times a day and each meal comes with a solid portion of protein.
Another year passed. I noticed I was feeling physically better but my cysts were still there and I was still shedding a lot of hair.
No sugar, no, no, no
The missing piece of information came again from my search for dietary advice that would help stop my hair shedding. I discovered a website of an American woman called Sheree Gilkey. Unlike Terry, Sheree is not a medical professional but was once desperate enough because of her own hair loss to delve deep into available research.
The key to reverse hair loss and restore general health, she says, is not only about ditching processed foods, and eating a lot of greens and protein. First of all, one has to eat in a way that keeps blood sugar level. Basically, you want to protect your body from those insulin spikes that come after every meal with a high glycaemic load. Those are the meals that make you sleepy after you eat them.
There is quite a bit of science behind it and it is well described on Sheree’s website.
I started studying glycaemic indexes of foods and for the first time started properly reading food labels. At that time, I was still eating gluten-free buckwheat muesli for breakfast, which, as I found, is pretty loaded with glucose syrup. Corn flakes used to be an OK breakfast alternative for me – now everyone who thinks that eating corn flakes for breakfast is any good (it’s so often marketed this way, isn’t it?), should seriously google its glycemic index. I make it easy for you. It’s 92 out of 100 and 100 is the glycemic index of glucose.
Other so called healthy treats fare similarly poorly. Rice cakes have a glycemic index of 82, dried fruit is generally quite high. Boiled brown rice is at about 68, white bread has 75 and so does white rice. Most of available gluten free biscuits and bread alternatives are not great either.
By combining high GI and low GI foods in one meal, one can reduce the overall GI. Generally, you want to stay below 55. But the worst offenders are better to be avoided alltogether.
My new way of eating
Sheree also recommends paying proper attention to what one eats for breakfast. Essentially, you should eat for breakfast what other people may eat for dinner.
I ditched the buckwheat muesli. My breakfast now would be a big bowl of salad (lettuce, avocado, carrot) and a can of sardines or tuna. Alternatively, I would have a big plate of steamed or boiled vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, spinach and chard together with a nice salmon or cod filet, or around 150 grams of organic chicken breast or chicken liver, or tempeh.
My lunch would be similar and I would usually eat only light diner – a little bit of salad, some sprouted lentils mixed with sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds (combining various types of plant-based protein is strongly recommended). I would snack on nuts (cashews are my favourite. They are an amazing source of zinc, which is otherwise quite difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities from other foods). I would sin with dark chocolate (85 per cent cocoa). Generally, chocolate with cocoa content above 70 per cent is OK for your sugar levels, though I am looking to eliminate chocolate now because of the high caffeine content (not good when you are trying to restore hormonal balance in your body).
And a miracle happened
My next scan revealed that two out of the three cysts disappeared and the third started shrinking.
I have to admit that I would break my diet every now and then. At that time I was going through severe stress as a relationship I used to consider my future was falling apart in the weirdest way and sometimes I just couldn’t help comfort eating. My hair was still shedding tonnes but people would comment on the appearance of my skin. Me periods, once extremely clotty and heavy were becoming considerably lighter and my energy levels were much better than in my late twenties.
A year later, the doctor would discharge me as the remaining cyst shrank to 3cm. It was 6m in diameter at its largest a couple of years ago.
Fine-tuning with Sarah Gottfried
An important source of hormonal wisdom I would like to mention here is the work of Harvard-educated gynaecologist Sarah Gottfried. Similarly to Terry Wahls, once a proponent of conservative pharmaceuticals-based medicine, Sarah learned firsthand that mainstream medicine quite frequently doesn’t have the answers when it comes to complex systematic issues. Her book the Hormone Reset Diet is something every woman should read and keep returning to throughout her life to make her hormonal system work for and not against her.
Through Sarah’s book I gained a complex understanding of my problems and how they have been evolving throughout my life.
I learned that the root cause of my problems were my chronically elevated cortisol levels (a legacy of growing up in a seriously disfunctional family). But I also learned I need to address my estrogen/progesterone balance. I added some extra supplements: High quality omega3 fish oil (great for everything really), added some extra vitamin C to help my body make more progesterone and magnesium to relax at night. I am still taking blackstrap molasses (one or two spoons a day), apple cider vinegar and vitamin D. (I quit the iron pills. There is quite a lot of iron in blackstrap molasses and I love organic chicken liver from Waitrose and eat them every week.)
My journey is nowhere near finished. My fibroids are still the same size and I still shed more hair than I should. But I believe I will get there. You can’t expect to solve in a day what took years of unhealthy choices to developed.
I don’t consider my way of eating limiting and I don’t feel sorry for myself that I can’t eat (or better say I choose to avoid) stuff like donuts, cakes, fries and burgers. My health is my number one priority and I want every single cell of my body to swim in a cocktail of nurturing compounds. At the end of the day, we really are what we eat and the sooner we realise that the better for us.
I am not a medical professional and I don’t claim to have answers for anyone’s health problems. But all too frequently, I hear conventionally trained doctors dismissing what they call ‘alternative’ treatments all too easily. That a doctor doesn’t know of any other option doesn’t mean that any other option does not exist. That simply means that the doctor has not heard about anything else and that, perhaps, large-scale studies have not been done. They dismiss every story of someone’s alternative recovery as ‘anecdotal’ and not reliable. Therefore I believe that the more of us share our stories the more likely the attitudes will change.
Another fact is that we are also each a bit different and everyone who embarks on a food-based healing journey needs to accept the fact that a little bit of experimentation might be necessary. The nascent field of nutrigenomics will hopefully in future remove this need for experimenting. One day, you may have your genom scanned and a medical professional giving you detailed advice on what to eat to maintain perfect health. But we are not there quite yet.