I love all special-occasion food. Deviled eggs? Sure, pass that cute, indented plate. Clove-studded spiral ham? It’s probably best if you let me carve my own portion. Sixth glass of wine? Don’t mind if I do!
For most people, the holidays are a time of excess, an occasion to gather around the table with family and friends and go to town, imperial Roman-style, on as much food and drink as is possible to stuff down one’s gullet in a two-hour timespan. A food writer, recipe developer, and obsessive eater, I’m typically the Nero at such events, consuming plate after plate in a manner so decadent it would be sure to impress the depraved first-century emperor so dedicated to victuals that his Golden Palace featured a circular banquet hall that rotated day and night.
But a few weeks ago, seated around the Passover table with my extended family of atheist New York Jews, my sad, mostly empty plate was more macrobiotic Gwyneth Paltrow than it was gluttonous Guy Fieri. As loaded dishes of food made their way past my hungry eyes, I mentally ticked off what I couldn’t eat: the brisket, made with tomato paste, a nightshade; the hummus, made with chickpeas, a legume; the bread of affliction itself, the matzoh, made with wheat, and thus that malevolent gluten.
Seven months ago, I was a recent transplant to Mexico, where I moved to focus on my travel writing and, of course, to eat all the foods. I arrived, healthy, in early September and promptly made cruising for street food a central part of my daily routine. On any given day, I might breakfast on chorizo tacos at the bustling covered market across the street from my apartment; wander down to the center of town for a deep bowl of porky pozole, or hominy stew, for lunch; and, for dinner, munch on a giant wood-fired tlayuda, a sort of Mexican pizza constructed atop a crispy corn tortilla the size of a platter. Though my eating habits sound indulgent, I was researching and writing about these wonderful traditional foods in addition to greedily to scarfing them down for my own satisfaction. In fact, I had finally found the union between my personal interests and my professional career that I had been seeking, for years, as a freelance writer.
You know that old cliché “and then, overnight, everything changed”? Well, that’s essentially what happened to me. In late October, just two months after my arrival in Mexico, I acquired a urinary tract infection, identical in nature to the dozens I’ve contracted in my life. I went to the pharmacy, asked for the antibiotic I always use to treat them, and soon felt better. But five days after finishing the course of medication, I awoke to find that my entire body was itching and burning without cease. Day by day, as the uncomfortable sensations increased in intensity, interrupting my sleep and driving me insane, I looked for a logical explanation—failing to link the problem to my recent antibiotic usage.
It was worse than I thought: Almost everything I ate affected my skin and nerves, and certain common allergens like alcohol, dairy, and, yes, much-maligned gluten made my issues much, much worse.
Was it the laundry detergent I switched to when I moved? I washed all my bedding and every article of clothing in new, additive-free detergent. Was it an environmental allergen, a blooming plant native to my new home? I starting popping Claritin like candy.
Absolutely nothing helped—until a sage friend suggested I start keeping a food journal to see if anything I was eating made my symptoms worse. At first, I scoffed at the idea—did she know who she was talking to? The food writer with the iron stomach who could down a bowl of habañero-laced tripe soup without so much as a burp afterward, the gourmand who secretly rolled my eyes at family and friends who claimed to have “gluten intolerance” or a “dairy sensitivity”?
But with my options running out—and my chronic itching morphing into a troubling pins-and-needles neuropathy—I acquiesced. I was soon able to see that the problem was, in fact, linked to my diet. And it was worse than I thought: Almost everything I ate affected my skin and nerves, and certain common allergens like alcohol, dairy, and, yes, much-maligned gluten made my issues much, much worse. Depressed and overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out any kind of “elimination diet” on my own—and still having no earthly idea that the whole nightmare had been kicked off by those antibiotics I had taken—I trekked back to my native New York City in mid-December, working with a naturopathic doctor to formulate a plan to regain my health.
During my first appointment, the ND went over the results of the many blood, urine, and hormone tests she had ordered before I came in. According to these labs, there was absolutely nothing wrong with me: I was at the pinnacle of health, with glowing scores in every category. As I described how certain foods seemed to affect me, the doctor asked about any recent usage of medication. “What about antibiotics, specifically?” she inquired. Well, yes, I had taken a course for a UTI back in October. “And when did you say the symptoms started?” Oh, right… about five days afterwards. Any other usage of antibiotics, before the ones in October? Well, come to think of it, I did take high doses of amoxicillin for five weeks over the summer after contracting a tick-borne illness in upstate New York. After going through my recent medical history—mostly consisting of forgotten trips to urgent care to seek relief from my frequent UTIs and the occasional sore throat—I figured out that over the past two years, I had taken antibiotics a total of 12 times, essentially one course every other month.
The ND went on to explain that in her estimation I was suffering from “leaky gut,” the incredibly inanely named condition that results when the vastly diverse “microbiome” living inside our guts becomes damaged due to extreme stress, poor diet, or, most especially, from broad-spectrum antibiotic medications that exterminate both the bad bacteria that cause infections like strep and UTIs, as well as the good bacteria that help digest our food and prevent the spread of inflammation in the body.
Populated by around 1,000 species of microorganisms both helpful and harmful, the human gut is an incredibly complex ecosystem: The genetic diversity of the bacteria that live there is 150 times greater than that of their human host. In total, this bodily community weighs about five pounds. When something goes awry—in my case, with the introduction of round after round of destructive antibiotics—and the balance there is shifted, beneficial bacteria (the “probiotics” you find in all those trendy kombucha and kefir drinks) die off and pathogenic bacteria begin to multiply. Left unchecked, these baddies weaken the tightly linked cellular wall of the gut, allowing undigested particles of food to slip into the bloodstream. When that happens, the immune system attacks the invaders: substances that are innocuous when inside the gut, like milk or corn, are tagged by the body as harmful when they slip outside it, giving rise to food allergies and intolerances.
Now that I know what it’s like to be the person at the table nervously scanning each dish for ingredients that could tip me into a four-day-long flare of my symptoms, my former scorn for the food-allergic has 180’ed to complete empathy.
Evidence of this phenomenon is extensive. Dozens of rigorous scientific studies have demonstrated that early, frequent exposure to antibiotics is the culprit behind an alarming rise in food allergies in both children and adults that has increased by 377 percent since 2007.
In my case, my ND quickly placed me on an extremely restrictive, gut-healing diet aimed at rebalancing my good and bad bacteria, thereby sealing my “leaking” gut and reversing my newly acquired food intolerances. Previously an omnivore of the highest order, I currently can’t eat soy, dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol, coffee, or any type of processed sugar.
You might know the diet by its trendy name: Paleo. Populated by annoying-as-fuck devotees of CrossFit, the diet is scoffed at by many, including, previously, me. And though I don’t think I’ll remain in its ranks for life, I have to say that because the science behind it is so sound—and because my symptoms have been slowly, but steadily, fading since I started it—I’m a convert, at least while my body heals. And now that I know what it’s like to be the person at the table nervously scanning each dish for ingredients that could tip me into a four-day-long flare of my symptoms, my former scorn for the food-allergic has 180’ed to complete empathy.
These days, I pretend the bread basket doesn’t exist, greedily gobbling liver pâté in place of pizza, cooking almost everything I eat in delicious, delicious lard, and constructing intricate “desserts” out of shredded coconut and raw honey.
In time, I hope to recover my wantonly wide-ranging way of eating. For now? Pass the bone broth, please.