I Ditched the Painkillers for a Plant-Based Diet (and It Worked)

I Ditched the Painkillers for a Plant-Based Diet (and It Worked)

Why you should care

Because we could all probably benefit from taking a little more control.

The author is a reporter and producer for the BBC based in London.

The other morning, Natasha Lipman woke up in excruciating pain with her arm hanging out of its socket. Sadly, for Natasha that’s been the norm ever since she was a toddler. The 26-year-old from London has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a rare condition that renders the body’s connective tissue too weak to hold the skeleton together correctly. Ordinary activities can lead to dislocations: turning a faucet might wrench her fingers out of their sockets; having her blood pressure measured can pull her shoulder out. On her worst days she experiences around 120 such injuries.

Due to two other chronic conditions, she also has migraines, nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion and fatigue. Plus, as you would expect in someone who’s constantly ill, she’s prone to depression. EDS wasn’t diagnosed until she was 21, by which time she’d been called a liar by so many medical professionals that she wept with joy on finally meeting a specialist who believed her when she said the painkillers weren’t working. But even he couldn’t help.

She decided to cut out medicine altogether and take control of her disease, and her life — by simply changing her diet.

So six months ago, after years of ineffective treatments, unable to hold down a job or move out of her parents’ house, Natasha came to a bold decision. She decided to cut out medicine altogether and take control of her disease — and her life — by simply changing her diet. She resolved to eat more foods with medicinal properties, like fennel, almonds and bananas, and fewer of those that might make her conditions worse. She reasoned that even if she couldn’t cure herself, she’d at least be giving her body a better chance of coping with her illnesses.

I meet Natasha at Lab Organic, a juice bar near Covent Garden in central London. Still in pain from that morning’s dislocated shoulder, she winces as she unhooks her backpack but she’s quick to smile. There’s an infectious optimism about her. “I always believed that food was medicine,” she tells me. “Ginger is an anti-inflammatory; mint tea aids digestion.”

Before starting her experiment, she spent months online, researching the medicinal properties of plants. She learned that peas, like ginger, contain a natural anti-inflammatory — essential for treating dislocations — and that mint is a stimulant that counters fatigue and depression. Fennel reduces inflammation too, and bananas contain high levels of pectin, which aids digestion. There are many other examples — too many to mention here. (But check out “Food as Medicine 101” on her website, nutritiouslynatasha).

To many people juicing is just another trend but for Natasha it became a treatment. She began by switching from solid foods to juices and smoothies as liquids give her fewer stomach cramps. She tried fruit, vegetables and herbs in all sorts of combinations and in isolation; she made note of the physiological effects and she formulated her own recipes. Then she gradually began to reintroduce hearty meals and to bake her own cakes and cookies. And after trial and error she arrived at what she calls “a plant-based, gluten free, refined sugar free, caffeine free, anti-inflammatory, high nutrient, long rotation diet.” Which means Pizza Express is out for a dinner date.

Often in place of pasta she’ll eat zoodles — thin strips of zucchini made with a gadget called a spiralizer.

But what does it mean for Lipman day-to-day? Well, for breakfast she might have chlorella zoats: finely grated zucchini mixed with oats, almond milk and chlorella, a protein-rich, vivid green alga. Chlorella also inhibits inflammation while oats enhance the body’s response to infection.

Her preferred main meal is brown rice pasta served with avocado, pea and mint pesto. Often in place of pasta she’ll eat zoodles — thin strips of zucchini made with a gadget called a spiralizer. For dessert she might blend frozen bananas in the food processor and sweeten them with brown rice syrup, which is 100 percent glucose. She never uses agave, insisting it is poison because of its high fructose content.

She avoids soy, too, choosing instead to get her protein from hemp seeds, quinoa, homemade almond butter and the chlorella. If she needs an energy boost, she’ll grab a bag of toasted seeds with added maca — a Peruvian root vegetable high in sugar. Every day she drinks a liter of green juice packed with kale, broccoli or watercress and she’s never without ginger, fennel or mint tea. She’s also phasing out grains and she’s experimenting with bone broth because she feels there’s something missing now that she no longer eats meat.

None of this requires specialist equipment — just a food processor, a juicer and the spiralizer. She gets a weekly delivery from an organic food supplier plus she shops online for supplements like the chlorella and maca. Sure, the research is time consuming, and, yes, she has put a lot of effort into the recipes. But it’s all worth it … because it seems to be working.

She’s only six months into her experiment but already the results are extraordinary. “This time last year, I felt I might never be able to get out of bed again,” she recalls. Now she feels so invigorated that she’s into her own apartment and she’s landed a job as a web content manager at Virgin Unite, part of Richard Branson’s empire. Of course she’s not fully cured. She still suffers at least one partial dislocation every day and she’s prone to fainting. She also has to work from home most of the time and lives only five minutes’ drive from her parents because she still needs their help on her bad days.

But for the first time ever she’s in control of her life, and the psychological boost that brings is perhaps the most important medicine of all.

Photography by Shutterstock.

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