I started having noticeable issues with gastrointestinal symptoms and food intolerances early in life, if you can call diet sodas and artificial sweeteners “food.” I was about 12 years old when NutraSweet went on the market. It became immensely popular and was used in the diet sodas and sugar-free candies and gums all my tween-aged friends were drinking, eating and chewing. Personally, I couldn’t stand the stuff. It made me nauseated and bloated and made my mouth water sickeningly. Over the years, other so-called sugar substitutes came to market and I tried them all, but every one of them made me sick. My grandmother’s Sweet n’ Low was clearly poison and I never touched it. As for reacting badly to actual real food, that didn’t start until later.
My first memorably bad response to food happened around age 19 when I first started college. I was cooking my own fresh, store-bought food at the time and trying to do everything right. My mother had been a decent cook and mostly kept only nourishing, non-junkfood in the house but I had started having skin problems at around 13. With my parents’ direction and blessing obviously, I tried conventional medications like oral antibiotics and Retin-A but I could sense that the stuff was poison and the antibiotics started giving me a stomachache. When I had my wisdom teeth out at 16 or so, the trauma of the surgery and an especially brutal course of strong antibiotics turned me off of my similarly brutal Big Pharma skincare regimen so I started looking elsewhere. I tried alternative therapies like cleaning up my diet even more than it already was, and using guided meditation, supplements, and homemade clay and herbal facial packs, as well as trying every drugstore skincare product I could afford on my tiny allowance and babysitting money. But after I stopped taking the antibiotics and Retin-A, my cystic acne exploded.
When I moved out, to try to heal my embarrassing and painful skin condition, I continued and even doubled my efforts with diet modifications and restrictions but my skin never got better, and I started having heartburn for the first time in my life. My first episode of heartburn — a violent, acidic stomach ache with esophageal spasms — seemed related to a PopTart I borrowed from my junkfood-loving roommate so I never did that again. An unusual bout of constipation followed. I stuck with a mostly vegetarian and whole foods diet which never helped my skin but the awful heartburn seemed to resolve. My stomach didn’t bother me much again until I was 22 or so and moved into the dorms.
That was around 1996 and from what I can tell, was the very beginning of the GMO revolution which has by now infected our national and global food chain. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the college dorm cafeterias were one of the first testing grounds for a 100% GMO diet — public universities and the military most likely. Did state universities contract with Big Agriculture for their food supply? Of course they did, and they still do. Most university dorms certainly aren’t contracting with small, local organic farms to supply their menus that’s for sure. And Big Ag was neck-deep in developing and rolling out GMOs at the time. My stomach just ached literally all the time starting a day or so after I moved in and lasted for several weeks if not months and then finally subsided. I hadn’t really noticed until a friend and dorm mate mentioned that his stomach hurt constantly ever since he had moved on-campus. He related his pain to eating the dorm food and he was probably right. Looking back, I suspect we were the test subjects for the GMO revolution that was to come. Whereas the processed Big Ag PopTart that had made me so sick in 1993 may or may not have been the first GMO food I had encountered, my entire diet was probably GMO in the dorms. And I started getting noticeably, increasingly sick. By the time I graduated from college I was taking 2 different prescription medications for my stomach issues. Once I moved out of the dorms and was cooking fresh, store-bought food again, I was able to go down to one medication — Prilosec, which had become over the counter by then — which extinguished my severe heartburn well enough that I could sleep.
Over the next 5 years or so, my gastrointestinal and other symptoms increased. Besides the constant threat of heartburn which, thankfully, was mostly tamped down with daily drugs, I started having strange bloating and swelling in my abdomen, chest and face, as well as swelling and pitting edema in my legs, ankles and feet. No sooner had I graduated from law school and had my first job, my health seemed to be falling apart and I didn’t know why or what to do about it. It was still another year before I was a practicing attorney with medical benefits so there wasn’t much I could do. Once I got my first job practicing law, and after the 60-day waiting period whereupon my health benefits kicked in, I started making doctors’ appointments all over town and taking off work for various examinations, imaging and tests. Clearly, I wasn’t doing my career any favors by taking sick and personal time and heavily using my insurance but I knew there was something seriously wrong with me and I was desperate to fix it. My clothes didn’t fit, I was having brain fog and other symptoms which I was concerned may eventually affect my work performance, and my stomach problems were becoming unmanageable and out of control. I started seeing a chiropractor and nutritionist who put me on an elimination diet which seemed to work — as long as I avoided the Big 8, meaning gluten, corn, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy, soy, and nuts — my symptoms virtually disappeared. Relieved, I thought I had finally figured it out. I experimented with the Big 8 somewhat and figured out that I could have most of the things on the list occasionally, but that I could not have wheat or gluten at all. Although I had tested negative for Celiac disease, just a half a sandwich on regular, non-gluten-free bread would be enough to keep me up all night and to clear the room. So I embarked on what ended up being nearly 10 years on a strict gluten-free diet. The excruciating bloating, gas, breakthrough heartburn and insomnia, as well as the frightening brain fog, swelling and pitting edema also subsided. Notably, every diagnostic test I had during that time came up negative.
But around 2010, to my absolute horror, my gluten-free diet stopped working. From that point on everything I ate made me sick. Food — all food — became my enemy and there were no longer any dietary changes that would work. It would take a couple more years of worsening symptoms before I got my diagnosis and since then I have tried many supposedly Crohn’s-friendly diets including the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), the low-FODMAP diet, the low-residue diet, the Paleo diet, and the elemental diet and none of them gave me substantial relief. So far, the only thing I have tried that actually works is a 100% organic, non-GMO diet which combined with my treatment with medical cannabis has brought me immense relief.
The first thing I noticed after switching to 100% organic and non-GMO was that food and gas didn’t seem to get “stuck” in my GI tract anymore, and things seemed to be moving along on their own. This helped immensely with one of the worst of my Crohn’s symptoms — intense, unrelenting bloating after meals. In my travels I have read about some Crohn’s patients actually getting hernias due to intestinal bloat. They literally pop, and from my experience I can absolutely believe it. And as it is impossible to sleep with a gut full of gas, the agonizing bloating of Crohn’s causes brutal insomnia and sleep disturbances. Without restful sleep and a healing restoration period, the hellish days spent suffering from Crohn’s blend into weeks, months and years of constant, unabated agony. This is no life, and yet, I have never heard any gastroenterologist suggest going organic, or read any peer-reviewed medical literature implicating GMOs in any way in the development, management or treatment of Crohn’s. It is perhaps easier to imagine how the herbicides and pesticides used in commercial farming of non-organic food are likely implicated in gut wellness and how we process food but no doctor ever told me to avoid them.
In the end, I simply had no choice but to run away from the Western medical treatment of Crohn’s which was really no treatment at all, and to run towards something, anything, that might actually heal me. I would’ve settled for pain relief in the beginning but Western medicine didn’t offer me that either.
I was nearly 39 when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s which is later than most who are diagnosed as children or young adults. I suspect that my lifelong abstinence from chemical sweeteners, as well as my mostly whole-foods diet and avoiding wheat and gluten for 10 years probably gave me a couple extra decades of relative wellness but even so, I was struck down in my prime by disabling Crohn’s symptoms I could no longer control. I wonder what would have happened had I started a 100% organic, non-GMO diet sooner, or if any of the allegedly Crohn’s-friendly diets I have tried would have worked if only I had done them organically. I also wonder what young people are experiencing today who have grown up on a constant GMO diet from early childhood, or from birth. I see that the rates of many Western diseases are skyrocketing, including Crohn’s and it makes me wonder even more. Interestingly, even while treating with medical cannabis, it was not until I added in the organic diet that I started to notice real change — before I changed my food, the cannabis had been giving me profound pain relief and smoking during meals helped quell my nausea and disinterest in food, but the bloating, gurgling and other symptoms were still there even though I couldn’t really feel them and thankfully was able to sleep and somewhat function despite them.
Now, for the first time in 10 years, I am enjoying a varied diet of delicious food, and likely for the first time since the rollout of GMOs in the mid-1990s the food is only improving my health, not diminishing it. At the very least, I reasoned that changing to a 100% organic, non-GMO diet couldn’t possibly hurt or make my condition worse. Amazingly, it seems as if the food is so nourishing and satisfying that the additional cost is being offset by the smaller portions I need to feel sated. Sadly, as in most cases of small-bowel Crohn’s, I seem unable to tolerate milk, cream or soft cheeses, and loads and loads of sugar are right out. And gourds. Except for seriously missing taking my tea and coffee with milk, I hardly notice.