If you want to read the whole series in order, start here:
I cannot even begin to articulate how frustrating it is to see improvement with acne only to find the “solution” to be ultimately lacking.
I saw definite improvement now that I wasn’t eating vegan. The massive, constant flare-ups began to slow, and I was able to wean off of the (completely ineffective anyway) Doxycycline. My face was finally starting to clear up, but I still had some pretty serious cysts on my chin. It didn’t make sense: here I was, eating squeaky clean paleo (perhaps too squeaky–I was still afraid of eating fats), eliminating nightshades, washing my face with nothing but baking soda and apple cider vinegar, and de-stressing to the best of my ability.
I racked the internet for answers, but all that was out there were glowing accounts of miraculous skin health reversals that read just as emphatically as the vegan transformation stories that had snared me months earlier.
I was fortunate enough to have a ton of time on my hands, so I began to do some more in-depth research. And it was during this time that I stumbled upon the concept of “n=1.”
As humans, our bodies were crafted by the same artist, but sculpted from different clay, fired in different kilns, and painted different colors…and so the best light in which to display our art cannot be found in a single gallery. Though we’re all part of the same species, we are each so unique–genetically, epigenetically*–that it’s almost insane to presume that there’s single diet (and by “diet” I mean lifestyle/way of eating) to which we’ll all respond the same. In other words, some people can eat dairy while others can’t. Some people seem to thrive on so many starchy carbs, while others can’t look at a sweet potato without having an adverse insulin response. Some people have great skin because they’re vegans, others because they’re chowing on beef liver.
For the non-science majors among you, n=X refers to the sample size of a population in any given experiment. So, if you did an experiment with 86 female runners, for example, “n” would equal 86; an experiment with 101 obese rats would be described as n=101, etc. When it comes to finding the diet/nutrition that works for you, you can’t necessarily look to the latest study out of Stanford or Harvard that touts results based on a sample size of n=100, 1000, 1,000,000 to get a personalized result. And so the concept of n=1 was born: instead of looking at what works for the group on average, figure out what works for you.
“Nutrition is for real people. Statistical humans are of little interest.”
Roger J. Williams, PhD (poached shamelessly from Eathropology.)
I took that to heart and turned away from the internet. Instead of posting in a Paleo Hacks forum, I asked myself about myself.
Self, I asked, what have you been eating consistently that could be causing such a reaction? I took an inventory…and suddenly it dawned on me, with all of the poetic grace of a Mack truck: what’s the one thing that I ate at least once (if not twice or three times) per day, whether I was “cleansing” in New York City, starving myself in England, training to be a fitness model, or avoiding animal products?
The answer? Apples. My favorite food.
As soon as I made the realization, things started to fall into place. I hopped back onto the internet and did a little investigating with Dr. Google. “Apples + Acne” returned this: Birch Pollen Allergies.
The explanation’s a little convoluted, but bear with me here: birch pollen allergens contain a protein that is similar to a protein found in certain fresh fruits, nuts, and herbs. Individuals who have a sensitivity to birch pollen, then, can find that allergy expressed as an oral food allergy when they eat those birch-pollen-similar foods. An oral food allergy can express itself in a number of different symptoms in varying degrees of severity: itching of the mouth and throat, swelling of the tongue, oral ulcers/blood blisters, anaphylaxis, etc. So…what does this have to do with me?
Do you remember waaaaaay back to the beginning of my eating disorder story, when I mentioned that I had to give up soy until an allergy test revealed that I had a “heightened reaction” to tree nuts (like hazelnuts and almonds)? Okay. Well, I ate tree nuts for years with nary an episode of anaphylaxis, so I disregarded that diagnosis.
In between said diagnosis and now, I developed a fatal attraction to apples. Not your horrible, mealy Red Delicious, but the big-as-your-head and juicy-as-hell varieties like Honeycrisp. During my freshman year in college, I became something of an apple connoisseur, able to distinguish between a Braeburn and a Gala with my eyes shut.
During the height of my second relapse into ED–the summer I went to England–I started eating two apples a day. Even after I started teaching high school, I kept up my two-apple habit, and that continued into my body building days…until I completely gave up carbohydrates. At that point, I started eating almond butter every night (and you’ll see why this is relevant in a second). While I was weightlifting, my acne wasn’t horrible, but it stayed present. Then, when I started working at the Kool-Aid store, I reintroduced apples, getting up to three apples a day by the time I went vegan (during which time I also relied very heavily on soy to keep my protein intake high).
Now, some of the “do-not-eat-if-you’re-allergic-to-birch-pollen” foods include: apples, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, peppers, and soybeans. And, according to at least one study I found on PubMed, a “secondary soy allergy may cause severe chronic besides acute symptoms” in children with a birch pollen allergy. So maybe the soy thing wasn’t completely off-base after all…
How do I know that this is my issue? Well, in the months leading up to my n=1 discovery, I had started complaining that my mouth and throat itched when I ate apples. Later, I started developing really painful blood blisters in my mouth after eating a snack of apples and rice cakes. At the time I thought maybe it was because the rice cakes were somehow irritating my mouth. I thought wrong.
I had also started using raw apple cider vinegar on my face a few months into the vegan experiment. Apparently that exacerbated my problems.
Although it pained me to stop eating my daily apples and almond butter, I managed to almost completely heal myself from the inside out. My skin cleared up. I struggled, for the first few weeks, not to unconsciously reach for my beloved apples or mix up a couple of tablespoons of almond butter and chocolate for dessert, but over time I stopped craving them.
There were still other issues to be addressed with my hormones, but, by and large, the acne problem became a thing of the past.
Out of curiosity a few days ago, I decided to test the efficacy of my experiment after a few months. So I bought an apple at Trader Joe’s. Three bites in and my gums started bleeding. Needless to say, I’m convinced. No more apples.
I’m so glad I discovered n=1 and stopped looking to others for the answers. And I so appreciate hearing about the acne cures you guys have shared with me through the comments and offline: it reaffirms for me that we’re all wired differently, and that we have a duty to take care of ourselves based on what works for our individual genetic and epigenetic makeup. And I think this extends beyond acne to other issues, in the realms of fitness, nutrition, and mental health. I challenge each and every one of you, the next time you decide to try the latest fad (be it nutrition, fitness, etc.), go into it with an n=1 mindset and make changes based on how you actually feel, not how someone says you should be feeling.
Now, all of that said (and I apologize, ‘cause I realize I said a lot), after I made my acne discovery, I still had a ton of self-realization awaiting me as I stared into the seeming abyss of life after veganism.
P.S. Just so you know, the saga is far from over. A few days ago, my chin broke out again, and I had no change in my diet. I had to seriously consider what might have changed to have provoked such a reaction. I realized that the only change I had made was the introduction of biotin into my supplement regimen. (I started taking it, despite its dubious ability to expedite hair growth, because I’m desperately trying to grow out a horrible haircut.) I stopped taking it about a week ago, so we’ll see if that cures my problem. After I stopped the biotin, I stopped my hormone replacement therapy (more on that in another post) because I’m tired of feeding my body synthetic hormones, so I’ve started getting acne on my forehead and hairline again. It’s a never-ending struggle for balance, but I think I’ve at least gotten closer to understanding the mechanisms that make my skin react the way it does. And hopefully I’ll have clear enough skin to begin dealing with the horrible scarring soon…
I cannot recommend more highly this series on n=1 nutrition at Eathropology. These articles are well written and meticulously researched. They’re long, but they’re so worth the read. (Especially if you’re interested in public health, nutrition, and epidemiology!)
*Epigenetics: how our genes express themselves
It’s Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that follows directly after the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Today is the day to apologize and wash away the sins of the past year.
And yet I realized, as I started to reflect on those actions for which I need to apologize, that the biggest apology I owe is to myself for apologizing so often.
I am the kind of person who says, “I’m sorry” with such a frequency that friends and family actually get upset and have to ask me to stop apologizing (which usually provokes an apology for apologizing–and the cycle repeats). I am the kind of person who apologizes for trivial things and for circumstances beyond my control. I am the kind of person who apologizes for being alive.
And so, in order to atone for that sin, today I am not sorry. Today I am making the decision to stop apologizing for my life.
Now, granted, there are definitely things for which I need to apologize–things for which I own having done and for which I now humbly ask forgiveness. Things like letting some of my most important friendships lapse in the face of my narcissistic self-obsession known as ED. Like putting my family through the torture of supporting an unsupportable person during the depths of my depression. Like allowing myself to treat me so poorly for all of these years.
But there are things for which I no longer want to apologize. Here are a few:
- I am not sorry for not caring about movies. I have been to the movies exactly twice since the fall of 2010 (the first time to see Fame with a group of girlfriends from my childhood and the second to see The Muppet Movie with my grandma). Sitting in a movie theater gives me anxiety, and watching movies alone at home with my laptop does not interest me in the slightest. I have no interest in getting pop culture savvy. I wasn’t raised watching movies, and I had no pop culture knowledge. When I tried to “catch up,” I realized that I was fighting a losing battle. The anxiety of inadequacy was overwhelming, so I gave up. So before you try to engage me in conversation that begins with, “remember that film where…”: no, I haven’t seen that movie, no, I don’t know who that movie star is, and no, I am not planning on seeing it.
- I am not sorry for having been a difficult roommate. I am not sorry for liking cleanliness and order. I am not sorry for wanting to impose that upon my living space, and I’m not sorry for estranging the roommates who couldn’t understand. With the exception of two, I have had nothing but a string of impossible roommates, with whom relations eventually broke down over the state of our shared living spaces. I used to feel bad about wanting things like clean dishes, but I don’t any more. Dirt and mess are signs of laziness and procrastination–two clear indications that you do not respect others, yourself, or the space you live in. If I can take the two seconds to clean my plate or fold my laundry, so can you. I’m not sorry for how I feel about this, and if it’s a problem for you, then we clearly shouldn’t live together–end of story.
- I am not sorry for wanting to feel pretty. I’m not talking about wanting to be thin or indulging in disordered behaviors–for that, I’m sorry that I put myself through that b.s. But I’m not sorry for putting effort into the way I look. I went a year without wearing makeup, buying new clothes, getting a manicure, etc. I chopped off all of my hair because I couldn’t be bothered to spend time styling it. But there is something really important about investing some time in your appearance. Like putting the dishes away shows that you can respect your space, taking the time to leave the house at least put together shows that you respect your person. And I’m not sorry for wanting to respect the person I’m living in.
- I am not sorry that I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t care if you’re a social drinker or need alcohol to have a good time. I don’t. I’m not interested in going to a bar. It’s just not my idea of a good time. Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine on a special occasion; but then again, maybe not. I’m fine with water and waking up in the morning without a headache or a fuzzy mouth. Do what you want, but please don’t comment on my temperance. It’s my choice.
- I am not sorry for caring about health and fitness. Again, I’m not talking about the compulsive, excessive exercise and the obsession with restrictive eating; I’m talking about finally, for the first time in my entire life figuring out how to achieve a balance that will lead to optimal health. (That means potentially pissing off some vegans and marathon runners with the science that I’m going to quote on my blog, but I’m finally okay with that. I’ve realized that I can’t win ‘em all…and it’s silly to try if that means compromising my values and beliefs.) I’m going to do what works for me without letting anyone–ED included–tell me that I’m doing it wrong. It’s my body, my life, and my health.
- I am not sorry that I didn’t follow my life plan. Up until very recently, I was incredibly depressed by how my life turned out so far. I’ve realized that no one’s life follows the original map. But though it’s far easier to dwell on the delays, detours, and bumps in the road, the fact of the matter is that looking out the window and experiencing the scenery, the wind in my hair, the clouds and the stars in the sky above is a lot more enjoyable. So I’m not going to apologize for the fact that I’m not an Ivy League success, for the fact that I’m not living on my own or with a partner, for the fact that my body isn’t perfect, for the fact that I don’t have children or a high-paying career-of-my-dreams. Instead, I’m going to love the fact that I live in the mountains, that I am incredibly close with my family, that I have my ridiculous dog who snuggles my feet at night, that I’m learning to be happy in my body for the first time ever.
So, for those of you who are fasting today (I will not be, for hopefully obvious reasons), I wish you an easy and meaningful fast. And as you ask forgiveness for the past year, don’t forget to forgive yourself. You are the most important “you” that you have, and you deserve your love and forgiveness just as much–if not more than–anyone else.
Massive amount of information forthcoming. Stay tuned!
If you want to read the whole series in order, start here:
And so here I was, at a crossroads. I had committed to being a vegan. I wanted nothing to do with meat. And yet I was broken down mentally and metabolically. Worse, I was doing nothing but accumulating scars on the most visible part of my body. I agreed to at least indulge my mom in exploring another way of eating.
As I mentioned before, my mom is into Crossfit. And the people at her gym introduced her to a way of eating called the “Paleo Diet.” She was convinced that if only I started eating bacon, I’d be cured. I did not harbor such preconceptions when I suspiciously opened up Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint and started reading.
And I read the Primal Blueprint with a serious amount of skepticism. It basically told me that the lifestyle I’d been living and the diet I was following was completely wrong: my high-carb, low-fat, moderate-to-as-high-as-I-could-get-with-hemp-powder-and-brown-rice protein diet ran directly against the Primal Blueprint’s guidelines. Moreover, my sleep and exercise were, according to Mark Sisson, completely off-base and out of rhythm with my body. I finished the book in one night, and went to sleep with my brow furrowed.
I wasn’t convinced. After all, everything I’d read since becoming vegan said the opposite. How could eating meat be good for me? Weren’t egg yolks the reason for heart disease? What about the China Study?!*
It wasn’t until I borrowed Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat from the library that things started to make sense.
According to Taubes, the science behind the low-fat, high-carb diet is inherently flawed. The FDA adopted the low-fat mantra after confusing correlation with causation. The connection between dietary and somatic cholesterol has been debunked time and again, although the results of those studies have been purposely obfuscated by the government and the media, or else just simply misunderstood.
Moreover, if you look at the rates of heart disease, diabesity, and related diseases, you’ll see a direct correlation between them and the adoption of the low-fat, high-carb diet (circa the 1980s). And there are scientists today who are proving causation in study after study after study.
(For more on that, check out Taubes’ 2004 article “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” in the NYT, then read the book–and if you want to get seriously serious, read Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes’ 400+ page tome on the subject.)
Anyway, I’m not here to argue about plant-based versus animal protein diets (today). Just to explain why I decided to give Paleo a try.
Now that I had at least decided to proceed with an open mind, I borrowed my mom’s copy of the Whole30 and got to work.
The Whole30 is a tough-love 30-day diet and lifestyle change meant to help you cold-turkey transition to a healthier, cleaner way of eating. For people who approach it from the Standard American Diet of processed foods, it’s a shock to the system–no sugar, trans fats, packaged anything–that probably results in weight loss and huge medical benefits (I say “probably” because the creators of the Whole30 suggest that this isn’t about weight loss but about establishing healthier food habits). But there’s a shock to the system for recovering veg*ns, too: when you shift your diet from grains, grasses, beans, and legumes to animal proteins and healthy fats, you are fundamentally changing the way your body runs and reacts.
And since I’m no stranger to 30-day diets and transformations, I figured I’d give it a go. Why not? Giving up food wasn’t new to me. Every “diet” I’d tried was about what I couldn’t eat. Even though I constantly thought about the things I was eating–trying to trick myself into looking forward to egg white pancakes or packets of “green” meal-powders–it was always within the context of the things I wasn’t eating. And god forbid I go “off-plan” and cheat–then it was open-season for ED to start shooting me down with reminders of how horrible I was for eating the things I “couldn’t” have.
I was pretty much convinced that the Paleo thing would just be another list of foods I couldn’t have. And, technically, by starting with the Whole30, it was: No grains. No beans. No peanuts, for god’s sake.** No dairy.*** No, no, no. I even went further and did an autoimmune protocol, which means excluding potentially allergenic foods that cause or exacerbate everything from autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis to acne (the latter, of course, being the reason I tried it). On the autoimmune protocol I further limited my diet by excluding “nightshades,” which are a class of vegetable that contain “alkaloids[, which] can impact nerve-muscle function and digestive function in animals and humans, and may also be able to compromise joint function.” These foods include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and any pepper, from sweet to hot.
And so this was how I found myself eating a breakfast of scrambled eggs for the first time in almost a year. (Okay, fine: scrambled egg whites. I had read and understood Why We Get Fat on an intellectual level, but ED doesn’t listen to intellect–ED only knows that there are more calories in whole eggs than in egg whites.) This was how I found myself enjoying tuna fish for lunch. (No mayo, but it’s surprisingly good with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and Italian spices!)
The Whole30 went well–in fact, while I wasn’t weighing myself, I visibly lost my vegan belly bloat.+ My acne, though by no means cured, was hugely alleviated. In fact, I was able to stop taking the doxycycline I had been prescribed during the vegan disaster.
Now that the month was over, however, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I still hadn’t completely gotten rid of the acne, still hadn’t completely committed to the idea of eating animal fat, still hadn’t moved past the 30-day diet mentality.
Staring into the abyss of “what next,” I failed to recognize that I was so busy concentrating on the foods I couldn’t eat that I had forgotten to consider the ones I could.
*The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell is the number one document to which the veg*n community turns to validate the high-fat:cholesterol connection. Denise Minger of Raw Food SOS debunks the China Study here.
**No peanuts because no legumes. Apparently, as a defense mechanism, legumes contain a indigestible anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Phytates make all of the nutrients that Fitday calorie counters tell us we’re eating unavailable to our bodies. Moreover, peanuts contain proteins called lectins, which permeate the lining of our digestive tract and wreak all sorts of havoc on our guts and bloodstreams.
***Not a problem for me, since I’d stopped eating dairy in January of 2011. I’ve since had one container of Greek yogurt (July 2011-ish, if memory serves), and I felt so horrible after eating it that I haven’t looked back.
+Ah, the dreaded bloat. My yoga-and-vegan-induced weight loss lasted until November or so…After that, I started to gain weight and lose muscle (in part due to the fact that I wasn’t able to exercise at the level I had previously due to my ankle). But even after I returned to working out (and working through the pain), I couldn’t seem to get comfortable in my own body.
I will admit to taking progress photos for the sake of the Whole30. I have not done so since, nor do I feel the need to anymore. I’m posting them here solely to demonstrate the physical change that occurred after giving up veganism. Here is what happened after a month and a half of “Paleo” eating:
Update: If you want to read the whole series in order, start here:
As I became more and more invested in my mostly-raw vegan diet, my face become more and more pockmarked and scarred. Despite my pristine diet, the promised detox never came–or else it just kept coming and coming.*
While the PD cleared up around my mouth, the hormonal, cystic acne intensified, and I developed worse regular acne. I had to start wearing bandaids on my face nearly every day, just so that I could go to work without scaring my customers away with my broken, bleeding face. It was horrific, and I was embarrassed to no end.
I honestly didn’t know what to do. I hated myself even more than ever–and, mind you, this is the recent history I’m talking about.
Worse yet, the “vegan glow” had already begun to fade. While my first few months of veganism made me lose weight and feel like I was filled with light and hope, the glow quickly wore off. I started putting on weight again, feeling leaden, bloated, and constantly hungry. I would have mini-anxiety attacks when I couldn’t take my scheduled 15 minute breaks on time at work, because all I wanted to do was just get to my next meal.
And in case you’re wondering my diet looked something like this:
- Green Juice (made with 1/2 pear, 2 stalks celery, kale, swiss chard, and broccoli) and a piece of Ezekiel Low-Sodium Sprouted Grain Bread, or
- Green Smoothie (made with broccoli, kale, frozen berries, vegan raw protein or hemp powder, and a tiny bit of coconut oil)
Mid Morning Snack:
- Apple & 2 brown rice cakes
- Homemade raw hummus (chickpeas, a minuscule amount of tahini, lemon juice and serrano chili peppers) with carrots and broccoli or on a pita with sprouts and bell peppers
- Raw vegan meal replacement mixed with just enough water to make a pudding
Mid Afternoon Snack:
- Apple & 2 brown rice cakes
- Tempeh and stir-fried peppers, broccoli, and kale, with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and Quinoa
- 2 tbsp raw almond butter with vegan chocolate chips and cinnamon (and if I was still hungry–which I usually was, several servings of dry Publix cereal or two pieces of toasted Ezekiel Sprouted Grain Bread)
Low calorie? Check. Low fat? Check. Animal-free? Check. Besides my nut-butter-and-chocolate-chip addiction (I couldn’t go to bed without having that snack) and the constant need to pad my days with extra bread and cereal, my diet seemed pretty impeccable.
Why wasn’t veganism curing my acne? Why wasn’t I able to fit into my work pants anymore? I started to question my investment in the whole thing.
The camel’s back broke** in May, when I went back to Florida for my little sister’s college graduation. The thought of being featured in a single family photo made me sick–and the impossibility of finding a single meal to eat during that trip made my heart (and stomach) ache.
I subsisted on apples and meal replacement powders nearly the entire time (and I dipped liberally into the container of raw almond butter I had packed in my suitcase). When we went out to restaurants, I bothered the waitresses with requests for substitutions until there wasn’t anything but a few limp pieces of salad left on the plate anyway. (And, of course, I asked for the salad dry, leaving even olive oil and vinegar untouched despite the fact that olive oil is definitely vegan. My fear of fat was stronger than my hunger and sense of taste.)
On the last night, we went out to dinner at a chain restaurant, where the only vegan option on the menu was an appetizer: white bean hummus with pita bread. I had eaten nothing but meal replacements and apples all day, so by the time the meal came, I was starving. I ate the whole thing, sopping up every last bit of hummus with my family-sized order of pita. When the waitress came to take my plate, she actually looked me in the eye and said, in a most condescending tone, “Well, looks like somebody was hungry…”
I went back to the hotel and looked at my bleeding, scarred face in the mirror, ashamed for reasons I couldn’t even name anymore. That was it. I was done.
My mom, a scary-ripped crossfitter and lifelong health nut, had been pushing me to stop being a vegan and try this “paleo” thing she’d been doing since she started crossfit the year before. I had been actively ignoring her for months–I was already exhausted following one diet; I didn’t need another set of rules and restrictions to learn. Moreover, by this point the idea of eating meat made me ill–I knew it was unhealthy, I felt I was above that, I didn’t want to admit defeat…but when I returned to California, exhausted, hungry, and pimply as a schoolgirl–with no other isolate-able reason for my problems but my diet–, I told her I’d at least give it chance.
And thank god I did, because I wouldn’t be blogging here today if I hadn’t.
*When writing of detoxes, medical professionals and their ilk often forewarn of a few weeks of side effects like acne, as the body rids itself of the toxins through the skin. However, I was either so full of toxins that my skin just never healed or else I was just deluding myself and permanently damaging my skin for nine months.
**Metaphorical animal cruelty signaling the end of my vegan experiment?
Just a quickie for your Friday morning:
I’ve been a fan of Underground Wellness for a while now, and I’m so glad that Sean Croxton has been pushing so hard for awareness about Genetically Modified foods. Prop 37‘s day of reckoning fast approaches here in California, and it really is going to make a huge difference in leading the way for GMO regulation throughout the rest of the country.
Sean posted a great opinion piece about GM foods, and I really urge you to check it out. At the end of his post, he added a link to a documentary called Genetic Roulette. I know this is a bit late in the game, but you still have one day left to stream it for free–I watched it in its entirety, and while I was already aware of the insidious nature of GMOs, it was still shocking and eye opening. Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch it before tomorrow.
I’ll be back soon to continue the acne-and-veganism saga…
According to the vegan blogosphere and their best-selling spokespeople, the best way for me to get all the benefits of my new vegan experience was to not only clean out my body from the inside out, but also from the outside in. In truth, it really does matter what you’re putting on your body as much as it matters what you put into it. And far be it from me, the queen of perfectionism, to half-ass a detox.
So, out with the whey powder and out with the shampoo.
If you’ve ever been brave enough to try to turn over the bottle and read the ingredient list on any of you’re beauty products, I commend you for at least making the effort–because I couldn’t pronounce a single component of any of mine. Not only did parsing the ingredient list make me feel slightly illiterate, I was also kind of frightened. What, exactly, had I been absorbing into my body?!
I found an amazing vegan, natural blogger called Bonzai Aphrodite (by way of a carefully worded Google search) who wrote about her experiences going “no-poo.” And while the title is a bit off-putting, the concept made a lot of sense: stop washing your hair with shampoo and conditioner and just let the natural oils balance. Apparently commercial shampoos and conditioners are an unnecessary modern convenience, and the practice of shampooing daily has only been in place since the advent of widespread indoor plumbing–but in employing these methods of cleaning our hair, we’ve actually upset the balance of oils that naturally occur on our scalps. When we use shampoo to wash the oils away, we actually stimulate more oil production than natural, and therefore need to keep using the shampoo to avoid looking like complete greaseballs.
Fortunately, there’s a fix: just stop using shampoo and conditioner. Instead, mixtures of baking soda and water and apple cider vinegar and water become your new shampoo and conditioner. Sure, there’s a several-week-long adjustment period in which your hair will overproduce oil as it gets used to going au naturel, but it’s worth it in the long run because you spare your skin the harsh chemicals and your wallet the unnecessary costs of commercially produced hair products.
So, I sucked it up and wore a hat for several weeks until my hair adjusted. (I also relied heavily on cornstarch to soak up any excess oil and keep my hair somewhat tame.)
And I didn’t stop there.
After intense acne-forum research I stumbled upon even more uses for my new bottle of apple cider vinegar. As it turns out, even the most “gentle” soaps out there are toxic, so I threw all of my soaps, creams, and toners away. Instead I turned to ACV. Apparently it is a centuries old tonic for skin problems–used both internally and externally. I began my mornings with a tablespoon of ACV diluted in a glass of water, and I also used as a toner after I washed my face with water.
My detox also meant giving up things like makeup and deodorant as well. Makeup was hard to part with, mainly because the only makeup I ever used was concealer.* Going bare-faced was humbling, but I was willing to suck it up, since the only people who ever saw me anymore were my coworkers/roommates and the random strangers who came into my store who I would never see again anyway. Deodorant was the hardest. I tend to be a sweat-er–in fact, I had started using the clinical strength stuff while I was living in NY. But since moving to Florida, I had already given up the antiperspirant, what with all the rumors about the aluminum mimicking estrogen and causing breast cancer. So giving up deodorant altogether was the next logical step. Fortunately two things made the transition easier: 1) Bonzai Aphrodite (the no ‘poo gal) had a recipe for an all-natural preparation using baking soda and coconut oil, and 2) when I became a vegan, I stopped sweating.**
But despite all of my best efforts, the acne didn’t clear up. And the red rash around my mouth (my “goatee”) got worse. I continued my feverish Google searching until I stumbled upon a possible diagnosis for the rash: perioral dermatitis. And while a Google Image Search returned some cases much worse than my own, there were a few pictures that looked eerily similar. And, upon further research, I figured out the culprit: toothpaste.
If you use any commercially popular toothpaste, you’re introducing all sorts of chemicals into and around your mouth, including two called Sodium Laurel Sulfate and Ammonium Laurel Sulfate. Their only purpose in the toothpaste (and in shampoos and soaps) is to help produce the familiar lather that makes you feel like you’re getting clean.*** These sulfates are finally being recognized as huge irritants–which is why so many shampoo brands are quick to advertise their “sulfate free” formulas these days.
Turns out that SLS is a major cause of perioral dermatitis. And so I suffered for years because I was too busy investing in Colgate and Crest, when all I needed to do was read the ingredient list. (There’s also some speculation that fluoride might also be a contributor to PD, so I did some research to find a brand of toothpaste that contained none of the potential irritants.) I went out to Whole Foods and bought a tube of Jason Powersmile (SLS and fluoride free!). The PD cleared up almost immediately.
Too bad it didn’t help with the rest of my face.
*And cheap eyeliner. The kind that smudges like crazy and never completely comes off even after using makeup remover. In fact, Lysander used to joke that he’d never seen me without eyeliner, even after we had lived together for two months. Why didn’t I buy anything less crappy? Because for an investment of $1.99, I didn’t really care if anyone ever saw me 100% without makeup. I’m cheap, what can I say? (This stuff is really crap, but it’s the only eyeliner I had bought since high school…)
**Except for during Bikram sessions, of course. It’s pretty much impossible not to sweat while balancing on one leg for 90 minutes in excessive heat.
***In Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, the author discusses how lather is more of a marketing ploy than a cleaning tool. When you brush your teeth, you feel the sensory cue of lather which implies the reward of clean teeth. You develop of a routine around the cue/reward, and thus keep buying toothpaste because you implicitly feel cleaner. For more on SLS and habit, check out this blog post.
Before I get started on this series of posts on my experience with veganism, I just want to say that this is my experience and may not reflect your own if you happen to be a card-carrying member of the veg*n community. I get it: your choices are your choices–whether you make them for ethical or for health reasons–but so are mine. As I explain why I’m not a vegan anymore, please understand that I don’t imply judgment toward anyone’s food choices. If you find yourself in accordance with me, so be it. If you don’t, so be that too. So, please read with an open mind, take from this what you will, and I’ll see you in the comments section!
If you came to veganism late in the party, then you’re probably here because the term carries as much cultural caché as the red string had when Madonna was into Kabbalah. Believe it or not however, before being vegan was the trendy way to lose weight and look like Alicia Silverstone, before Usher told Justin Bieber that it was the cool thing to do, before raw kale smoothies were posited as the secret to life, veganism was an ethical movement. Far from pandering to the fad-diet-obsessed world of celebrity and fitness, veganism was a protest against the unethical and immoral treatment of animals. Saying no to meat wasn’t about being heart healthy; it was about having a heart where animals were concerned.
And while I’m all for the ethical treatment of animals, I came late to the vegan party–and I came for the kale smoothies.
When I read Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Diet, I fell for the mostly raw, vegan party line–because I wanted so badly for it to be true. And I took from the diet the principles that worked for my life: eat plants, mostly raw; drink lots of fresh, un-oxidized juices straight from the juicer; no animal products–not even honey–whatsoever. Why? Because if that kind of diet could cure Kris’s cancer, it could cure anything. (And it would help me lose weight–an added bonus!)
Not only could I do some serious calorie control while eating mainly kale and broccoli, but reports of glowing, perfect vegan skin convinced me that my new diet would cure me of my lifelong problem with acne.
Now, those of you who know me have seen what I’m talking about, but for those of you who don’t, I’ll explain:
I don’t have the kind of Accutane-requiring acne that takes over a person’s face with a nearly interminable army of angry red bumps; instead, I suffer–and I mean this both physically and emotionally–from three different kinds of acne, all of which have caused major skin infections and embarrassing scars since the day I hit puberty. The first, your regular old comedones (black and white heads) show up on my nose and chin whenever my face is within about a million miles of an external toxin like hair gel or makeup. The second, small hard, red bumps that almost look like rosacea or eczema but aren’t either of those things, which show up around my nose and mouth like an unwanted goatee for as-yet unexplained reasons and last for months before fading. The third, painful, hormonal cystic acne due supposedly to the influence of polycystic ovarian syndrome, of which I received the (as we’ll learn mis-) diagnosis in 2007.
I think at least a small part of my ED sprung from my battle with my skin: if I couldn’t be pretty because of my acne, I could at least be fit enough to be a “butterface”* (a direct quote from my internal monologue–scary, huh?).
I’ve tried to deal with my embarrassing condition every way I could conceivably think to do so since I was 14 years old. When I was 16, I had to go to a Valentine’s Day party wearing a huge bandaid on my face because I ended up with cysts on my chin so horrifically infected that I had to be put on antibiotics because the infection had spread to my lymph nodes. (Needless to say, I didn’t get asked on a lot of dates in high school.) I’ve tried birth control (many different kinds) for hormone regulation. I’ve tried Proactiv. I’ve bought every acne and oil control product on the shelves at Walgreens. I’ve worn every brand of concealer I could get my hands on (and have broken out because of each and every one of them). I’ve seen dermatologists and tried topical retinoids and oral antibiotics. Nothing, nothing, nothing has ever worked with any consistency or duration.
When I became a vegan, I believed that kale was the solution. When I looked at the faces on the women in the vegan blogging world, I saw the acne-free beauty that had eluded me for my entire young adult life.
I was also 24 and tired of looking like I hadn’t finished puberty. (I know older women wish for the skin of a 16 year old, but I don’t think that this is what they mean!)
Part of what attracted me to the (mostly) raw, vegan diet was the idea of detox: My body had been under severe stress, what with all of the cooked meats and eggs, the dairy protein powders, that I had been shoveling into my face every two or three hours for almost two years. I needed to completely clean it out, start over, clean slate.
So in addition to emptying my kitchen of animal products and starting my 30-day yoga challenge, I also emptied my bathroom of beauty products. I was going…no ‘poo.
*A “butterface” is a horrible insult describing a woman who has a great body…but her face…
It’s disgusting that I even internalized this term while tuned into the channel of my negative self-talk, let alone that this term even exists. And, my dear male friends who taught me this term, I don’t care if you think it’s funny–it’s not. I’m sorry that I ever pretended to laugh and not be offended while you used it. (I’m even more sorry that I adopted it into my own self-vocabulary.)
One of the biggest blessings of this summer (and my injury and the resulting confinement to the couch) has been the time to sit and learn. I’ve spent the last three months investing in and expanding my knowledge about eating disorders, as well as fitness and nutrition. I’m doing my best, now, to filter the information, make connections, and use it to improve my own life–and hopefully my readers’ as well.
The more I write the more I realize that ED cannot be explained away as simply as I believed. It’s not just the “media-made-me-do-it” mindset inspired by stick-thin fashion models and celebrity gossip rags. Nor is it just the time-my-mother-told-me-I-was-fat childhood traumas that we discover and work through in therapy. It’s all of that and so much more:
ED is about appetite and addiction. It’s about obsession and ritual and anxiety. It’s about unfilled holes and un-whole foods. It’s about willpower–too much and not enough–and controlling the uncontrollable. It’s about recovery and relapse and habits and cycles. It’s about negative self-talk and negative self-image. It’s about twelve steps and baby steps and one step forward and two steps back. It’s about bad science packaged by the media and the government, meant for quick consumption but never proper digestion. It’s about fad diets and magazine models. It’s about binging and purging and why it feels wrong to feel. It’s about hours on the treadmill, running nowhere except into the ground. It’s about calories in and calories out and calories counted but not understood. It’s about sexuality and psychology, sublimation and restriction. It’s about fear, disgust, shame of the body, of its presence, of its weight, of its needs. It’s about wanting and not wanting to want. It’s about competition and perfection and idealism. It’s a cry for attention, a cry for help, a cry for the sake of crying, I’m crying, look at me, dammit! It is about silent screaming and weightless bodies, and a kind of loneliness that only the self-isolated can feel.
It’s strange: I originally started this blog with the simple intention to write about how unlearning nutrition helped me start to conquer ED; instead, it has shown me that the dragon guarding my tower has more than one head, and that no one tool is sufficient to slay the whole beast.
So I apologize in advance if this blog gets a little heavy with information in the coming days. I want to share with you everything I’m learning about how ED came to be and how it operates, and where it’s taking you, me, us on this journey.
That means I’m going to look at food science and psychology, addiction and recovery, history and theory, fitness and nutrition, and everything in between.
And I’m doing it all from the perspective of what I’ve learned and experienced. Which means that it may not jive with your personal philosophies and ingrained habits and things you’ve learned about the world through your experiences. I’m open to hearing your perspective, and I ask that you please share it–and allow me to share mine with you.