The Autoimmune Diet

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It began with a car accident. I walked away unharmed but felt a numbness or tingling—the sensation is difficult to label. It began behind my left eye but quickly spread to my teeth, tongue, and throat, and eventually continued down the entire left side of my body. An early brain scan presented blurry, inconclusive abnormalities—more brain imaging was required.

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I spent late winter traveling between Hamtramck, MI, where I had been living, and my native Hudson Valley, NY, where my health insurance was widely accepted. Initially the flights were more economical than out-of-network doctor appointments. I was seeking a firm diagnosis for what seemed to be a neurological condition.

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During my commute between my two homes I hardly turned to emotional eating; no neon sour gummy worms at the airport and no sautéed zucchini noodles from my favorite Thai restaurant near Union Square. Somehow, I avoided my favorite borscht and didn’t indulge in any soup therapy. The comfort of eating was infrequent and not to fully return until months later. What came first were flimsy, unplanned, and almost-forgotten stress meals—eating for sustenance alone.

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I was diagnosed with Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, a manageable disease of the central nervous system, just one month before my 26th birthday and four months after the car accident. That day in the neurologist’s office is foggy, but I remember feeling consumed by what might happen to my healthcare once my insurance policy changed a few weeks later. I remember knowing that I would have to alter my diet drastically in order to maintain good health, and feeling concern that food could be the culprit of my illness—that eating may directly cause the next immune response or symptom flare up.

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My team of physicians offered some advice on eating. Wendy suggested salmon at least once a week (a treatment plan that I favor) and 4000 IUs of vitamin D daily. Irene was an advocate for elimination dieting, which in her view meant no processed sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol; though we agreed to substitute the concept of “no” with the concept of “less.” Edna said, “avoid the worry-well and eat what makes you happy, don’t look at things through an autoimmune lens.” Mom recommended the Swank diet, developed specifically for MS, which demands an avoidance of fats. The plan required more discipline than I was used to. Though the diet wasn’t too far from how I had eaten before my diagnosis, at first, its rules made me excruciatingly fearful of eating. I spent too much time stressing over the thought that any dietary misstep may manifest a terrible physical consequence.

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A few days after Mom championed the Swank diet, we cut a burger like a deck of cards and shared it at the kitchen counter with laughter rather than debate or ridicule.

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In the first months I developed a dependence on La Croix water (though it was challenging to find this midwestern staple in New York) and all things pickled. A craving for boiled beets served sliced and warm on a plate with a dab of goat cheese. Around Passover I discovered a love for gravlax, herbed matzoh, and sautéed fennel. I embraced my distaste for the frozen Jenny Craig meals that I had been stealing from my parents’ freezer during my visits home. Slowly the disproportionate fear of food groups disappeared.

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One night of careless indulgence—a delicious slow-cooked meat sauce over pasta paired with several glasses of wine—left me with the reminder that my body, like most bodies, will respond to inflammation. Inflammation prompts the body to protect itself, but it can also be a harmful and undue alarm system. A day or so after the pasta party, my sixth cranial nerve began misbehaving and left my view of the world doubled. My vision sat side-by-side for several weeks. Keeping one eye closed was the only way to relieve this affliction.

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During these troubling months, my camera became more than just a creative instrument. I used it to help mediate my vision, by allowing the autofocus functions to render images that existed beyond my arm’s length, where my sight began diverging. As Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “for photography you need one finger, one eye, and two legs.” I am hopeful that through proper nourishment and intentional efforts to avoid inflammatory foods, I will have fewer ailments with my eyes and continued flexibility and control of my legs.

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The comfort of eating has mostly returned. I try not to punish myself for small indulgences, but I also try to limit how often I’m drawn into a bakery by a sign for fresh rhubarb pie. I can’t predict the effects of a gingersnap cookie glazed with pistachio frosting, or the impact of the occasional cheeseburger. These days I try to avoid attempting that clairvoyance.

S.J. Winston (@sjwwwinston) lives and works in New York. Her third book of photographs, “Homesick,” will be published with Zatara Press in fall of 2015. She currently drinks coconut bubble tea every Thursday.