Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease forced me to rethink not just what I ate, but my whole approach to food.

For years, food was my comfort. My husband, Richard, spent ten years in and out of the hospital with complications from vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare and life-threatening connective tissue disease that causes spontaneous ruptures of arteries and hollow organs. During his illness, and through the emotional and financial upheaval in our lives, food was my way of taking a little of the stress off. Pampering myself. Consoling my fears and anxiety. Of course you deserve that extra slice of cake. Look what you’re going through! After he passed away in 2014, food was again my companion. An extra fry or two can do wonders for grief. Right? Or so I thought.

But two weeks after Richard died, I started experiencing my own medical problems (every widow’s dream!). Looking back, I now know it was my first flare-up of multiple sclerosis (MS). I had intense pain behind my right eye and visual disturbances. I thought I was having a migraine, as I’d suffered from them before. But over the course of a week, the pain didn’t subside and testing ultimately showed inflammation of my optic nerve, or optic neuritis—a possible symptom of MS.

Hold it right there. My husband just died and now you’re suspecting I could have MS? Um, yes, I’ll take that cupcake, please! The MRI I had at the time, however, didn’t show any other abnormalities, so my neurologist chalked the episode up to an isolated incident, more than likely brought on by the stress of Richard’s death.

But nine months later, over the course of two days, the vision in both my eyes went haywire, my eyes wouldn’t track properly (think of following the doctor’s fingers back and forth), and I had difficulty walking. In fact, I got up one morning and fell straight into my bedroom wall.

A shocking diagnosis

This time my neurologist had different news. My MRI now showed three lesions in my brain stem, responsible for causing all the havoc. I was definitively diagnosed with MS. And given how quickly the three lesions had grown, we needed to take immediate action. My neurologist prescribed a daily steroid medication to calm the inflammation and, hopefully, restore my eyesight. Once that happened, I would start taking an immune-modulating drug to slow the progression of the disease.

It took six weeks for my eyesight to completely return. Those six weeks were devastating both emotionally and physically. Seeing the fear in my daughters’ faces was the lowest point for me. They had just lost their father, and now they were faced with a new uncertainty. Would I be permanently disabled? How would they be taken care of? At that point, I couldn’t even walk to the bus stop, let alone drive or participate in any of their day-to-day activities.

That’s when I knew that in addition to the MS medication I was going to have to take for the rest of my life, I wanted to explore some other healing modalities. With two children to take care of, I had to try whatever I could to get better. First and foremost, I knew my relationship with food would have to change. My body needed to step up to the plate (preferably one without a hamburger always on it), and fight.

My new MS diet

I immediately sought the help of a holistic practitioner at an integrative wellness center, and learned about nutrition and healing the body as a whole. Smita, who was both a trained pharmacist and an Ayurvedic practitioner, said that the first thing to tackle was my gut. “My gut?” I questioned at first. “But aren’t the lesions in my brain?” Smita explained that the gut is the healing control center for the body, and once it’s aligned and absorbing nutrients properly, the rest of the body is better able to follow suit. I was skeptical at first, but I was willing to try anything.

To help my gut heal, Smita suggested digestive enzymes and advocated initially eliminating wheat, dairy, sugar, corn, red meat, eggs, and potatoes from my diet. What else is there to eat? I thought. Funnily enough, she had some suggestions. Since MS is the result of an inflammatory process, she wanted me to introduce anti-inflammatory foods into my diet, such as greens, beans, lentils, as well as quinoa, chia seeds, and flax seeds. These were all new and foreign to me, and honestly, it took me a while to jump on the bandwagon. Let’s just say, I might have been introduced, but I didn’t exactly extend a welcome handshake at first.

I don’t know if it was the medication or the dietary changes, but over time my energy increased, a little glow came back to my sallow skin, and my overall mood improved. Not wanting to jinx anything, I persevered with both. I took an anti-inflammatory tonic of coconut oil, turmeric, pepper, honey and hot water each morning and started making green smoothies with spinach, kale and wild blueberries. I also added cilantro and parsley to my smoothies; those herbs, Smita told me, are particularly cleansing to the liver. (One of the possible side effects of the MS medicine I take is liver damage, so we wanted to counteract any adverse effects it could possibly have.)

One of the recommendations that was the hardest for me to incorporate into my diet was sweet potatoes, because it came with a caveat: Smita suggested that I eat them before noon to better absorb the nutrients. I had to play around with sweet potato “pancakes” and muffins to help make them palatable. Other suggestions were easier, such as making sure my salads had a fat carrier (i.e. some type of an oil-based dressing) to increase the nutrient absorption, and eating foods rich in omega-3s. So, in addition to taking a vitamin D supplement and fish oil, as recommended by my neurologist, I made sure I ate salmon at least once or twice a week.

Living with MS—and feeling strong

How have these changes benefitted me? So far, all my blood work has been spot on, I haven’t grown any new lesions, and I can honestly say that some days I feel stronger now with the MS than before my diagnosis. I know I owe it, at least in part, to my dietary changes. I still indulge in a greasy burger and fries once in a while, but when I do, both my body and my children call me out and get me back on track.

The best part, though, is that now food is my fuel, not merely an emotive response to stress. To me, whole foods no longer means whole bags of chips, whole cookies, whole cakes. It means making myself feel whole with the help of nutritious foods.

I’m not naive. Will simply changing my diet prevent my MS from ever flaring up again? Probably not. But I do know that my body is in a better position to handle the disease from here on out.