My name is Elena Dragoi and I’m a passionate photographer and stylist. My website (a work in progress!) has been my happy place during this unique time we are all experiencing. You can also find me on Instagram where I recently re-joined after pausing for three years to focus on my self-care. Today I am here to share with you how food helps me thrive with autoimmune conditions. The term “well-being” has become even more imperative during my time of self-quarantine and with that, nutrition has been the focal point of attention. Here is a little glimpse into my world and the journey that shaped my life. Sending so much love, warmth and light your way.
Growing Up on Whole Foods Straight From the Source
I once read that the first five years of a child’s life shapes the course of their overall health. As a little girl raised in Europe, I was surrounded by the abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and wholesome grains my family cultivated each year. I was lucky enough to learn from an early age from my grandparents the importance of nature and the role it plays in our overall health. They made it their mission to ensure I understood where our food came from, simply by showing us the source: our land, our very own backyard. Growing up surrounded by fig and cherry trees, grapevines, fresh apples and apricots, a wealth of vegetables and every herb available to season our stews, salads, and soups, all harvested by my grandparents, made me aware that we are all connected to this beautiful earth.
The Big Move That Brought Big Health Changes
Then something changed; at the age of 11 years old, my family moved to Canada. I was struck with digestive issues, colds, and flu. My family doctor would prescribe antibiotics every year to quickly cure my symptoms and send me back to school. I was also introduced to boxed, canned, and plastic-wrapped food that had a shelf life longer than me (hope not, but you get the point!).
My parents worked really hard for the betterment of our future. Life was busy in this new country we now called home. Life moved faster than what we were used to. For a while, we lacked the love, passion, and nourishment from our food to which we had dedicated so much of our lives and surrounded ourselves within Europe. My body was aching to get back to the simple, wholesome foods I was raised on and was familiar with, but I didn’t listen to my instincts. The longer the shelf life of your food, the shorter yours will be, my grandfather would say when visiting. In my late teens, getting sick regularly was my new “normal.” My battles with acne, bloating, yeast and bladder infections, hemorrhoids, pneumonia, bronchitis were cured with doses of antibiotics. And then something happened that forever changed me as a human being.
Coming to Terms with a Diagnosis
At the age of thirty, I was diagnosed with Mixed Connective Tissue Disorder (MCTD) part of the autoimmune disorder family. Often referred to as the “overlap disease,” I was struck with lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis. MCTD attacks the cells and tissues, mistakenly viewing healthy cells as intruders.
My life changed at that moment, in the months to come and the years that followed. I went through two years of high peaks of inflammation and lost all mobility leaving me helpless. I decided that I wasn’t going to accept that as my state of being and embarked on a journey determined to live to my full potential.
“People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. What we seek is an experience of being alive.” – Chris Guillebeau
I enrolled at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition school in Toronto. I saw every practitioner underneath the sun to rewire my mind and body, and ultimately bring me back to health. It all seemed to work. I was feeling really good, and I was able to manage my symptoms through revamping my diet, reducing stress, and learning to scale back my life so that I could move at my own speed. I thought I conquered my health and was on my way to actually taking control of my life, and then it happened again.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
One cold January night, I stopped sleeping. As the nights passed, I found myself months later with chronic insomnia and no idea how this crept up and what it all meant. I had no trouble falling asleep, the hard part was staying asleep. Can anyone relate?
I felt deranged from no sleep, I had mood swings all over the place, and my hair was falling out. I also began gaining weight, just glancing at a plate of food, and I had no desire for life in general. I ended up seeing my doctor again, and he diagnosed me with a fourth autoimmune disorder, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. My world felt so small in the days that followed, filled with fear of the unknown.
The experts say that once you are diagnosed with one autoimmune condition, you may be at risk for more. I was confused and scared. I had done so much in eight years. I changed my diet, environment, career, how I handled stress, who I spent my time with, and now it was happening again?
Breathe and Reboot
I took a moment to breathe, let it all sink in, and then decided that this diagnosis isn’t going to change the quality of my life. I took a step back and looked at what I really needed to shift. What I had missed in this whole process were the subtle small shifts that have a significant long term effect on our health.
“When the leaves of a plant start looking sick, wise gardeners will dig out the root to take a look.” Clean, Dr. Alejandro Junger, M.D.
I began being more mindful of my daily habits and how food helps me thrive – what I eat, how I eat, when I eat. Over time these small changes and the choices that accompany them influenced my behaviour and the way I thought and functioned as a human being.
Using Food to Help Me Thrive
Diet plays a vital role in strengthening the immune system. Healthy gut flora is essential for a strong immune system. With the right nourishment and immune support, preventing a cold or flu from setting in is possible. This is also important as getting sick can set me into a period of high inflammation that can last up to 8 weeks, depending on its severity. By incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into my diet, the body will cleanse out toxins and keep my system strong and healthy.
I think the critical factor here is consistency. Looking back at my journey, I can see that I was doing everything I possibly could but wasn’t consistent in my routine. Perhaps the dips were more detrimental than I imagined them to be. In my case – I ended up with a soup of autoimmune conditions.
The following are my favorite immune-boosting ingredients that never leave my pantry and have done wonders at keeping my immune system from overstimulating.
- Camu-Camu Berry is considered a superfood, as it is one of the richest sources of vitamin C on the planet. This wild fruit has an abundance of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and amino acids. Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, camu-camu is effective for strengthening the immune system. To boost immunity, especially during the colder months of the year, try adding half a tsp. of camu-camu berry powder to your smoothie in the morning.
- Turmeric, a culinary spice known for its remarkable anti-inflammatory effects, neutralizes free radical damage due to its antioxidant properties and helps support the immune system. This spice is incredibly versatile. Try unwinding for the evening with a cup of homemade warm nut or seed milk of your choice, half a tsp. of turmeric and half a tsp. of honey. This golden elixir is soothing and calming – the perfect way to end the evening.
- Probiotics help with immunity and digestion. These friendly bacteria play a fundamental role in keeping our digestion functioning properly helping us fight off infection. Some nourishing foods to consider having on a daily basis that contain a high amount of healthy gut bacteria include tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut kefir, and kombucha. Probiotic-rich foods enhance the immune system and protect us against harmful bacteria.
- Baobab is a powerful superfood that contains six times more vitamin C than an orange and has more antioxidants than acai, blueberries and pomegranate. It boosts immunity, offers an excellent source of prebiotic fiber, helping to colonize the intestine with healthy gut flora. Try 1 tbsp. of baobab powder in a glass of water with a tsp. of raw honey and a slice of ginger.
- Ginger is an aromatic spice packed with nutrients and anti-inflammatory agents. It provides protection against cold viruses, parasites and bacteria. Traditionally, ginger root has been used to assist with morning sickness, digestion, arthritis, cough, and respiratory tract infections. So, it’s no wonder that this root made it on the top five superfoods to boost immunity. Try this soothing tea for a strong immune system: 1 cup of hot water, 2 slices grated ginger, 1 tsp. raw honey and 2 slices of lemon.
Connecting My Past to My Future
It’s incredible to look back now and see how my priorities are entirely different. The decisions I make are well thought out, and what I value most in my life has changed. I embarked on a healing journey, and along the way, I realized the lessons I learned as a child are now able to guide me on this new path.
For me, it was rewiring my mind and body to get back to the basics, the roots that started it all, as well as developing a loving relationship with myself. The most important takeaway for me was to be kinder with myself, nourish my body with food that helps me thrive, and give myself the well-deserved breaks my mind and body needs. Knowing where my food comes from, who is involved in its production, and understanding how food helps me thrive has caused a life-changing shift in the way I buy, cook, and enjoy all my food.
Want to read more about personal journeys using food to thrive with health conditions? Click here!