How to give your body the space it needs to heal.

how to give your body the space it needs to heal with an elimination diet

This post has been 8+ years in the making. It started with my own elimination diet back in 2007, on the heels of an 8 week migraine and a car accident. I was getting cold sores regularly, in physical therapy for a nasty case of TMJ, and was having digestive trouble after every single meal. I was also irritable, most likely depressed, and just plain miserable.

I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

So I found an acupuncturist to help address the pain. With all of the research studies proving how helpful acupuncture could be when it came to migraines and pain management, it seemed like a reasonable next step for someone who was terrified of holistic medicine and skeptical of the world.

After reviewing my (extensive) health history, the practitioner was certain that food was at the root of all that ailed me. I was instructed to eliminate several foods and see how I felt after a few weeks. I was angry and scared, but desperate to feel better, so I obliged and began cleaning up my diet.

Thankfully, that initial round of eliminating foods caught one of my food triggers: dairy. 

My headaches reduced tenfold, my jaw pain and digestive troubles were on the decline, and I had more energy than I’d experienced in years. I felt confident that I was on the right path, though knew that I still had work to do.

It took a lot longer to identify the remaining culprits (nightshades, cinnamon, MSG), but I’m incredibly grateful for that initial experience with an elimination diet. It taught me how to understand the connection between what I was putting into my body and how I was feeling as a result.

Plus, it gave me hope that I could feel better.

In 2012, I began testing others for food sensitivities. It was then that I really learned the subtleties of food sensitivities and how food impacted others. I began to see patterns in the symptoms people were experiencing and could predict what foods were going to test. I also got to witness first hand the power of giving the body the space it needed to heal.

The most common symptoms of food sensitivities and how to address them with an elimination diet.

Common symptoms of food sensitivities.

If you’ve ever experienced digestive troubles, had indigestion after a meal, or felt super bloated after eating, than you already know the impact food can have on your body.

Most people simply shrug off those symptoms, choosing to believe that it’s a one-off kind of episode based on a heavy meal or a lot of fried food. Trouble is, we are ignoring important warning signs that our bodies are giving us. Instead, we wait until things are dire before seeking out help and are forced to make drastic changes in order to feel better.

The following symptoms are warning signs that something is off and are commonly reported by people who have food sensitivities:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Indigestion
  • Jaw pain, teeth grinding, jaw clenching, tongue thrusting
  • Joint pain, swelling, and general achiness
  • Acne, red bumps, and blotchiness of skin
  • Depressed immune functioning (i.e.—always coming down with something)
  • Bloating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Intestinal cramping
  • Low energy or chronic fatigue
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eczema
  • Chronic sinus infections and/or ear infections
  • Weight gain
  • Chronic hives and itchiness

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above and have been to doctor after doctor without any improvement, food is likely the missing piece of the puzzle.

How to get started.

An elimination diet is really just a fancy way of saying you need to stop eating, or eliminate, specific foods from your diet for a set period of time. Most people eliminate foods for 3-4 weeks, and then begin to introduce foods back in one at a time so that they can see how the body is impacted.

In my experience, the most common foods that people react to are:

  • Dairy
  • Gluten
  • Nightshades
  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Refined Sugar
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol

Some people suggest using a food journal to help you see patterns, and while that can be helpful, most people aren’t looking back far enough to see what their possible triggers are. We assume that the reaction will show up immediately following consumption. And while that’s true for food allergies, gut based reactions due to food intolerances and sensitivities can take up to 4 days to show up.

The approach you take will likely depend on how you handle change. Some people are better suited to cutting everything out and rolling with it, while others may need a more gradual approach by cutting out 1 or 2 food groups at a time or even cutting down consumption (going from 4 cups of coffee a day to 2…).

Choose what feels right to you; seeing it through is more important than doing it in the least amount of time possible. This time around, I started by pulling out gluten, dairy, and nightshades and then worked my way down the list by cutting out eggs and sugar based on how my body was still feeling.

There are other dietary protocols that you can follow, like Whole30, Paleo, AIP, FODMAP, Ketogenic Diet, and the like. If those are easier for you to stick with, go for it! There are certainly a ton of resources and eating plans for each of the diets mentioned above.

How to make a plan and stick to it when it comes to going on an elimination diet

Make a plan and stick with it!

Once you’ve identified the foods you want to avoid for the next month or so, it’s time to come up with a plan. The more you can do upfront to pull together resources, the more likely you will be to stick with it. Regardless of how easy you think it will be, I can guarantee that there will come a point in the process where you are hungry and wishing that you could just eat what’s in front of you.

  1. Menu Planning is your friend. If you do nothing else, planning out what you will be eating each day for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks will help you feel like all of the restrictions you are facing are doable. It will also prevent you from making bad decisions (and feeling like shit) if you aren’t prepared.
  2. Clear out the contraband. Nothing is as tempting as staring at all of the things you can’t have every single time you’re in the kitchen or cooking. Grab everything that will tempt you, including spices and packaged foods in your pantry and put it somewhere else. If you can’t get rid of it all, try labeling it as THE HUSBAND’S or FOR THE KIDS so that you are reminded why it’s still there.
  3. Stock your house with foods that you CAN eat. Once you’ve cleared out the contraband, it’s time to set yourself up to succeed by having an abundance of “safe” foods within arms reach. Make yourself plenty of easy grab and go snacks, get granola bars that will get you through in a pinch, and have plenty of fruits and veggies on hand to snack on.
  4. Prep, prep, prep. I always thought it would be enough to have a plan and clear out all temptations. Turns out, it’s often not enough when you’re super hungry or tired. The more I was able to plan ahead and prepare food for the week, the more likely I was to stick with it. I would make a huge batch of brown rice and freeze it, create a salad bar in my fridge, portion out smoothies for the morning, make 5 jars of refrigerator oats at a time, and have energy bites on hand for those hangry moments. That approach has saved me on more than one occasion.
  5. Get support. One of the hardest things, in my opinion, about going on an elimination diet (or permanently altering your eating habits) is the impact it can have on you socially. It can be isolating when most social activities and networking happens around food and drinks. Having someone you can talk to about the ups and downs is really important and can help you feel like you aren’t so alone in all of this.

Now what?

Most people recommend doing an elimination diet for a minimum of 21 days. I actually think 4-6 weeks is a more reasonable time frame. This will allow your body to begin to heal and for your symptoms to really begin to resolve themselves.

Yes, some people see improvement in as little as 2-3 days, but that’s not the norm. Most people will see improvement in the first 2 weeks of being on an elimination diet. If that’s not the case for you, please don’t get discouraged. It can take up to four weeks for people to begin to see improvements in their health, as well as to notice improvement in symptoms that occur on a more cyclical basis (ex: headaches, period related issues, etc.).

It may also take some time to tweak your elimination diet, particularly if you notice that there are other foods causing you problems. So take this as more of a suggested time frame and less of a hard and fast rule for how long to be eliminating the foods.

At the end of the day, you should begin to notice that you’re feeling BETTER. You have more energy, you are in less pain, your clothing is fitting better, you’re feeling more balanced emotionally, your skin has begun to clear up, etc. If you’re still feeling the same, it may be time to seek out a professional to help you uncover the root issue (food or not).

How to add foods back in the right way once you've avoided them on an elimination diet. | emilylevenson.com

Adding foods back in!

At the end of the 4-6 weeks, you will be feeling one of three ways:

  1. Amazing.
  2. Somewhat better.
  3. No different.

Hopefully, you’re in one of the first two groups and feeling amazing or at least somewhat better. If you don’t notice any improvement, I would still suggest reintroducing the foods you’ve been avoiding slowly, as some do still notice a worsening of symptoms when trying to add foods back in.

Unlike cutting out the foods, when it comes to adding foods back in, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. The absolute worst thing you can do at this point is to add everything back in at once. Because if/when you have a reaction, you won’t know what the culprit is and will have to go right back to avoiding everything again. And that, my friend, is a very frustrating place to be.

Instead, pick one food from one category and eat it. And then don’t do it again for 4 days.

If you’ve been avoiding dairy, start with a piece of your favorite cheese, a glass of milk, a pot of yogurt, or try cooking with butter.

If you’re avoiding gluten, eating bread is a delicious great place to start.

If you’ve been avoiding the nightshades, try adding back in raw tomatoes or raw peppers first. And then work your way up to cooked tomatoes and peppers.

At the end of the day, you want to choose one thing — and one thing only — and then wait and see how you feel. Pay close attention to how you’ve been feeling physically and emotionally immediately after eating, a few hours later, the following morning, and 2-3 days later.

If you are symptom-free on Day 4, continue adding foods from the same group back in. Once you’ve exhausted all the foods in one category (or are sufficiently happy with your results), move on to the next food group until you’ve added back in every single food that you have been avoiding.

If you have a reaction when you added something back in, all is not lost. It simply means that you have identified one of your triggers and have a better understanding now for how it impacts your body and health. Continue to avoid that food until you feel ready to test it out again.

Moving forward.

The biggest question I had (and would get after every single food sensitivity test) is how long will I have to avoid these foods for?! 

Unfortunately, there is no set time for getting foods back into your diet. Every body is different, as are the contributing factors that led to the development of food sensitivities in the first place. I will say that most people I tested, were able to get at least one food grouping back in after 6 months. Occasionally, folks were able to see a big shift after 3 months while others would have to wait 9-12 months before seeing improvement.

The first time I pulled out foods, I avoided them for 3 years. The second time, a year and a half. This time around? Who knows. Perhaps it will be a quickie, or perhaps I will get a few things back while still having to avoid rest for an indeterminate amount of time.

Something else to consider: the impact of stress in your life and on your body. Stress is, hands down, the biggest culprit of imbalance when it comes to gut functioning, making it imperative that you address how it shows up in your life.

Are your relationships (with yourself and others) strained? Are you miserable at work? Do you tell yourself on a daily basis how fat, ugly, lazy, or stupid you are? Is your home a cluttered mess? Do you feel angry and resentful because of your lot in life? Are you getting enough sleep? Do you sit in front of a computer all day long without ever moving your body or getting fresh air? Have you recently moved or had a baby or gotten a divorce? No matter how positive those life changes can be, they can also wreak havoc on the gut.

Putting other supports in place such as meditation, deep breathing, journaling, yoga, massage, energy work, acupuncture, and even supplementation will benefit you exponentially.

I know this process can feel overwhelming and more than a little daunting. I also know that it can be life changing. Looking at the overall picture of your health allows you to make the necessary changes so you can move from simply surviving to thriving.

If you have any questions or if there is anything I can do to support you on your journey, please let me know!

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More about Emily Levenson

Emily Levenson is a meditation encourager, mama, and Pittsburgh enthusiast. She recently launched a podcast called Nourish + Flourish and is a co-pilot at Propelle.

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