Feeling sick sucks.
And Emily Levenson knows all about it. For nearly the 60th day in a row, Pittsburgh resident Emily woke up with an excruciating migraine. It was 2008 and she'd seen every doctor you could imagine, each pumping her full of drugs that never seemed to work. Her condition worsened to the point where she'd pretty much do anything to make the headaches stop.
Eventually, she stumbled on a holistic method that promised to get to the bottom of her issues. She was skeptical, but had nothing to lose. The approach not only stopped the headaches and a slew of other debilitating illnesses, but led Emily to a passion-filled career. Here's her story.
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In 2008, you had what you describe as a health crisis. What was going on? What did your life look and feel like?
I was suffering with chronic migraines, cold sores that came every two weeks, intense jaw pain, and irritability so bad in the morning that everyone in my life knew not to speak to me for at least two hours upon waking. I was in an incredibly stressful job that had me in tears on a daily basis, begging my husband to let me quit. Simply put, I was miserable.
What pushed you to finally look to food, not medication, to eliminate your migraines?
I had literally tried everything up to that point. I had been to my primary care physician, migraine specialists, and dermatologists, but all just gave me pill after pill that didn’t work. I would ask about diet and lifestyle changes, but they just laughed and said that it didn’t matter. After a particularly excruciating migraine—one that lasted for 8 weeks—and the third cold sore of the month, I decided it was time to do something… anything… to feel better.
As the daughter of a physician, acupuncture felt like the next safest thing. There was research study after research study touting the efficacy of acupuncture for pain management. And truly, I had nothing to lose. My first appointment revealed major food sensitivities. Each and every symptom I had—from the migraines and cold sores to jaw pain and irritability—were classic signs of a food intolerance.
I was encouraged to go on an elimination diet; first removing dairy, wheat, and soy from my diet. After two weeks, I felt about 50% better. My migraines had transformed into headaches, my intestinal upset had disappeared, and I was less irritable in the mornings.
Even though I didn’t feel 100% better, I knew I was on the right path.
Was the decision scary for you? Why or why not? What did your doctor(s) think?
It was terrifying to take that next step. Even though I was miserable, I knew what to expect. I knew what migraines felt like, I knew what cold sores looked like, and I had my morning routine down pat. By trying something new, I had no idea what to expect, nor did I fully understand how much of a change in my life it would bring. I even saw the benefits that I was getting from being in pain: attention, sympathy from those around me, and a ready-made excuse to not do things.
My doctors at the time weren’t helpful; they were unwilling to take my concerns seriously. I was laughed at when I asked about dietary changes. I was told that medication was my “only option” and to not even think about getting pregnant while taking it. I was given blank stares when I would describe a particular symptom I was experiencing.
Even my father was skeptical about the impact of food, but he knew how miserable I was and encouraged me to try it out.
I can only assume that deciding to comb through your diet was both exciting and stressful. Who or what helped you cope?
It was hugely stressful in the beginning, particularly since I had to relearn how to cook and prepare food for myself. After about 6 months, it became much easier to navigate, and quite exciting to realize that I was 100% symptom free.
My husband was amazing through it all. He was the best cheerleader and encourager I could have ever asked for. He ate whatever I ate, was a buffer with friends who couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to eat out, and helped me see how far I had come when I would get down.
My family was also amazing, calling ahead to restaurants or making sure that I always had something tasty to eat. They worked hard to make sure I never felt left out or like I was missing out on anything because of my new diet.
What was harder than you’d expected? What was easier?
It took me about 6 months to really feel solid about what I could and couldn’t eat. Every meal was new, so we had no standbys to rely on when we were tired after a long day or stressed out and wanting some comfort food. Also, I found it to be super stressful to go out to eat, knowing that I could have a reaction regardless of how specific I was in ordering or careful they were in the kitchen.
The easiest part, surprisingly, was sticking with the program. I was so afraid in the beginning of how I was going to survive without being able to eat my favorite foods (pasta with tomato sauce, french fries) that I was shocked at how willing I was to keep at it. I didn’t cheat once in the three years that I was avoiding the “forbidden” foods, and only delved back in when I got the go-ahead from the naturopath I was working with. Nothing was worth going back to how I had felt.
I was also really surprised at how willing I was to try new foods. As a ridiculously picky eater, I would typically turn my nose up at anything new. Once I had all of my restrictions in place, I was way more willing to try new foods. Perhaps it was because I knew what was making me ill, or that I was already outside of my comfort zone because of what I had to cut out. Whatever the case, it was a happy side effect of the changes I was making.
Do you remember the moment when you realized you were getting better?
About a month after removing the foods from my diet, I realized that I hadn’t had a single migraine or cold sore. I was giddy. And also a little nervous, like, what if this was just a fluke? But the longer I avoided the foods, the better I felt. Even symptoms that I had no idea were connected to food—jaw pain, irritability, flushing of my cheeks, break-outs, and constant nausea—were gone.
Did you ultimately learn what foods specifically were causing your health issues?
I did! I ended up finding a local practitioner who did something called EAV testing and got a list of foods that were causing all of my issues. My food triggers were Nightshades (white potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cayenne pepper, chili powder, paprika, ibuprofen, tobacco), Dairy (butter, milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream), Cinnamon, and MSG.
Why did you decide to become a holistic health coach?
When I was tested, I was given my list of forbidden foods and a pat on the head. When I asked for additional support, I was told “You’re a smart girl, you’ll figure it out.” Defeated, depressed, and downright scared, I walked out of that office afraid of food. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow such a rigid plan; that I was doomed to be miserable and sick for the rest of my life.
I vowed to never let anyone else feel the way I did that day. I wanted to show people that it is possible to eat well and feel good—to know what foods make your body feel healthy and alive—even with a diagnosis of food sensitivities.
So, I did research on different training programs, found one that would allow me to continue working while I got my business going, told everyone I knew about it, and signed up. I quit my job and took on my first client six months into the program and haven’t looked back since.
Prior to becoming a holistic health coach, you were a therapist. How do you bring that element into your coaching?
Counseling is all about building relationships and helping people make positive changes in their lives. I also find that when it comes to food sensitivities, stress plays a major role in creating or exacerbating symptoms. I spend a great deal of time talking with my clients about the bigger picture of their lives, what role stress plays, and what self-care practices they have in place.
By looking at the big picture of someone’s life, it becomes much easier to put a cohesive plan in place to address what’s going on.
How has quitting changed your life?
I had no idea at the time how one seemingly small change like diet could impact the entire trajectory of my life. I healed my body, quit my stressful job, found not one but two jobs that I love, became a mother, and am the happiest I’ve ever been.
It’s become a barometer of success; if I can do that I can literally do anything I put my mind to.
What are the three most important things you learned by quitting foods that made you ill?
When a doctor tells you there is nothing else you can do, it typically means that they don’t know what else to suggest. If you’re not getting the answers you want or need, or aren’t seeing an improvement in your symptoms, seek out another opinion.
Often, the most stressful times in our lives are there to teach us something. I can honestly say that the absolute darkest times of my life—being diagnosed with food sensitivities, having difficulty getting pregnant, having a miscarriage—have all led to some of the biggest shifts and most important personal discoveries of my life. If you can see the lesson, look for the gift amidst the difficulties, or simply be open to making a change, amazing things will happen. I am proof of that.
Just because something is deemed healthy, doesn’t make it healthy for you. It doesn’t matter what the latest fad diet or super food is, if it doesn’t make you feel good (strong, healthy, energized) then it’s not the right thing for you. I always thought I ate well, having plenty of fruits and vegetables in my diet, even though I was having so many health issues. Turns out, the things that I thought were healthy were making me ill.
Advice to someone who’s thinking of an elimination diet?
Don’t give up if you don’t see any improvement after a week or two. It can take 2-4 weeks to start to see improvements. Track your symptoms—severity and frequency—and look for even subtle shifts in how you are feeling. You’ll have a better sense of what’s going on. Also, it’s important to note that when talking about food intolerances or sensitivities, symptoms can take up to four days to show up. So you could be reacting to something you ate two days ago and not even know it.
If you don’t have any idea where to start, the food groups that I see show up most often are Dairy, Gluten, and Nightshades.
While most people are familiar with the term lactose intolerance, dairy sensitivities encompass a sensitivity to butter, buttermilk, casein, cheese, cottage cheese, cream cheese, milk, kefir, sour cream, yogurt, and whey protein. Look at any label of the foods you regularly eat (breads, chips, sweets), and chances are you are getting more dairy in your diet than you think.
Gluten is a protein most commonly found in wheat and other related grains, such as barley, rye, spelt, teff, kamut, and farro.
And finally, the Nightshades are a diverse group of foods and herbs that include white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers (bell, jalepeno, banana, etc), chili powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, and most curries. It also includes ibuprofen and tobacco.
Those are often a great starting point when trying an elimination diet. If you’re still not feeling better, or would prefer to just skip to the testing, I’m happy to help.
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For more information on Emily, plus how to get your own food sensitivities tested (yes, you can do this from a distance... cue Bette Midler!), check out EmilyLevenson.com. (<<< tons of recipes on there, too!) She's also the co-pilot at Propelle, a hub for women entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh and beyond. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest.
Heads up: I recently tried Emily's food sensitivity test. Look for my lengthy results in an upcoming post! Speaking of elimination diets, here's how you'll really feel if you do a Whole30. Thinking about doing another one. Anyone want to join me?
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