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Guest Post: Alison from PaleoNonPaleo

If you haven’t yet heard, Wednesdays are our Guest Blogger Series day! It’s a day where Matt and I get a bit of a mid-week break while getting to share with you some of our favorite online bloggers.  And for their hard work, they get the benefit of your readership – we encourage you to please show all of them your support by visiting their blog and social media links at the end of this post!

Alison from PaleoNonPaleo came to us with the tremendous story of her battle for her sons’ health. We were very impressed and decided that we must share it with you! Hope you enjoy it as much as we do and visit her blog for a variety of awesome posts. We were featured last month in her round up of best tips of paleo bloggers.

2000

I am being rushed down the hospital corridor on a gurney, the overhead lights flashing by, the masks on the nurse’s faces barely concealing their anxiety. I knew raising twins was going to be tough, but I wasn’t ready for this. I hadn’t expected having them would start off this badly. I felt I was in a scene from ER. George Clooney was probably just around the corner.

A c-section rapidly ensued and the first baby came out. Then other one, the baby we were all going through this for. His heart rate had kept dropping dangerously low and not recovering quickly. His placenta was giving up the fight and it had got to the point he was safer out than in. They were 32 weeks gestation.

They were fragile.

And I was terrified.

As the doc pulled his head out, the second baby, later to be named Oliver, opened his eyes, turned his head through a whole 180 degrees, and back to the center again, surveying the whole scene. Then, he started bawling. Me and you, both, buddy, I thought. Me and you, both.

Eventually, both boys both came home from the hospital and Oliver, in particular, was a happy, strong baby. Despite his prematurity, he hit all his milestones dead on time. I wasn’t concerned. I did notice he was prone to colds, though. He caught one immediately he came home from the hospital at a month old.

Colds, bronchitis, asthma, RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus) were the cause for many a trip to the pediatrician in his early years. Breathing treatments and inhalers were a normal part of our winter routine. One Fall, when Oliver was two, our pediatrician suggested we have him take medication every day for four months to prevent viruses taking hold. We complied. And by some measure we were successful – he didn’t get badly sick at all that year. The medicine had ‘worked.’

The following year, when Oliver was three and a half, he suddenly got very tired. He was cranky. He’d always been a good sleeper (but didn’t need as much of it as I would have liked,) yet now he seemed exhausted. He was normally active and now he was listless.

I took him to the pediatrician; she suspected mononucleosis. That’s rare in a child this young, but possible. We had to wait three days to test him and treatment would be just rest anyway. There was no cause for alarm.

Later I took him home, and lay him on the couch to watch some TV. He started to twist his body awkwardly so that his head was at an angle to his body. By the end of Sesame Street, he was holding his head at an 80 degree angle to his body. He couldn’t hold it up. And he was in incredible pain. We went back to the doctor.

An MRI discovered that in addition to mono, Oliver had an abscess in his throat. The abscess was causing swelling in his airway that was threatening to close up. He was twisting his head around oddly because the abscess obstructed his airway. He was in danger of suffocating himself.

Late night emergency surgery followed along with morphine, steroids, antivirals, antibiotics and enough painkillers to stun an elephant. It was tough.

A few days later, as he transitioned off the IV, they gave him painkiller in a cup. It was bright red. Within minutes, he went from lying, sick and tired in his bed, to jumping on it, giggling with delight and making everyone think he was much improved. His surgeon saw him just at that moment. He was sent home that day. When I look back now, I see that he was effectively a happy drunk on the red dye in the medicine.

When he got home, Oliver recovered slowly from his surgery, it took him several months to regain his strength and fight off infection. I still remember the dark circles under his eyes and his skinny frame where before he’d been a rather rosy, robust boy.

At the time, we ate a diet similar to our friends. Pizza, fishsticks, chicken nuggets. Apple sauce, ice cream, cookies. It makes me cringe now to think I fed them those little Viennese sausages in tins. The boys loved them. Dinner was never a hassle when they were on the menu. And I was all for avoiding hassle. Anything to lower the stress of twin boys, one enough work for three mothers.

2004

By the time of his fourth birthday in the Spring, Oliver was back to normal. Or rather, more than normal. He’d been a happy, sunny baby, but on weaning had turned into a defiant, very active toddler. Now he was constantly rushing about, not listening, refusing to comply with any request. I thought this might be normal 4 year-old stuff but even I could see compared to his twin and other kids around him, this was excessive. But I hoped he’d grow out of it. And no-one else seemed concerned. It was just me that was exhausted, after all.

Kindergarten was a relief, it gave him an outlet for his incessant energy, lots of social interaction and a break for me. Occasionally I’d get feedback about his impulsiveness (like I needed to be told, right?) and inability to follow directions but again, we all thought he’d grow out of it.

First grade came around, though, and things just got worse. More sitting, greater expectations and an inexperienced teacher combined with Oliver’s personality to turn school into a daily ordeal for everyone. Every day I dreaded pick-up. What was I going to hear about today? Who had he hit? Which adult had he defied with what I knew could be breath-taking insolence?

What confused everyone was that at times Oliver could be the most charming and engaging child who everyone simply adored. The teachers were frustrated because Oliver is a very smart boy. He could do the work. He simply refused to do it. In the absence of an obvious cause, the mother (me,) naturally, was blamed and I felt red-hot eyes boring into my back as I walked around the campus. We were a ‘problem family.’

2006

Oliver’s sensitivity at what he perceived to be slights threw him into rages. He’d roll back his head and scream and scream. He’d throw things in the classroom. I remember going to collect him after one incident. He was curled up in a fetal position under a table. In despair, I got under there with him and we sobbed together, in front of the teacher, holding each other until we were calm.

I wondered what on earth was going to happen to us.

The toll on the family was immense. We couldn’t live like other people yet we looked like other people. Unless you got close. Then you could see we weren’t. We couldn’t visit friends, go on vacation, or even know how each day would go.

It was like living with a terrorist.

With no-one seeming to offer any solution and our home life getting more and more ragged while school authorities became more and more overbearing, I started to research the connection between behavior and food. It was all I could think of. And it was all I could do. It gave me control. It made me feel I had some power in this maelstrom of torment.

In addition to rages, I’d noticed Oliver’s rapid weight gain despite little food passing his lips. Tests showed he was hypoglycemic and his blood sugar regulation was erratic. He also had sleep apnea. I felt sure there was a food trigger.

I started to change his diet. While I was removing processed foods and sugars from his diet, I read about this ‘stone-age’ diet. While the premise of this way of eating – meat, vegetables, little fruit or dairy, no wheat or sugars – made sense, the number of food items we could actually eat seemed crazily undoable at the time and seriously on the fringe. I put it aside.

2007

We started to homeschool. This was partly because Oliver couldn’t be accommodated in a regular classroom, partly because we wanted to take the pressure applied by the school authorities off the whole family (we were past caring about academics by this point,) and partly because we wanted to control his food. The elementary school years are a bear to those who want to feed their children healthy!

We were still seeing incidents of hyperactivity and defiance. I hadn’t found the perfect solution. But I was still sure diet held the key. I’d read about the gluten-free/casein-free diets and their help with autism… except Oliver didn’t have autism and we were already restricting so many foods, it felt impossible. We were limiting sugar and removing artificial additives, preservatives or dyes, and foods containing a high amount of salicylate, a chemical naturally found in vegetables and fruits. To take out wheat and dairy would leave us eating what exactly? Once again, I felt defeated. We carried along on our rollercoaster.

One day, on a 2-hour trip to see yet another doctor, Oliver was polite and happy and calm as can be. I was amazed. I was so pleased that just before our appointment, I let him have a steamed milk from Starbucks. In ten minutes our calm, happy, centered boy turned into a crazy, silly, giggly child who took no instruction, defied anyone who tried, who spun around on his chair incessantly, smart-mouthed the doctor and refused to be examined. The doctor, clearly irritated, sent him out of the room after 5 minutes, turned to me and asked, “Have you considered Ritalin?”

The answer was no, although we got close. Instead the experience had given me undeniable proof that food was the issue. And that dairy was a problem. Something was happening between ingesting the food and this wild behavior.

I started to read up on neurobiology. I learned about neurotransmitters and words like ‘dopamine,’ and ‘serotonin.’ I even got someone to help me pronounce ‘epinephrine.’ I learned about leaky gut and how anti-inflammatories, steroids and other pharmaceutical drugs can destroy the lining of the stomach, enabling chemicals in our food to travel to our brain causing havoc similar to that I’d witnessed in our son. I thought back to that day in the hospital room and the happy, giggly boy who took red medicine, yet who was so sickly for months after we got him home.

2008

Slowly, slowly, I learned what worked for him. Meat, veggies, occasional fruit, limited dairy. No sugar, no wheat. Sound familiar? I thought back to the references to the ‘caveman’ diet. It still seemed “out there.”

And it was very hard to do without support. We went back and forth, limiting foods but without much knowledge and with plenty of sabotage from the environment we live in, it was difficult. Oliver lost a lot of weight but put it back on again. We would have times of strictness and calm and moments of dietary slackness and tantrums. But we made progress, if slow at times. Evolution has taken millions of years. We weren’t that slow. J

2010

The words ‘primal’ and ‘paleo’ were popping up in forums I frequented. I learned more about it, did the diet myself. Noticed how I got calmer and more energy. And I remember how I’d dismissed it all those years ago, how it had worked. I recommitted myself to the diet and started to transition my family. This time for good.

Now things had changed. Paleo is considered, if not yet mainstream, at least not too far from it. There are recipe sites and forums, blogs and conferences. There was plenty of places for me to go when I was lost. We know no-one in real life who eats this way so online communities have been essential to my knowledge and my sanity.

2012

Oliver has blossomed. He is a different boy. He is polite, happy, bright-eyed, sunny and charming. Gone are the rages, the screaming, the defiance, the eye-popping insolence. He is cooperative at school, well-liked by his peers and a star performer at his local children’s theater. He wakes up full of energy and we know how the day will broadly go. He is particularly proud of the slimmer physique that enables him to shoot baskets and run laps alongside the 6th grade jocks at his middle school. I couldn’t be more proud.

If you were to tell me five years ago, our family would be in this position, I’d have kissed you. I thought juvy, wilderness retreats and jail visiting were in our future. I’d read up on special schools with padded rooms. I thought we’d be using college funds for jailbonds and calls in the middle of the night would be part of our weekly routine. It was a future I dreaded with every fibre of my being. What we had already lived through was nightmare enough; the logical conclusion to that life, had we not discovered the paleo “secret,” would have been tragic.

That couldn’t be further from my thoughts now as I look on this boy. The life we lived up to the age of six was what it was. I fed my family what everyone around me did, perhaps even a bit healthier. And there were certainly times when we needed to take advantage of the resources modern medicine had to offer.

But it took five years to recover Oliver from the chemical insults he took during those preschool years. And the whole family, including his twin, went through a terrible time in the process. The work to cook food for him was so hard for me because I, myself, was living in a fog of processed food, sugar and grains. When I think that I was searching and searching and yet stumbled on the answer almost immediately, and repeatedly, it makes me realize how important sites like Paleo Parents are for taking the paleo message and making it ‘normal.’

If I had my time over, I’d do things differently. I’d feed us all paleo foods and limit medicine to the bare minimum. I’d have learned to cook earlier and cut down the milk and got rid of the wheat. I’d have been less reverent to my pediatrician’s advice.

In just a few years, paleo has gone from this weird, almost-no-foods diet to being a legitimate alternative to the ‘calories in, calories out,’ low fat, grain-based diet we’ve been encouraged to follow. And I’ve learned that no-one but me knows us well enough to know what’s right for us. Not doctors, not gurus, not parenting experts, not school authorities.

So these days, no-one tells me what to do. Well, they do, but I’m listening to a different voice. Only guidelines can be offered. It is up to us to discover the rest. We need to keep an open mind, learn, experiment, find our unique answer.

Maybe, like me, you’ll find it’s closer than you think.

Alison Golden has been fully paleo for eighteen months, has lost two dress sizes, and recovered herself from endometriosis. During this time, she transitioned her whole family and now has a website, PaleoNonPaleo focused on practical advice and strategies for living paleo in a non-paleo world. She would love you to pay a visit! 🙂

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  • Cat

    What a touching story! With my son homeschooling and diet changes make all the difference. Kids are often pressured too much to be “just the same.” Its not easy standing out in the crowd but its worth it! 

    • Hi Cat! Homeschooling was absolutely essential to the process for us because Oliver simply couldn’t be accommodated in a school environment. He was running away and would be found by the principal hiding under a bush in the neighborhood. At 6! Homeschooling was a temporary situation for us but I became totally enamored with and was sorry when he wanted to return to school. But he’s happy there now and most importantly thriving. We can hardly believe those early school years happened. 🙂

  • Kori Rotondi

    Love Alison, love her blog.  Actually, there were three people that convinced me to transition my kids to a paleo diet: Matt, Stacey and Alison.  We successfully transitioned our four children (all with major behavior problems) three months ago and our lives have not been the same since.  My big “aha” moment came a week and a half after starting this new way of eating when I realized that we hadn’t had any tantrums or meltdowns in THREE DAYS!  A major accomplishment when you know that our normal had been at least two – PER DAY.  Alison, btw, was also the one who convinced my husband to try the Total Transformation Program.  So THANKS Alison and thanks for sharing your story at my other favorite blog!!!

    •  Awww, really Kori? I am so delighted, I had no idea! 🙂 I remember those days when tantrum after tantrum was the norm. The stress! A big up to you for doing it with 4 kids! Wow. Glad you liked the TTP too, I am a big fan and still use some of the tools even today (but rarely need to.) Thank you!

  • Deborah Colston

    Wow. Alison thank you – on so many levels. X

  • ladyturnip

    Great article.  This hit home or many reasons.  I have been researching diet changes for behavior modifications in my 5 year old son.   He was a preemie, had horrible outbursts when starting kindergarten (run across a major street, crying uncontrollably when punished, aggressive behavior….)  We started debating homeschool, but we both work and it was really going to be almost impossible to financially manage.
     He has been dye, preservative and salicylate free since last September with marked improvement almost immediately, but sporadic outbursts.  At the same time I started a (mostly) paleo diet after the birth of my 3rd child and I am down 25 pounds.  We noticed that on the days that we ate paleo as a family (mainly dinners) that he did better the next day at school.  We got rid of gluten in everyone’s diet 2 months ago and he is doing much better.  We are working on dairy, but it has been a bit of a struggle.  This gives me the motivation to just do it!

    Also, bought ELAD for my mom for Mother’s Day!  She is trying to be very supportive of our diet changes and I think the cookbook will help her a lot.  She loves cooking with and for the kids.  Thank you so much for the blog  and cookbook Paleo Parents.  It really helps to know that others have gone through the struggle and come out the other side better for it!

    • Hi! Dairy was the last thing for us but it made all the difference. It was like the final click to unlock the safe. Keeping on it was hard – I think if I’d known then about coconut milk it might have been easier – and we went back and forth but the evidence was so clear in the doctor’s office that we had to bite the bullet eventually. Oliver does drink a little cow’s milk now, maybe a cup every three days or so but we do still limit it.

  • talktherapybiz

    Wow–what an ordeal, Alison. Thankfully your intrepid spirit and dogged determination saved Oliver from a dx and meds which likely would’ve aggravated the situation.

    Food allergies are a sure-fire link to anxiety disorders in kids. We’ve only recently seen the results from tests, though it’s hard b/c wheat and dairy are in some many foods, especially. It’s a long process to rule out what the food triggers are. Amazing how far we’ve come in 10 years.

    So glad you’re sharing the news and saving other hapless parents and their kids from behavioral, and other distress/

    • Hey friend, I’m gonna get you on this paleo thing if it’s the last thing I do. 🙂

      I’m sure you see your fair share of kids who would benefit from a paleo diet in your work. Must be tough to both do and see how they’re struggling.

  • Amy

    I’m so glad you’re seeing such improvement, Alison!  That is wonderful. 🙂

    As for us, we went paleo/primal about 9 months ago. All 6 (now 7) of us. We have fewer behavioral issues.  In fact, my 9 year old son is quite active and distractible – when he’s eating grains & sugar.  If he eats clean, he is still active, but much more focused.  It is much easier for him to control himself, too.  The now 3 year old didn’t have behavior issues, but he was skinny with dry, brittle hair and dark circles under his eyes. After taking out grains, he gained 5 pounds and grew 3 inches in a month, plus his hair turned gorgeous – thick & shiny. My 7 year old has only had a few headaches since then (usually revolving around an exposure) and no longer has stomach aches. It is amazing the changes we’ve seen in our family, as if dh’s and my own personal changes weren’t enough. 🙂

    • Isn’t it fantastic, Amy? Oliver has lost all the weight. (He was in the 95th percentile in 2008, his pediatrician gave me ‘the talk’, like I didn’t know already?) He also had dry hair but it is now lovely and soft. My other son, Sebastian, is a sugar, wheat and dairy-holic and would eat it all day if he could. He used to be very distractible but now my husband is on board with paleo all those foods are out of the house and he has got much better. I marvel at it all every day. 🙂

  • Joy

    What a great post! Thank you for sharing your story. Looking forward to following your blog 🙂

  • Jolene

    Very inspiring, off to check out your blog now!

  • Shirley @ gfe

    Alison, what a beautiful, amazing story of your son’s recovery and your own changes, too, shared at the very end! Thank you so, so much for sharing it with us all! It’s so wonderful that there’s a happy ending (you guys glow with health and happiness!) that hopefully will even get happier over time. I love that you mentioned your recovery from endometriosis because so many have no clue about that connection to food, primarily gluten per my doctor. I always wonder what a difference it would have made if I’d gone gluten free before my hysterectomy. Still have some other issues and know from past experience that paleo living fixes them. Your story and others’ keeps telling me to recommit! Off to share this post and check out your blog. 🙂

    Shirley

    • So interesting, Shirley, that you went pescatarian. That is what I’m planning to do now – less beef, more chicken and fish. I feel soooo good on fish. Thanks for commenting!

    • Thank you, Shirley. It *is* a happy ending and even though we head into the teenage years – the boys just turned 12 – I have no fear that it might all go pear-shaped again. It is like having a different child. It’s possible of course the raging and backtalk might come back, but a) we’ll know how to handle it better and b) I will still be so grateful for having these calm, peaceful years to really strengthen our family. Bonding deeply with your child is hard when you live in a warzone.

  • victrola

    Brava!  Alison and I share (or rather ‘shared’) the seme auto-immune disease which tore my body apart without my even knowing it until it was too advanced to miss and I landed in surgery.  Instead of getting hormone shots I chose to handle the rest of my life through diet (gluten free/pescatarean diet) and haven’t looked back since. I’ll be sharing this article and the blog with many concerned parents urging them to stay the course whether their child is n an extreme situation or not. It’s a win-win.

  • Furrypals_5

    Wow—incredible story!  And the EXACT mirror image of what has happened to my friend and her son, except she does not buy into the Food as Medicine theory and so now her almost 17 year old son HAS spent the time in Juvie and padded cells in psych wards, being hauled off the police from his home on a regular basis.  It’s heart breaking when people don’t want to hear that food can heal or harm and it’s been horrible watching this now former friend of mine slowly and inevitably end up where she is now. She is only my former friend because I tried for YEARS to gently convince her that his diet could be problematic—especially since our family was diagnosed Celiac in 2005 and going GF helped a ton with our daughter’s erratic moods and behavior—–and her only response to me was that I was starving my kids and being a food Nazi! And also that her son’s Psychiatrists disagreed that diet had anything to do with his extreme psychosis problems….scary! We now eat mostly Paleo and our health is as close to normal as it has been ever—-we are also diligently trying to heal our leaky gut from ALL those years of antibiotics and grains and other garbage.  Congratulations on taking charge and fighting for your son’s health—because trust me—I know exactly what a hard and challenging battle it is!

    •  Hi!
      Yup. Mirror image. People think and thought I was exaggerating when I would describe my fears for the future but I could see where it was going and it was nowhere good. I *wish* people would see the role of food in this kind of behavior – parents, doctors, teachers – but it’s still like it’s some secret…

  • Jeanie Witcraft

    This is completely amazing! GO YOU, Alison and sons!! 

    You may know that I’m a therapist…and I’m on fire with the “food as medicine” idea. I’m still wondering…HOW can I help my clients and parents without stepping outside my competence? This would make such a HUGE difference in many of my former and future clients lives (I’m in startup phase of private practice). 

    • Hi Jeanie, I don’t know how the legal stuff works re. your competence but perhaps you could always have some books around for them to pick up while they’re waiting? Or provide a leaflet with links to resources that you like. Perhaps in your first session you could talk about how you’ve observed that kids/families/people on a real foods diet do much better with therapy and hand them the list? My personal opinion based on my experience is that success in therapy can only be partially realized if the diet angle isn’t handled.

  • Mike B

    Alison your story mirrors ours very closely. We did go down the medication pathway but through enough twists and turns to start our own blog we found a paleo diet masquerading as one to help with the stabilizing of my wife’s Graves disease. It worked so well for her we took our middle son, that was very much like your Oliver, to her doc and and found he had multiple allergies to many neolithic foods notably Gluten and dairy. The screaming and defiance started to melt away as soon as his diet changed. Now he is off all meds and doing as well as any 11 year old he is around……….as long as we keep the sugar ( frustose, glucose or sucrose ) and starch intake down. He still spins up occasionally when he is allowed the GF treat but I have no worries that he will be a productive part of society now. For any of the parents out there that are considering a paleo type diet for behavior modification, what do you have to lose if you try it? If you are looking at diet then the other things conventional wisdom has shown you are not working out very well and you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We are over a year now and will never go back to the old way. Thank you very much for sharing your story it is truly inspiring and shows that perseverance pays off.

    • “…no worries that he will be a productive part of society now.” Exactly. There was a study done in the UK a few years ago, all with kids who’d been in trouble with the police. They were put on a ‘few foods’ diet, not paleo but meat and veg basically. They showed film of them before the diet and after – it was shocking the difference real foods made to these kids, no more spinning, shouting, fighting. Just quietly reading, sitting and chatting they were. It frustrates me enormously to see how clearly the link between behavior and food has been demonstrated and yet how difficult it is to get our society (and I’m talking authority figures as well as the (wo)man on the street) to accept it and take steps to deal with it especially with respect to our children. Thanks for your story, Mike. I’m so glad you were able to get off the meds and it’s so wonderful to see these kids who were previously so troubled hold their own alongside their peers. 🙂

  • Lori Mainiero

    Alison, I treasure your advice.  I am at the very beginning of my paleo journey, and as you know I drag my family down every dietary road with me kicking and screaming.  My son is all about grains and dairy.  And chicken strips (egad, right?!)  He has tummy issues and I really feel like paleo will help him.  My daughter has less-frequent-than-before outbursts and moodswings.  Two years ago her behaviour made me kick all the petrochemicals to the curb.  But after three weeks of trying to figure this paleo world out and testing it on myself, I feel loads better and can see how both of my kids will benefit.  Thanks for leading me to Paleo Parents.  I’ll need all the advice I can get as I navigate these new waters.  😉