In February 2008, I gave birth to my second daughter, Charlotte. She weighed a healthy 6lb, 13 oz at full term. Everything about her first few weeks of life was normal and healthy. At around three weeks, some issues arose. We began breastfeeding, and her initial latch and suck on the breast were strong. My body responded by giving my breasts enough milk for four babies. My engorgement was beyond painful. I leaked milk all the time and the skin across my chest was red from being pulled so tight. The other women at the breastfeeding support group looked at me with a mix of horror and pity.
Around this time, blood appeared in the stool in Charlotte’s diaper. It was just droplets and initally it was dismissed by her pediatrician as an anal fissure and nothing to worry about. It was just a short time later that the sleep issues started. As a newborn, Charlotte wouldn’t sleep. It would take a dark, quiet room, just the right speed of rocking and many feedings to get her to sleep for even a short time.
Just three weeks postpartum, I had a three-year-old who was demanding my attention, a baby who wouldn’t sleep, a body recovering from childbirth, all with engorged breasts and a fluctuating milk supply. In hindsight, it doesn’t surprise me that my debilitating mental and physical breakdown began around this time.
At six weeks postpartum, I fed Charlotte at 4am, crawled back into my bed and couldn’t find sleep. I laid awake until morning, initially just puzzled at my wakefulness. Puzzlement soon turned to frustration, fear, and panic as more and more sleepless nights ensued. With my estrogen and progesterone plummeting and with no prolactin from a good milk supply, my system was flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, trying to keep me alive in the midst of this hormonal, chaotic mess. At one of my lowest points, I went four nights without an ounce of sleep and was drinking Ensure shakes because I had completely lost any appetite for solid food.
Of course I went to the doctor. With a nine week baby in tow and complaints of insomnia and exhaustion, I was told to stop nursing and start Zoloft. There was a Post Partum Depression handout given to me at some point. I started Charlotte on formula and stumbled into a drug-induced slumber.
At this point a very important thing happened: Charlotte began to sleep. After a warm bottle of formula, she would lay her head to the side of the Papasan chair, close her eyes, and dose off in a room full of noise and light. It would be a gross understatement if I said I felt like a failure.
It was my lactation consultant who finally shed some light on the fact that Charlotte hadn’t been sleeping because I was not producing enough fat in my milk to keep her full and satisfied. My engorgement and stress had affected the consistency of my milk, and it was depleting both of us. The formula gave her what she needed and healthy sleep patterns emerged, but so did more blood in the stool and itchy, red rashes on her face.
Given the fact that I was heavily medicated at this point, the details are fuzzy. We tried lots of different formulas, and there was bleeding with each one. She was eventually diagnosed with a true milk allergy and was finally able to digest Elecare, a formula with proteins broken down to the amino acid level. This was a sigh of relief for us until she decided she began to crawl at five months and really needed solid food to match her energy level. Her diet at this point became 4-6 bottles a day of various concoctions of formula, rice cereal, and Miralax, as well as Prevacid for her acid reflux. There was no more blood until I tried giving her some pureed peas. I did not have the doctor’s okay before I did this, and I felt scolded when I tried to explain that I couldn’t stand keeping real food away from her.
We continued the solids at a very slow pace and kept the bleeding at bay.
Our family diet evolved to lots of starches and pastas, pretty much the only foods Charlotte would eat. Again, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that a negative health pattern emerged among the other members of the family. Our older daughter, Dana, was developing such severe sinus infections, that she had a CT scan done on her sinus cavity at the age of four. Both girls were on rounds and rounds of antibiotics for sinus issues, and we thought we were doing the right thing with daily Claritin and Nasonex for both of them. My husband Chad had gained twenty pounds and his blood work at the time put him at a pre-diabetic status.
In April 2010, Charlotte had just celebrated her second birthday. A friend pointed out to me that something seemed not quite right about her. I laughed it off, seeing as Charlotte’s early crawling had led to early walking and climbing, and her relentless hyperactivity caused her to look different from other kids her age.
She had excellent language and motor skills for her age, but still Chad insisted we check into it. She was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder. It turns out that putting sand in her mouth, running in circles at high speeds, and sitting for long periods of time in the bathtub were her ways of regulating her damaged nervous system. I am still so grateful for Chad’s courage and parental instinct at that time that got us the help we needed.
Charlotte immediately began Occupational Therapy and a home-based sensory diet, which consisted of sensory based activities to regulate her system and help her feel more comfortable in her body.
Around this time, I was seeking my own regulation. I had found a new doctor that had been helping my crippling PMS and hypoglycemia. The medications had taken a toll on my body. I was feeling confused, lethargic, and always hungry. My doctor recommended a low-carb, high-fat diet. Within a week, I noticed a difference. I couldn’t wait to tell my friend Rachel about it over lunch, but she beat me to it, explaining that she, her husband (a physician), and her kids were on the Paleo Diet.
The Paleo Diet eliminates grains, legumes, and dairy. It’s based on the principal that our caveman ancestors in the Paleolithic era ate clean, high quality foods and were free of the disease and weight issues that plague our current society.
I knew that the diet was a perfect fit for me, but I didn’t think I could ever get my kids off of their cheerios, oatmeal, and pasta. It wasn’t until Rachel babysat Charlotte for me and gently nudged me toward the diet to as a way to improve her behavior. Despite my reluctance to see that anything abnormal was really going on with Charlotte at this time, I pressed forward and tried to improve my child’s diet based on the observations of our trusted friends.
It was easier than I ever thought it would ever be to transition my kids. Maybe any negative experiences have been overshadowed by the fact that Charlotte began making consistent eye contact with us for the first time. We began the OT and the Paleo Diet at the same time and have never looked back. Her stomach and digestion are perfectly normal, nasal allergies for both girls are gone, and my husband lost the twenty pounds.
It was many months after feeling the benefits of the Paleo Diet that I realized that I had not been crazy all long. Thanks to Rachel’s husband, Dr. Mike, we were able to uncover the mystery of my body in those crazy post partum days. I learned that I had Adrenal Fatigue, a condition where the adrenal glands have overworked themselves and insufficiently produce effective hormones, causing PMS, insomnia, and hypoglycemia. I have learned that healing from Adrenal Fatigue is a slow process and there is not much I can do to treat my adrenal insufficiencies except feed my body healthy Paleo food and live with the least amount of stress possible.
It took years to get our bodies into this dysregulated state, and it will take many years to fully recover. In the meantime, we have learned to patiently tend to our health. Following a Paleo lifestyle means keping our stress down, eating clean foods, eliminating grains & dairy, sleeping adequately, exercising appropriately, and keeping the focus on our health. The experience described above easily could have broken any marriage and family apart. Thankfully, we were able to use it to bond us together and created the peaceful and loving family we have always wanted.
It was in December of 2010 that Charlotte was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism. It didn’t come as a surprise. We knew that the trauma from her digestion in her early life had damaged her gut, her nervous system, and ultimately her brain. We could see that she was struggling with social interactions and sensory regulation. We also knew that the Paleo Diet was healing her from the inside out, and that everything would be okay.
We have seen such a huge lifestyle transformation after finding and adopting Paleo. Life has taken on such a simplier rythmn and routine, mostly because we know how to manage our stress and care for our bodies. We feel empowered that our girls are growing up with such a strong model for how to enjoy life, and we are sharing our story as a resource to other families who may be looking for a positive lifestyle change and a way out of the chronic, day-to-day stress that has such a negative effect on our health.
Please see Paleo Community link for more information and books on the Paleo Lifestyle.