By Michael Westgate, NMT – Published on February 20, 2020
Ever since high school, I’ve struggled with tinnitus (constant ringing in my ears), fatigue, brain fog, insomnia, and anxiety attacks. I also suffered from chronically achy joints, especially in my low back and jaw. At this young age, I started finding relief from my chronic pain and illness. When I was 20, I started working with a San Francisco nutritionist, who was recommended by a trusted family friend.
I had just returned from traveling in Western Europe and was preparing to start my undergraduate studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. I was so weighted down by these physical challenges I was worried I would not be able to handle the demands of work and study.
Why can’t I find relief from my chronic pain and illness?
This crisis is what sparked a fascinating process of healing. I learned that I am allergic to gluten, dairy, and many other foods such as peanuts, soy, etc. I learned that I had what was then called a “cerebral allergy,” but now is considered brain inflammation. One of the leading causes of brain disorders like mine is an overreaction to everyday foods. These foods cause an overreaction to the immune system to destroy brain tissue.  jfkdlasjflkjsadflkjsadfklj
The nutritionist told me to do a fast, followed by an elimination diet. She instructed me to remove all the known allergic foods and then add them back gradually to gauge my reaction to them. I was desperate to feel better. I was also scared that I could not make the most of my college experience. So I decided to do whatever it took and followed the program faithfully. This extra work was in addition to working part-time and going to school full time.
What I didn’t expect were the challenges I encountered when I ate at restaurants. I’d explain to the server that I had severe allergies to certain foods that caused me chronic pain and illness. I would need help in navigating the menu. Since my two worst allergies were to gluten and dairy, I asked about them first.
How can an egg be dairy?
Early on, I started to notice an odd pattern. Often, when I asked about dairy, the server said, “Yes, there’s egg in this dish,” and I would say, “Ok, but an egg isn’t dairy.” They would respond by either looking confused or by arguing with me about its designation. I had never seen a cow lay an egg. I understood from high school biology that chickens are related to reptiles, and cows are mammals. This seemed odd to me. For some reason, the absurdity of considering “eggs are dairy” was not apparent to most people, and I wanted to understand why.
My parents lived a “hippie lifestyle,” so from ages three to seven, we lived in the boondocks of southern Oregon on a forty-acre farm/commune. I, therefore, wasn’t exposed to the same influences as most American kids. One of the most distinctive lifestyle differences was our food. We grew as much of our food as possible, including a large garden and fruit trees as well as chickens, goats, and one cow.
Were does real food come from?
I knew firsthand that food comes from the ground and animals, not the grocery store. My first taste of corn off the cob was standing next to the towering corn stalks. I picked raspberries off the bush and popped them into my mouth. Every morning I gathered chicken eggs that were still warm from the mother hen.
My food associations were about as different as you can get from the average American kid in suburbia. At age seven, my dad decided to move us from the commune to Ashland, Oregon. I was finally introduced to the culture of mainstream America. At the time, I had no idea how much this modern food system would affect my health. It turned out that certain foods were a barrier to getting relief from my chronic pain and illness. My food associations were about as different as you can get from the average American kid in suburbia.
I entered the alien world of processed food
I started first grade in Ashland and was exposed to many new and somewhat alien things. My grade school building had hardly any windows, and my classmates brought lunches to school that were made of weird stuff like Wonder Bread and baloney. Most of them had televisions in their homes; I did not. None of their homes had a garden, just lawns. Some of them had a swimming pool (highly chlorinated).
One day in school, we were introduced to a chart that showed the “The Five Food Groups”. (Please refer to the image below. I couldn’t locate the original food chart that was given to me in grade school, but this chart, created in 1998, is very similar.) It showed us what kinds of foods we should eat, and, as you can see, it designates eggs as…well, dairy.
Why did the USDA categorize eggs as dairy? Is it becasue they are found in the dairy products section at most grocery stores?
Whatever the reason, for thirty years, the burning question in my mind has been, “Why didn’t people see this error? Eggs don’t come from a cow and therefore aren’t dairy.”
Why we believe what we believe
“Cow Eggs and Chicken Milk” is a reminder to me that all of us are prone to believe some things without questioning them. As children, many of us learned that eggs are dairy. Perhaps some of us still accept this as fact, even though in 2005, the USDA replaced the old pyramid food chart with an image of a food plate. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/
The mechanics of the “eggs are dairy” association comes from what is called “imprinting”. Our first impressions of people, ideas, and things are imprinted on us. They, therefore, have a lasting effect on our perception. First impressions are very hard to change since we tend to invest in and stick with what we first perceive. Re-examining impressions is a time- and energy-consuming process, so as a default, most of us avoid doing this.
I didn’t accept the assumption that “eggs are dairy” because my early personal experience with chickens, cows, and eggs overrode the information I saw in the food pyramid chart. I was not imprinted on this concept. It wasn’t that I was smarter than people who learned eggs are dairy. I was just lucky. The real challenge is to be able to spot these errors when the bias is built-in. This particularly true if your culture supports the error. A good example of this is the perception that women are not as good at science as men.
Blind spots and epiphanies. What keeps us from finding solutions to chronic pain and illness
We all have blind spots in our knowledge, and my work with my San Francisco nutritionist was no exception. I followed her advice to the letter. But even after a few years on her program, I experienced some significant setbacks in my health. It took me a long time to figure out why the vegan diet she told me to follow was not fruitful for me. I now know that I have an autoimmune disease (celiac disease). The best diet for me is the “autoimmune paleo diet”. Many foods in the nutritionists’ vegan protocol were making me sick.
When I told her what foods worked best for me, she didn’t agree with my choices, so I decided to look for someone else to work with. This was my first experience of how even an expert can sometimes lead you down the wrong path.
Because of this and other experiences, I have developed an approach to health challenges that I find essential for getting lasting results. I want to share this with you here:
How can I start finding relief from chronic pain and illness?
First, I’ve had to face my resistance to change. Resistance to change is a hard-wired tendency in humans to stick with the status quo. We resist doing anything that rocks the boat both personally and with your “tribe.” We all struggle with self-sabotage, procrastination, and an attraction for unhealthy choices. I am no exception. I’ve learned that this resistance never goes away, but with practice, I can outsmart it. I consider the skills needed to overcome resistance to be very crucial in dealing successfully with health challenges. I will examine this subject in detail in a future post.
Second, I’ve had to find effective ways to sift through my preconceived ideas and biases. I needed to understand which approaches would help relieve my chronic pain and illness. My preconceived notions and biases were blocking my ability to find and fully understand new information. that can lead to long-lasting solutions to my many complaints
There are a lot of misperceptions about food
Third, I started to understand how prevalent misperceptions about food can be. I had to come up with a strategy to navigate situations where I was counting on other people’s knowledge and/or services that would impact my health. I learned that if I’m not 100% responsible in determining which foods are safe for me, for my body, inevitably, I will start feeling sick.
When eating out, this includes:
- Investigating menu options online and calling ahead to see if they can accommodate my needs.
- Choose restaurants that have simple offerings like steamed vegetables and non-marinated grilled meats. Restaurants that serve “fusion cuisine” are off-limits because there are often dozens of ingredients in every dish.
- Any sign of exasperation or negative attitude about my requests by the management or wait staff is a red flag. My best policy is to go somewhere else.
Why I started this blog
My alternative upbringing, coupled with a lifelong battery of health challenges, has motivated me to examine what I regard as real and what I see driven by mistaken perception. I have found that mistaken perception is a significant barrier to finding answers to complex health issues. Eating the wrong foods causes me a lot of pain and suffering. I have used my desire to be free of this suffering as motivation for finding answers and taking action.
Seeking relief from chronic pain and illness has motivated me to create this website. I aim to search out various kinds of misunderstandings and solutions. These solutions will be primarily relating to health challenges. I will discuss them in future articles. It is my hope to teach you how to utilize the information. And with these new tools, help you get back to your life.
If you would like to know more about a specific pain issue, please send me a request through email, social media, or as a comment after one of my articles.