A Determined Woman: How One HAP Member Took Control of Her Health By Changing Her Diet
Two years ago, Judy Petterle noticed something intriguing about the research on diet and brain health that she was studying as part of her job as a dementia educator: It described her. The more she dug into the data, the more she realized she was learning as much about her health as she was about the health of the people she was teaching. She started to wonder if a change in diet might help her manage the pain and mental fog she’d been living with most of her adult life.
“I was reading about myself,” she says.
She learned that a diet high in sugar and processed foods could cause chronic inflammation, which played a role in pain and in diseases as wide-ranging as cancer and Alzheimer’s. She began to hope she could reduce her pain through nutrition. It was certainly worth a try.
Licorice, cakes and cookies
In 1991, when she was 30, Petterle was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder. She was given strong doses of a painkiller and an antidepressant. Through the years, doctors increased the medication, which played havoc with her system. She became a doctor’s best friend, seeing an alphabet of “ists,” including a gastroenterologist (digestion), rheumatologist (diseases that affect joints, soft tissues and connective tissues) and neurologist (nervous system).
She couldn't sleep, had irritable bowel syndrome and headaches, and couldn't think clearly. “I had to make lists for everything,” she says.
At first glance, her diet looked fine – she ate whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and avoided fat of all kinds. But she also ate candy – she loved red licorice, cakes and cookies. “If I had a lot of calories in baked goods, I ate less of the healthy things,” she says. And she avoided the healthy fats that are an important source of inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
Avoiding the middle aisle
“I never had a doctor talk to me about diet,” she says. One reason might be that she always was thin. But she was in pain, so clearly something wasn't working. Her research uncovered a likely culprit: “I was bombarding my body with highly inflammatory food,” she says.
She cut out refined sugar and saw a significant change, especially in her digestive system. “Before, my gut would always whistle and sing; afterward, it settled dramatically.” The fibromyalgia also responded well, and she began reducing her medicines’ dosages.
Next step: cutting gluten. No bread, baked goods, pasta, crackers or cereal. Her pain kept going down.
She added healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados. And her cholesterol numbers responded: Her triglycerides went down 17 points, bad cholesterol went down 15, and her good cholesterol went up 17.
Now, she avoids all processed foods and shops on the outside of the supermarket, buying dairy, produce and lean, grass-fed meats. “I never even go in the middle aisles,” she says. “That’s all packaged.”
Finally, she went off the medications completely and was rewarded with the best sleep she’d had in decades. “I woke up naturally, rested, and I once again had dreams,” she says. But she started getting severe headaches and was told she had chronic migraines, a diagnosis new to her but likely an old problem the drugs had masked.
Her neurologist recommended she continue with the antidepressant, but she reduced it from the 50 mg she’d taken for years to 10 mg. She went back on pain medication but cut that from a high of 2,000 mg a day to 800. This managed the headaches but still gave her restful, dream-filled sleep. She’d rather be drug-free, she says, “but you do what you have to do.”
She shuts off all electronics and the TV an hour before bedtime and keeps to a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends. And Petterle notices that she is much more clear-witted, no longer needing the calendar that had been her crutch. “I can keep dates and appointments in my mind,” she says, “and I could not do that for many, many years.”
Petterle had two little boys when she was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but as they got older, she decided to work outside the home, first as a middle-school band teacher and then in Christian outreach. This helped reduce the stress of the illness and a difficult marriage. She divorced and remarried, and earned certification as a dementia counselor, educating caregivers and families on how to understand their loved ones with memory issues, cope with their disease and find local resources.
She stays active by walking, using a cross-country ski machine at home and a membership to the local gym, where she works with weightlifting and aerobic equipment.
Petterle keeps researching, hoping she will find a natural cure for the migraines. Until then, she’s going to stick with her new diet and her new life. “I'm a very disciplined person, and it is really working,” she says, “so that gives me incentive to continue.”
Judy Petterle’s brain health diet
To reduce inflammation and the pain of chronic migraines and fibromyalgia, Petterle eats fruits, vegetables and dairy, along with healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and olive oil. A typical menu might include:
- Eggs fried in olive oil
- Snack: a smoothie with kefir (a probiotic), banana, blueberries and flaxseed, plus homemade ice cream sweetened with fruit
- Smoked fish with cottage cheese and tomato
- Snacks: nuts and seeds, celery dipped in cream cheese, or hard cheese
- Grilled chicken, fish, occasionally pork, with broccoli, cauliflower or kale, or Brussels sprouts seasoned with olive oil and roasted in the oven. Sweet potatoes.
- Dark chocolate with 70 percent or more cocoa
Be like Judy! Judy Petterle sent us her inspiring journey and we wanted to share it with you. Do you have an amazing health story? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.