Meet Nora! Nora is my farmer, the trusted food source for myself and my family . . . and she's only in her mid-twenties! (So basically, I think she is super rad, 'cause I've always wanted to be a successful twenty-something farmer.) Today I want to share her incredible story with all of you. I hope it will encourage those of you with autoimmunity, and beyond that, I hope it will encourage ALL of you to go out and make the effort to get to know your farmers too.
Nora's 540-acre family farm, Clark's Farm, is exactly one mile away from my home. I've known about it for years, but when we moved back to the area late last summer, I started buying meat from the farm regularly. I'd made the Paleo transition and I needed a good source of grass-fed, local meat. I couldn't get more local than a mile away and I had read about the farm online and knew they had high standards. Those high standards seem to have come to Nora quite naturally; she is a seventh generation farmer. Her family has been farming the same land since 1797, that's 216 years! Talk about commitment to sustainability. The entire farm is part of farmland preservation programs and, as Nora explained to me, instruction was literally etched in stone in the front yard by former generations that the family should "Never Sell The Land."
The first time I went to the farm to purchase meat, I chatted briefly with Nora and learned something even more interesting. My farmer is battling autoimmunity too and she's doing it with the same "food matters" approach. I was blown away and excited about our connection. After learning that, I asked Nora if we could meet, chat it up and then I could blog about her story. Lucky for me, she carved out time from her very busy farming schedule to meet me for tea and a talk.
I knew we were off to a great start when we went to order our tea. Both of us stood at the counter of our local coffee shop, staring at the drink menu and hesitating. Finally, I said, "I think the mint is the safest bet, but I'm going to ask him if I can read the ingredients on the box." We looked at each other and almost simultaneously said, "Lots of teas have soy lecithin." LOL! Perfect match! Nora has rheumatoid arthritis and successfully uses the GAPS protocol to manage it. For those of you not familiar, GAPS is very similar to AIP.
Nora's journey with autoimmunity began in 2005, when she entered her freshman year of college. She had entered an equestrian program in New Jersey, but soon found herself struggling with the highly athletic demands of horsemanship. It started with pain in her thumbs, but quickly spread to the joints of her hands and feet. By Christmas time that year, Nora was in pain just holding a pencil. Walking, and even simple tasks like putting her hair up or brushing her teeth, had become difficult. Her knees swelled to the size of two softballs. Everyone was baffled. She'd been a healthy kid; after all she grew up on a farm. It was the farm and outdoor life that was first suspected though, the doctors assumed it was Lyme Disease.
She returned to school and never missed a single riding lesson, despite the pain. Then, on March 6th of that year she got a diagnosis . . . rheumatoid arthritis. Her primary care doctor referred her to a rheumatologist. The rheumatologist immediately put her on Prednisone, draining and cortisol shots for the knees and recommended lots of Aleeve. Nora says she returned to school, but every joint in her body, from her jaw to her feet was radiating pain. She'd wake up crying and her roommate would have to help her. "I lost the freshman 15 and then some. I was only eating soft pretzels with mustard, cold cut sandwiches, and water. I was just getting through."
The summer after her freshman year proved to be a challenge too. She came home to work the produce stand on the family farm, but had given up the opportunity to work at a horse farm in Maine or Florida due to the RA. "I was in so much pain, I needed to be at home where I could manage the pace. I cried all the time and all the medication had made me very sensitive to the sun. I was sunburned badly that summer." There was a silver lining though. Nora ended up spending lots of time with her grandfather as she worked in the garden and raised vegetables for the stand. That time proved valuable, as he passed away at the end of the summer.
When she returned to college in the fall of 2006 life began to change, as she began requiring stronger and stronger medications to manage the RA. Her RA had been under control due to various medicines for the previous year and a half, but this flare up was a big eye opener that this disease was not going away. Life became a blur of powering through the pain to continue the equestrian program. "I barely remember that year, but I did attend classes and a horse show and even did well. That was huge. I felt like it meant, despite having this disease, I was still capable. It gave me alot of confidence." She used that confidence to make the decision to transfer to a college closer to home and finish her undergrad in agriculture and natural resources.
After graduation she took over the produce stand on the farm, but the following spring she had an extreme flare-up of the RA starting in her shoulder. "The pain in my shoulder was intense. My doctor wanted me to start biologics." Biologics are genetically engineered drugs meant to guide the production of human immune proteins. Nora began taking Humira, which she had to inject herself. "I hated it. It was a thick substance and very painful. I would spend the three days leading up to an injection in dread, but I thought, 'I have given animals injections, I can do this for myself.'" It wasn't just the pain of self injections though; it was also the cost of the medication, which worried Nora. "I didn't know how long I could afford it and it could take up to three months before I would know if it was actually working for me."
Eventually, Nora decided that self-injection was not for her and moved on to a drug that required injection by a nurse into the stomach. The drug was also used to treat Crohn's. "The nurse was always talking to me about Crohn's and for the first time I started to wonder about how the same drug could treat two different autoimmune conditions . . . maybe AIs had similar roots?" She endured another year of biologic drugs. Eventually, she even required eight hour long IV infusions that gave her allergic reactions requiring huge doses of Benadryl to counteract the drugs. "I was being pumped full of poison. I don't even know how I raised a garden or did other work on the farm that summer. I spent alot of time on the couch and lost tons of weight."
That summer a nutritionist kept visiting the produce stand and they began to talk. Nora felt terrible and had begun to worry about her future fertility and the terrible side effects of the medications she was taking for the RA. She decided to do a few nutrition sessions. "The nutritionist suggested that I go gluten free. I didn't believe there was a connection." But after a week of thinking it over she tried a day without gluten and the next few days turned out to be free of joint pain. "I was floored. What I eat effects how I feel! A light bulb went off." Two weeks later Nora pushed back her next infusion appointment and it turned out to be the last time she saw her rheumatologist. Slowly she learned more about food and began GAPS. April 21st will be her one year GAPS anniversary. "The intro was really hard and the die off reaction was massive for me. It was very intense and I felt terrible initially, but I felt there were no other options. I knew food was the answer." The immediate response to cutting out gluten had been the motivation for her to continue. "There is more healing to come, but the progress I have seen in less than one year is so promising for my future." Nora no longer takes any pain medications and has not needed anymore biologics or other heavy drugs used in RA treatment. She is able to manage all the RA symptoms with diet.
I asked Nora a few other questions about her life, farming, and dealing with autoimmunity through diet. I want to share them here too, because I think what she had to say is so inspiring and awesome.
Do you like being a farmer?
"Yes. I love it. I get to raise my own food to my high standards, I can grow vegetables without any chemical, I can get my bacon cured without nitrates, I can be really confident in our grass-fed beef operation and the pastured chicken and eggs. I can feel good about selling these products to the community. I am happy; I get to meet people, like you, that are really interested in healing their bodies. They are reversing pre-diabetes, managing autoimmune diseases, improving their health, and I have even met other people who are following GAPS too and using my products to help. A few years ago I wouldn't have imagined that this is what I would be doing, but I have learned how much organic, natural approaches really matter. My diet is perfect for my career."
How do you feel about your connection to the land?
"I feel very connected, but I don't feel I own it. I guess I have a very Native American approach. There is a long history there and my grandfather was a pioneer in farm land preservation."
How do you handle RA and such a demanding career?
"I have come to the terms with the fact that I might never be totally what I wanted to be before this journey started, but I've had a transformation in how I see myself. I get help when I need it. I can't carry a bucket of water or a 50 pound bag of feed yet, but I'm excited about my energy levels and how far I've come. When I take the long view I can see that I have come so far in managing my disease and in my approach to farming. One thing in life can change everything else. My joint pain lead to medicine, the awful effects of the medicine lead to eating right, and eating right lead to raising things right. I can be proud of what I do for a living."