Updated May 6, 2013
March 30, 2004, Oregon — I am a retired marketing communications writer and now a historian writing for students and general readers of history. I am the author of The Aristotle Adventure (www.aristotleadventure.com). I am also a father and a grandfather.
Today, at 59, I am finally living the healthy life I had only dreamed about earlier. Most of my adult life has been marred by an escalating series of medical problems. About 41 years ago, at age 18 and after years of intermittent bronchitis, I had surgery for a partially collapsed lung (the first of 14 episodes — some major, some minor — over three decades). Soon afterwards, some of the skin on my face and scalp became red, raw, and scaly. A prescription shampoo and an ointment brought some relief but no cure.
When I was 30, one eye became so bloodshot and painful that I nearly lost sight in it. Similar eye episodes (iritis) appeared about 10 more times in the following 28 years. Rather dangerous medication from an eye specialist fixed each flare-up, only to have it return in a few months or years. “The cause was unknown.”
At about the same time, I had high blood pressure, high levels of cholesterol, and pains in my chest and on the inside of my left arm when I exercised. I switched to a very low-fat, mostly plant-based diet, but with nonfat dairy products. Within 18 months, I lost 65 pounds, down to 135 from 200. (I am 6 feet tall.) My cholesterol level dropped (from 220 to 180); my blood pressure dropped somewhat (down from 145/95 to 135/85), and the chest and arm pains went away. I then loosened my diet, by adding some more animal products, to bring my weight back up to about 155, where it stayed for nearly 30 years.
At 45, near the height of my physical fitness activities (ranging from martial arts to running), I began having painful tendons. The problem spread from my hips to my legs and arms. I had to stop running, and sometimes I could not even walk. Physical therapy brought temporary relief but no solution. I was told to “take it easy.” The pain and disability continued but without any predictable pattern in the intensity. The most maddening part was, not understanding why these problems were occurring.
When I was 53, the muscles in my back became sore and dysfunctional. I rejected the suggestion that this was an inevitable sign of aging, but I didn’t know what to do about the problem. Over a period of years, I was twice diagnosed from blood samples as having a “tendency to inflammation.” Neither diagnosing physician explained its cause or suggested a solution. I was too ignorant to even ask useful questions. My primary care physician offered an anti-inflammation drug (like Motrin and Advil). I reluctantly used it during the worst episodes of muscle and tendon pain.
At age 55, I had arthritis, mostly in the toes of one foot. Two foot-specialists offered no solution; though one suggested surgery for $6,000. Instead, I used a cane and an immobilizing black plastic boot to “protect” the foot and reduce the pain. At the same time, the problems in my skin, eyes, tendons, and muscles all worsened. At one point, when the arthritis spread to other joints, I became so crippled that I began shopping on the internet for a wheelchair.
I finally did what I should have done years earlier. I began serious reading about the problems in my skin, eyes, tendons, muscles, and joints. Pieces of answers came slowly. A suggestion from my primary care physician opened a new door. “Cut back on wheat,” he offered, thinking the skin problem might be a reaction to gluten. Because I believe in maximum effort for maximum results, I eliminated wheat from my diet rather than merely reducing it. To my amazement, my skin problems quickly diminished by about a third. (I measured problems by the number of distractions they caused during the course of a day.)
Six months later, to treat a lingering intestinal irritation, I tried avoiding all dairy products. The intestinal problem disappeared! Even better, my skin improved again, by another third. However, I lost a lot of weight — from 155 lb. down to 140. Thinking that I had to be heavy to be manly, I began eating a lot of soy, nuts, and seafood to regain the lost weight. My skin problem exploded. My skin felt like tree bark, and the condition covered my face, neck, and scalp, with constant itching and scaling. For a time, the ugliness was so bad that I only went out at night.
In more reading about these problems, I found a connection that was obvious once I had identified the technical names of my problems: dermatitis, iritis, tendonitis, bursitis, and arthritis. The first part of each word names a location in the body (such as “derm-” for skin); and the “-itis” part of each term comes from a Greek word for inflammation.
Now, finally, the earlier diagnosis of “tendency to inflammation” made some sense. This development was good news. I realized I had one basic problem with five symptoms, not five independent problems. The issues persisted, however, so I continued my reading about inflammation. I read books written by MDs, but for the general public. By age 57, after setting aside moments of despair, I could see a dim path leading to a solution. Diet was the key. I kept searching.
On one page in an appendix of The McDougall Program – Twelve Days to Dynamic Health, I found a short-term, diagnostic “elimination diet.” In it, the first step is to temporarily eat only a few foods, all generally safe from allergies. The second step adds suspect foods — one at a time — back into the diet (one serving per meal, six meals in a row), to see the effects (in my case, on my skin), usually within a few days. This systematic approach intrigued me. After a year of testing one food per week (two days of testing, five days of recovering from flare-ups, if any), I saw a general pattern: Eating more protein causes more inflammation in my skin. The two worst reactions I suffered were from sardines and almonds.
During all the food testing, I never had an adverse reaction to any fruit. I had a mild but not consistent reaction to four vegetables (spinach, cauliflower, asparagus, and mushrooms). All four are high in purines, though low in protein; I could eat all other vegetables with impunity. I had no reaction to low protein starches — rice, corn, and potatoes in quantities of two servings or less per meal. However, I did have an adverse reaction to wheat and oatmeal, both of which are relatively high in protein. Further testing suggested that certain acidic foods — such as sauerkraut and olives — might be aggravating my inflammation problems, but the test results were ambiguous. (I plan to retest them someday.)
To my astonishment, after consistently following my nutritious, low-protein diet (about 50 gm/day), my skin problems almost completely faded away in a few weeks. I felt a surge of hope. The tendonitis, bursitis, and joint arthritis diminished too, though much more slowly – a matter of six months to a year. Also, by following the exercise routines in Pete Egoscue’s book, Pain Free, (http://www.egoscue.com), I got rid of the knee pains that had developed from years of improper walking and sitting posture brought on by arthritis, tendonitis, and bursitis. Further, I have had no recurrence of iritis in two years.
Though my diet now is more limited than the typical McDougall diet — for example, I eat no beans, peas, wheat, or oatmeal — I have nevertheless learned to enjoy my meals. First, my taste buds are now more sensitive to natural flavors. Second, to make meals more appealing, I strive for maximum variety in fruits and vegetables. Third, I have two shelves of herbs and spices, arranged alphabetically from anise to thyme. I use a different flavor at each meal. For me the best part of this vegan “gatherer’s diet” is that I can eat as much food as I want. However, after much experimenting, I have settled on three meals per day, at 6 AM, noon, and 6 PM, with all meals containing vegetables, fruit, and starch.
Now at nearly 60, I can sleep without pain. My skin has mostly cleared, though it is still dry and sensitive to abrasion (I never wear a hat). My tendonitis and bursitis are gone. My arthritis has faded so much I can actually run a bit for the first time in 15 years. I bicycle frequently, and I walk 6 miles daily, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, partly for health, but mostly for the joy of moving. There are further benefits of my “gatherer’s diet:” I have no headaches, my cholesterol level is low, and my blood-pressure is down to 125/75.
To what do I owe this success? First is Dr. McDougall’s book, The McDougall Program – Twelve Days to Dynamic Health. It helped me link my medical problems to my former diet, and then it offered a way (program) for correcting the diet and stopping the problems. A second factor for success was realizing I had to be totally focused on my goal of better health, so focused that I would not make any exceptions whatsoever when testing foods and when following my new diet. Making exceptions is a form of wishful thinking — a way of avoiding reality and therefore never solving problems.
I have also learned to be politely assertive when dining out or when I am invited to a friend’s house for dinner. I say what I can eat and what I can’t eat. If necessary, I skip a meal rather than eat foods that I know are bad for me. So, now here I am: fit, active, and hopeful of living a long and healthy life. My goal is to live to be 100 — or die trying!
This story of Burgess Laughlin is an important reminder of the founding principle of my Program: The McDougall Program is not a “diet,” and it was not designed primarily for weight loss – however, loss of excess body fat naturally results as people regain their health. I designed the Program nearly 30 years ago out of frustration; because the approaches (drugs and surgeries) that I had been taught during medical school and my internal medicine residency (postgraduate) training did not help my patients regain their lost health. These people suffered from chronic diseases, like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis – no matter how hard I tried – no matter how many pills I gave them – they never recovered – in fact the vast majority of them continued their rapid downhill slide.
My frustrations from not understanding why my medical practice was so ineffective all ended when I discovered two undeniable facts: First, people became ill from eating the rich Western diet. Second, and more importantly, they recovered when they stopped the behaviors that made them sick – like “eating all those bad foods.” My new frustration now is how to help my patients make long-overdue changes in their eating habits.
Fortunately, I was married (and partnered to) a genius in the kitchen. Mary McDougall, from the beginning, took over the task of making the meal plan delicious. In part, this was out of necessity, because we had to eat this way ourselves. I realized that I could not teach people something I did not do myself. Now, of course, we cannot imagine eating any other way – but we fully realize that for those new to these ideas this Program is overwhelming, and sometimes seems unattainable. However, with time and effort most interested people do finally make the conversion – and those that do, all reap far greater benefits than they had ever imagined possible.
Would you work as hard as Burgess Laughlin to regain your health? I believe you would if you knew there was an effective solution to your pain and suffering.
Misdirected activity of his own immune system was the primary mechanism behind Mr. Laughlin’s troubles. Doctors refer to this as an “autoimmune disease” – this is where the body attacks itself – in his case, his immune system attacked his skin, eyes, tendons, bursas, and joints. The kinds of tissues being attacked are called collagen, and this group of diseases is also called “collagen-vascular disease.” So, why would the body do something as counterproductive as to attack itself? Confusion within the body is created when “foreign” food proteins – like dairy, beef, egg, or pork proteins – pass through the gut (intestinal) wall into the bloodstream.
Most of the time the larger components of our foods – like large proteins – stay within the intestine until they are thoroughly digested; unfortunately, some people suffer from a “leaky gut” – a condition where the intestinal barrier becomes incompetent and these inadequately digested proteins enter the body. Intact food proteins (also called antigens) are now floating around in the bloodstream, where they provoke the immune system to make antibodies against them (like they naturally would to bacteria or virus proteins). Unfortunately, these antibodies are not specifically directed to these foreign food proteins, but are also able to attack similar looking proteins in our own tissues (like the collagen proteins in our skin, eyes, and joints).
This kind of reaction rarely occurs with plant proteins because plant foods are so gentle on the intestines (keeping the gut barrier competent), and because plant protein structures are so radically different from the proteins in our own (animal) tissues. In the case of plant proteins, our immune system rarely becomes confused when distinguishing between what is “self” and what is “foreign.”
Wheat may cause trouble by damaging the intestinal barrier resulting in a leaky gut. Other common causes of a leaky gut are antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs – like Motrin and Advil), environmental chemical toxins, infections, and a generally unhealthy, high-fat, high-cholesterol diet. Mr. Laughlin finally found his solution through the elimination diet (described in the December 2002 newsletter article “Diet for the Desperate”). Most people with autoimmune diseases, as well as most other general health problems, find relief with the basic McDougall Program and only as a last resort have to use the elimination diet.
There are many autoimmune diseases, such as Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, scleroderma, vitiligo, thyroiditis, nephritis, and a variety of disorders that destroy the blood cells. Every patient with similar troubles should be tried on a healthy diet – and drugs should be used as a last resort. You can read more about these problems in articles on my web site (www.drmcdougall.com), such as “Diet: Only Hope for Arthritis,” and “Star McDougallers” – Vanessa, Sabrina, and Jean Brown.
Sadly, Burgess was never able to fulfill his hopes of living to 100. Burgess was an inspiring Star McDougaller and a talented writer and historian. He believed his central life’s purpose was to share success stories. All his health issues allowed him to share his own success story of regaining his health. He will be missed.
John A. McDougall, M.D.