I’ve suffered from seasonal allergies since I was a kid, so I always assumed that life was designed to be a painful, nasally-congested experience for two months out of every year.
As I got older, my symptoms got worse. Things eventually got to the point where I would spend almost 24 hours a day in bed during allergy season, trying as hard as I could to breathe through the firmly shut passages in my nostrils. I tried every medication I could get my hands on but they offered minimal improvements at best.
I spent my second semester of my junior year at college studying abroad in Italy for six months. I lived in a small town and studied at the local university. A few weeks into the semester I noticed that my allergies had begun to improve. I stopped needing to use my sinus rinses every night before bed and was no longer blowing my nose or hacking up mucous every two minutes.
After a few months my allergies had basically disappeared. I couldn’t believe that life could be experienced at this level. I thought such amazing energy was reserved for super heroes, angels and reality TV stars. For the first time since I could remember, I was waking up every morning feeling… energetic. And happy.
I started working out in the mornings because I had to find a way to deal with this newfound energy. My friends, teachers and even random people on the street started treating me differently as my social alertness and positive energy came bursting through my pores.
My flight back home to Boston at the end of that semester was the culmination of a transformative journey to a higher quality of life. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. It’s hard to realize that you’re depressed if you’ve always been that one way. I didn’t have many friends when I was younger. I had a terrible seIf-image and non-existent self-esteem. Only after coming back from Italy did I realize how much life I had been missing out on.
But the joy was short-lived.
Within a week of being back in the States my allergies returned with a vengeance. It felt like I was trying to climb Mount Everest with a 200-pound weight on my back and two sprained ankles. The best I could do was hold on and not fall backward. I was distraught, wondering how this could happen again. I’d been teased by a glimpse of the good life before getting thrown back into a mucous-filled pit of despair.
Something about Italy had a profound impact on my physical and emotional health. But what was it? The air? The water? The pastries? I ate more pasta, pizza and cheese than all of New York City does in a year. I drank a ton of wine, never said no to a cannoli, and inhaled an inhuman amount of second-hand smoke. So what was it about Italy that my body responded so positively to? It took me a bit, but then it hit me…
All the food I ate was grown within a few miles of the town I was living in. Everything was either cooked at a local restaurant or by my host mom. No synthetic protein bars, microwave dinners or breakfast cereals. I had essentially cut all processed foods out of my diet.
Once the light bulb went on, my journey kicked into high gear. I started cutting things out of my diet one by one. The first two things to go were gluten and dairy because foods in the US that contain those ingredients tend to be the most processed. Within a week I felt my allergy symptoms start to diminish, so I continued pushing forward. I started buying food from my local farmers market, eating grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken, cutting out GMO products and staying away from anything that was pre-packaged.
A day in the life of Max began to look something like a veggie omelette (with eggs from pasture-raised hens) and a bottle of local Kombucha for breakfast. Lunch could be brown rice, veggies, and some sort of meat (no hormones, no antibiotics, naturally farmed and all cooked no earlier than the night before). Before my workout, I’d usually have a protein shake made of frozen berries, almond milk, grass-fed whey protein powder and properly-sourced greek yogurt. I’d mentioned that I cut dairy out of my diet, however I found a specific brand of Greek yogurt made from pasture-raised cows in Northern California that didn’t trigger my allergies. Dinner might consist of quinoa pasta with another meat dish and a salad.
Within a few months I had found the same quality of life that I had in Italy. My newfound energy helped me land a great job, I was working out five times a week and my sex life was the stuff that my sick self believed only existed on password-protected pages buried deep within the bowels of the internet. I noticed that with every day on this diet, my mind became a little sharper, I became slightly more aware of social nuances and cues, I developed newfound ambition, and most of all I developed a deep level of compassion for the tribulations of others.
The reason my health journey was so successful was because the results were obvious, and almost instantaneous. As soon as I embarked, I felt happier, looked better, people responded to me more positively, and I had a significantly increased capacity to achieve my goals.
While I still face situational challenges, I know that this is the only way for me to live. So I never get tired of maintaining my good habits.
Going out with friends or for work lunches/dinners is a big part of my life, so I’ve had to learn which menu items to avoid. Pasta and sandwich dishes are always a no. Unfortunately, most alcohols trigger my allergies as well. Beer is the worst, whiskey and wine are bad but sometimes manageable, and high-shelf tequila and potato vodka are the best.
I know when I’ve eaten a trigger food because I’ll become congested within an hour. Longer-term, I know when there’s something subtly wrong with my diet because my depression will creep back in. Examples of this have been using cheap protein powder for an extended period of time or eating packaged food products labeled “gluten-free”. Those are often just as processed, if not more so than conventional snack foods.
I’m grateful for my physical and emotional hardships because they’ve forced me to address my health early in life. It seems like most people eat and drink whatever they want until they reach a breaking point sometime in middle age when it’s far more challenging to escape the risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other serious ailments. I would strongly encourage anyone who believes that they’re relegated to a life of failing health to find the courage and discipline to implement dietary changes one day at a time. I didn’t know what living was until I accidentally discovered it, and it made all the difference between a depressed kid watching TV alone every night, to a man surrounded by rewarding relationships and a stimulating career.