STORY BY AMIE VALPONE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID ENGELHARDT
STYLING BY DANNY SEO
I WAS IN MY MID-TWENTIES, and I was practically bedridden. My legs were swollen, my muscles hurt, my belly was bloated like a balloon, and despite what had once been a healthy appetite, I weighed in at less than 100 pounds. My gut was a mess, my immune system trashed, and my once exuberant energy nonexistent. It started as unexplained swelling in my legs (40 pounds of water weight that left me unable to wear anything but spandex) and a misdiagnosis of leukemia, my health spiraled out of control.
The problem was, no one knew what was wrong with me. For years I schlepped in and out of medical facilities all over the country, including the famed Mayo Clinic, racking up nearly half a million dollars in uncovered medical expenses, seeing countless doctors, and giving what seemed like the equivalent of my body weight in blood every few weeks for years. Liver doctors. Kidney doctors. Vascular surgeons. Rheumatologists. Hematologists. They didn’t have any answers; they had guesses. And all of them turned out to be wrong. I was put on pain killers, steroids, antibiotics and water pills and was told that was all doctors could do for me. I spent all of my time and money hoping someone would figure me out.
So, after a life-threatening bout with C-diff colitis, I quit my job to figure out how to heal myself.
I discovered integrative and functional medicine, embarking on years of self-study. I learned how to stop treating my symptoms with Band-Aid approaches by studying holistic modalities, earning a degree in integrative nutrition along the way. I also gathered a team of integrative doctors and healers who helped me identify the root cause. Or in my case, causes: They found Lyme disease, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, Biofilm, Myocitis, Hypothyroidism, Epstein Bar, Leaky Gut, Chronic Candida, Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth and so much more. These M.D.’s went beyond conventional testing and looked deeper into the root cause of my health issues.
The bottom line: I was “toxic,” a term western medicine doesn’t understand. You name it. I had it. I was off the charts for heavy metals, mold and practically everything else they tested me for. What I needed was a full-blown detox in the truest sense of the word—not a trendy 2-day juice cleanse. The funny thing is, I thought I was healthy (no drinking, drugs or fast food). However, I learned toxins come from countless places—pesticides, toothpaste, dish soap, laundry detergent, perfumes, shampoo, processed foods, car exhaust, cosmetics and more. While the word detox is thrown around a lot and is often misunderstood, functional and integrative medicine uses detox practices to reset your digestion and reduce the exposure of toxins.
I reveal this detox journey in my book Eating Clean: The 21-Day Plan to Detox, Fight Inflammation, and Reset Your Body, where I go into great detail on how to detox your food, cleaning supplies, personal-care products and beauty products. Being healthy isn’t just about eating clean, it’s about living clean. What we put on our skin gets absorbed into our bloodstream and our liver has to filter these toxins to keep us healthy. What I soon realized is that many of the symptoms that we suffer from, everything from acne to arthritis, can be healed by cleaning up your gut health (where almost 70% of your immune system lives) and supporting your liver on a daily basis to remove toxins from our lifestyle. While Western medicine hands us a drug or topical ointment to get rid of the symptoms, it’s not addressing the underlying causes of those symptoms.
One of the most fascinating discoveries I had on my unraveling back to wellness was biofilm. To my surprise, this wasn’t something that was ever addressed by all those top doctors and medical centers. It was something that was introduced to me by a brilliant woman and friend of mine, Geri Brewster, an integrative R.D. who at the time was helping me balance the bacteria in my gut.
“WHILE WESTERN MEDICINE HANDS US A DRUG OR A TOPICAL OINTMENT, IT’S NOT ADDRESSING THE UNDERLYING CAUSES OF THOSE SYMPTOMS.”—AMIE VALPONE
Q: What is biofilm?
Biofilm is a very complex topic. Biofilm is a microscopic, sticky glue-like substance that cannot be seen by the human eye but allows bacteria to replicate and thrive in a protected environment. It coats the surfaces of almost everything we touch, including countertops, the plaque on your teeth, a moldy shower curtain, dirty tile and grout, a baby rattle, a reusable water bottle, and a yoga mat. As a culture, we fear bacteria, using antimicrobials to get rid of non-beneficial bacteria. However microbes continue to thrive and non-beneficial bacteria communities increase despite antimicrobial treatments. Aside from external biofilms, we develop biofilms internally in our GI tract from exposure to steroids, antibiotics and a high carbohydrate diet, which leaves us with an overgrowth of non-beneficial bacteria and yeast. There are many types of biofilms, but we’re concerned with the type that hosts non-beneficial bacteria in our bodies.
Q: How do you know if you have biofilm?
You can always expect that you have a certain amount of biofilm in your body, it’s just a matter of whether or not it’s running interference in your gut function or impacting your immune system. For example, if you have eczema or psoriasis on your skin, residual symptoms from Lyme or SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth) or recurrent infections from superbugs, you most likely have a biofilm situation. Furthermore, if you’ve had a lot of exposure to antibiotics, steroids and/or a high carbohydrate diet and you experience numerous unwanted symptoms, then suffice it to say that your gut developed unhealthy biofilm that needs to be shed in an effort to rebalance your gut flora. To confirm it, there are specialized tests that can be accessed through an integrative doctor.
You can also expect a certain amount of external biofilm in your work and home environment, which is why I use a specific probiotic cleaning product (mentioned below) for my body, office and home.
Q: How do you shed biofilm?
To shed biofilm, the goal is to create a healthy environment by disrupting the non-beneficial bacteria’s protective biofilm that they’ve housed themselves in. We do this by killing off non-beneficial bacteria and yeast while repopulating beneficial bacteria. This is done very specifically in a sequential fashion of diet modifications and a low-sugar and low-carbohydrate lifestyle, coupled with specific enzyme support, natural antimicrobials, prebiotics and probiotics. This should always be done under the guidance of an integrative or functional nutritionist or doctor because treatment must be customized.
Q: How do you prevent biofilm?
It’s important to know that if you are going to be on antibiotics or steroids, or if you eat a diet high in carbohydrates and/or sugar, then it’s key to work with a practitioner who knows about mitigating the damaging side effects by implementing pre-and probiotic foods and supplements. Prebiotic foods include onions, leeks, dandelion greens and asparagus. Probiotic foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles.
My best advice to anyone who is going through a never-ending health journey is to learn how to recognize that you have the power to heal inside of you. Sounds easier said than done, but the turning point for me was when I stopped giving away my power to others who were telling me to do certain protocols or eat certain foods that didn’t feel right to me. You know your body best. If broccoli makes you feel bloated, listen to that and get to the root cause. If gluten makes you feel sleepy, it’s not for you. Trust yourself and start listening to your body. I wish my 20-year-old self had the courage to listen to my body more, and to listen less to doctors who were clearly guessing. I never want anyone to go through the hell I went through for 10 painful, traumatizing, exhausting and expensive years trying to figure out how to be healthy in a real way. For anyone out there suffering, I get it. I was there for far too long. Hang tight, and know there is a light shining in your future that’s waiting to guide you in the right direction. My 10-year journey of chronic illness was a blessing in disguise. It amazes me that my own unraveling was the catalyst for something so much bigger than me. It has brought me to where I am today, feeling whole, healthy and strong enough to reconnect with the world. Today I’m in perfect health; I feel more open and alive. I got here after unwrapping the life that I’ve hidden for so long, and let myself be what I was always meant to be.
Amie is the founder of our go-to website TheHealthyApple.com, where she shares recipes, health tips, practical advice and stories you won’t find in a doctor’s office.