I’ll never forget it: Ten or more years ago, in the midst of the cold Chicago winter, I found myself always itching my scalp and body from dryness. I was watching an episode of Family Guy where Stewie goes to some Star Trek convention and the cast and crew hold a Q&A. Instead of asking questions about the show, the audience proceeds to ask silly every-day household questions, like:
Oftentimes my household sponges accumulate an awful amount of buildup. What can I do to prevent this?
(Patrick Stewart): That's an excellent question. It's very important to thoroughly wring out your sponges after every usage. This will prevent the accumulation of grime and bacteria. A dry sponge is a happy sponge.
Hilarious. The next question was important:
I have this itch on the back of my leg, and I can't figure out if it's a bug bite or dry skin.
Do you take hot showers?
And you know what, I’d never considered it. I never considered that the (really) hot showers I was taking might be contributing to the itchiness. It’s obvious now, but don’t take really hot showers in the winter if you don’t want to be all itchy. I didn’t know that then. And it solved my problem for good. Thanks Family Guy.
I bring this up so I can share with you an even more important finding, that happened recently and also in a serendipitous way.
Joint pain. I struggled with it for at least three or four of the last several years. Sometimes, really bad. And everywhere. Wrists, knees, elbows, back. It just came out of nowhere. I remember at one point not even being able to walk for a day because my knees just gave out. Wtf? I didn’t even do anything for this to happen.
I wore knee braces, back braces, and tried all the remedies you could imagine, but nothing worked. I went to the doctor once but doctors are a waste of time. Of course, when I told this to worried onlookers, their first thought was “Omg, dude, maybe you have arthritis. Seriously go to the doctor.” No, I don’t have arthritis. I wasn’t going to let my mind believe that, and I wasn’t going to google it either, because I know WebMD is waiting to pounce, ready to 100% convince me I have arthritis.
I went through a “health revolution” at some point where I would shop strictly for items with the least amount of ingredients (a useful heuristic). I had a small stint with working out, and was looking for some protein powder at Whole Foods, and found one with just two ingredients: Whey protein, and sunflower lecithin. As pure as it can get.
That night, I mixed up a nice protein shake with my newly acquired substance, and drifted calmly to sleep. What would happen next would be my most dramatic health episode in some time. I awoke in the middle of the night in pain and gasping for air. My breathing tubes were 90% blocked, and my chest was aching with sharp pain the likes of which I had never experienced before. It wasn’t 911 bad—it felt like the type of thing that just needed to go away. But it was bad. I sat upright in bed and just did whatever breathing exercises I could summon. It was one of the more painful experiences in recent memory.
What could have caused it? The only new factor introduced into my environment was this protein shake. I tried again the next night with a smaller quantity of the protein shake, and sure enough, the same issue occurs.
Since I was a child, I’ve had a minor allergy to actual sunflower seeds. I couldn’t eat them. If I did, my breathing would clog up. Not 911 bad, but bad enough to know to avoid them. Never did I ever make the connection that I might be allergic to sunflower byproducts, like lecithin and oil.
But it was unmistakeable. Any time I consumed this protein shake that contained only two ingredients, I had an episode in the middle of the night. And I surely wasn’t allergic to the whey protein.
It was the sunflower.
So, for the next few months, I avoided products with sunflower lecithin and oil like the plague, which is not as easy as you’d imagine. Sunflower oil is very commonly used as a cheap industrial oil in many of the products you eat every day. Just go to the chips aisle in your grocery store. I promise you this: You will not find one single bag of chips without sunflower oil. I already checked. I know this because I can’t eat chips anymore.
But something amazing happened: my joint pain—it went away. Knee pain? Gone. Wrist pain? Gone. Back pain? Depends on how much I sit, but that old back pain—gone. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. I’m not one to microdose on gourmet mushrooms and probiotics, and not a health nut who tries a new food experiment every day. This happened totally by chance. And the results were unmistakeable.
It’s been over a year since this discovery, and the joint pain has never returned, after being a comfortable guest for over three years. Today, I avoid all foods with sunflower, which actually turns out to be not only pretty easy, but really good for you: You’ll find that most junk food contains sunflower. I’ll be at Costco and this new amazing looking food item will stick out to me. Costco has perfected the art of the impulse buy, and by this point, I already knew: you’re buying whatever Costco wants you to buy. But now, when I pick up that amazingly packaged organic food item that promises to change my life, I’ll read the ingredients and pray for sunflower. Please have sunflower please have sunflower. Ingredients:…sunflower oil… Bingo. I put it back down.
All this to say, if you find yourself aching for no apparent reason, and know you don’t have some chronic condition, maybe because you’re young or because it’s just uncalled for, try to identify ingredients in your diet that may cause you problems. I’m not one to be allergic to many things, so it surprised me that my body would choose sunflower. Allergies are of course another word for “mutations”, so this isn’t some hipster culture thing: You might have an allergy that not a lot of people have to a common food item. Identify it, isolate it, and eliminate it.