How Lifestyle and Diet Modifications Provided Me With Hope and Relief

A starch-free diet has worked wonders for columnist Janneke Phung

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by Janneke Phung |

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The statements “I have ankylosing spondylitis” and “I feel great!” hardly seem to go together. But for me, they do.

That wasn’t always the case. In a previous column, I described my nightly struggle with this invisible illness. I had nights when I couldn’t pick my twin infants up out of their crib — or pull myself out of bed, for that matter. My nights were sleepless, my days painful, my mornings stiff, and my breathing shallow. My patience with my family was thin, and my life and health felt out of control. The future looked grim.

When I learned that an initial intake visit with my rheumatologist was several months away, I despaired. Life felt too long. The thought of spending another few months in debilitating pain before I could start on effective medication filled me with dread. The pain alone was awful, but knowing that this intense inflammation could cause permanent damage to my body frightened me even more. This terror lit a fire under me.

I did something crazy. I allowed myself to take management of my autoimmune disease into my own hands. I would only do this, I decided, until my rheumatology appointment came around. I couldn’t imagine feeling worse than I already did, so I figured I had nothing to lose. Diet and lifestyle changes were the only things in my arsenal.

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After Diagnosis, Treatment Options Can Boost Hope

I didn’t ease into dietary modifications to attempt to control my ankylosing spondylitis (AS) symptoms. I went cold turkey. Overnight, I went from eating a standard American diet (a diet low in fiber, fruits, and vegetables and high in sugar and saturated fat) to an autoimmune protocol diet (an elimination diet that focuses on avoiding inflammatory foods), with the added restriction of eliminating all starches.

In addition, I focused on reducing stress. I tried breathing deeply, which was difficult with a chest that felt constricted. I exercised as much as I could to maintain mobility. Exercise wasn’t some glorious jog with a lovely breeze blowing through my hair as I lightly bounced from one leg to the other. On the contrary, it was often a short, wobbly walk around the block, hanging on to my twins’ double stroller like seniors would to a walker.

I felt worse before I felt better. A Christmas deprived of all my comfort foods was pretty miserable. However, I was determined to stick it out until my appointment with the rheumatologist.

Slowly but surely, I started seeing improvement. I remember the night I slept until 5 a.m. instead of waking up with terrible pain at 3:30 a.m. I was in shock. It felt like such a massive improvement. Another day, I looked over my shoulder while driving, and it felt like my head turned a full 180 degrees instead of the painful 45 degrees I was used to. The noticeable difference was so encouraging.

I continued my new routine until the day I met my rheumatologist. She looked at my MRI report and confirmed my diagnosis: “You have AS, all right!” And then she looked me over and asked me how I was doing. Because I was feeling so well, we agreed there was no need for medication and scheduled a follow-up appointment for a year later. That was in 2019, and I’ve maintained my new diet ever since.

These days, I sleep through the night consistently and without pain. I hit the snooze button on my alarm clock in the morning because I’m too comfortable to get out of bed. I have a long, hot shower every morning, not because my stiff and achy muscles need help to get moving, but because I allow myself the luxury of a few moments of relaxation. I easily bend over and whip my head forward to wrap my hair up in a towel to dry after my shower. I still pick up my towel with my toes, but only because I got so good at it when there was no way I could reach down that low. The rest of my day continues with relative ease, considering I have a disease that can cause significant debilitation.

I’ve hesitated to share my story because I feel like a fraud. But the truth is, when I was in the throes of AS, I needed to hear stories like mine. I needed to know that there was hope. I may suffer from survivor’s guilt, but I also feel deep gratitude for things I used to take for granted.

Thanks for reading! You can read more about my story, browse starch-free recipes, or read about the success stories of others who successfully manage their AS with diet and lifestyle modifications here. Join me on Instagram and Facebook for the latest updates and recipes!

Note: Ankylosing Spondylitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Ankylosing Spondylitis News, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ankylosing spondylitis.


Amir avatar


Wonderful write up. I am wondering whether you are also doing fasting or just the low starch diet? And are you on any medication at all? Do you think the AS will go into remission only by modifying the diet and without medication? Thank you.

Janneke Phung avatar

Janneke Phung

Hi Amir! Thanks so much for chiming in! The primary modification I have made has been to go on a starch-free diet. The difference has been immense for me. I went from not being able to lift my twin infants out of their cribs to now being able to carry them on my shoulders when we go for a hike that's too long for them. I no longer have a need for medication. I have done occasional fasting (mostly intermittent fasting) and I think it is helpful for healing the gut. I started the starch-free diet 3 years ago and I have had no progression of AS (radiographically evidence). I believe that as long as I stick to the diet my symptoms will be fully manageable. It is my hope that with a focus on healing my gut I will be able to achieve some kind of remission but I think that takes time and isn't guaranteed.


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