Seven years ago Lee Holmes deteriorated to the point she couldn’t get out of bed. Then she created a toxin-free, goodbacteria-friendly diet, and her health returned. By Amy Bryant. Photographs by Cath Muscat and Steve Brown
Ive just taught a yoga class and am about to have a bowl of safron and white-bean soup for dinner,’ Lee Holmes tells me over the phone from her home in Sydney. ‘Before bed I’ll whip up my anti-infammatory toddy with homemade cashew milk, turmeric and black pepper.’
It’s 8.30pm where she is, but Holmes sounds full of beans, excited about the imminent UK publication of her book Heal Your Gut, a programme designed to improve the digestive system – and with it, all-round well-being. The yoga is part of this healing process, yet seven years ago Holmes would have been lucky to stand up without feeling acute pain, let alone drop into a downward-facing dog.
‘I woke up one day and simply couldn’t get out of bed,’ she remembers. ‘I had no energy and was overcome with chronic fatigue.’ It seems to her now as if the deterioration in her health was ‘really quick’, yet this wasn’t an isolated symptom. Hives ‘covered [her] body’; her hair was coming out in clumps. But she was a single mother and worked full-time as a children’s music manager at the Australian television production company ABC, so continued to struggle into the ofce.
‘Two days a week I still do my programme, drinking a smoothie and one of my teas in the morning, soup for lunch, and something slow-cooked and mushy for dinner’
Because her body rejected much else, she ate liquid foods – broths, teas and soups – for a month, which gave her digestive system a chance to improve, and she felt less pain
She was eventually diagnosed with a non-specifc autoimmune disease, which afected several organs; and fbromyalgia, the causes of which are not clear, but as for the symptoms, Holmes had a full house: fatigue, muscle pain, brain fog (ie, impaired memory and concentration), bruises all over her body and arthritis. ‘I’d get up out of a chair and feel like I had the body of a 90-year-old woman,’ she recalls, with a wry laugh. Holmes was 41.
Today the food writer (who was born in Canterbury but whose family emigrated to Australia when she was eight) fnds it ‘scary’ to think back on her condition. But at the time, she says, ‘I felt quite numb.’ She was put on antibiotics, steroids, immunosuppressants, anti-inflammatories and anti-cancer drugs. ‘I was taking 20 pills a day, and couldn’t distinguish between the side efects and my original symptoms.’ She spent six months in and out of hospital, and had to give up her job as a result.
It was while lying in her hospital bed that Holmes’s thoughts turned to diet. She had studied food and nutrition before university, and wondered whether poor digestion could be connected to her condition – even if, on the face of it, there wasn’t an awful lot wrong with her diet. She had been eating lean meals, and plumping for low-fat options when relying on convenience foods during busy work days. Despite little encouragement from her doctors, Holmes began to remove dairy products, gluten, wheat and sugar from her diet. Because her body rejected much else, she ate liquid foods – broths, teas and soups – for a month, which gave her ‘digestive system a chance to improve’, and she felt less pain in her bones and muscles. She gradually weaned herself of the drugs, building up her diet with probiotic-rich then nutrient-rich foods. She started to work again while recovering at home.
Holmes’s journey – from bedridden suferer of a life-altering health condition to nutritionally driven spokesperson for better health – is not unique; her self-prescribed diet improvements are similar to those undertaken by many of today’s most popular food writers and bloggers. Yet six or seven years ago, there was very little information available to her about the relationship between gut health, the immune system and the brain. Blogging, even, was a relatively novel pastime. ‘I watched Julie & Julia,’ Holmes remembers, referring to the 2009 film
starring Meryl Streep, ‘and thought, I must start a blog!’ Before her illness she had never put her food training to much use; now she was creating recipes (beef broth; vegetables with protein-rich sardines, mashed up to enable her weakened body to digest it more easily). ‘I posted my recipes and was surprised to fnd people were inspired by my story,’ she says.
Holmes went on to create a meal plan to promote a healthy balance of gut fora and encourage an increase in the ‘friendly bacteria’ that help to reduce toxins, absorb nutrients from food and train the immune system. Sugar, carbohydrates, preservatives and additives were out; anti-infammatory healthy fats (faxseed and avocado), fbre-rich foods (nuts and seeds) and fresh veg were in. Garlic, an antiseptic, was one of her ‘strongest allies’.
Holmes has now completely recovered. She is happy to be of prescription drugs but cautions that for serious health conditions, medicine should always be the frst option. ‘Two days a week I still do my programme,’ she says, ‘drinking a homemade smoothie and one of my teas in the morning, soup for lunch, and something slow-cooked and mushy for dinner.’ In the Heal Your Gut protocol, this is phase one, undertaken for four weeks to ‘give the lining of the gut a rest ’. To further cleanse the body, phase two involves oil pulling (the ancient Ayurvedic technique of swilling coconut oil around the mouth to kill bad bacteria) and dry body brushing. Proper meals are reintroduced in phase three, repopulating good bacteria with prebiotic ( garlic) and probiotic foods (fermented vegetables, kefr, kombucha). In the fnal phase, Holmes says, it’s ‘time to detox your life. What is it that’s causing me stress?’ Sorting this out, she advises, will bolster all you good work in the kitchen.
More cookbooks are on the way this year, including one that recommends diferent dishes for diferent body types. In the meantime, though, Holmes’s short-term goal is to transform the garden at the house she has just moved into. ‘Only yesterday I constructed a vertical herb wall, with chives and basil, and I want to set up a veggie patch as soon as I can,’ she says. Armed simply with pure ingredients and delicious recipes, she has turned her life around. To order your copy of Heal Your Gut by Lee Holmes (Murdoch Books, £14.99) for £12.99 plus £1.99 p&p, call 0844-871 1514 or see books.telegraph.co.uk