Transcript EP 310 – Lead Your Family’s Health by Trusting Your Gut with Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
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Dr. Taz: Welcome back, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Superwoman Wellness. We’re determined to bring you back to your super-powered self. Now, a lot of you are kind of like me, right? We’re moms, we’re running around, we’re juggling, and trying to get the food part right for our whole family can feel like a struggle. Add a teenager to the mix, and you just feel like you’re losing all the time. But here to help us is Carolyn Williams. Carolyn, I’m so excited to introduce you guys to her. I’ve been working with her for a while on different pieces, but she’s a journalism award winner, a media dietician who’s developed a knack for breaking down complex science into quick recipes, articles, and tips. The author of two cookbooks, Meals that Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and the more recent Meals that Heal: One Pot. Carolyn is a sought-after expert on anti-inflammatory eating and managing chronic inflammation through lifestyle. Her work is regularly featured in print and online for lifestyle brands and media outlets such as Eating Well, Real Simple, Cooking Light, and Allrecipes. She’s the co-host of the popular podcast, Happy Eating, which explores the relationship between diet, lifestyle, and our mental wellness. Welcome to the show, Carolyn. I’m thrilled to have you here.
Carolyn Williams: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Dr. Taz: Yeah. We’ve talked before, and I’ve definitely seen your name before, so this is a real treat to have you on the show. I always want to know how you got in, how any of my guests got into this world of health and wellness, and trying to put the pieces of things together. What was your journey like? What got you into even thinking about inflammation to begin with?
Carolyn Williams: Right, because if I have to be honest, inflammation wasn’t even on my radar seven, eight years ago. If you told me that I was going to write cookbooks on inflammation, much less two cookbooks, I would’ve said, “No way. You have the wrong person.” Then because of my roots in cookbook publishing way back in my career, I probably would’ve gone as far as saying, “It’ll never sell,” and yet here I am.
Dr. Taz: Yeah, that’s amazing. I know the publishing role can be brutal at times, but here you are. So have you found that people really resonate with your work, and what are they telling you as they give you feedback? What are you hearing?
Carolyn Williams: They do, and I think it’s connecting the dots for people. You probably find that too, but connecting all these little dots, all these quiet little things going on in your body, and connecting those for people before they escalate to something bigger. But people really resonate with me too, because several years ago I came out and I said, “I’m tired of cooking dinner. It’s the last thing I want to do at night when I get home. I want my kids to have healthy meals, I want to eat healthy, but it’s really just another thing on my to-do list.”
Dr. Taz: Oh my God, every woman listening to the show is like “Me too.” Every single person is.
Carolyn Williams: I felt really ashamed, or had been kind of ashamed, because I’m a cookbook author, I’m in food, I’m in nutrition. But just because you know what to do and how to do it doesn’t mean you necessarily want to do it. I thought, “I can’t be the only one.” When I put something out there first on social media, it really resonated, and I think it was just kind of like a relief. It’s okay, there’s a lot of us. So my mission is to provide, whether it’s an article or recipes or what, quick things that people want to know. They don’t want to know all the research. I’ve done it all for them, but they want to know, “What does this mean when I go to the grocery store?” Or “What does this mean when I’m planning meals or packing my kids lunch?” So I really try to do the research and then boil it down for them, and create simple, healthy recipes that are really good, but take minimal time.
Dr. Taz: I love that. I want to know more about your family story, but before we get there, give us three to five things that you see a lot of women like us doing over and over again that they could switch and turn it down a more anti-inflammatory path.
Carolyn Williams: Well, my top thing, when people come to me and say, “Okay, I want to lower inflammation or tackle inflammation,” usually the first thing they’ll say is, “What do I have to cut out?” Our first place is to kind of reel them back in and say, “Okay, we’re going to get there, because we all have some diet cleaning up that we need to do, but let’s first start with what you need to add.” I give them three things just to focus on at first. Adding a couple leafy greens in a day, two to three cups of fresh or frozen berries a week, and five or more cruciferous vegetables a week. I tell them, “Let’s start here. Get in the habit of this, because yes, there’s lots of inflamers in our diet, but there’s lots of power in nutrients and compounds in food, and I guarantee you most people are getting well below what they need for that.” I found that by starting by adding those things and getting into habit, that naturally cleans up the diet a little, and then we can tackle the inflamers.
Dr. Taz: That’s so smart. I have had patients sitting in front of me being like, “Yeah, I indulged for the last two weeks because I knew I was coming here, and then you’re going to tell me to come off everything.” It’s not true, I promise. I’m just trying to find your main idea. I promise that’s not true. Well, I like the idea of adding, and I think like you said, adding in some of those greens and cruciferous vegetables and high-nutrient foods is a big one. What I find a lot of, and I’m sure you do too, is people aren’t getting enough good fat. Just adding in the healthy fats, children and adults both. Trying to sneak those in, whether it’s like a tablespoon of olive oil every day, or a little bit of coconut oil or ghee or nuts or seeds. I don’t know if you’re noticing that in what people are bringing as well.
Carolyn Williams: Particularly in some of your key omega-3s, your DHA and EPA. I mean, everyone, the average American is well below what they need each day.
Dr. Taz: Definitely. So part of your journey, as I understand it, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but part of your journey really ties back to your daughter and what was going on with her. How did that fit into cooking, and thinking about inflammation, and all that other good stuff?
Carolyn Williams: Yeah. Well, I thought I knew inflammation. I thought I was an expert. I had just shipped my manuscript for my first cookbook off to the printer. It was in the process of being published. Then I like to say, kind of all hell broke loose. It was January of 2019, and my daughter who was seemingly healthy, she was in sixth grade, started to exhibit some really odd symptoms. I noticed when she was reading her book, and she was an avid reader, she kept bringing it up to her nose to smell. Then it was almost like a complete personality change overnight. When I told you it was bizarre, it was almost like she was possessed. I was like, “What is going on?” I mean, it was just these weird things that they were too out of character and too bizarre not to notice.
She was in sixth grade, so I remember calling my parents and was like, “Can you come over? Is this just normal teenage stuff? I don’t know, maybe it’s hormones.” I didn’t know at the time. They were like, “This is not normal.” But what was crazy is several hours later, the symptoms would go away for several days, and then they’d come back and they’d be different. Sometimes it was deep depression, and then they’d go away. Sometimes it would seem almost like she was in a manic episode. It was bizarre. It was almost like this collection of just varied mental health issues or symptoms, and I couldn’t find any… I was pretty well-versed at the time in mental health conditions, and I was like, “This doesn’t fit the-“
Dr. Taz: So how old is she at the time when this is happening?
Carolyn Williams: 12.
Dr. Taz: So she’s 12 years old, so what’s that, fifth, sixth grade? No, sixth grade, right?
Carolyn Williams: Sixth grade, yeah.
Dr. Taz: Sixth grade, 12 years old, hormones are probably kicking in to a certain extent. Had anything happened right before all of this was going on with her mood and her habits?
Carolyn Williams: Well, hindsight’s 20/20. She got shingles that December, which was really weird. I look back now and I know that is a sign of deterioration of her immune system, or just it breaking down. Then she had to get a second… I hesitate to say this, because I’m not anti-vaccination, but she got the second Gardasil vaccination 1st of January, and like clockwork 10 days later the onset hit. Our specialist that we work with, she’s like, “We’re not anti-vaccination, but you don’t… We’ll titter her blood levels if she needs any further ones, because you don’t want to hit the immune system with a vaccination when it’s already down.” Which makes complete sense. So not calling out that vaccination in particular.
So I started going to doctors, and they were treating it as a mood disorder, like she had behavioral issues. I was like, “This is not my daughter. She doesn’t go from normal and healthy and talking to friends, to a completely different person.” So they kept looking at me kind of like I was crazy, like I had no clue what I was talking about, I needed to work on my parenting, that type of thing. I just pushed on. I did my own research and really dug into everything, and it was actually me that diagnosed her with what she ended up having, which is referred to as PANDAS or PANS. It stands for pediatric acute-onset of neuropsychiatric syndrome. That’s a mouthful. It’s essentially when you have brain inflammation, and it occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy brain cells. In her condition, what we discovered is she was really triggered by strep.
So for example, she’s much better now and so we don’t have quite as much trouble, but back when she was in middle school, if she was even in the same room with someone who had strep, I mean even in the same room, not even coming into contact, it would make her strep antibodies soar sky high. If the normal is zero to 300, with 300 being high, hers would be 1200. Those antibodies are what trigger that inflammation. Essentially, it affects the central nervous system, but it’s remitting and relapsing, and it comes and goes. The behaviors, or the common signs or symptoms she didn’t have, not some of these, but you have OCD, ticks are really common. Now, these are not… You have to have these to be diagnosed, but ticks are a really common one. I was like, that was the one thing that held me back, because she doesn’t have a tick. Then I realized her smelling the book again and again-
Dr. Taz: Is a tic.
Carolyn Williams: But a deterioration in school performance, you’ll see a decline in handwriting. It’s going to be abrupt, overnight changes. Some kids have very restricted eating anxiety. It’s just a very sudden personality change.
Dr. Taz: Yeah, and it’s so interesting… So we’ve been seeing PANDAS and PANS patients in the practice at CentreSpring since probably a few years into my opening. I opened back in 2009. There was not a lot of information on it back then. I remember having to call up the researchers, Dr. Swito was a big researcher over at the NIH, and some of the other people in the field, and trying to wrap my head around what parents like you were telling me. What’s happening here? But it’s interesting, because now that we recognize it as an autoimmune disease, in fact it’s called neuro encephalitis from a coding standpoint, now that we recognize it as a true autoimmune disease, we’re understanding that inflammation is not just about us as adults, and us having autoimmune diseases on the rise, and hormonal conditions like PCOS on the rise, but it’s also about our children, and conditions like PANDAS, and ADHD, and ADD are neuroinflammatory conditions. Literally, their brains are on fire. So it’s been interesting to manage PANDAS kids in the practice, we have a pretty decent population of them currently, and see them get better, but a mainstay of that is an anti-inflammatory diet. Right?
Carolyn Williams: Oh, my gosh. We just shipped off my cookbook, and now I discover that my daughter has this autoimmune condition, which if anybody needs an anti-inflammatory diet, it’s really individuals with autoimmune, although I think everybody does. But you can just see it. You can see a direct reaction from an anti-inflammatory diet on the autoimmune symptoms and signs. So I thought, “I’ve really got to put what I’ve been preaching to the test.” I mean, this is a key part of her feeling, and restoring her gut health is part of that. She’d been on a ton of antibiotics when she was little for ear infections, too many in my opinion, now that I look back. It was restoring her gut health, which is a key part of inflammation, and then just getting those inflammatory compounds down, which is hard when you have a pre-teen. She wants to eat sugary snacks and junk with her friends, and that kind of thing. So really, going through that with her, that really made me, and I thought I was an inflammation expert, but it was going through that with her and really diving further into the science that really has given me such a deeper knowledge and understanding of inflammation and how it connected to everything-
Dr. Taz: Oh, totally. Yeah. Totally.
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What are the three takeaways from her journey? I know there’s some moms out there listening, or you might know a mom or be on this journey with them as they’re trying to get their kids healthy. What are some of the key takeaways in your sort of time with her and trying to figure this out that you walked away with? What was shocking to you as being an expert? This is always so humbling by the way, because even for me, an expert in the field, and then your child or children or husband or somebody that’s super close to you has an issue and we can’t wrangle it. Both my kids have taught me incredible lessons that I’ve then been able to use on my patients, because they dealt with things that conventionally we weren’t trained to understand very deeply. I’m curious what you learned out of that journey with her that was shocking.
Carolyn Williams: Trust your gut. Trust your gut, trust your gut, trust your gut. I thought I’d figured out what was going on with her, but in Alabama, most practitioners here don’t believe in PANDAS. I’m kind of like, there’s a center for it at Stanford Medicine.
Dr. Taz: Right, exactly.
Carolyn Williams: My kind of breaking point was I finally got her in with a neurologist. I really thought it was PANDAS. I was trying to get in with somebody who could help us get on the right track and diagnosis. So I finally got her an appointment with a neurologist at the Children’s hospital in our state, and he did a bunch of tests. PANDAS doesn’t show up on a lot of your neurological tests, it’s going to show up more in blood work, but you really have to do the right blood work. So he looked at me, he said something to the effect of, “I remember “There’s nothing wrong with your daughter, you need to work on your parenting.”
That was my last straw. I heard nothing that severe, but I heard that over, over, and over. I trust my gut, and I took her out of there and I said to myself, “I’m not dragging her anywhere else until we get in with the PANDAS specialist.” I contacted three or four around the country, and whichever we got in with first. I didn’t know about you until we were already on the journey, and I was like, “Okay, maybe she’ll take us. She can be our fallback if this doesn’t work out”.
Dr. Taz: Yeah, of course.
Carolyn Williams: First, trust your gut, trust your gut, trust your gut. It’s OK to get second opinions, third, fourth. I probably got 20 opinions. You just have to keep going. The other thing I would say is it’s very lonely and isolating when you’re going through something like that. I think with any major illness, but I felt it particularly, because you have a child who has an actual condition, but the symptoms resonate as mental health issues. So you cannot really… I mean, even though people say they’re not going to judge your child, it’s just some stuff you want to share. It’s just really hard. So I finally started letting one or two very close friends in, and tell them. I haven’t told them everything. It was just such a relief. So I would say, be careful who you trust, but it’s so important to talk to somebody. Then I would say I learned about inflammation from her, but I’ve also learned it with my own health. Because it was about a two to three year journey until we really got it under control. She’s doing really well now.
I really had to have kind of an intervention with myself last year. I’ve always had healthy body weight, normal blood pressure, normal lipids, everything. Two to three years of stress on your body, continued stress, it’s a key cause of inflammation. I started to see it affect my blood pressure, and I worked with my doctor, and she was like, “I don’t think it’s diet. You exercise, you’re doing everything right.” She said, “This is stress, and you have to get it under control.” So I really had to also realize it’s not just about what you eat, it’s about your lifestyle, your stress, how you’re managing that, making sure you get those regular workouts, and developing really effective coping skills, or it will start to affect you as a person.
Dr. Taz: That’s a big Chinese medicine concept, is the health of the mother. That’s actually how I started the practice. The original logo was this outline of a mom with a child, because the Chinese medicine philosophy on health is that the health of a child directly impacts the health of the mom, and the health of the mom directly impacts the health of the child. So you never treated them separately, you always treated them as this one-
Carolyn Williams: I love that.
Dr. Taz: Unit. It’s been fascinating to apply that in practice, because when we do lab work and stuff like that, we’ll see the same patterns emerge in the mom and the child. It is incredible to see that. Then taking that even a little bit further, we know even emotionally, some of the characteristics emotionally are transmitted mother to child more so than father to child. So all of that is super fascinating to know how strong that bond is. But I think it’s a good point, and I’ve been in that boat too, where a child is sick. I’ve been through it twice, I’ve been through it when my son was going through failure to thrive also after a triple dose vaccine, and just went downhill really quickly, and then had to struggle to get him back up. Went through it in his youth, which was probably from the time he was four or five months to the time he was about three. It took us those three years to get him kind of in a good place. Then now with my daughter who most recently is dealing with a lot of the preteen and teen stuff, and now finally she’s in a good place. Both journeys, the stress that I felt, and some of the toll on my health, it definitely showed up and-
Carolyn Williams: It sneaks up.
Dr. Taz: It sneaks up, even when you’re trying to do the right things. Both times it showed up, suddenly I got a belly again. I don’t get a belly, I gain weight on my lower half. I usually don’t gain it… I’m like, what happened? So for anybody who’s got a loved one, or who’s just under stress and used to powering through and not showing their stress to the outside world, right? Because we’re superwomen, we got this, I don’t need your help. So it’s all internal, but the body tells the truth, and very much forces us to reckon with whatever’s happening.
Carolyn Williams: A wake-up call for me was… You don’t realize you’re in constant fight or flight mode when you’re in that stress. A wake up call for me was, I was sitting in my office, and my phone would ring. It ended up being a telemarketer, but my heart would start racing, I felt that adrenaline, that fight or flight, just because I was so trained to go directly in that. That’s about when the blood pressure started kind of rising a little. I thought, “Okay, this has really affected me deeper than just a lot of stress. It’s affected me deep down, and I’ve got to retrain my body.”
Dr. Taz: Yeah. So are you both out of that phase now? Are you and your daughter kind of in a healthier place?
Carolyn Williams: She is doing fabulous. She’s the best she’s been. I feel like it takes a while to get tabs on what triggers a flare up, what the signs are. I used to be so mad at myself because I never saw the early signs. But I thought I should be able to recognize these and up her treatment. But I have finally realized if she comes home and she’s talking about school and she’s like, “I don’t care if I fail,” that kind of thing. Talking about apathy about school, that kind of thing, that’s my red flag. I’ll say, “Okay, why?” I’ll look at who’s been around her, that kind of stuff, or what’s in the environment. I’ll say, “Okay, why don’t you just stay home tomorrow and sleep?” It shows you that the body needed it. She’ll sleep 16 to 18 hours, and she will sleep and let her body rest, and the inflammation comes down some, and right now that’s how we keep it in check whenever we see little flare-ups.
Dr. Taz: How old is she now?
Carolyn Williams: She’s 15.
Dr. Taz: 15, the same age as my daughter as well. Goodness. Well, they are our teachers, for sure. Sounds like you got busy and you got stressed, so she’s the inspiration behind the newer book, the One Pot? Tell us about that book.
Carolyn Williams: Yes. Well, after going through that with her, I felt even more inspired. I just have to share this message with antiinflammatory eating and that type of thing. But particularly after that, and after COVID, even more so the last thing I wanted to do was cook dinner, and then I really didn’t want to clean up. So this is my second one, and everything’s one pot. So it’s one skillet, one saucepan, one sheet pan, one cooking vessel that has your protein, your vegetables, maybe some starch. You could add a quick side, but just super simple because I needed it.
Dr. Taz: Yeah. Well, give us an example. What are two of your favorite recipes in there?
Carolyn Williams: Oh, gosh. I’m trying to think. There is a zoodle taco skillet that people love. I hate to reference it like this, but you hear about gateway drugs. I tell people this is a gateway healthy recipe. For people who are scared about veggie noodles or something, I’m like, “Make this for your family. I promise it’s a good gateway to get them into veggie noodles and getting more in.” So there’s that. Gosh, I’m trying to think. There’s a ton of recipes. There’s some really good soups in there, or white bean rosemary soup. Just all quick and easy. I have some quick lunches, because I know I need something that I can prepare one day and eat two to three days, and I need something to be prepared quickly. I’m not big on meal prep on the weekends, there’s other stuff I want to do.
So I want some quick things I can prepare for the week and stock my fridge up, and really felt like I needed to give people some tips on how to do that. Not necessarily meal prep, but ingredient prep, or just stocking your fridge. I have a grocery shopping list template for people. Like, okay, you got to get the groceries for the week, but you have no idea what you’re cooking. Here’s what to buy. One to two proteins, a certain amount of vegetables you can roast, leafy greens, that kind of thing. So I felt like I needed to provide tools that I had used when I really needed it.
Dr. Taz: I love that. Well, I love all these tips, and before we let you go, what would you say to people listening and watching when it comes to inflammation in general? What should they be tracking? What should they be looking out for? Not everyone’s running into the doctor’s office, so what should they be thinking about? And for their family too. Let me add to that, and for their families, because a lot of us are moms. I’ve hit myself, and my busyness is missing stuff, right? That’s happening to my family members. So what are the things maybe we should be watching out for?
Carolyn Williams: I think it’s safe to say everyone has some level of inflammation in their body, and I tell people to think of it as a spectrum. You want to keep it on that lower end. An example I give people that kind of connects is like, let’s say you go on vacation for a week and you eat a bunch of rich food and kind of overdo it. Maybe you drink more than you normally do on vacation. You come back, and you get back to work, and you kind of just got a headache, you’re bloated, that kind of thing. Those are signs of inflammation, and that’s when you kind of get back in your habits, and it goes back down and your body returns to normal. I tell people anything, any sign, like maybe you’re bloated more often, or you feel like you have new food sensitivities, or you’re having headaches more frequently, or any subtle things like that, that just aren’t your norm, that’s usually a sign of inflammation. Early on, it’s never something you’ll go to the doctor about. “Oh, I’m bloated a little more than normal.” You’re not going to run to the doctor, make an appointment. So take care of those subtle things. If you can address it then, it’s much easier than down the road.
Dr. Taz: I love that. Such great advice. I’m going to get your book. I need that one pot business going on in this home, because we’re doing a whole lot of meal planning and prepping a lot of the time, so can’t wait to get my hands on that. But thank you so much for joining us today. If anyone listening or watching wants to connect with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Carolyn Williams: Yeah, the best way is on Instagram. It’s realfoodreallife_rd, and then also my website. They can contact me through my website, and that is carolynwilliamsrd.com.
Dr. Taz: Perfect. All right, thanks again, and for everybody else, thank you for watching and listening to this episode. Remember, you can rate and review it and share it with your friends. Also, if you guys have a healing story or a journey that you think would inspire others, please email me and let me know. I’d love for you to come on air and talk about it. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s D-O-C-T-O-R-T-A-Z.com. I will see you guys next time.