How Chef Seamus Mullen Used Food to Heal His Chronic Pain

Photo: Instagram/@seamusmullen

Real Food Heals
Photo: Penguin Random House

The name Seamus Mullen likely conjures images of luscious, star-rated restaurant meals (at his New York hotspots Tertulia or El Colmado) or his regular appearances on the Food Network (including as a judge on Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay). What’s harder to imagine is that beneath the fast-and-furious life of this super-fit celebrity restauranteur lies a serious and chronic health condition: rheumatoid arthritis.

For years, Mullen hobbled along—on a steady diet of immunosuppressant steroids and late-night bottles of wine—before a brain infection landed him in the ER with a fever close to 106. His life depended on a drastic change.

In his new book, Real Food Heals, Mullen reveals how he took control of his health by removing refined sugar, dairy, and gluten from his kitchen—and he shares his plan for jump-starting your own healthy habits (including 125 Paleo-inspired recipes to get you started— three of which you can read right now!).

Here, Mullen chronicles in his own words how the battle back from near-death began with a new approach to food—and a healthy dose of patience.

A post shared by Seamus Mullen (@seamusmullen) on

In my late 20s, I started to feel like shit all the time. I was exhausted and worn down, and I felt beat up, physically. But I had worked in restaurant kitchens for the past decade at that point and assumed it was the normal wear and tear of being a cook.

Then I noticed this lump in the back of my neck, and when I went to the doctors' they ordered a biopsy. It was benign, but blood work showed my inflammatory markers were all very elevated. We never really got to the bottom of it, because I was in this really bad motorcycle accident. I broke my back, arms, ribs, legs. Suddenly, this chronic sense of feeling like shit was replaced with a very real reason to feel like shit. I spent the next few years in rehab, learning to walk again, in constant pain.

As I recovered and regained my functionality, I expected to start feeling well. But I didn’t. There was that chronic sense of having no energy again, the familiar flare-ups of feeling achy and in pain. One night, the pain in my shoulder was so severe, it felt like I was being stabbed. I went to the ER, but after running a few tests I was released without answers. Then the same thing happened in my hip. The doctors would ask me: Did you fall? Were you weight lifting? And when they couldn’t find something, they’d prescribe me pain meds and send me on my way. It was brutal. And by my seventh trip to the ER, I was begging for answers.

With each sequential prescription, my symptoms seemed to get stronger, and my condition more resistant to treatment.

I finally got an MRI and it showed a very high white blood cell count, despite not having any type of infection. Finally, the chair of rheumatology at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City diagnosed me as having rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue and joints.

I was started on conventional meds, and every time one would stop working I’d move to a stronger prescription. But here’s the thing: With each sequential prescription, my symptoms seemed to get stronger, and my condition more resistant to treatment. I had heard that dietary changes might help, and I did try out some of that—going for a few weeks without eating nightshades or reducing sugars—but I was so sick that all it did was make me feel bitter and angry. At least if I drank a bottle of wine and ate some ice cream, I had some pleasure.

Finally, in 2012, everything changed: I was on really powerful immunosuppressants, and I had leaky gut syndrome. Some bacteria made its way through my intestinal wall into my bloodstream and to my brain—and my body couldn’t fight it off. I wound up in the ICU with bacterial meningitis and a fever of 106. I really thought I might die. And when I was finally released, I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to get healthy. I started working with Frank Lipman, a specialist in functional and integrative medicine, to totally make over my diet.

My health did not change overnight. That’s the hard part, because I would get so discouraged. But Frank kept pushing me to keep tweaking the diet and see what combination would finally bring some relief. I was avoiding all processed foods, cooking whole foods, and focusing on things like omega-3s and super-fresh seasonal vegetables. To chomp on a bushel of kale for dinner and then still feel like dog shit? It was hard. But I stuck with it for six months.

I had risen from bed and walked to the kitchen like any other person my age...And that same day, I went for a bike ride.

I used to wake up at 3 a.m. every day, because the bed was so soaked in sweat that I’d have to get towels before I could lie back down. Waking up in the morning was easily the worst pain I’d feel all day. My feet hurt so much that it felt like I was walking on broken bones, and my hands were so swollen I couldn’t do buttons on my shirt or tie my shoes. I’d have to hobble to the kitchen and just wait for the pain to slowly ease so I could start my day. Then, about six months after I started working with Frank and tinkering with my diet, I realized I wasn’t hobbling as much. I had risen from bed and walked to the kitchen like any other person my age.

I couldn’t believe it; it was this total hallelujah moment. And that same day, I went for a bike ride. I used to love biking and I hadn’t been in years, because the swelling and pain were too excruciating. But that day, I could bike. Fast-forward five years, to today, and I ride my bike each and every day. And I feel better every day, too.

Try these three immunity- and gut-health-boosting recipes from Real Food Heals—and then check out Seamus Mullen's go-to green juice.

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