Food as Medicine

Alumna finds a different way to heal
Jessica Chapman ’99

Persistence has always defined Jo Schaalman’s character, but never more so than after an accident left her with chronic pain that doctors said she’d suffer the rest of her life.

At Grinnell, Schaalman ’99 majored in biology, with a career as a doctor before her on a tidy path. Or so she thought. While leading a bike trip in 2004, Schaalman was hit by a truck going 70 miles per hour, breaking her back in seven different places.

Her injuries prevented her from working for close to a year. She went to more than 15 doctors that year, and was prescribed pain pills and antidepressants again and again. She was told she couldn’t have children, that she would be disabled for life. She became depressed and gained 40 pounds. But the doctors’ conclusions didn’t sit right with Schaalman. “Every time somebody told me I wasn’t going to get better, I would say, ‘I don’t believe you,’” she says.

Schaalman started finding some relief through yoga. Originally drawn to the practice as a form of exercise, now, limited by her injuries, she started to be intrigued by its more mental, meditative aspects. At the same time, Schaalman was struggling with the insecurity she felt about her weight gain. “I got really into weight loss, but in an unhealthy way,” she admits. Nothing worked. Having suffered from serious allergies as a child, Schaalman had some knowledge of how food can affect the body. “So after hitting my head for a while,” she says, “I thought, ‘There has to be a different way.’ I started to use food as medicine.”

In 2010, she and a friend put together a customized food plan for each of them. It included lots of veggies and “green” smoothies. It worked. Schaalman lost weight, her pain diminished, and her mood improved. Shortly thereafter, Schaalman started taking classes at the Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver, where she received a master nutrition therapist certification. She also modified her career goals. She recalls telling her dad (Michael Schaalman ’70), “I’m going to go to the Jo Schaalman School of Medicine.”

The program she and her friend started has since grown to become a company called Conscious Cleanse, designed to eliminate allergens and reduce inflammation. Word of its success has spread, with 200–500 people now enrolling in each cleanse. A book the two women published about the cleanse in 2012 has sold more than 45,000 copies. Looking back, Schaalman says, “We didn’t mean to start a company or program. We just wanted to do something for ourselves.”

Schaalman, who lives in Boulder with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, says the accident was the best and worst thing that has ever happened to her. She still suffers from chronic pain, but it has decreased dramatically due to her adherence to the “cleanse-eating” lifestyle. On a scale of 1 to 10, she describes the pain as more of a 2 or 3 on a daily basis rather than the 8 or 9 that she was living with after the accident. She takes no medication.

And she’s glad she’s not a doctor. “I realized that being an entrepreneur and out of the system, I can call my own shots and make my own rules while still helping people like I always wanted to.”

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