Award-winning chef and author Seamus Mullen made a name for himself with New York restaurants like Tertulia and El Colmado, as well as the books Hero Food and Real Food Heals. But early in his career, he never would have foreseen such success. He felt awful all the time, was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and was told that he would likely be in a wheelchair by age 45. “I’m 45,” Mullen says now, laughing. “And I’m not in a wheelchair.” But overcoming his diagnosis to become a successful chef and wellness pioneer wasn’t easy. Read or watch our interview with Seamus Mullen to learn how he healed, including discovering the healing power of food and finding the best diet for rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid Arthritis or Stressful Chef Life? Getting A Diagnosis
When Seamus Mullen was in his twenties and his career was getting started, he worked in restaurant kitchens, which are notoriously high-stress environments. He was on his feet all day, working 90-hour weeks, surrounded by harried coworkers and screaming chefs. It wasn’t long before he began to feel pretty bad all the time, but he wrote it off as part and parcel of a chef’s life.
But after a while, it became clear that something more serious was going on. Mullen was exhausted all the time, he had headaches, his body felt swollen and sore. Then, he started getting what he describes as “severe attacks” in his right shoulder, where a stabbing pain prevented him from moving his entire arm. He tried to ignore it and soldier on, but eventually the pain grew so intense that he began going to the ER when the attacks would hit. At each ER visit, they would ask him if he’d had an injury, he’d say no, and then “they’d send me home with painkillers and that was that,” Mullen remembers.
Until, that is, the pain spread to his other shoulder, and then to his hip. At that point, he was admitted to the hospital, where he stayed for ten days under observation, in so much pain he could barely speak. An MRI showed that his hip was full of fluid, and so the doctors assumed he had an infection — but he didn’t. Eventually, his treatment team sent an email to every department in the hospital to see if anyone could figure out what was going on, why he had so much fluid and such a high white blood cell count if there was no infection. That’s when the chair of Rheumatology stepped in and diagnosed Mullen with rheumatoid arthritis.
Becoming Disillusioned with Conventional Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatments
When Mullen got his diagnosis, he had no idea what rheumatoid arthritis was — he didn’t know there were different types of arthritis, didn’t even know what autoimmune dysfunction was. So he was at the mercy of his doctors, who led him down the conventional, Western medicine path. At first, he was relieved to have a diagnosis, to finally understand why he felt like crap all the time. But looking back, he reflects that a downside of this was that he put too much trust and faith in the medical community.
His doctors told him that he would have rheumatoid arthritis forever, but that he could manage it if he took medication for the rest of his life. “There was a part of me that thought, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure if I’m okay with that,’” Mullen remembers. “But then there was another part that thought, ‘Well, I guess that’s just the hand I was dealt and I’m going to deal with it.’”
Over the course of the next several years, however, he began to realize that the medications he was taking were causing him more harm than good. “They were leaving me exposed to infection, deteriorating my health, and basically just suppressing my symptoms,” Mullen says. “They were doing absolutely nothing to address what the root cause was.”
Though the medication had managed to prevent acute flare-ups from happening as frequently, he was now in a constant state of chronic inflammation, and extremely vulnerable to infection. It was when he almost died from bacterial meningitis that he decided he needed to make a big change.
Working with Dr. Frank Lipman and Finding Natural Treatments for RA
That was when Mullen met Dr. Frank Lipman, which was a major turning point. “In a weird way, Frank found me,” says Mullen. They were introduced to each other through a mutual friend, and Mullen didn’t think to tell Dr. Lipman anything about his medical issues. But as soon as Lipman saw him, “he just took one look at me and knew that I was not well,” remembers Mullen. “He literally said, ‘What’s going on with you?’” Initially, Mullen deflected the question, insisting that he was fine, but Dr. Lipman pressed him. “He could see the inflammation on my face,” Mullen says. “He could see the pain, he could see the anger that I was holding on to for experiencing pain, and he badgered me.” Eventually, Mullen relented and agreed to go see Dr. Lipman in his office.
From the beginning, everything about Dr. Lipman’s approach was different from what Mullen had experienced in conventional medicine. Dr. Lipman took a holistic approach to healing Mullen’s rheumatoid arthritis, and showed a genuine interest and concern with helping him address the root cause and get fully better. He told Mullen, “trust me, you’re going to feel better. It’s going to take time, but you will feel better.”
Mullen contrasts this to the type of thing he would hear from conventional doctors, who were never willing to put their reputation on the line by telling him, definitively, that he would get better. Instead, they would tell him to try one drug, and if that didn’t work to try another one, and if that didn’t work, perhaps get on a clinical trial. His doctors had even thrown out the possibility that he would need to have multiple surgeries, joint fusions, and before he met Lipman, Mullen had resigned himself to that.
But now, the approach was totally different. Lipman referred him to a parasitologist, who helped him get rid of parasites that had been causing leaky gut syndrome. Then, they worked on every aspect of his lifestyle: diet, supplements, exercise, yoga, and moderating stress. “It sounds a little ‘woo,’ but we do know that stress is literally one of the key drivers in autoimmune dysfunction, and it’s a very difficult thing to quantify,” says Mullen.
But with Lipman’s coaching and reassurance, Mullen continued forward with this natural approach to treating his rheumatoid arthritis.
Finding The Best Diet for Rheumatoid Arthritis
One of the major things that Mullen did was change his diet. As a chef, food was a huge part of his life — but he certainly hadn’t been eating the best diet for rheumatoid arthritis. And the truth is, this had been the case for much of his life.
As Mullen remembers, “what I know now in hindsight looking back is that a lot of the foods that we ate growing up were really quite inflammatory for me. I didn’t feel very well afterwards. I was constantly bloated after every meal. I was exhausted. I had headaches and then I started developing a lot of infections.” His family ate a lot of gluten, dairy, and legumes, which he realized in retrospect were major triggers for him.
All of this gradually eroded his immune system. From a young age, Mullen got strep throat all the time, and was frequently put on antibiotics. As he got older, he began having more serious infections, things like salmonella and parasites, which required yet more antibiotics, damaging his gut health further.
So when he began working with Dr. Lipman, Mullen needed to first repair his gut through diet. That meant cutting out anything he might be sensitive to — things like gluten, dairy, legumes, alcohol, and more — and paying close attention to how he felt after eating. As his health got more stable, he began to relax a bit, allowing himself to have a bit of dairy, or a bite of really good bread, every now and then. He found that as long as he was following the 80-20 rule, and keeping his intake of inflammatory foods moderate, his rheumatoid arthritis stayed in check.
Though Mullen was looking for the best diet for rheumatoid arthritis, his experience opened up his eyes to the ways that diet can transform health for anyone, and he now strives to spread that message. “I always say that food is a zero-risk approach to treating illness,” he says. “There’s no downside to having a positive relationship with food. There is no illness that will not benefit from a healthy diet, and that’s what I think everyone can take away.”
Finally Healing from Rheumatoid Arthritis
For six months, despite his adherence to Dr. Lipman’s treatment plan — eating the right things, exercising, taking supplements, reducing stress — Mullen didn’t see any results. “I kept going back to Frank and saying, ‘I don’t know. I’m not feeling any better. I still feel like crap. In fact, I feel worse now,’” Mullen remembers. Every time that Mullen said that, Dr. Lipman would reassure him that he would feel better soon, but that it would take six months.
Lo and behold, six months to the day later, Mullen woke up, got out of bed, and started walking down the stairs. All of sudden he realized, “Wait a minute, I’m not walking down the stairs one step at a time.” Then he took another step and realized, “Wait a second, my feet aren’t swollen.”
It was the first time in 11 years that he’d gotten out of bed without it feeling like someone had hit his feet with a hammer as soon as they touched the floor. For 11 years, he’d needed to sit on the edge of his bed for ten minutes before he felt capable of standing, and then would “walk like an old man” when he eventually got up. In that moment, as he walked down the stairs with ease, he had a eureka moment. He thought: “Oh my god. This is what it feels like not to feel pain.”
Today, Mullen feels great, and hasn’t been on any rheumatoid arthritis medication for eight years. All of his inflammatory markers are normal and negative for RA, and he’s been known to go for 80-mile bike rides. Perhaps most important, he was able to forge a successful career as one of the top chefs in New York City — something that would have been virtually impossible had he been confined to a wheelchair or lost full use of his hands, as his doctors had originally predicted.
Conclusion: Seamus Mullen’s Recovery from Rheumatoid Arthritis and the Power of an RA Diet
Seamus Mullen’s recovery from rheumatoid arthritis is both an inspiring story of healing naturally from a chronic condition, and a startling cautionary tale about how limiting the possibilities of conventional medicine can often be. While Mullen did eventually heal himself, using the best diet for rheumatoid arthritis along with other lifestyle changes to become drug- and symptom-free, getting to that point was not a straight line. He had to go through years of pharmaceutical treatments before he just happened to meet one of the best integrative doctors in the world, who eventually helped him heal naturally. For many of us, this type of fortuitous encounter wouldn’t have been possible, and for many people, being on pharmaceuticals for 11 years can do permanent damage.
Still, we see Mullen’s story mostly as an inspiring tale of hope, and of what’s possible when you commit to making holistic lifestyle changes and addressing the root cause of your issue. Whether it’s seeking out an RA diet, identifying a food sensitivity, improving sleep, getting rid of a parasite, reducing stress, or something else, we all have the power to use lifestyle changes and elimination to find the root cause of whatever we’re dealing with.
Mullen also sees hope within the conventional medical community itself. “Change is afoot,” he says. “With the younger generation of the medical community, they’re going the path of conventional medicine, but with a very open mind. They’re seeing that there’s countless anecdotal stories of people reversing and certainly preventing autoimmune dysfunction.” This would be a big change within the medical community, but we’re hopeful that Mullen is right. After all, this approach all boils down to one insanely simple yet powerful concept that Mullen sums up best: “We don’t really talk about it, but a healthy lifestyle can keep you healthy.”
Watch our full interview with Mullen to hear the rest of his inspiring journey to recovery.
The recovery story above is anecdotal and specific to this particular individual. Please note that this is not medical advice, and that not all treatments and approaches mentioned will work for everyone.
Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better by Seamus Mullen
Real Food Heals: Eat to Feel Younger and Stronger Every Day by Seamus Mullen
The New Health Rules: Simple Changes to Achieve Whole-Body Wellness by Frank Lipman