A Health Story: Battle for Balance with Food and Fatigue

IMG_7581Today, I wanted to share the health story of my dear friend Emily.  Emily and I have been friends for over 10 years now.  We met through church in college and lived together for a couple years before getting married.  I’ve shared so many memories with this girl (a trip to NYC and countless costume parties stand out best); she was always the friend I could count on and still is today. She’s one of those rare friends who would move mountains to be there when you needed her. Now we have daughters just a few months apart and have been learning how to be moms together- we share natural remedies, healthy recipes and parenting tips with each other.  Emily is also a very talented writer, so I hope you enjoy her story…

Short-term survival vs. long-term survival. Choosing my sanity in the present or my health in the future. Those were my choices when it came to things like food, caffeine, and treatment plans, as well as the way those things affected my marriage and finances. With a large mug of coffee in my hand and thoughts of brewing another, this is what I’m contemplating, and how it all seemed like a lose-lose situation.

My childhood was happy in my giant family of nine  – no we weren’t Catholic or Mormon, yes my parents were crazy. However, I was always the sickly one. I recently found out I had the worst vaccine reactions of all seven of us, and that was after I almost died from pneumonia as a baby – as in my grandmother told my mom to make peace with it. She was very sensitive like that. Later, I had multiple ear infections (read: rounds of antibiotics), and I got stomach bugs so often my favorite “food” for a while was ice chips. We even owned a breathing machine for when I got sick, as I had a form of asthma called reactive airways. It’s a good thing I was homeschooled at the time as I would’ve been “one of those” who failed kindergarten from missing school all the time!

As I got older, I grew out of the constant infections, but inherited my father’s world-shattering allergies. I even got his elephant-like nose blowing – charming, thanks Dad. These allergies followed me into adulthood, and would trap me in bed all day like the flu at the peak of cedar pollination. I couldn’t be outside at all then, or when mold, grass, trees, weeds, or oxygen was too high. (Wait, maybe oxygen was on my safe list…)

Sometime during all of that, perhaps in high school, my energy took a nosedive and never came back up. I slept in between classes, and until noon on Saturdays when my mom let me. A few months after I turned 16 and started driving, I even fell asleep at the wheel.

We all just thought I was a normal, sleepy teenager, particularly after my thyroid panel came back normal. So I just kept sleeping as often as possible, all through college, often snoozing 12-14 hours a day. This was, in part, due to my low grade depression that kicked in towards the end of high school.

These health issues followed me like the bouncing metal cans on the “just married” car, and the “clanging” of those collective problems finally arrested my attention: my body wasn’t functioning quite right. However, all of this was still my normal – it was predictable and liveable, so I did nothing about it. Then, right before I got married, my body really punched me in the gut with random and violent gluten intolerance – literally.

The night of my bachelorette, I was too sick to go out – so all my friends came over in their little black dresses and sexy makeup to watch Tangled with me. The night of my wedding, I kept dragging my sister to the bathroom with me to loosen my corset as I was sick again, until I finally just had to take the whole thing off and hope my dress contained me for the rest of the reception!

I had no idea that gluten was even the issue until a trip to the doctor a few months later. Basically, he gave me a script for antacids, and recommended a gluten free diet. The pills did nothing for me, so after a hysterical breakdown about never eating bread or pasta or cookies or anything good in life again – not even COMMUNION – I gave up the mainstay of my diet.

For a while, I was able to get away with “just a bite” of glutenous (yes, I made that a word) indulgences without the miserable nausea that wouldn’t just end with a simple puke…but that didn’t last long. Soon, I was that annoying girl at the restaurant asking if something contains gluten, then having to explain what it was, and then hearing, “No, I don’t think the fried chickpeas have any of that”… think being the operative word here that drove me CRAZY. So you’re hanging the likelihood of my hanging over a toilet half the night on your desire to avoid checking with the chef? Thanks, I appreciate your ignorance…I mean assurance.

Luckily, Austin became a safe haven for us, the gluten challenged. Eventually everything from gluten free fried chicken to gluten free donuts appeared on store aisles and restaurant menus.

But it did not protect me from the next wave of symptoms. The encircled GF by entrees and products did not mean healthy, so neither was I.

Finally, at some point a few years ago, I couldn’t eat anything without fear of nausea, or the kind of bloating that makes you want to stab your bursting belly with an ice pick. I remember eating a paleo, whole 30, #alltherestrictions meal of chicken, spinach, and sweet potato, then being in so much pain I may have cried. I felt completely defeated.

After researching for hours upon hours, I found the GAPS diet, or Gut And Psychology Syndrome. It was created by a neurologist with a masters in nutrition who created this way of eating for her clients, whose disorders ranged from ADHD to autism, depressed to schizophrenic. She found they all had something in common – unhealthy digestive systems. While my mental state was not my primary issue (despite recurring depression), it was obvious my gut was unhealthy.

The first week was TERRIBLE. Like, can’t get out of bed terrible. But I finally, finally, had relief. It resolved my food intolerances to eggs, chicken, and nightshades, and eventually I could eat anything except gluten without reactions! It was my miracle diet.

These days, my chronic fatigue continues to hang over my life like a dark cloud, but when I’m watching my nutrition, I can celebrate being the healthiest I’ve ever been. I haven’t given up on finding total healing, but now I just focus on generally making healthy choices. I used to be obsessed with which diet is best, which food groups are evil, and which of the thousands of supplements I should take (you should see my collection!). It got to the point where it affected most of my close relationships because of arguments I would get into about drugs versus alternative medicine, whether my current diet was healthy or just a fad, or if it mattered using Tilex to clean the shower versus Mrs. Meyers. It had to end.

Now, I’m a lot better at picking my battles, finding that happy space between short term sanity and long term health. I try to choose 90% whole, unprocessed foods for my family (when my picky toddler lets me!), I work to use natural cleaning products in most areas, and I experiment with various natural and/or homemade beauty products. But! I don’t insist on primarily organic food, I had a hospital birth with an epidural, we give our daughter Motrin when she’s visibly in pain, and yes, I let my husband use Comet to clean the INSIDE of the toilet. That’s not how I wanted any of those things to go, but the stress of trying to control everything just isn’t worth it anymore. At what point is it too costly for my relationships and my sanity when I’m fighting tooth and nail for every health decision in our family? We had to meet in the middle.

That’s where I try to live now, finding what healthy feels like in my own body, and in our home. I let God and my husband help me figure out what that looks like. And praise Jesus, every year I get just a little closer.

Advertisements

A Story On Antidepressant Withdrawal

Let's Talk WithdrawalMy good friend, Megan, has been such a blessing to our family during this newborn stage. She brought us several meals, is always eager to hold the baby even when she’s crying, change her diaper and rock her to sleep. When they say “it takes a village,” she is the kind of community and generousity you want in your life. 

Anyway, I have been wanting to share more personal stories of health on this blog. As anyone who has been through chronic pain or unexplained illness or battled continuously against health issues knows, it’s crucial to hear that you are not alone. It is so encouraging to know others in a similar spot and be able to work through it together, even virtually. 

Megan recently shared her health story on a podcast interview.  Once I heard it, I knew I had to share it with you.  While this story is specifically focused on her experience taking antidepressants, I related to it in so many ways- being so desperate to feel better and believing the doctors knew best, trusting that the pills they were giving me would be safe and healing, only to end up worse.
Megan’s story is full of the range of emotions that any of us go through when dealing with chronic pain or an unexplained illness: one day hopeful and the next filled with hopelessness.  If you are in that place and looking for some encouragement today, or if you are on or considering taking antidepressants, you must listen to Megan’s story.  Here’s a summary of what they discuss (from James Moore at Let’s Talk Withdrawal):

  • How Megan had sleep difficulties and how her doctor prescribed an antidepressant for insomnia
  • That Megan didn’t even know what she was taking was an antidepressant
  • After 2 years, Megan started to think about coming off her medication. Her doctor at the time advised her to withdraw over 2 weeks after Megan had been taking the antidepressant for 2 years
  • How Megan found the increase in suicidal thinking the most frightening effect of withdrawal but that she did not realise at the time that this was caused by stopping the drug
  • How no one understood that what Megan was experiencing was caused by antidepressant withdrawal
  • How doctors prescribed more medication to try and counter the symptoms of withdrawal
  • How Megan had to go back on her antidepressant and double the dose to remove the withdrawal effects
  • That the prospect of starting a family led Megan to consider stopping again and she then found an entire community of others who were struggling with the drugs themselves
  • How, having realised that her initial attempt to stop was too fast, Megan then decided to change to a different anti anxiety medication
  • How Megan planned to take four months to withdraw but still found this too fast and she experienced a wide range withdrawal effects
  • How a doctor prescribed an additional three medications on top of the antidepressant and anti anxiety medication
  • How those withdrawal effects forced Megan to go back up to 20mg of her antidepressant, meaning that Megan felt trapped
  • How the website survivingantidepressants.org was a major resource that Megan used to help her maker her tapering plan
  • That Megan used a compounding pharmacy to help her taper but it was expensive
  • How sometimes withdrawal effects can recur years after someone has stopped an antidepressant
  • How people should be very careful to recognize that suicidal thinking can arise from starting, changing dose or stopping an antidepressant

Listen to it at Let’s Talk Withdrawal or on iTunes.

I’m so proud of Megan for being so vulnerable in sharing her story and for her persistence to trust God in finding healing someday.  I hope you will also be encouraged by her outlook and reminded of how important it is to always do your own research before taking pharmaceuticals- they all have side effects.

Back to Real Life

So, I’ve been a bit MIA the past couple of months.  See, I just returned from a vacation to Italy and France and most of my free time in the weeks leading up to the trip were planning the 2 weeks we were going to be there.  But, I’m back now and more inspired than ever to keep on pursuing true health.

Leading up to the trip, I was a bit anxious about all the weight I was going to gain from eating so many carbs.  That wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying all the pasta, pizza, gelato, tiramisu and wine “when in Rome,” but I figured I would just have to work extra hard when I returned to be healthier.  So, when I was there, I did just that.  I splurged at meals, opting for wine at lunch and dinner, eating an afternoon gelato every day, and having my share of fresh pasta in search of the best ever.

What surprised me, though, is that I somehow ended up losing weight on the trip.  More importantly, while we were there and when I returned, I felt great – nearly pain-free, full of energy, and just an overall feeling of healthy.  On a normal basis, I am so focused on what I eat and put into my body, but only very slowly do I feel like I am seeing the results for my health that I want.   I go on vacation for two weeks and eat whatever I want (and have the best time doing so), and I see results immediately.  As I’ve returned and reflected about what made that possible, I’ve had a few thoughts that I wanted to share.

Fresh Ingredients, Made-From-Scratch Food

Every day, Italian home cooks and chefs go to the market to get fresh meat and fresh vegetables for the meals they will prepare that day.  While we were staying in Tuscany, we cooked dinner every night in our home and visited the market several times that week.  The stores there weren’t like ours where fresh ingredients remain only on two of the outer sides of the store, with the bulk of food on shelves or in freezers. They had large produce sections, cheese and meat counters (mozzarella and prosciutto galore!), a large selection of fresh pasta, non-homogenized milk & cream and a bakery with breads baked that day.  There were no pre-prepared desserts, very little freezer space and the eggs were so fresh they didn’t even have to be refrigerated.

We took a cooking class in Italy on how to make fresh pasta and learned thirteen different pasta sauces.  Let me first say, if you ever go to Italy – do this!  It really was one of my most favorite experiences and taught us so much more about the culture we were visiting.  Plus, it was the best meal of the trip!  My brother blogged about the details here if you’d like to read more about it.  It was incredible to go behind-the-scenes with a chef who cooks for his restaurant daily and learn his authentic recipes.  He told us about how he visits the local farmer’s market daily to get fresh seafood, meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables.  We started by chopping lots of fresh produce and then throwing it in pots on the stove with plenty of locally grown & produced olive oil.  The sauces were all made from fresh veggies and tomatoes, real cream, pancetta, and lots of freshly grated parmesan cheese.  One of the best parts was that he had his pots of fresh herbs right on the kitchen counter and would pick them straight off the plant, tear them up and throw them in the pots as we cooked.  The pasta was simply made from unbleached flour, fresh eggs and chopped spinach or tomato paste was added for different coloring/flavoring.  Every ingredient was simple and fresh.  Every item was hand-made.  We are just missing that here.

While we were only in Paris a few days, I certainly enjoyed every bit of French food while I could.  I had some delicious meals where you could really taste the flavor because of how they were prepared.  The french onion soup was made with gelatin-rich bone broth and you could taste how long it had been simmering to infuse nutrients.  Roasted chicken was always served on the bone and in its own gravy.  One night, we went to a place that made traditional crepes, made gluten-free with buckwheat as they should be – phenomenal!

Non-Toxic, Real Food

I attribute a lot of how healthy we stayed during our trip to the fact that the food was made from real ingredients.  There were no preservatives in the bread and fresh pasta.  The preservative potassium bromate (aka bromated flour) that’s often found in our foods here in the U.S. isn’t added there, so doesn’t pose a risk to your health.   They use olive oil or butter for all cooking, and you won’t find hydrogenated vegetable oil in processed foods either – those are made with coconut or palm oil.  That alone makes such a difference in the amount of free-radicals people are exposed to.  It’s amazing how foods that are sold both there and here are made so differently – The ketchup I got with my french fries in Paris contained no high-fructose corn sryup; it was made with real tomatoes and sugar.  We even bought m&m’s at the airport that were made with coconut oil!  I’m now wishing I had bought more…

And you certainly won’t find any toxic food dyes or artifcial coloring in the foods.  All the gelato we enjoyed was flavored and colored with real fruits; there were no bright, unrealistic colors to attract customers.  And GMOs are strictly regulated there and mostly banned in both Italy and France.  Produce is grown by farmers who sell it at local markets, chicken and cattle are allowed to graze freely on the range and not fed growth-stimulating hormones, and fish are actually caught in sea instead of farmed.  All of the chemicals that we eat in our food cause us to gain weight as our bodies are literally starving of nutrients.  And they make us feel terrible as we suffer from leaky gut syndrome and develop food allergies we may not even realize.  If you are curious to read more, here’s an interesting list of lots of things we eat constantly in the US that’s banned in other countries across the world due to health effects.

Movement

The first city on our trip was Rome.  We stayed in Centro Storico, right by the Piazza Navona.  A great location literally right in the middle of all the major sides, but not easily accessible public transportation.  So we quickly learned that we would be walking everywhere.  We started both days we were there with a 30-minute walk to our tours of the Vatican and Colosseum/Ancient Rome and continued to do lots and lots of walking.  As we visited towns across Tuscany, many people don’t have cars and simply walk everywhere.  They walk to the market each day, they walk to work.  In one town we visited, Lucca, everyone rides bikes, both leisurely around town and athletically through the countryside.  We rode around the top of the town wall – a beautiful experience.  In Venice, you walk everywhere to avoid expensive boat rides and the locals were always out walking their pups.  Walking miles a day certainly put me into better shape than I have been in a long time.  And miraculously, my back pain ceased and my recently painful achilles tendon, finally stretched out instead of cramped under a desk all day, hasn’t bothered me  since.  Funny how all the pain that typically prevents me from exercise is really what cures it.

Biking in Lucca

Less Stress

According to WebMD, 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.  As a society, we are really harming our bodies by putting ourselves under too much stress.  Stress causes us to experience back and neck pain, affects our hormones and causes us to gain weight.  One thing the Italians have right is how to live a less stressful life.  They take their time in the mornings enjoying a cafe with breakfast.  They go to work for a few hours and then take an afternoon break to relax and eat lunch with friends or family, before returning to work for a few hours in the afternoon/evening.  Meals are an experience and people take their time eating, enjoying each other’s company and partaking in plenty of wine.  Disclaimer for any “health people” ready to judge: I am aware that wine is alcohol and therefore toxic to your body, but there’s a lot to say for how a glass or two helps take the edge off the day and provide stress relief.  We had some pretty crazy driving experiences around Italy (especially up the switchbacks on the steep hill to our house in Tuscany) and at the end of the day, a glass of champagne certainly helped take the stress away.

Obviously, I was on vacation and away from my job (recently rated #5 on the most stressful jobs list, by the way!), so that certainly helped my stress level.  But, it was more than that…  I wasn’t watching tv or constantly on my phone checking email, instagram or facebook.  I was out exploring, taking walks, enjoying art and taking in the beauty of God’s creation.  I was cooking for my family each night, feeling inspired by the local ingredients and creating delicious new recipes.  And, then, I sat with my family to enjoy the food over conversation around the dinner table, uninterrupted by phones or our busy lives.  How often does that happen in our lives anymore?  It’s the focus on relationships, talking about life and decompressing from the day over a great meal and glass of wine that helps put things in perspective and remember what’s really important: not stressing over life, but appreciating our blessings.

Back to Real Life

So now that I’ve convinced you myself to move to Italy, I have to remember that wineries and beautiful hills are just a short drive away (on much easier roads)!  But, really, although the hurdles to health that I returned to can sometimes be overwhelming and discouraging, I can lead a healthier life.  I’m inspired to…

  • Shop at local farmer’s markets.  Meet the people who grow real food and who have a passion for providing real nourishment to their customers.  Invest in them and the hard work they do every day.
  • Use real ingredients and keep my recipes simple.  Make things from scratch that have true flavor and are full of nutrients.
  • Enjoy cooking again.  I no longer want to dread cooking dinner when I get home from a long day at work.  I want to remember that God’s gifted me with the ability to create delicious, healthy dishes for my family and see it as a way to express my creativity.
  • Take more walks. Enjoy the beautiful Texas weather & landscape, meet my neighbors, and keep my puppy happy as she’s so enjoyed our walking adventures since I returned.
  • Host more dinner parties to enjoy good food and good wine with friends.
  • Sit at the table to eat with my husband more often instead of on the couch.  No phones allowed.
  • Leave the stress of work at the office.  Give thanks for all my blessings daily and put things back in perspective.

Salute!

Paninis and Wine from a street cafe in Florence