And The Diagnosis Is... | The Health Battle: Part II
! Heads Up ! Part II and Part III of the Health Battle Saga go together. I had to break them up because it was too long-la-long-long-loooong of a post. But together, these two posts detail the now-solved mysteries of my health. Through an elimination diet and an esteemed naturopath, I've (finally!) learned what caused damage to my body and how it did so, what I need to do to heal myself, and most importantly, how truly interconnected my body and mind are... and it's all uber fascinating to me. In fact, writing these two posts (which took a very, very long time) helped me to better understand what is going on and how it all works (or fails) together.
So, if you are: equally intrigued by integrated health; curious about adrenal fatigue and the effects of chronic stress; or just committed to getting to the final chapter of my damn health saga after more than a year of 'I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S HAPPENING!' posts, please read on.
But you've been warned (long-la-long-long-loooong!), so grab a coffee or a cocktail and settle in for the ride, you committed rock star.
The spring and summer of 2016 have delivered answers to some health questions that have been plaguing me for a long time. A combination of factors throughout the past three years — including new (unexpected) motherhood and the end of my career as I knew it, my Ex's varied work pressures and constant travel, the grief of repeated betrayal and subsequent relationship breakdown stress and isolation, living in New York City with a baby, and more — compounded and resulted in, well, mostly simply put, it resulted in a mess.
I was sad. I was paranoid and depressed. I was so, so tired and I used stress eating to cope with the feelings I didn't want to face. Therefore I couldn't lose my baby gains, and hovered at a weight far above anything I had ever carried on my body. I lost my confidence and any desire to take care of myself inside or out, and I completely lost my sex drive. My digestion and physical health went totally haywire, and ultimately, all of the above scared me. It was too much at once and overwhelmed, I shut down.
I didn't know exactly what caused what, nor what specifically to do about any of it. But I've learned through this process of healing that the 'what and what' particulars don't really matter, because it is — I am — so interconnected.
Over the past six months, like a delicate chain that has been tossed in a drawer, forgotten and found tangled in knots, I have been untangling myself, slowly, carefully and deliberately. As I said in part one of this three-part post, I am now halfway through this battle. The first half brought me to this point — what I have experienced and learned up until now — and here forward begins the second half; what I do with that information. Really, the second half will last the rest of my life.
In April, I shared the how's and why's of the Elimination Diet I undertook to get some answers regarding my digestion issues, gut health and therefore, overall health, right before I visited a local naturopathic doctor for the first time. What did I learn?
Oof. I learned so much. First of all, an elimination diet is hard. I stick by my recommendation to avoid such a diet unless you are earnestly attempting to get answers about food allergies and irritants. That said, the experience was better than I expected, and better than my first two tries.
I was really, really prepared to start, both mentally and literally (meaning a stocked fridge, ready-to-grab snacks and detailed meal plan), and I have to reiterate that the amount of prep is crucial. I was less prepared during the second two weeks than I was at the beginning of the first, and those second two weeks were much harder. I was crawling from meal to snack to meal, just eating a ton of veggies, fruit and coconut flour-banana pancakes covered in berry coconut oil compote (the weirdest, but yummiest concoction ever) to fill up, without the satisfaction that the first week's vibrant menu provided me.
It was also during the second two weeks that I learned what I am capable of, emotionally. Timing, ironic as it ever is, worked out so that one week into elimination I found myself face-to-face with the toughest of emotions I have faced so far when it comes to my relationship and break up (meaning when this happened). Without my usual food habits as crutches, I had to look my emotions straight in the eye and just feel all the feels. It hurt down to my cells, but coping without numbing was the best thing that could have happened to me, because now I know I can do it.
After the three weeks of elimination, I took another three or four weeks to reintroduce eliminated foods — it takes a while when you can only introduce one food every three days — and observed how I felt and how my body reacted to the "new" foods.
The only foods that bothered me (meaning a very immediate, very upset stomach) were almonds, tomatoes, some dairy (yogurt was fine, but the rest, not so fine), coffee and alcohol (in this case, an instant hangover with headache and nausea; the weirdest thing you'll ever experience).
So for now, I am removing these foods from my diet. Because the regimen my naturopath recommended should make improvements to my gut health and tolerance (more on that in a moment), I will re-try my food sensitivities every few months and see how I feel. I also need to re-test nightshades specifically to make sure it's only tomatoes in that category that bother me.
Hard as elimination was, so many facets of my mind and body health improved over the course of the diet, which took about two months total. For instance:
- I began to have access to a more rose-colored lens on life. Rather than constantly feeling hopeless, worthless and desperate, I started to notice a shift toward calm, positive and hopeful feelings more often than not. I dare say I began to feel... happy!
- I lost weight. I take this with a grain of salt, because there were so many foods that I was not eating, including all grains, legumes, meat and dairy. So, of course the pounds and inches fell off. That level of elimination also made me feel weak, which took exercise out of the question, so for my body, it's not a sustainable model (after all, an indefinite elimination diet would be a little too closely aligned with the behaviors of anorexia, so it's not something to dabble in for too long or without purpose).
- I was reminded of the importance of keeping my focus on what I put in, versus what I avoid. I began a new habit of stuffing each meal with as many beneficial foods and as much flavor as possible and I dare say this experience has made me somewhat of a ninja in the kitchen.
- My nails grew stronger with healthier nail beds that lost their ridges, both on my fingers and toes.
- My sex drive came back. This was a big, surprising, exciting one because I lost my libido three years ago when my daughter was born. Three years! That did contribute to my relationship troubles. But the difficulty for me was only that such a confusing and disappointing change in my body and psyche was not met with patience, nurturing and love, but rather by impatience, blame, betrayal and an implication of inadequacy that needed to "be fixed." Not the subject of this post, so we won't elaborate on that any further for now. Besides, have I mentioned it's baaack?!
Even with all of these positive shifts, one piece of the puzzle that continued to elude me was consistently good, restful sleep. As I have for a long time, I woke up exhausted each morning, and by 2 PM, I was desperate to crawl back into bed. Not in a typical afternoon slump fashion, but more like a woman who has mono or narcolepsy. At night it was nearly impossible to fall asleep with an endlessly racing mind, and I often woke up at some point in the middle of the night and had difficulty falling back to sleep (sometimes because of a dream and sometimes for no apparent reason).
Which is when and where my naturopath stepped in with the remainder of the answers I needed to make actual change in my body and mind.
On my first visit to her office, I poured everything out. The visit was about two hours as we discussed it all: physical, emotional and otherwise. Not just my symptoms. It all. Because healing the symptoms does not heal the whole. She approved of the elimination diet and advised that I really listen to its results. Simply continuing to eat a largely plant-based diet (I aim for meat once per week, seafood once or twice, and otherwise vegetarian) and avoiding the foods that bother my body right now would make a world of difference, she told me, and over time, that alone would improve my overall health.
However, she also voiced suspicions about what might be causing my issues on a deeper level, and ordered a very comprehensive round of bodily fluid tests (saliva, blood and stool) between my first and second appointments so we could get more concrete answers.
And boy, did we. It's been a fascinating process.
I was super thrilled to learn three key pieces of information on my second visit:
- My B12 level has doubled since this time last year and is back up to a functional level;
- I tested negative for the h. pylori bacteria;
- I am not gluten intolerant.
It's interesting to know that I am tolerant of gluten (one less thing to avoid), but it's a big, huge, fabulous deal that I have somehow gotten rid of the h. pylori bacteria this year, as it is that my B12 levels are normal again (this time last year, they were a fraction away from causing nerve damage).
So, that was the good news. The bad news, or I should say, 'the piece of the puzzle we are now working on,' is that as she suspected, I have severe adrenal fatigue.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include persistent exhaustion, sleep problems, dark circles under the eyes (we all think we have this, but I sometimes look like a skeleton), excessive perspiration, blood sugar swings, depression/anxiety, weight gain, digestive problems, mood swings, sweet cravings, lack of libido, compromised immune system and a decreased tolerance to stress.
That matches pretty well with the picture I painted of myself a year ago, doesn't it? With a few exceptions, that's exactly my experience.
If you don't know (I didn't), our adrenals are our fight-or-flight regulators. When our senses alert us to stress or danger, the adrenals produce adrenaline to equip us with a higher pain threshold and a rush of blood to our major muscles and heart. That way, we are ready to fight or run from the tiger (or other perceived danger, physical, emotional or psychological).
When my naturopath heard the full picture of my story, including the astounding amount of stress I shouldered for four years, adrenal fatigue was her first suspicion. A simple ASI saliva test collected at specific intervals throughout the day between 6 AM and 10 PM revealed a very detailed "what's up with my hormones?" picture that was very aligned with my experience and explained so much.
Next I will share a simple (if equally as long-la-long-long-loooong) breakdown of the biggest players in the (well, my) game, including cortisol, DHEA, insulin and sigA: what they are, how they are (or are not) functioning in my body, and what we are doing to attempt more homeostasis and healing. Keep an eye on the Phoenix Mom Rising community Facebook page and my Instagram for the third and final part of this series.