Pressing the Reset Button

handNow and again, there comes a time when we just need to take a breather and hit the reset button on life. Frustrations mount, stresses build, and complications twist everything into a knotted, tangled mess. You can’t always walk away from your stressors – usually you can’t – but you can take a step back. You can take a moment to yourself and reenter the situation with a fresh perspective.

This month, that’s exactly what I’m doing: Resetting.

Resetting My Body – Starting AIP

For those who have been following the blog for awhile, you know that I’ve had trouble with chronic fatigue for about a year and a half now. For months at a time, I would need 10 to 14 hours of sleep every day. Even awake, I wandered through life in a fog, exhausted and unmotivated. Two things entirely contrary to the life of a grad student!

carbsWhen my doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, I decided to take my health into my own hands. I started researching my symptoms and found the autoimmune protocol paleo diet. No grains, no legumes, no dairy, no nightshades, and no starches. Yikes! As someone who has spent most of the past 10 years as vegan or vegetarian, it was pretty scary to think about eating animal flesh at every meal. However, all of my symptoms kept pointing to the AIP as a way to reset my digestive system and stop the extreme autoimmune reactions causing my fatigue and inflaming my joints.

This past weekend, I celebrated my birthday with all my favorite foods! Ice cream, cupcakes, pasta, chocolate… 28 never tasted so good. September first marked day one of my 30-day AIP reset. I’ll be updating SuddenSight with my posts about the experience, so keep checking back for updates!

Resetting My Mind – Taking a Step Back

The fatigue, as well as numerous setbacks with my eyesight since January, made finishing my master’s degree this summer, well, difficult. I did manage to turn in everything and have my paper accepted (hooray!) Still, moving forward I decided I needed to recognize my physical limitations.

Even on my good eye days I read at half the speed that others in my program read. When I’m sleeping 10 hours a night, it becomes virtually impossible to keep up with the 60 to 70 hour work week required to keep up with three graduate classes and teach a class. So I took a step back and slowed things down for a bit to let my body catch up.

I’m only taking two classes this fall, and I’m pushing myself to make more time for yoga classes and cooking – my favorite relaxing hobbies.

Resetting My Blog!

ice creamTaking all of this into account, I’ve also decided to shift the focus of this blog a bit. I don’t want to spoil too much, but this fall SuddenSight will be relaunching with an all-new look! Get ready for more health and lifestyle posts, a recipe section, and guest bloggers featured each month.

Stay tuned for more news!

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Waking Up: How I Took my Health into my Own Hands

For the past year, I’ve been tired. Exhausted, really. I’d sleep anywhere from 10-12 hours a night, but still walk around like a zombie all day and take frequent naps. I was miserable. But according to my doctors, nothing was wrong.

Vitamin D levels? Normal with my daily supplements. B6 and B12? Fine. Thyroid? Enlarged, but showing no signs of hyper or hypothyroidism. So why was I so exhausted all the time?

I talked with my GP, with my rheumatologist, and with my friends who have similar autoimmune issues. My GP wasn’t very concerned at all, but after six months of pushing she recommended I start on Wellbutrin, an antidepressant. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of depressive episodes, but this didn’t seem like one of them. I was exhausted, sure, but I didn’t feel sad or upset. Still, I started taking a low dose of the medication. It didn’t help.

IMG_20150804_001340My rheumatologist seemed even less concerned. Fatigue is associated with some autoimmune disorders and can come as a side-effect of the Remicade treatments. I spoke with his PA Anna, and she mentioned that some patients have seen positive results after changing their diets. While she couldn’t medically recommend a specific diet, she did tell me that many patients she (and many of her colleagues) spoke with reported lessened inflammation with certain dietary restrictions: no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, no refined sugar, etc. I’d tried some of this before to no avail, so I packed that discussion into the back of my mind.

Taking my health into my own hands

When both doctors reported no signals for the fatigue in my bloodwork and seemed rather unconcerned with getting to the root of the problem quickly, I took matters into my own hands. Because of the Remicade treatments, my rheumatologist orders a full CBC (blood workup) every two months and posts the results online. These worksheets became my obsession.

First, I will say this: no matter what your Google search turns up, check with your doctors about their validity. My GP has had to talk me off many a well-intentioned ledge where I just knew I had figured out the cause of my fatigue. Never be afraid to ask questions, or to ask about your options. Remember: it’s your body. Your doctors are there to help and have a lot of knowledge, but they aren’t perfect. If they say something won’t work, politely ask why. If you aren’t satisfied with that answer, don’t be afraid to ask another doctor.

Keeping this in mind, I started my own research process. When the usual signals for fatigue were fine, my GP asked to see the bloodwork from my rheumatologist. I should note that I am currently in the process of switching GPs because my previous practitioner is changing her practice. I wasn’t able to see her again before the change and share my findings, but I had put together a year’s worth of CBC workup results. Looking through them, I could see clearly when my surgeries had taken place. The neutrophil and white blood cell count would shoot upwards immediately following the procedure, then settle back to a normal level before the next workup.

I also saw a recurring pattern: high MCV, low alkaline phosphatase. My first thoughts were, “What the hell is that?” and “Why haven’t we talked about this before?”

Maybe it’s B12 malabsorption

And so, I Googled… MCV stands for “mean corpuscular volume,” and the higher it is, the larger your red blood cells. This can indicate a condition called macrocytosis, or macrocytic anemia, which is often a sign of B12 deficiency. A vitamin B12 deficiency does point to my symptoms – fatigue, depression, brain fog – but consistently my bloodwork has shown normal B12 rates. However, normal B12 levels don’t necessarily account for your actual B12 absorption rate (and can often underestimate macrocytosis). Some sites recommend a methylmalonic acid test. Buildup of methylmalonic acid in the urine indicates that your body isn’t using B12 the way it’s supposed to.

In other words, the tests could be wrong, and there are better tests I can try.

Other relevant causes for the high MCV could be a folate deficiency (my levels are fine) or past chemotherapy treatment. I was on cyclophosphamide (a chemo drug) for more than a year, so that could be the cause. (Also, myelositic diseases, megaloblastic marrow, leukemia, liver disease, etc…)

My solution: I’ve made an appointment with a new GP. I plan to discuss the B12 testing process with her and start on a B12 supplement.

Maybe it’s hypothyroidism

Here’s another case where my CBC indicates normal thyroid function, so says my rheumatologist, but several sites indicate that there are better tests to determine hyper or hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is often linked to an autoimmune disorder, Hashimoto’s disease. It also runs in my family. The only major difference I see in the symptoms of hypothyroidism and my own are my high heart rate, lack of weight gain, and lack of a goiter (thank goodness!) Still, it’s probably worth checking out.

My solution: Talk with my new GP about better thyroid testing.

Maybe it’s alkaline phosphatase deficiency!

This one seems pretty obvious, considering my alkaline phosphatase levels have been consistently low for at least a year. Beyond fatigue, other relevant symptoms include cold intolerance (check) and rapid heart rate (double check), as well as shortness of breath, constipation, and extreme weight-loss. And guess what? It can also be caused by B12 deficiency and hypothyroidism – as well as aplastic anemia, anemia, and myelogenous leukemia. So far, my symptoms and CBC abnormalities seem related.

All of these – B12 malabsorption, hypothyroidism, and alkaline phosphatase deficiency – can be subsequently linked to malnutrition. In particular, the need to increase and regulate levels of vitamins A, C, B6, and B12, folic acid, and phosphorous.

My solution: Look at my normal diet and make some changes.

Maybe it’s my diet

IMG_20150806_205816A few years ago, I ran into Christina, an acquaintance from high school, at the Five Points MARTA station. It was particularly surprising because Christina lives in Florida, we hadn’t spoken since I graduated ten years ago, and we were heading in the same direction. Talking with her on the train, I found out we had both been dealing with autoimmune disorders (me: rheumatoid arthritis, her: Hashimoto’s disease and narcolepsy), and we were both in graduate school for our doctoral degrees (me: political science, her: biomedical science with a focus on intestinal immunology).

Basically, she’s a badass, and you should check out her page!

I’m not one to believe that “things happen for a reason,” but I was glad to have had this conversation with Christina. Really, I wish I’d paid more attention and started my research on intestinal health back then, but grad students will be grad students… She shared her research on the link between autoimmune disorders and “leaky gut” – where your intestinal wall is too permeable and lets particles seep out into your body. Most of the current treatments for autoimmune disorders focus on inflammation and the overactive immune system. New research, like that of Christina and other scientists like Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, focuses instead on intestinal health. In other words, they are trying to treat the potential cause, rather than just stifle the symptoms.

When intestinal health kept popping up in my searches, I contacted Christina again for advice on where to start. She again mentioned the benefits of the paleo diet. If you haven’t heard the specifics yet, the essential idea behind the paleo diet is that our bodies haven’t adapted to many of the foods we regularly eat today. Proponents of paleo eat mainly meats and non-starchy vegetables, shying away from processed foods, sugar, and grain. The stricter autoimmune protocol refines this diet even more, acting as an elimination diet. For the first month, participants will avoid all grains, processed sugar, all nightshades, starches, alcohol, dairy products, and eggs. The will increase consumption of seafood, organ meats, and fermented foods and limit fruit intake. After “resetting” their system, participants slowly reintroduce foods to find out which are triggering an abnormal autoimmune response.

My solution: Try something new.

Going Paleo

For someone who spent 5 years as a vegan and generally tries to eat very little meat, going paleo sounded like a nightmare. Not only would I be giving up some of my favorite things (Ice cream! Baking!), I would be forcing myself to shovel down meat at every meal (very expensive, considering I only buy products from humanely treated animals). However, the exact months I went vegan in 2007 were the same months I started noticing joint pain, which quickly blossomed into a full-fledged flare. It’s also something I had never tried before, and I do rather enjoy seafood. So I decided to give it a try.

IMG_20150805_221532Whether or not you buy into the explanation of ancestral nutrition, the paleo diet does include much higher levels of the nutrients I may be deficient in (A, C, B6, B12, folic acid, healthy fats, and phosphorous). I started the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet on July 15, 2015. On August 3, my alkaline phosphatase levels were already in the normal range, but my MCV was still high. By August 10, I had noticed significant improvement in my daily routine. Slight joint stiffness still made going to sleep a bit difficult, but when my alarm went off in the morning I was actually awake. Now I can get out of bed in the morning, rather than lying there another hour and a half trying to force myself to function. In the past few days, I’ve noticed the brain fog lifting, and naps don’t seem like such a necessity. The one time I caved and ate rice, my left knee screamed for three days!

I’m not saying paleo is the exact and only reason for the improvements I’ve seen. I’m certainly not recommending it as a one-size-fits-all “cure” for RA. I am merely sharing my own story from my own path. I cannot stress enough that everyone’s body is different and no one should change their diet drastically without fully understanding how to get the right nutrition from the new diet plan.

Remember: it’s your body, take care of it!

12 Tips for a Healthier Digestive Tract

When you’re taking a lot of medications, each seems to come with its own set of unpleasant side effects. Often, they tend to wreak havoc on your digestive system, creating the need for more medications to alleviate discomfort. Through all my years of dealing with various prescriptions, I’ve found that keeping a healthy digestive tract helps with many side effects. If you can keep the medications moving through your system, your body can take from them what it will use and quickly flush the rest out. This is exactly what the body was designed to do with your food. So here are a few tips I’ve picked up to keep your digestive tract healthy and moving!

1. Keep in mind the hierarchy of foods.

Some foods take longer to digest than others, placing them differently on the Quick Exit Hierarchy of Foods. Eating foods out of order will often cause your digestive system to move more slowly, and foods that should be passed quickly end up fermenting in your digestive tract. If you pull nothing else from this article, try to avoid eating fresh fruit after a meal. Fresh fruit only takes 30 minutes to pass from your stomach, where vegetables take at least 90 minutes and starches take 3-4 hours. The quickest way to give yourself gas is to have fresh fruit sit in your stomach too long!

2. Combine your food properly.

Poor food pairing can back up your digestive system and create flatulence (see aforementioned fresh fruit example). Each food type is broken down by a specific set of enzymes that your stomach produces when it recognizes the food you eat. Poor food pairings will cause a back up in waste, leading to blockage and difficult digestion. Proper food combination keeps separate fresh fruits, nuts and seeds, starches and legumes, whole grains, and animal flesh (allowing for some exceptions). Non-starch vegetables can be combined with all foods except fresh fruit. For more information, see the Detoxinista.

3. Choose natural over processed.

If your body does not recognize what you have eaten, it has a very hard time breaking it down. Processed foods are not easily recognized by your digestive system, so they tend to bulk up as pure waste in your lower intestine. This is not only uncomfortable, but it also blocks other waste from escaping, which can lead to toxins being reabsorbed into the body rather than released.

4. Learn your allergies and sensitivities.

Some people know their allergies very well. They have had horrible experiences with nuts or shellfish or have undergone many tests to learn those allergies. Others of us are simply sensitive to certain foods, and we often do not recognize it. If you find yourself with digestive troubles, look back to what you have eaten in the past 24 hours to see if there is a likely culprit.

5. Stay hydrated!

Water is the most essential thing you can put into your body. It helps flush out the system and keeps everything working properly. Eating plenty of fresh fruits and water-packed vegetables like celery and carrots is a sure-fire way to keep your cells hydrated while also getting essential vitamins. But be careful! If your body is not used to consuming fresh fruits, you will need to slowly ease them into your diet. Fresh fruit and vegetable juice is also an excellent way to stay hydrated while receiving your essential nutrients. Try waking u each morning with Green Lemonade instead of coffee.

6. Don’t drink water during a meal.

Eating water-rich fruits and vegetables are your best source for hydration, but drinking water is also essential. However, drinking water during and immediate after a meal will wash away the digestive enzymes that are needed to break down what you’ve eaten. Try to wait at least 15 minutes after you have consumed the last bite before you reach for your water bottle.

7. Exercise regularly.

Sitting is one of the worst positions for your digestive system, yet it is also the one Americans most frequently find themselves doing. We sit in an office. We sit while driving. We sit to watch a movie. Sitting causes waste to build up in our lower intestine, making it more difficult to pass. Walking and other forms of gentle exercise help to break up that bulk, allowing it to pass more readily.

8. Get a step up.

The body’s natural position for passing waste is not sitting, but squatting. Many Asian countries still use the in-ground toilet, which provides foot placement on either side of a basin in the floor. To replicate this position on your Western-style toilet at home, simply find a way to elevate your knees. Try turning the restroom wastebasket on its side to prop your feet up in front of you while you sit.

9. Sip some tea.

Several tea companies provide a relaxing herbal option to help with troubled digestion. Smooth Move by Traditional Medicinals is one of my favorite, and it comes in a variety of flavors including chocolate. Other folk remedies include triphala, and herbal supplement. Please do not start any herbal supplement without consulting your doctor or pharmacist, as they may interfere with your medications.

10. Try daily probiotics.

We’ve all seen the commercials recommending yogurt for a healthier digestive tract. If you’re lactose intolerant, though, dairy products can do more harm than good. And recent research has shown cow’s milk to leech calcium from bones because of the lactic acid that must be created to digest the milk. The real digestive help that yogurt offers is found in the bacterial cultures used to create yogurt from milk. These probiotic bacteria are now packaged separately for their health benefits and can be found in most grocery stores in pill or liquid form. Acidophilus is a popular probiotic, but kefir is a typical entirely non-dairy option.

11. Look into colonics.

While I have not personally undergone a colonic, health gurus and nutritionists like Natalia Rose of the Raw Food Detox Diet rave about their benefits. The idea behind them is that old waste builds up along the walls of the lower intestine, hindering nutrient absorption and blocking waste excretion. A gentle, but more direct cleansing of the intestine can help flush out old waste and rejuvenate the digestive tract. If you are interested in having one performed, the important thing is to go to a trustworthy clinic. An improperly performed colonic can back up waste even more.

12. Keep a digestive journal.

You should think about keeping a food, exercise, and restroom diary for at least two weeks to find patterns between what you eat and what you excrete. You may find a sensitivity to gluten , or you may find you are unable to eat certain combinations of foods without being backed up for days. Certain exercises or food choices may lead to better digestion. Each body works differently, so keeping a journal will help you to see exactly what works for you.

These tips are a compilation of research and experience, but they are not guaranteed to work with every body’s digestive system. Talk over your digestive difficulties with your doctor or nutritionist, explaining that you first want to try lifestyle changes before taking more medications.