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HEALTH + NUTRITION

For my fellow skeptics

I want to go into a bit more detail about some of the stuff in this post – both to clarify what I’m saying, and to help assimilate in my own brain what I’m learning and what I’m experiencing. So, if this is the magic bullet of perfect health, why isn’t it mainstream?

I think there are a lot of reasons, but here are a few of the top ones:

It’s too new

There’s a knowledge lag of 17 years before new treatments become standard practice. 

In the case of experimental surgeries or pharmaceutical drugs, this might be a good thing – but if there’s no risk of harm, why wait?

It’s too hard to standardise 

The “gold standard” of scientific research is the randomised controlled trial. By definition, such a trial needs to be testing one intervention, with all the other variables held constant. A few of these have been done, but the results aren’t conclusive, because they can’t be

If you trial 100 people on a gluten-free diet, 10 of them might feel better. For those 10, that result could be life-changing, but overall, your trial is a failure because everyone didn’t get better. But the point is that everyone isn’t meant to because everyone is different. 

Five of those 10 might improve further on a dairy-free diet too, or if they eat more plant foods, or heal their gut. Some of the other 90 might have issues with candida, or mould exposure, or their blood sugar.

There’s no single lifestyle intervention that will help everyone… beyond the obvious ones that we’ve already accepted because they really are universal, like stopping smoking, exercising, getting more sleep and eating less sugar.

Unfortunately, instead of the medical community as a whole saying “hey, these things help some people, they’re worth a try”, they tend to say “there’s no evidence for that, so don’t bother”.

(The funny part is that the efficacy of drug treatments are on the whole also pretty crap… for example, people with high cholesterol who may be at risk of a heart attack are prescribed a statin – a drug that lowers the level of “bad” cholesterol in your blood. Usually, you need to then stay on this drug forever.

But the “number needed to treat” (NNT) for statins taken over five years is 104 – which means that for every 104 people put on a statin for five years, one heart attack will be prevented. But the number needed to harm (NNH) is only 50 – “one in 50 people on statins develops diabetes and one in ten experiences muscle damage as defined as rhabdomyolysis”.

On the other hand, switching to the Mediterranean diet for five years has an NNT of 61, with no harms found.)

No one wants to fund the research anyway

Who’s going to put up the money for the kind of massive, intensive trial that would show results in this kind of stuff… Big Broccoli? This is not me digressing into Big Pharma conspiracies – just me saying that research costs a lot of money, and it’s generally funded by those who can make that money back from positive results of the research (like drug companies). 

No one organisation is going to make billions from everyone eating a better diet and reducing their stress.

We think about things in boxes

The way we think about and classify disease is also working against us. We’ve built a system of specialists, classifications and interventions. We think about our bodies as a series of separate boxes rather than an interconnected whole. If you have a problem with your teeth, you see a dentist. If you have a problem with diarrhea and stomach cramps, you see a gastroenterologist. No one ever connects your bad teeth to your irritable bowel.

We’ve made medicine into an assembly line – you get 15 minutes to outline your symptoms, we check them against the way we’ve classified diseases, assign a name to whatever is wrong with you, and then give you the “standard of care” solution. Which is usually a drug, and may have loads of side effects or not even be particularly effective (see the statin example above). 

The dentist might remove your sore tooth, or give you a root canal so you can’t feel the pain anymore. The gastroenterologist might put you on an anti inflammatory or give you painkillers. But if both problems were caused by an imbalance in your microbiome, you might end up in a different doctor’s office six months later, being treated for depression or candida or joint pain.

We see what we want to see

In functional nutrition, if you discover an intolerance to dairy or soy or corn and remove it from your diet for a period of time, while also working on improving your digestion and the quality of your diet, supporting your liver or other organs, and rebuilding your microbiome, you may eventually be able to start eating those foods again. This could be because you’ve healed your leaky gut, calmed your immune system, and/or reduced inflammation. Being able to resume eating a food you were intolerant to is evidence of success.

But to the medical establishment, that’s often seen as proof that the intervention didn’t work, or was all in your head. See! You can eat the thing again – that means you were never really intolerant to it! The fact that you also got better is just a coincidence.

To me, there’s a real cognitive dissonance to this view. It’s not like we don’t know how crucial vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins are to our health. We also know that 60% of the average (American) diet is now made up of processed sugar, white flour and vegetable oil – substances which have plenty of calories, but basically no nutritional value*.

Both of the doctors I saw personally about my lichen sclerosus decided to think of my recovery as “spontaneous remission” rather than accept that changing my diet had anything to do with it. Like, when the science they’d been taught didn’t match with the results they saw, they preferred to believe it had just happened by magic rather than consider new information. It still boggles my mind.

We like to believe the system is the best system

I think we really hold onto the idea that whatever the “usual” way of doing things must be the best way. I can see why – any deeper interrogation of modern society is a one-way rabbit hole that leads straight to an existential crisis. (She says, from inside the hole.)

But… the way we do school isn’t the best way of educating children. The way we farm is definitely not the best way of growing food. The way we work is absolutely not the best way to achieve a healthy, productive society. Most of our systems seem to be at best a series of accidents that built over time until they turned into reinforcing loops. Modern life is now a perpetual motion machine that we can’t figure out how to slow down, let alone point in a new direction.

Mainstream isn’t necessarily mainstream, anyway

I’d like to add one more point here, that’s becoming more and more apparent to me the longer I’m out in the world talking to people about my own health journey. Being a hardheaded, super-skeptical member of Team Science, readjusting my world view to accept that there was this whole field of health I’d never heard about, and that all these chronic diseases and mental health issues we’re suffering from are not only abnormal but also highly likely to be fixable, felt like I had to rewire my entire perspective on the world. It sounds dramatic, but I felt like everything I’d thought was true and solid was revealed to be – at best – some really mushy jelly, and I had to re-learn how to live on suddenly shaky ground.

So I’d assumed that the process of talking about this with anyone else would be similar – I’d either become an instant pariah, or I’d have to provide a full dissertation with footnotes and references in every conversation. But it turns out that just because my doctors don’t believe me doesn’t mean that everyone else agrees with them. 

Every day I seem to talk to someone else who’s experimenting with this diet or that intervention because their doctor couldn’t help them, or they just know in their gut that they should feel better than they do. The problem is that most of them are doing it on their own, without help, in a scattershot trial-and-error way based on anecdotes or Instagram ads.

I feel like I’m still integrating this new model of the world into my brain. I still hold my breath every time I recommend someone makes a dietary change to try and help a health issue, and I’m still gobsmacked every time that change works. Recently I suggested a relative could try a gluten and dairy free diet to see if it helped his ulcerative colitis. I was not only still slightly shocked when his symptoms promptly resolved, but equally shocked (and amazed) that when he later tried a gluten challenge, the bleeding resumed the next day. 

It’s not that it works, because the more I learn, the more the science and the theories make so much sense to me – it’s that any medical professional (let alone basically all of them) would leave fixing the fucking problem out of their arsenal when it’s readily available as an option.

This stuff should not be fringe – but to make it mainstream, we’re not only going to need to change the information we teach to our health professionals, we’re going to have to rethink our entire food system, as well as the way we work, play, interact, sleep, clean ourselves, and more. It’s terrifying, and overwhelming – but also so freaking exciting. 

Some good places to start if you’re keen to find out more

Broken Brain podcast

Doctor’s Farmacy podcast

I’ve read dozens and dozens of books in the last year or two that expand on these ideas – what will speak to you will probably depend on what you’re personally dealing with. I reckon podcasts are the best way in – you can find what you’re interested in and choose to dig further from there.

That said, some of my favourites are:


*I’d go further and say they have negative nutritional value – not only are they not helping you get all the things your body needs to work properly, but they’re actively making you sick. More on that another time!

Categories
HEALTH + NUTRITION PERSONAL

New site, new me

It’s been a while. My life has changed so fundamentally that I haven’t known where to start, or how to even begin to convey the shift without losing everyone immediately. 

(Before we go any further: no, I didn’t find Jesus. Even worse.)

The background

Almost a year and a half ago, I was finally diagnosed with a skin condition on the autoimmune spectrum. It’s called lichen sclerosus, but I don’t recommend you look it up. The cliffs notes version is that it causes the skin on and around your lady parts to turn white, thin, and itch incessantly. Because the skin is so thin, scratching the itch (or doing anything that irritates the skin, such as, say, having a bowel motion, or sex) splits the skin and causes bleeding, fissures, and lots and lots of pain. Oh, and more itching. Endless, relentless, mind-bending itching.

Getting the diagnosis had been a journey of almost a year of daily misery – but my relief was short-lived. I was given a tube of steroid cream to help with the itching and told there was nothing else anyone could do. I was likely to have this forever, and it would never get better. Sucks to be you, my doctor said kindly, and shovelled me out the door.

Around the same time, I was told that my thyroid was “normal”, even though I was positive I hadn’t been ovulating since getting pregnant with Luca, my periods barely lasted two days, I was so exhausted that I could barely climb the stairs, my toes frequently got so cold they went numb inside my shoes, my brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool and I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to feel excited or engaged by anything. 

The only upside was that I didn’t really mind that it was too painful to have sex, because my sex drive had completely vanished, and taken my imagination with it. I’d not only stopped writing fiction, I couldn’t even be bothered to read it – my brain couldn’t see the point of wasting time on anything that wasn’t real.

My lower back also hurt so badly that lying flat on the floor felt like I was lying on bars of hot metal, and then my knees started to hurt too – until every time I bent over sharp pains shot through my joints.

I’ve suffered from IBS since puberty, but my digestive problems were also getting worse and worse. I was constantly bloated and constipated. I had hay fever all the damn time, although it was hard to tell because I also always had a cold. I got every illness the kids brought home from daycare, and stayed sick long after everyone else was better. 

Just to round things out, I’d developed an allergy to my cat, and then I started having an allergic reaction to alcohol too (wine, you guys. My beloved wine!). Cutting onions made my eyes feel like they were exploding, and I’d randomly get hives for no reason. My nails, which had always been really strong, started to peel and split. My hair didn’t fall out, but it changed texture, managing to be both brittle and fluffy at the same time.

In short, I felt like I was falling apart. After Luca was born, I’d always thought we’d have a third baby, but I couldn’t see how it would be physically possible. I was genuinely convinced that if I did, my body would never recover. I felt like everything I wanted and cared about had melted away, until all I had left was my kids, Diogo, and dragging myself with gritted teeth through the bare minimum every day.

The road back

After the diagnosis, I couldn’t accept that that was just it. Take the steroids to dull the itching, and otherwise just live with being perpetually exhausted and stupid and in constant pain – it’s normal! You’re fine!

I wasn’t fine. I couldn’t be fine. This could not be it. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t accept it – I actually felt like I couldn’t. If this was the rest of my life, I felt like I wasn’t even sure it was worth living. I’m not saying I was hiding in my room sharpening the razor blades, but I decided I had to try and do something about my health myself. 

As a start, I cut dairy out of my diet again (I’d nixed it to good digestive result before getting pregnant with Nico, but during said pregnancy I’d gone balls-to-the-wall on ice cream and remained there ever since). I figured that anything that helped my IBS was bound to help the tearing and bleeding – even if it was just by making my bowel motions more regular.

So I ate a tonne of fibre. I went back on probiotics. I started lifting weights with a personal trainer twice a week and working even harder on our diets at home. At this point though, I thought our diets were already pretty good. I love to cook, and in trying (and totally, utterly failing) to lose the baby weight after Luca was born, I’d got pretty militant about what we were all eating. I made sourdough, home-cooked the vast majority of our meals, and got organic veggies delivered.

Cutting out dairy, it turned out, did help. It helped a lot. The itching subsided enough to stop me feeling like I was going to go insane. I mostly stopped bleeding when I pooped, and the agonising pain that had wracked me after a bowel motion went away. It still hurt, but nothing like it had. (There was a period where I’d had to lie down for half an hour or so after every BM, clutching the sides of the bed and heavy breathing through the pain.)

I’m a natural skeptic, but since removing dairy had been so helpful, I decided to go to a naturopath to see if there was any further advice she could give me. I had one appointment, where she said I needed to cut out dairy, gluten, meat, and all grains for three weeks and replace half my meals with smoothies made from a protein powder she managed to sell me for a truly ridiculous sum. She tried very hard not to call it a cleanse. I left with a pile of very expensive supplements and no idea why I was meant to take any of them, or how they were meant to help. 

Now, at this point, you need to know that my four-year-old takes after me. Every second word out of his mouth is “why?”. He needs to understand why he’s being asked to do something before he’s willing to do it. His sense of fairness and justice is very, very tied up in not only understanding how things work but why they work that way. At our first parent-teacher meeting, his preschool teacher told us that he’s a perfect student as long as A) he’s told why something is happening, and B) that reason feels both logical and just to him.

I can relate, kid. I call it my “problem with authority”, but it’s frequently more a problem with stupidity. I can’t abide doing things that don’t seem to have a purpose, or where the purpose doesn’t make sense. “Just because” has never cut it for me, even if I sometimes wish it would cut it with my toddler.

So a few days later, I asked the naturopath to call me. I really needed to understand why she was recommending what she was recommending. She couldn’t explain it to me – in fact, she barely even tried – so I didn’t do the cleanse.

There goes that idea, I thought. But later, I was telling my cousin about it and she said, “oh my god, you need to meet Shelley.”

Shelley was something called a “functional nutritionist”. She’d helped my cousin, who has celiac disease, get healthy when she got pregnant with her first child. In fact, she’d got her so healthy that it had caused her ongoing issues – her son had been born so plump and hale that when he later dropped into being the skinny string bean he was genetically destined to be, her Plunket lady became convinced he was malnourished and kept making her take him to the hospital for monitoring.

I left my first appointment with Shelley thinking maybe I was in love. Not only could she explain all the whys to me, but she was convinced that we could not only stop but reverse the lichen. She also wasn’t interested in only solving that problem, or even solving the hormonal problem I thought was underlying it – she wanted to go all the way back to my digestive issues and solve those too.

As she explained it, the lichen was caused by inflammation. My body was attacking its own tissues in a way it wasn’t meant to. But, unlike the other medical professionals I’d seen, she wanted to understand why the inflammation was happening. Your body doesn’t just start misfiring in a vacuum. Something has happened inside you to cause a malfunction, and that malfunction has built up over time. Your cells haven’t repaired themselves properly. And eventually, that malfunction manifests itself somewhere – on your skin, as a tumour, as fatigue or brain fog or depression, or numerous other symptoms.

She traced a path backwards for me. The lichen was the most visible end point of a chain that began with my digestive system. Light after light switched on. I couldn’t believe that there was this incredibly obvious solution just sitting here, and that no one was talking about it. Look after your body, and it will do what it’s meant to. We weren’t subduing my symptoms or changing anything in my body – we were just supporting it to find its own way back to health. 

And, to my wonder and surprise, it did.

The new normal

The size of the change that’s been wrought in me staggers me daily. But I don’t know how to talk about it, because it seems both so flimsy and obvious (eat vegetables!), and considering the way we think about medical issues in this modern world, so incredibly unlikely (eat vegetables!). We helped my digestive system work better, took out foods it turned out I was intolerant to, added a few supplements to support things that hadn’t been functioning well… and it changed my life.

My lichen sclerosus is not only symptom-free (except for one day a month around my period, and if I accidentally eat gluten, dairy, oats or corn), but I’m having regular, totally PMS-free periods every 28 days for the first time in my life. I’m not allergic to wine, or my cat, or the pollen outside. I hadn’t even realised I’d always had an issue with post-nasal drip until it stopped.

For the first time since I turned 12, I’m free of IBS. I have a bowel movement every morning after I wake up, and it’s never painful or crampy or surprising. I don’t get constipated or suffer from regular diarrhea. I’m not so bloated I could be 8 months pregnant after every second meal.

I sleep well and wake up feeling good. For the first time I can ever remember, I have actual, real live energy. I’m excited to do things, and my brain feels like it’s firing on every cylinder. I’m not depressed or fatigued or foggy. I’m not living with a constant hum of vague anxiety in the back of my head.

My nails are strong. My skin is clear. When everyone else gets sick, I often don’t – or at least I get less sick, and I get better faster.

What am I taking to effect this massive, life-affecting change? I still take a couple of NAC every day, but other than that: nothing. I avoid dairy, gluten, oats and corn. I’m careful about vegetable oils and sugar. I go for a walk every day and try to meditate at least a few times a week. I go to bed early. That’s really about it. My entire life changed, and all I had to do was give up KFC. I don’t know how to explain it to people without sounding ridiculous.

I tell friends about this and they say “but what do you eat?” and “I couldn’t do it – it doesn’t sound worth giving up bread/pastry/cheese/pizza”.

All I can say is this:

I eat better than I ever have – and I love to eat. It was hard to get used to, it took a long time to fully adjust, and I went through all five stages of grief for every food I realised was causing my symptoms to flare up, but now, I don’t miss it. Genuinely. Would I like a piece of hot, crusty sourdough with butter? Yes. But instead I have some variation on eggs and bacon and mushrooms and avocado and kale for breakfast every morning, and I feel amazing after it. I eat soups and salads and stews and curries and tacos – I just make them myself, without gluten or dairy.

It helps that eating even a tiny crumb of butter makes me itch until I bleed and then feel exhausted and depressed for a week, but feeling strong and healthy and filled with energy is more than worth giving up the 10 minutes of bliss while the KFC was in my mouth (right before the stomach ache kicked in).

I think an awful lot of us have forgotten (or never known) what it feels like to actually be healthy. We’ve normalised things that just aren’t normal – bloating, headaches, constipation, feeling tired all the time, period pain, sore backs and knees, zits, skin issues and rashes, anxiety… 

We understand on a basic level that food, stress, sleep and exercise matter for our health, but we don’t understand how much, or how far our “normal” lives have strayed from what our bodies actually need.

I understood that my body needed vitamins and minerals, but I had no idea what those vitamins and minerals actually did, or how many I was getting in my diet. It turns out that if you eat a “standard” diet, it’s pretty much impossible for your body to get all the things it needs to keep your cells healthy. The breakdown will be slow and gradual, but over time you will start to break down. Those less lucky (like me) will break down faster and develop chronic or autoimmune diseases that will significantly affect their quality of life.

In our polarised world, there seem to be only two possible camps now – either you believe in science, and therefore surgery and pharmaceutical drugs are the only “real” ways to treat disease, and anything else is just the placebo effect or hippie nonsense; or you’re a full-on anti-vaxxer sharing conspiracy theories on facebook. 

But there’s a middle path. Science is amazing and we’ve learned things that have saved countless lives, but we’ve learned mostly how to treat the symptoms of disease. If I get hit by a bus or have a heart attack, I’m going to be deeply grateful for medical science. But medical science doesn’t have all the answers yet, and the focus on diagnosing and treating diseases lets a lot of us down, a lot of the time. 

I have a friend who went to her doctor with a rash covering her entire body, periods so heavy she could barely leave the house, constant exhaustion, constipation and depression – and because her blood tests were all “within range” she was told there was nothing wrong with her.

Another friend went to the same naturopath I mentioned above, did the “cleanse” and her heavy periods resolved. But she didn’t learn anything or come away with any permanent changes to her lifestyle – she finished her four weeks and went straight back to her old life. I saw her six months or so later and asked if she was still feeling better. She cheerfully told me all her issues had come back, so her doctor was booking her in for a hysterectomy. 

They were removing an organ from her body rather than figure out what was causing the problem – and I felt like I was the only person in the room who thought this was insane! Especially because, since removing her uterus won’t solve whatever imbalance is happening, she’s likely to find herself a year down the track with new symptoms elsewhere in her body. 

Your organs don’t operate in a vacuum. Everything is connected to everything else. 

And everything starts with what you’re putting in – your body literally makes itself out of what you put into it. It takes the fats and amino acids and vitamins and minerals from your food and creates literally everything that makes you you. And if it’s not getting enough, or it can’t absorb what it’s getting, or it’s under too much stress (from illness or inflammation or actual stress), it will start prioritising what it keeps running and what it lets start to fail. It’s that simple and that complicated.

How am I so sure? Because I got so into this stuff after seeing the change in my own life and health that I’m now part way through a diploma in nutritional therapy. This is a real thing, and there’s a whole world out there of doctors and medical professionals practising what’s called “functional medicine”. This is the future, and it is the goods.

So this is me, reintroducing myself to you – and outing myself as a freshly-minted health nut. 

Told you it was bad.