This series was hard for me to write. The process was emotional, and made me feel pretty vulnerable, as you could probably tell from all the jokes.
As always, you’ve made this worth it. So many of you are reaching out to say you’ve had health issues too, that you’re trying acupuncture, or exercising for the first time, or just taking better care of yourself because of something you read here. And if I thought writing the posts was emotional, reading your comments, emails, and messages on Twitter has been a bit of a roller coaster. I want all of us well, and I’m thankful to play any role in that.
Checking this off seems profound and flip at the same time. It feels like saying I’ve achieved perfect health, but it’s more an expression of gratitude. I finally have systems in place to help me cope when things go awry. I don’t ignore what my body needs anymore, and I do things every day to take care of myself. That is such a dramatic shift from where I was a few years ago, it’s a little breathtaking to look back.
If you need to improve your health, here’s the whole health series at a go:
One thing we didn’t touch on much is stress. I’ve learned that stress is a huge trigger for my immune system to revolt, and the love and support of friends and community is as healing as anything else I’ve tried.
So thank you for loving up on me all these years, and please take good care of yourselves. I like having you around.
Yep, we’re still talking about my health, so you might find someone else to stand next to at the cocktail party for a while. Getting healthy is on my life list, so here’s Part I: Ow My Everything Hurts, and Part II: Acupuncture is Not Scary, Part III: Dentists Are Kind of Scary, and Part IV: I Should Get Off the Couch. Please join us for this installment of “Oh, My Aching Back,” where we give up doughnuts, french fries, and hope.
I was blessed with a mother who told me my body was gorgeous until I believed her, plus a nutzo metabolism that kept my weight in check until I was about 19. So when I say my diet was poor until I was 25, I mean potato chips for breakfast, Top Ramen for lunch, and a sensible shake (plus Bacon Cheddar Burger with fries) for dinner.
When my metabolism finally wised up and started storing fat when I used heavy cream on my cereal, I was at a loss. I had to re-learn how to cook, but I had no grasp of nutrition. My first bit of education came before I knew I had health issues, when I finally went on a diet.
Understanding Nutritional Value
I gained about 15 pounds in college, which was no big deal because I looked like a pre-pubescent boy before that, and it was nice to finally have boobs. After college, I gained another ten pounds, cringed when I saw my upper arms in a photo from a friend’s wedding, and decided it was time to apply the brakes.
I tell you all this because Weight Watchers Online was my first education in eating well. If you’re not familiar with the program, they assign a point value to every item of food based on a formula that involves fiber, nutritional value, and so on.
At the time I knew things like donuts were bad for me, but I had no concept of how bad. I mean, it’s not like they were dusted with rat poison. But a filling, healthy meal on Weight Watchers at the time was about five points. A Dunkin’ Donuts doughnut? Eight Points. Starbucks doughnut? Twelve. As I logged my food for the day, it was a passive nutritional education. I now have a basic understanding of what’s bad for me, and what’s reprehensible.
I still use Weight Watchers whenever I need to lose weight, which is often because I need to stay slim to avoid taxing my joints unnecessarily. Yet another reason to overhaul my diet.
After dieting, I had a basic idea of how food worked, but I didn’t apply that knowledge except when I was trying to lose weight. As I mentioned, when my health tanked, I realized how bad things were because I tried the Quantum Wellness cleanse and felt amazing. Because I found that diet too restrictive to maintain, I needed a simpler way to eat better.
Everything I know about how my body interacts with food is from Dr. Oz’s You on Diet, which has specific recommendations for how to adopt a healthier diet overall.
Key points that stuck with me:
-I try not to keep food in my house if I know it’s hurting my body. If I want some potato chips, I can put on my sneakers and walk to the damn store.
-I avoid foods with any of the following in the first five ingredients of the label: 1. simple sugars 2. syrups 3. white flours 4. saturated fats 5. trans fat. Friends, unless you’re shopping at a seriously hippie store, this pretty much eliminates packaged food, which I found shocking. I won’t buy anything at all with high fructose corn syrup or trans fats, but after about a year with brown rice pasta, I just found it too difficult to give up regular pasta. Still, I eat maybe a quarter of the packaged food I used to. I just do the best I can.
-Standardize one or more of my meals. I pick a healthy breakfast (smoothie) or lunch (salad, turkey sandwich) and eat the same thing every day. Bam! Half my day is healthy by default.
-Trans fats are terrible for you not only because they’re extremely caloric. Your system doesn’t actually register them as food. So no matter how much you eat, your body never releases the chemicals that tell you you’re full. Yikes.
-I keep water in front of me all day long, and have a small dishes of nuts around so I can eat a few about twenty minutes before a meal. It triggers your body to release satiety chemicals, and most nuts are crazy good for you.
If you want a starting point, here’s Dr. Oz’s Ultimate Diet, which closely mirrors the book’s tenets on healthful eating. (If weight is your main health challenge, you’ll find specific weight management tips here.)
Vitamins and Supplements
By the time I started acupuncture, I was already taking a enough supplements and vitamins to stock a co-op. I’d been reading Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Life site, and I adopted lots of her recommendations (which I can’t find anywhere now, grr). As symptoms pop up, my acupuncturist suggests foods and supplements that can help, and they do.
My general rule for supplements is that I want my body to recognize them as food. I try not to swallow anything synthetic that my immune system may try to attack, so I look for vitamins made of whole foods. They’re more expensive, but I think of it like filling prescriptions.
Every morning I take a:
Women’s One Multivitamin
B-Complex – to battle stress hormones and boost immune function
Grape seed extract – to build artery walls and help with bruising, which works
Algae – recommended by my acupuncturist to “build blood”
L-Lysine – to keep cold sores at bay, and it’s incredibly effective
Calcium – suck it, osteoperosis
Vitamin E – for the heart and skin
Glucosamine Chondroitin – to build cartilidge
I also take acupuncture herb capsules for chronic knee and ankle pain. I take three at a time, three times a day in conjunction with the Glucosamine for my joints.
The herbs and Glucosamine have really worked miracles for me when I take them correctly. You’re supposed to take Glucosamine three times a day with food, which seemed so arduous. Then a few weeks ago I was having trouble walking and worried I might need another knee surgery. So I set three alarms on my phone and put some pills in my purse so I always had them with me. Such an easy solution, I feel stupid for waiting so long to just do it, and after just a week of taking my supplements the way I’m supposed to, my joints are functional again.
Three or four mornings a week, I also make a smoothie and add Flax Seed Oil for heart and brain function, a little ground flax seed for the same thing, and sometimes a little Psyllium Husk for fiber.
If you’re wondering what you should be taking, Dr. Oz’s vitamins and supplements chart is a useful resource. It’s comprehensive, so don’t let it overwhelm you; put together a routine based on where your health needs boosting.
At first, I felt weird about taking so many “pills.” I’m the kind of person who resists taking a Tylenol when i have a headache. But I’ve come to think of vitamins as food in condensed form. I’d rather take a handful of condensed food than have kale at every meal.
I bruise less easily, get fewer cold sores, have more energy, don’t really have issues with eczema any more, and have had surprising healing in my joints.
That’s about it. I’ve also been drinking only decaf coffee and tea aside from green tea, and I’m considering cutting out wheat again to see if it would dramatically effect my energy, but I’m taking it slowly. I also bought Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, which I’ve been avoiding reading because of the moral quandry I know will ensue.
In general, I’m trying to give my body better building materials, and if you’ve read this far, you probably are too. So here’s what I want to know from you:
- How have you come by the knowledge you have about food? Reading suggestions?
- Would you consider making a non-temporary change in how you eat? Have you already?
- Do you take supplements or do they freak you out? Do you believe they work?
Oof. This has been a long haul, no? Thanks for sticking with me.
If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about getting my health in shape, which is on my life list. Here’s Part I where I outline the obstacles, and Part II where I advocate for acupuncture, Part III is an ode to my teeth (Also, check out all the tips in the comments of this post on overcoming fear of the dentist. Nice!). Please join us for this installment of My Body Thinks My Joints are a Disease, wherein I outline my aversion to exercise.
Let’s talk about the gym. Yes, let’s. Go get a pint of ice cream and meet me back here.
Now. Say you’re hurting and feeling fat. OK! Let’s put on some shorts and go somewhere public. Great. Are there lots of men here? Perfect. Now do something that makes you sweat. You’re all sweaty? Now stop, lay down on the floor, and contort yourself in ways so lewd you would blush to adopt similar positions while having actual intercourse. Great, great. See how every man in the room is openly gawking at you? Ignore that. Consult your copy of Kama Sutra and assume the next position in your floor mat routine.
So motivational, right? I know!
I Have Not, Historically, Enjoyed Exercise
Until the last six months or so, I’ve never understood people who like the gym. I mean I thought they were maybe a different species, in that I could never mate with one. When my weight, and later my health, made it necessary for me to get off the couch, I just… didn’t want to. It ran counter to my self image.
I did it anyway, but mostly whimpered while exercising and slept afterward. This is perhaps because my body was storing toxins in my muscles that were released when I moved in new ways. Or perhaps because I was weak like a hairless mewling kitten. Aside from acupuncture though, building the muscles around my joints has had the greatest impact on my day to day life. It mostly started with Tracy Andersen.
“The next part of the abdominal series is the piking series,” Tracy Anderson says. What? Oh, it’s on Tracy Anderson. Through this section, I punish you by whimpering in disapproval. “This is the most difficult series for the abs” Tracy Anderson continues. I whack my right hand against a miniature xylophone, and glare at Tracy Anderson through narrowed eyes. Her tiny dancer body still fits entirely within my millimeter of vision. I stub my left toe on an abandoned Tonka truck. My millimeter of vision begins to swim.
I had resolved to try it for seven straight days, but by the second day I couldn’t rise from a reclined position. I also couldn’t hold my head upright, and my tongue felt all achy. I stopped after the second workout in self defense, but a strange thing happened, dear reader. As my stomach fibers began to recongeal, I could see a difference! After two workouts! Bryan concurs that I am not hallucinating.
As I mentioned above, exercise isn’t social for me; I prefer to keen on my hands and knees in the privacy of my own home. Also, getting to and from the gym eats up a lot of time. Unfortunately, the routine of the gym really helps me stick with regular exercise.
I desperately needed some self discipline, so last year I put a chart up on my wall — really it was just a small sheet of grid paper with a square for every day of the year. I decided I would move, at home, for 15 minutes each day and then check a box off when I did. I chose 15 minutes because it seemed like the bare minimum. Not doing it was the same as admitting I wasn’t willing to do anything at all.
The truth is, many days I’m not willing. On those days, I put a dot on the square I skip, and continue filling in boxes after it. Here’s my current chart, complete with typo, and a severe lack of motivation in the last few weeks:
But! I will eventually fill in all those dotted squares, I promise. Here’s the trick.
If I do an hour-long exercise DVD at home, which is what I often do, I get to check off three boxes — that day’s, plus two days I’ve skipped or two days I want to bank. That means, instead of punishing myself for skipping days, I just let myself make them up guilt free, as long as I do a few minutes more work than I’d have done otherwise. If I do an hour of something like walking, which doesn’t really get my heart rate up, I let myself check off two boxes.
Last year I went from sitting on the couch to working out about three times a week.
Well, obviously I have muscles I didn’t have before. The first time I could hold a plank position for more than five seconds, I was completely shocked. That’s been the biggest surprise for me, the sense of accomplishment when I see evidence that I’m getting stronger.
As for the pain, exercise reminds my body that I need it, and so far my body is rising to the challenge. If I don’t exercise, my knees, hips, and shoulders start issuing death threats. If I do exercise, they stop complaining after a few workouts, which is a pretty good deal.
I had non-injury related surgery on my knee when I was 25, and the plan is to avoid doing that again. So I’m choosing to exercise in hopes of maintaining my ability to walk until I’m 100 or so. And if fifteen minutes a day keeps the wheelchair away, that’s some excellent motivation.
Next, we’ll talk about what I’ve been eating. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your tricks for convincing yourself to exercise.
Historically, I’ve been so terrified of the dentist I would have panic attacks at the thought of going — I mean that literally. I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up, or possibly die a horrible dental chair death to a symphony of drills. This complicated things when I finally got dental insurance and had an appointment where they told me I’d need about $30,000 of work beyond what was covered. That was when I was 22.
If you’re similarly terrified of the dentist, I found that being trapped in the elevator at my dentist office really helped put things in perspective, so try that. Otherwise, my tips for overcoming dental paralysis for major procedures are as follows:
1. Manage your own pain. Accept that there’s no need for you to feel anything beyond the novocaine shot. The minute you do, ask for more novocaine. Because of the panic, I metabolize that stuff like crazy, and have to ask for up to two reapplications per procedure. Raise a finger so they know to pause and tell them you have sensation. A good dentist is uncomfortable when you are, and they’ll take care of it or explain your options.
2. Close your eyes. You don’t need to see the implements. Especially not the needle. Breathe.
3. Pay attention to your body. Note how your entire body is clenched like a vise? Concentrate on relaxing your muscles one and at time, from the toes up. Unclench your jaw. Unfurrow your brow. If you feel yourself panicking, start again from the toes.
4. Wear headphones. Loud, soothing music you rarely listen to in real life. No need to sabotage your favorite tunes with dental recall. Ask your dentist to squeeze your hand if he or she needs something.
5. Find an escape. If your dentist doesn’t already have one, ask him or her to hang a poster of a soothing scene (the ocean or something) on the ceiling above the chair. That way, if you do open your eyes, there’s something non medical to look at.
6. Care for yourself. When you’re back at home, ice your jaw and rinse gently with warm saltwater whenever you’re in pain. This controls swelling and infection, both of which cause a lot of the post-procedural pain. If they gave you painkillers, take them the first day even if you don’t think you need them. If they gave you antibiotics, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take every last one of them.
7. Take it easy. Trashy magazines, warm broth, ice cream.
What did I forget? Tips for making your dentists appointment more bearable? Fill us in.
If you’re just joining us and you’re into maladies, welcome! “Get my health in order” is on my life list. Here’s Part I where I outline the obstacles, and Part II where I explain that acupuncture does more than clean your aura. Please join us for this installment of Autoimmune On Parade, wherein I outline the expensive and inconvenient things I’ve endured to obtain Vicodin.
I’m eating lunch as I type this, and it’s kind of a miracle I can chew. Long time readers will be familiar with my dental escapades. (If not, you’ll want to rent my critically acclaimed “Dental Escapades XXX Get drilled.”) But to be candid, these last six months are the first time I’ve chewed without pain in about 15 years.
Take your tongue and trace all the teeth in your mouth that feel like molars, even the little ones. Now. With one or two exceptions, I’ve had root canals on every one of those teeth. That’s because my body has been attacking them. Before I knew this, I just assumed other people must be maniacs about tooth care. “Thanks for lunch! I’m just going to pop in the bathroom and floss before we go.”
My dentists reinforced this idea by shaking their heads and sighing with concern whenever they peered into my mouth. Two years ago I wrote:
When I go to the dentist, which I do every few minutes, they look at me like I’ve been sleeping with hard candy in my mouth, and waking to a hearty breakfast of dried apricots dipped in marshmallow fluff.
Your Body as an Ecosystem
At my first appointment with the acupuncturist, I told her I had a tooth that had been mildly infected for years, but recently had begun to bother me more. She insisted I make an appointment to take care of it immediately. I still don’t totally know why, but acupuncturists really wig when something is going wrong with your mouth.
So I went to the dentist, where I’d been eight months before, and he sent me immediately to an oral surgeon, who scheduled me for emergency surgery the next day.
I’m embarrassed to admit how numb I was to my health, what bad care I took of myself, but here goes. Before the surgery I’d had a toothache for a few weeks (nothing unusual there), but the pressure increased until it was unbearable for a day or two, and then it mysteriously subsided. I figured it was healing. What had actually happened was the infection had broken through to my sinus cavity, thereby relieving the pressure as the infection presumably flowed toward my brain.
Oral Surgery A-Go-Go
So I went through about a year of bone grafting. Healing. Having a screw placed into my jaw. Healing. Having an implant placed on the screw. Healing.
But here’s the upside. Because I had several recent X-rays on file thanks to all this oral surgery, and because I was starting to realize my body was an ecosystem thanks to acupuncture, I finally figured out that the problem wasn’t my now-near-obsessive oral hygiene habits.
One night, I was flossing a perfectly healthy tooth, and when I pulled the floss out, a shard of my tooth came with it. I shuddered, whimpered, and called the dentist.
At my appointment the next day I said, “I should tell you, this. I think I have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder. I think my body might be attacking my teeth. Please check my x-rays.” He did, and he agreed. It’s called dental resorption, and this is what I wrote about it last summer:
My teeth were just minding their own business, masticating, ripping open plastic packaging. Then my teeth glanced over at my immune system, and my immune system was all, “What are you staring at?” My teeth were like, “Nothing, man.” And BAM! My life is a Stephen King novella where I angered some mystic and now I’m paying in teeth.
The excellent team at my dentist’s office went from slightly stern and instructive, to empathetic and concerned. They’d always been great, but it was a palpable shift. I asked my hygenist about all that flossing instruction. “Did you just think I was a meth addict?” I said. She smiled.
“Well. You never know.”
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about my joints, diet, exercise, and supplements. And then my friends, we will check this mother off the list, and return to our discussions of ice cream and adventure sports. See you then.
Apparently I’m having trouble writing about my teeth. They’re so damn symbolic. Ugh. So! Let’s talk about something else for a minute while I regroup.
This makes me cry.
Tell me what makes you laugh or cry, and that way I can use comments as a reward for getting through the dental post. Ready? Go!
Photo by Helene Goupil.
When we last left our heroine, she was eating steamed broccoli and vegetable broth, crying silently into her herbal tea while a drum circle sounded in the distance.
I couldn’t maintain that diet, I was attracting hippies. Well, I’ll be more truthful. Sleeping 15 hours a day and being covered in itchy hives seemed more appealing than maintaining that diet. The cleanse did make me realize, however, what an idiot I’d been about my health. Be ye not so stupid.
The Western Approach
I scheduled an appointment with one of the best allergists in the city. In contrast to the first allergist who told me I was allergic to everything that brought light to my eyes, this one told me I was allergic to nothing except olive tree pollen. This meant I would have to stop sprinkling the sheets with olive tree pollen, and snorting it as a chaser to the aforementioned crushed cookies, but otherwise no problem.
He also “diagnosed” me with idiopathic uticaria, which means “you get hives, we don’t know why,” presumably in Latin. He said whatever was causing the hives was in my bloodstream, so I noticed more of them when I had wine and coffee because caffeine and booze increase bloodflow, which means more of those irritants were flowing past hive points. Huh.
I told him I was going to try acupuncture, though I didn’t believe in it and had a needle phobia. He told me he didn’t believe in it either, but to drop him a line if it worked. Man, I need to send that guy a letter.
Photo by Helene Goupil.
Because I’m afraid of needles (and apparently of making appointments), I put off my first appointment until I moved into an office with an acupuncture studio that literally shared a wall. (Okay, universe, I hear you.) Eva, the practitioner, was willing to work in trade, which is how I ended up having about 24 sessions before I really believed it worked.
At that first appointment, Eva asked about my whole body. How were my teeth? British. In fact, I had a chronic infection in a tooth right that moment. How were my joints? Barbie. I’d had non-injury related knee surgery when I was 25 because my knee just stopped working — my shoulders, elbows and hips were uncooperative when it came to simple things, like bending. What else? I had telltale tingling and pain in my forearms from all that time clicking around for my shopping sites. I had patches of (sexy) eczema that I thought was ringworm for years, relatively frequent (and sexy!) cold sores. And also? I was sleeping my life away.
Eva stuck me with needles and prescribed herbs for six months before I was convinced. I gradually slept less, and my hives were subsiding. In that time, and in the two years since, acupuncture has dramatically improved my health. I sleep like a normal person, I hardly notice the few hives that pop up, and now only on my chest and neck, instead of all over my face. I’ve come to realize my joint issues flare up in periods of stress (later, we’ll talk about why I’ve been limping around lately). I have very little arm pain, no eczema, and I’ve only had two or three cold sores in two years. The improvement has been slow, but better than I could have hoped.
Why it Worked for Me
Now, I’m not saying it was the needles alone that did all this, I also credit acupuncture with causing a paradigm shift in how I think about my body, and that led to all kinds of profoundly effective changes. Intellectually, I’d always realized my body was an ecosystem, but our medical system gives overt signs that you should think of your body in chunks, in terms of the specialists you see. Problems with your teeth are for the dentist, problems with your skin are for the dermatologist –- and except in extreme or unusual cases, neither of those specialists will ask you about what’s going on with “unrelated” parts of your body. Acupuncture’s message is that your tooth problems might be caused by the same thing that’s irritating your skin — everything is connected. And that realization changed everything for me.
I also found that once I was committed to a regular course of treatment for my body, I was more willing to do everything I could to improve my health because I didn’t feel so hopeless. If I’m getting acupuncture for carpal tunnel, I might as well also get a decent chair, and turn my track pad to touch clicking. If I’m getting acupuncture for jaw pain, maybe I should go get a damn mouth guard already. Maybe I could get a few books on how my diet affects my body and make some more informed decisions about what I’m eating.
But let’s not discount the treatments, I became a real advocate for acupuncture about six months into treatment, when I felt a woosh run down my forearm. It was like someone had poured warm water over me. There was a rush, a slight tingling, sort of an internal purr like an engine revving. It felt incredible. After that, I stopped having shooting pains, and now I only get tingling if I’ve been overtly stupid with computer use. Magic.
What I Learned
Together, Eva and I figured out that my hives come and go with my period — they’re worst the week before. When Eva moved to China with her wife, my new acupuncturist Kien looked over my charts and pointed out that a hive on my tailbone usually precedes a cold sore, so I need to take a Lysine supplement and meditate on healing for twenty minutes or so to head that off. I had intense itching on the web between my thumb and forefinger, and that turned out to be a sign that something very upsetting was happening with my teeth, so now I’m on the lookout for that. I know much more about the supplements I need to take that are particular to the problems I have, grape seed extract because I bruise easily for example, and now I take vitamins and herbs every day.
I always asked questions while Eva worked, so I gradually gained a small body of knowledge. Each needle placement has a specific purpose, there are “channels” that affect parts of the body or address particular emotions like stress or anger. Acupuncture needles are teeny so they’re mostly painless, you can’t even feel them go in, but once in a while you get a real zinger if something is amiss.
“OW! Owowowowow. What was that?”
“Oh,” she said. “Tooth channel.”
On Monday, let’s talk about oral surgery. And party hats!