Despite my best efforts, I’ve been dealing with the most frustrating, stubborn and seemingly random collection of health annoyances since I can remember.
Chronic exhaustion, brain fog, dry skin, acne, digestive issues, mild depression, bloating, migraines, trouble concentrating, anxiety, occasional dizziness, the inability to create body heat… Just some of the nonsensical – or so I thought – assortment of ailments I’ve experienced most of my life. But through dealing with these issues and discovering their root, I’ve learned a hell of a lot about my body and my health.
1. Feeling terrible is not normal
I used to think some of these things were actually normal, as a lot of people do. I’d think, “Wow, it’s so crazy how when you become an adult you’re just tired ALL THE TIME,” or, “I guess mild depression and anxiety is just a thing people deal with all the time. ” When it came to other problems on this list, though, I felt like I was completely alone — why me? Why did no other 26 year old I know have a face full of acne? Why is my head splitting apart a couple of times a month with migraines while everyone else is fine?
But Google is a wonderful thing. As these symptoms became worse and worse, I asked the internet if it was just me, or if this was more than one human being should have to deal with.
2. You are what you eat
First I discovered the problems created by standard North American diet. That grains can make you sick, vegetables are practically medicine and sugar, soy and industrial oils mean trouble. Since going paleo over a year and a half ago, I’ve been the healthiest eater of anyone I know. Not that paleo is by any means the only way to be healthy – it all depends on what works for you and your body – but it has taught me that it absolutely matters what I put in my body.
I saw some impressive improvements by adopting the paleo diet – I gained some energy back, lost some extra pounds, my brain fog lessened and my depression all but disappeared. But so many problems seemed to be lingering. My skin didn’t clear, I was still freezing all the time and my migraines continued.
3. It’s okay to ask for help
I started working with a naturopath to figure out what I was doing wrong. Within the first couple of visits we figured out a few things: although I ate pretty clean, I wasn’t exactly steering clear of sweets – I definitely had a thing for maple syrup, honey and tropical fruits. Not to mention I was deficient in B-vitamins, magnesium and zinc – some pretty key players in the nutrient world. Another thing we discovered: my stress was likely not helping matters.
Things improved more – I got rid of my headaches and started focusing on reducing stress – but still, the brain fog, exhaustion, acne and concentration issues persisted. I suspected there could be some food sensitivities and my naturopath agreed. I got screened and uncovered some major intolerances: gluten, sugars, almonds, eggs, nightshades and anything fermented were now an absolute no-go zone. It turned out I likely had a bad bacteria overgrowth in my gut and it needed to be addressed. After a lifetime of indulging my sweet tooth, a decade of being on oral contraceptives, a handful of rounds of antibiotics and generally being a bit of a stress-case, it made sense to me that my good gut bacteria had been overtaken by the bad guys.
4. Stand up for yourself
After cutting the problem foods out completely, I noticed my skin improving and digestive issues gradually resolving… but still, I continued to have smaller breakouts and I certainly wasn’t feeling any less tired. By this point, I was incredibly frustrated. I felt like I was doing everything right: I was eating tons of leafy greens, I’d eliminated all of the foods that turned up on my intolerance screening, I was making everything from scratch and I was taking the supplements I’d been prescribed to treat my condition. And it just wasn’t solving all of my problems. I was OVER IT.
So I asked my naturopath what she thought. Why was I still so tired? How come I was cold all the time? Why wasn’t my acne completely clearing up?
One thing I like about my ND is that she isn’t an alarmist – she is calm and rational and reassuring. She doesn’t jump to scary conclusions as soon as I throw a bunch of symptoms at her. And that’s really important. She is patient and discerning and relies on the science to tell her if a symptom is stemming from something simple or something more serious. I appreciate that a lot.
However, I’ve learned that it’s just as important for me as a patient to listen to my hunches, and to persist in communicating my symptoms to her. Most people, if they feel unwell, will go to a doctor with their complaints and ask what’s wrong. Many times, the doctor will, out of jadedness or overwork or simply a hesitancy to draw rash conclusions, gently dismiss the patient’s concerns. And unfortunately, most people then accept that answer and drop it, assuming it’s normal and something they will have to learn live with. I am not one of those people.
So when I brought my questions to my naturopath, and she wanted to wait and see if a little more time on the restricted diet and supplement plan resolved them, I stood down. She is a professional, after all, and has dealt with these issues many times before. But when, weeks later, there was still no change, I asked again. And again. And again.
And you know what? She agreed with me. She listened to me. Much of that is a testament to her excellent care, but most of the credit goes to me. Because she can’t help me with something she isn’t aware of. And only I know how I feel. And I’ve realized through all that I’ve read and learned that – see point number one – how I’ve been feeling isn’t normal. And it isn’t something I should have to, or am willing to, just live with. So I’ve learned to advocate for myself – to speak up when something isn’t right.
5. Listen to your gut… literally and figuratively
With the help of my naturopath and a LOT of my own research, I’ve finally found the source of my symptoms. As Hippocrates, the grandfather of medicine himself, put it over two thousand years ago, “All disease begins in the gut.” And that certainly appears to be the case with me.
On top of the bacterial overgrowth, which was definitely causing some of my symptoms, I also have a case of increased intestinal permeability – more commonly known as “leaky gut.” These two ailments often go hand-in-hand. In fact, leaky gut and bacterial overgrowth share many of the same causes – including stress, poor diet, alcohol consumption and both prescription and over-the-counter medications – and can even trigger one another.
Having a leaky gut literally means that the contents of your intestines can make their way through your gut lining and into your body and bloodstream, wreaking havoc on your immune system, which is immediately and constantly dispatched to fight off these foreign invaders. This can lead to food sensitivities, increased inflammation and even autoimmune diseases (when your immune system begins to attack your own organs or tissues due to environmental triggers – to learn more about this, I highly recommend Dr. Sarah Ballantyne’s The Paleo Approach).
It is possible to reverse this damage, though, and that’s just what I’m working on doing. Through the elimination of the foods, beverages, medications and external stressors contributing to the problem, and the introduction of healing alternatives, the gut can gradually repair itself. In addition to my previous dietary adjustments, I’ve also stopped eating nuts and seeds, which are very common irritants for those with leaky gut. I’m now focusing on increasing my intake of nutrient-rich foods like bone broth and seafood, and am even on the search for a good source of grass-fed, pastured organ meats in my area (something I honestly never thought I’d be looking for). These changes, all of which fall under the Autoimmune Protocol, or AIP, can accelerate healing by reducing gut-irritating foods and upping the intake of amazing vitamins, minerals and micronutrients.
6. Educate yourself
I wouldn’t be healing the way I am today if I hadn’t taken it upon myself to do hours and hours of research and learn as much as I possibly could about how the body works and what’s going on inside my own. As important as it is to find an expert health care practitioner to work with on your healing journey, it’s equally important to know your stuff so you can be a key part of your own wellness team.
I’ve spent countless hours learning everything I can about diet, nutrients, skin health, healing the gut, cortisol and adrenal function, thyroid function, sleep, stress management, limiting exposure to toxins, hormone health, exercise, healthy body care products and safe and effective supplements… Just to name a few. Armed with this knowledge, I’m able to make the most of my visits to my naturopath, which I pay for myself out of pocket. Doing my research – on reliable sites with legitimate sources – allows me to bring ideas and important information into my meetings with my ND that help us zero in on symptoms, links and potential causes that much more quickly.
Understanding how your own body works also helps you pay better attention to how it works, and allows you to know what to look out for as you’re working to diagnose and heal. While there’s such a thing as an unhealthy level of obsession with your health or ailments – ahem, hypochondriasis – it can be invaluable to familiarize yourself with the latest scientific research that could just be the key to helping you heal.
7. Everything is connected
Health is holistic. Period. End of story.
The body is not compartmentalized, divided up into separate and self-contained boxes – and neither is illness. There is an abundance of research being done currently that demonstrates a clear connection between our guts, immune systems, nervous systems, endocrine systems, organ function and brain health. By approaching our health in a whole-body way, it helps us to understand what our symptoms mean and how to fix them.
As you can probably tell, a lot of my treatment to date has focused around a real food, nutrient-dense diet, supplementing to address my vitamin and mineral deficiencies and figuring out which foods cause problems for me. While this is absolutely critical to healing, AIP, and the paleo diet in general, also both advocate the importance of lifestyle factors like quality sleep, stress management and the proper amount and type of exercise for your body, all of which I’m also working hard to implement.
Since I’ve removed nuts and seeds, I’ve seen an almost instant improvement in my skin. My existing blemishes are clearing up quickly and new breakouts are slowing rapidly. They say that the skin is the last thing to show improvement as your body heals, so I’m taking this as a very exciting sign!
My work on improving my sleep and stress management are paying off, too – although it’s tough, I’m feeling a better each day that I prioritize my sleep and stress resilience. I have instated a hard-cutoff bedtime of 10:00 PM every night, and support my sleep quality by turning off all electronics and screens at least an hour before bedtime, wearing blue-blocking glasses in the evening and making sure I’m getting enough magnesium. I’m not in a place with my health and energy levels where I can do a lot of hard-core cardio exercise – it’s never really been my thing, anyway – but I do walk at least 40 minutes per day outside, schedule in a LOT of downtime, practice yoga at least a few times a week and meditate almost every day to help manage stress. There is a noticeable difference for me between the days where each of these falls into place, and those when I’m missing a few.
With a busy work life, everyday stresses, a demanding diet and chronic fatigue, I’m far from perfect. But I’m learning and trying every day. And with the help of my ND, so many great resources out there and the determination to feel better, I know I’ll get there.