We think of disease as serious. Because by the time we receive a diagnosis it often is. But disease starts long before any clinical symptoms manifest. If we can recognise the early signs and take action, we can delay or even avoid serious illness. Sadly, our medical system is not set up to do this. It requires a bit of DIY.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” John 8:32
In the world of medicine, a disease is the name given to a collection of symptoms. This isn’t helpful. In reality, disease is the breakdown in physiological function that ultimately leads to the clinical symptoms. Dis (a lack of) -ease (tranquility; well-being). An idiosyncratic symptom is the manifestation of a systemic problem. Thinking of disease in this way is much more useful. We can start looking for early, sub-clinical indications. We can head disease off at the pass.
The human body is incredibly robust. It will keep going even as its systems start to malfunction, but it will show signs. Excess stores of fat. Skin complaints. Intolerances and allergies. Joint pain. Lack of muscle mass. Disturbed sleep. Fatigue. Coughs and catarrh. Bowel issues. We think of these things as merely cosmetic, or just small isolated problems. Annoying. Uncomfortable. Embarrassing. But bearable. Would that perception change if you knew they were, in fact, canaries-in-the-coal mine? Warnings of a much more serious future outcome.
I’m not judging here. I’m not in a position to. My own body was trying to get my attention years before I laid on the operating table. I was overweight as a child. I got thinner through puberty, but this was due to me getting taller not healthier. I had teenage acne well into my twenties. And my bowels were always temperamental. Cosmetic problems? Sure. Difficult to talk about? Certainly. Provided for funny stories and banter? Absolutely. But they were signs. Hints of the clinical disease around the corner. The clues got less subtle as the Crohn’s disease developed, of course, but the early signs were there for the taking.
The small, outward signals are a handy barometer for health. Resolve the issues, restore your health. It really is that simple. But, as I keep saying, not easy. Conveniently, there is one solution to addressing most disease in the early stages. Lifestyle change. Diet is fundamental (see my previous posts on this here and here), but it’s not the only factor. Movement, stress management and sleep are crucial. Like with nutrition, the human evolutionary story holds the key to these other aspects too, and they will be discussed in more detail in future posts.
It would be convenient (and I could have gone to bed earlier!) if that was the end of the story. But it’s not. No obvious external signs? Lifestyle adjustments not providing complete resolution? Want to see the link between external and internal health? Unfortunately, your GP won’t be much help. They are trained to deal with clinical symptoms, not sub-clinical early development. So you need to own it. Fortunately, it’s shockingly straightforward these days to do your own diagnostic biochemical analysis (so-called ‘functional testing’). There are many private laboratories in Europe and the US providing a wide array of tests, from vitamin status to full genetic profiles. All you need to do is choose the test you want, order a test kit (which gets mailed to you), and send back a sample of bodily fluid (blood, stool, urine or saliva). A few weeks later you receive a detailed report. It’s advisable to do this in consultation with a knowledgeable practitioner, who can help advise, interpret and guide. But it really is that easy. And I can’t stress how useful it is.
Moving back to the UK from Dubai last year was nice. It felt great to be home. To be starting a new life. But the experienced was tarnished for me, because that same week my health took a nosedive. I can’t remember the exact day, but I woke up feeling different. Every fiber in my body wanted to rest. My head had been filled with concrete. And it didn’t go away. It got worse. Joint, muscle and tendon pain came soon afterwards. I’ll level with you; it was bloody frightening. In desperation I went to the GP. The laughably basic blood work showed that my vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iron levels were fine. Apparently, she couldn’t help any further. Thanks doctor! I eventually sought the help of a nutritional therapist (Elizabeth Cooper). Liz has helped me in many ways, but two stand out. She encouraged me to question the validity of my beloved vegan diet (I discuss how important this was here). And she guided me through a range of functional tests. Here’s a summary of the key discoveries:
- Gut flora problems. These included a general lack of diversity, a Helicobacter pylori infection (the cause of stomach ulcers), a Clostridium difficile infection (a dangerous gut pathogen) and a fungal overgrowth
- Omega-6:omega-3 imbalance. It was 12:1 in me. It should be closer to 1:1. Chronic inflammation is the outcome, a culprit in many diseases. Worryingly, the UK average is around 15:1
- High levels of toxic heavy metals (arsenic and cesium). The result of detoxification problems
- Underactive thyroid. The cause wasn’t obvious once we ruled out an autoimmune reaction (with a further test)
- Low stomach acid. The root of many digestive complaints. And very widespread
- High blood sugar. Just within ‘normal’ range but on the boundary of pre-diabetic. A symptom of my grain and legume-rich vegan diet
- Good vitamin and mineral status. A few minor deficiencies – vitamin C, B-vitamins, zinc, and magnesium
Any and all of these functional issues could (at least partly) explain the fatigue, brain fog and joint pain. They needed addressing regardless. With Liz’s help, I largely resolved them (apart from the thyroid issue). But my symptoms persisted. I started to notice other symptoms, including mood swings, depression, constantly feeling cold, sleep disturbance, gingivitis (swollen gums), and bladder problems (that’s one you refuse to accept readily!). It was time for further testing.
I’d heard about Lyme disease. But I thought it was an exotic infectious disease. Like Ebola. In other words, I couldn’t get it. Well, it turns out it’s not, and I did. Lyme explains all my symptoms, I can identify a viable point of exposure, and I tested positive for the Borrelia burgdoferi bacteria (in a test done by a renowned German lab using cutting-edge techniques). The point of exposure was likely a tick bite in a North London wood, but that wasn’t the cause of the infection. My immune system has been severely compromised for many years, and it was particularly depressed on our return from Dubai (the physical and emotional ‘moves’ were enormously stressful for me). The fact that I couldn’t fight the bacteria effectively is why I now have Lyme disease. The diagnosis is both scary (Lyme can lead to very serious complications if left unresolved – heart disease and multiple sclerosis to name two) and comforting (I now have a target to focus on). But knowledge is always better than ignorance. The truth can be hard to face, but it may just set you free.
You have a secret weapon against disease. And that is your ability to recognise and resolve the early disease signals emitted by your body. Don’t ignore them.
Own your health.