Health Is Not My Biggest Challenge

I’m not well. I haven’t been well for a long time. It’s hard to admit that. To myself. And to you. But it’s the truth.

Crohn’s Disease was the dominant aspect of my health landscape. It was the focus of attention – mine and my doctors’ – for ten years. Medical treatment was a double-edged sword. The surgery saved my life. But the pharmaceuticals put it at risk again. Fortunately, I discovered the power of diet and lifestyle before it was too late. After much experimentation, failure and persistence, I have (more or less) reversed the disease. That’s huge. A miracle of sorts. And I am truly grateful. But the story doesn’t end there.

Crohn’s was never the problem, you see. A dysregulated immune system was. A problem compounded by immunosuppressant drugs, bowel surgery, and too many years of bad living. While the Crohn’s is now well managed, finding my way back to health is a much longer road. Why am I telling you this? Two reasons. It’s therapeutic for me (a problem shared…). And it’s important for you (all seven of you) to understand what I’m about. What this blog is about. I’m not pontificating from an unattainable ivory tower of wellness. I’m not telling you how easy it is to look like a bronzed, waxed athlete. To be brimming with happiness and vitality every bloody day. Because that’s not reality. Despite what the bouncy-haired, 20-something fitness celebrity tells you. I’m in the trenches with you. With a broken bowel, emotional ups and downs, and back hair. Struggling. Striving. Trying to figure all this out.

My Crohn’s disease isn’t cured. And it never will be. But I have addressed the underlying causes. And, as a result, the symptoms have all but gone. (I must write a post soon on tackling the autoimmune process). Those symptoms start to reappear, however, if I drift from my carefully forged path. Even slightly. And I do drift. From time to time. It happened recently. Alcohol was the main culprit. As a rule I don’t drink. Because it’s not worth the pain. But every year or two, I step gingerly off the wagon. To test the water, so to speak. And by Jove it feels good. Every time. So, of course, I dive right in. Every time. And I’m reminded quickly – and aggressively – why I don’t drink anymore. It took me a whole month to recover from a recent wedding! Dark chocolate was becoming a problem too. I’m not particularly tolerant of beans. Even fermented beans like chocolate. But a bit of the high-quality dark stuff here and there gives me a lot of pleasure and very little trouble. The thing is, my personality finds ‘a bit here and there’ wholly unacceptable. If some is good, more is better, surely! I was up to half a (large) bar a night. More at weekends. I’m now back in gut-healing mode. Chocolate-free and teetotal for the foreseeable. The point here is that my Crohn’s will always be there. Waiting. I think of it like a friend. Someone to give me a nudge when I’m putting my health at risk.

It’s the other stuff that bothers me. I talked about this in a previous post. It’s been going on for more than two years now. And it’s bloody horrible. Way worse than the Crohn’s ever was. Fatigue, cognitive problems, and joint pain are constant features of my day. Mood swings and irritability, with a sprinkling of depression, join the party way too frequently. And my digestive system is all over the place. Severe constipation, horrendous gassiness, and stomach pain/nausea. (I know what you’re thinking. But it’s not the Crohn’s. I know what my old friend feels like. This is different). Lyme disease is probably part of it (I had a positive diagnosis last year), but there are other factors at play, particularly in the gut. I experimented with a herbal Lyme protocol over the summer. Considered the best non-pharmaceutical treatment, with no reported side effects, I figured it was worth trying. That’s my general approach with this stuff. If there is good rationale, no downside, and significant upside, then I’ll give it a whirl. There were some positive signs. For example, I was able to put on weight for the first time in years. And I experienced some of the classic symptoms of bacterial die-off (Jarisch-Herxheimer reactions). But I stopped after four months to focus on my worsening gut issues. Until the gut is healed and functioning properly, there is little point in doing much else. I needed a clearer picture of what else was going on.

It was time for my annual set of tests. As usual I procrastinated for a while first. Why? Because it’s unnerving. Frightening even. To be faced with objective confirmation of a potentially serious health problem. I’ve done a lot of these tests now, and I’m still uncomfortable about it. But ultimately, I recognise that knowledge is power. It’s better to know than not know. Because you can do something about it. Take action. Anyway, I eventually got the tests done throughout the summer. The trick with biochemical testing, is to use the minimum number of tests which give you the most complete information. I’ve iterated down to three. All of them can be ordered by a registered healthcare practitioner, and you simply mail your samples to the relevant lab and await the results. The first is a blood chemistry panel. For this you need to have your blood drawn by a phlebotomist (most private hospitals will do this for a small fee). I have used Functional DX the last couple of times, but there are many others. The second is an organic acids test. I use Great Plains, but I hear the one from Genova (Genova) is also good. A urine sample is all that’s required, so it can all be done at home. The third is a comprehensive stool analysis. This can also be done at home, but it’s slightly more, erm, involved than a urine sample. I used Doctors Data, but, again, there are several others. I added a fourth test this time. For SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Most of our microbial pals live in the colon. If too many colonise the small intestine, it can cause some pretty nasty problems. And could certainly help explain some of my symptoms. Aerodiagnostics is considered the best, so I used them. It involves taking breath samples throughout day. To be frank, it’s a bind. But it can all be done at home.

It took two to four weeks for the results to come through. And, of course, I put off looking at them for a good six weeks (I was busy!). Eventually I overcame the fear, and got stuck into researching every line item (I’m still at it). It’s laborious work, but fascinating. And the results certainly tie in with my symptom picture. There’s something pleasing about that, at least. So, what did they show?

  • An overgrowth of bacteria (and possibly yeast) in the small intestine. (Due to dysfunctional immune system? Resected bowel? Stress?)
  • Inflammation associated with chronic infection. (Due to Lyme and SIBO?)
  • Compromised energy production. (Due to chronic infection? Nutrient deficiencies? Under-active thyroid?)
  • Low thyroid and sex hormones. (Due to chronic infection? Low carbohydrate diet?)
  • Protein malabsorption. (Due to a damaged gut?)
  • Lack of diversity in colonic bacteria, and severe lack of lactobacilli and bifidobacterium, our friendliest microbes. (Due to dysfunctional immune system? Resected bowel? Stress?)
  • Dysregulation of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good chemicals. (Due to chronic infection? Nutrient deficiencies?)
  • Elevated homocysteine, a risk factor for many diseases. (Due to nutrient deficiencies? Excess muscle meat?)

You may think all this information would be overwhelming. And you’d be right. But being able to see how the different biochemical and physiological markers connect to each other, to my history and to my current symptoms is liberating somehow. It provides reasons, and enables me to form a plan of attack. And I like to have a plan. Something to do. I can’t wait for things to happen or for somebody else to do it for me. It’s like sitting in a traffic jam on the motorway. It might be the easiest route, but you have no control. Give me the clear country road anytime.

And what am I doing about all this? My priority is to resolve the SIBO problem, heal my gut, and get it working properly. This is going to take some more research on my part, and I think will involve a combination of antimicrobials supplements and temporary diet changes (starve the little buggers!). When this is done, I will have another crack at the Lyme. In the meantime, there’s plenty to be getting on with. I’m upping my intake of folate, vitamin B12, vitamin A, zinc, co-enzyme Q10 by eating more organ meat (my Instagram feed shows evidence of this in explicit, gratuitous detail). I’m also taking vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, copper in the form of supplements. (A quick aside on supplements. Excessive amounts of some vitamins and minerals can be toxic. I have identified specific deficiencies, and carefully researched the appropriate dosage). I’m also significantly increasing the amount of carbohydrate in my diet, in an effort to boost thyroid and sex hormones. And eating more collagen-rich foods to counter the homocysteine-generating effects of muscle meat. Repairing my gut bacteria is also something I can do now. I’m taking a probiotic called VSL#3, which provides a super-high dose of lactobacilli and bifidobacterium. And, as ever, I’m trying to get more sleep and reduce overall stress levels.

I hope it works. I really do. I want to feel better. Because it’s affecting my life. And I’m going to keep working at it. But the temptation is to put life on hold until that day arrives (because everything will be easier then, right?). To use it as an excuse to avoid doing the hard things – the important things – now. But that’s no way to live. I need to get the most out of every single day. That’s my biggest challenge.

Own your health

– James.

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