Pondering Next Steps in Health

When in early 2016 I began a daily exercise practice, I wasn’t sure how long I could stick with it and I certainly didn’t anticipate I would be writing a health blog six months later. Nevertheless, I’ve now known for more than a year that I wanted to find a way – or ways – to help people to be their healthiest selves. 

At first I considered becoming a personal trainer or getting certification to teach a style or brand of exercise that I loved. I still would love to do that someday, but after a lot of research I decided that wasn’t currently the best use of my money and time. Given my work following the auto-immune protocol, I started this blog to document my health journey as well as the progress I made even earlier through exercise and a mindful approach to my health. I’ve considered becoming a health coach someday as well. But currently, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. 

In my life, I love to do a variety of things. I’m self-employed with a variety of work. I love the arts, food, the environment and improving the lives of the people I care about. I love to write and edit and to help people get organized. And I would love to make more money doing these things. 

So how do you monetize a health blog where your focus is on making common sense choices, developing habits and on learning to know your body? Besides gaining a following and having advertisements, it seems like my best path would be to create a “system” with resources for people to follow or a book to read. And I’m not there yet, and I’m not currently sure if/when I’d be the best person to do that. 

So one of the choices I’ve been considering for many months is to become affiliated with a health company and market their products. M2M companies aren’t my favorite thing, but it would give me a clear path to income IF they had products I could stand behind. I’ve been courted by at least four companies in the last year, and I’m leaning toward one of them, because I can see a clear path where I can test some of their products on my diet and because although they offer a “shake”, their overall approach to fitness can be made to align (perfectly, I think) with mine. 

But I wonder how I will be judged if I make this leap. I know people have enjoyed reading about my health journey, and I will continue to share it. I would just have additional offerings for those who are interested. And maybe I could find a way to “coach” people who don’t need the products too, if they cared to listen? 

I’d love your thoughts. This had been on my mind for months and I’m trying to decide if I’m ready to make the leap! 

(Pictured below are some recent meals in my life!)

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Committing to Your Health

It’s been too long since my last post. December was extremely busy for me, between preparing for my theater company’s performance, preparing to eat without a car and mainly in a hotel room during my performance week and traveling. January was quick on its heels of course, and I’ve been hard at work on my resolution to get back into regular meal planning. 

I really was in a groove this summer – mainly out of necessity. I generally had to eat both lunch and dinner on the go, so I carried a cooler and got creative, even planning the themes of my meals to match what I’d be facing as I attended a company dinner at the theater company I was employed at. Turning down sugar and delicious free food was much easier when I had amazing meals on hand for myself. 

Somehow, in the last couple of months, I had gotten into a rut. I knew what foods were easy to travel with and I seemed to just stick with them. But one of the perils of eating a limited diet is that if you eat it too much, you can actually become intolerant to the food. So partly out of fear and partly out of boredom, I have vowed to change things up this year. 

I’m happy to say I’m doing much better with variety. I’ve been trying new starches – plantains are AMAZING and really cheap in the southern United States, and my husband is a pro at cooking them. I’ve also dabbled with white sweet potato (it was fun as a baked potato, if a little too sweet, so I will be trying baked goods next). I’ve had cabbage, acorn squash and spaghetti squash within the last month, and I made my favorite, Nomato sauce, to enjoy with spaghetti squash and ground beef. Oh, and how could I forget – I made liver. Beef liver. And I ate it! I’ve also made sure to eat a variety of greens instead of just my go-to, spinach. Ross even fried up some okra for us! Of all of my culinary adventures, my favorite has been making “pizza”! I used a plantain pizza crust, zucchini cheese (another first for me), Nomato sauce and topped it with bacon and black olives. Although it wasn’t quite like pizza, it was incredibly satisfying and surprisingly filling too. We all get into ruts with our health. Whether your exercise routine needs a shake up (mine is going great, with daily walks and weight training) or your meal plans need a few new recipes, making a commitment to yourself and your health is a fantastic way to improve your health and your outlook on life. 

Best of luck to you on your own journeys. And let me know if you have a resolution for this year! 

How I Exercised Daily For More Than Three Months Without Realizing It

I have always struggled to develop a regular exercise practice. Here are some of the hurdles I faced, or created for myself.

#1 I hate running!

#2 I get bored with exercise easily – as a dancer, I need variety and ideally choreography to keep me engaged.

#3 My life is insanely busy – and I feel best if I get at least eight hours of sleep. How can I find the time to exercise if I am often busy from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m.?

#4 I have generally lived in the suburbs, where getting to a gym involved a 15-30 minute commute. Not to mention that a gym membership isn’t always in the budget!

#5 I live in New Hampshire, where five or so months of the year it’s dark and freezing cold and often snowing, so I don’t want to go outside at all.

More recently, as my health has worsened, I added a few more to the list.

#6 I’m already dealing with chronic fatigue. How can I find the energy to exercise?

#7 I’m not sleeping well like I used to. Even with eight hours of sleep, I feel exhausted and would do better with ten. Wouldn’t exercise make the situation worse?

So, I had seven pretty solid reasons why I couldn’t make regular time for exercise. I would go through phases where I’d work out 2 or 3 times a week – sometimes I’d take an exercise class, or I’d do Zumba on our Playstation 3 (!), or I’d do some yoga on my own or take a hike or a walk. But despite my best efforts, I’d always get off the bandwagon. And part of the problem seemed to be that I’d get tired over the course of the day. Who wants to work out after dinner or after work when they’re exhausted? Not me!

After an underwhelming rheumatology appointment, I felt like I needed to take my health into my own hands. I’ve always known the science that says exercise gives you more energy, makes you happier, fights depression, etc. And despite all of the obstacles, I knew that if I didn’t get into an exercise routine, even if it was just a few minutes a day, I had no hope of being my healthiest self. I didn’t want to blame the way I was feeling on my own stubbornness.

So in late January, it began. I decided I’d wake up a little bit early the next morning and do some stretches and a little walking. As long as I did it for five minutes, I’d call it exercise, and enough. So I did it. Setting my alarm five minutes early wasn’t a big challenge, of course, and although it meant a little bit less sleep, I doubted it would make much difference, realistically.

As the week went on, I continued to get up a little bit earlier each day. I experimented with fifteen minutes. I did portions of free yoga or aerobics videos I found on Amazon Prime. They were pretty atrocious, but I could download them to my phone in advance (important because I had satellite internet with a data cap), have a variety of options and they gave me a goal. And if I wanted to stop early, no problem. On days off, I had more time, so I’d try an entire video, or at least most of one – if it was an hour-long video, I’d do 45 minutes or whatever suited me.

Before I knew it, I’d been at it for two weeks. And I liked it. I started finding better workout options. Depending on how early I could afford to get up in the morning (based on how early I went to sleep, what I had to do, etc.), I’d choose workouts to fit the time I had – generally not more than a half hour during the week. And sometimes, I’d have the urge to do a 45 minute or hour-long video, even mid-week. And you know what? Even if I was waking up at 4 a.m. to fit it in, and really not getting enough sleep, the exercise was energizing me. I wasn’t any more tired during the day – in fact, I was less tired. And I was making time for some kind of movement every day. Even if I wasn’t at home, or if I wasn’t feeling well, I did something.

I had always avoided a daily exercise habit. I didn’t think it was sustainable. But the reality is that exercising daily, at least for me, is more sustainable than anything else I’ve tried. Because if you take days off, your brain starts to want more time off. You did it yesterday – why not take off today too? But if you exercise daily, even if some of those days are just stretching or meditating or holding a few yoga poses, it becomes routine. It’s as natural as anything to wake at 4 or 5 or whatever you have to, to get it into your body.

After about a month, I started seeking other workout options. I was getting bored with my videos. So I signed up for Beachbody’s app, which lets me download up to seven videos a week. It’s expensive, but so far it’s worth it to get even more variety. I’ve upped my game and I’m lifting weights now too – and paying more for these workouts generally means a better workout in even less time, which I love. More than a half hour can really be a nuisance during the week, and I’ve been able to make that work. I’ve learned as I go that due to my new health issues, I have limits. I need to stick to low-impact exercise. Jumping might be fun but my knees will hate me if I do it regularly, so I need to avoid some of the crazy videos and modify if necessary.

After I hit the month mark, one of my friends challenged me to workout daily for three months. I thought that seemed reasonable. Amazingly, by the time I hit the three month mark, working out was so routine that I didn’t even notice I’d hit my goal!

Some of you might be wondering if I saw other benefits from working out. I definitely did. Although I’d already been cutting down on carbohydrates and making other gradual healthy diet changes, the introduction of exercise got me through a plateau, and I lost another ten pounds easily within a couple of months. As I mentioned, it helps me with my chronic fatigue when I exercise, and particularly now that I have cut out coffee, that’s especially important. And for the first time in a long time, after working out with weights regularly (TurboFire is my current favorite series), I found that my arms were really sculpted in a new way. I was used to sculpted legs from working out with dance videos, but being proud of my arms was really a treat! I’ve also enjoyed experimenting with different types of exercises and consistent weight use – but I think of it more as a hobby and an adventure than as something I have to do. I do feel best at this point if I can work out for at least thirty minutes, but as long as I move, it counts.

So if you’re wondering how to get a daily exercise habit, I’d really recommend taking away fancy goals. Don’t make yourself do it for a specific length of time – 5 minutes is a great minimum if you need it. And keep “exercise” loose. You can stretch. You can even meditate. You can walk in circles or walk around your yard. But commit to moving, ever day. And if you’re like me, I highly suggest doing it first thing in the morning. Before you eat breakfast or have your coffee. It’s great motivation and your tired brain will get into the habit easily.

Do you have an exercise routine? What does or doesn’t work for you?

p.s. Thanks to Theatre KAPOW for the photo!

 

 

 

Where It All Began

I think it’s important to give those of you who are interested as much background on me and my health as possible. If you’d rather skip ahead and read about tips you can act on, feel free to skip this one. Word of warning: this is a long one, and it gets very personal!

The Early Years

I’ve always been a relatively healthy child. I loved the outdoors and dancing – and at five, I aspired to be a singing basketball player! I was typically in the 70% percentile for weight and the 30% percentile for height, but I was healthy – no doctor ever wanted me to lose weight and I always felt comfortable with my body – at least when I wasn’t in dance classes with tiny girls younger than me. I did suffer from lots of environmental allergies, and I had sensitive skin (undiagnosed keratosis pilaris, rosacea and Raynaud’s Syndrome occasionally made themselves known in appearance only) but was considered very healthy.

I began piano lessons and typing in fourth grade, and by high school, I was studying the Alexander Method and yoga in bits and spurts that helped to connect me to my body and my surroundings. I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis at thirteen, but upper body exercises helped to keep my shoulders straight and keep things from becoming painful. I was a softball player through my freshman year of high school, and I played a variety of other sports too, although I was most definitely not an athlete and would have preferred to stick to dance, theater and maybe softball if my theater schedule didn’t conflict.

College and Beyond

I remained active in college. I did gain the freshman ten or fifteen, but I was able to lose most of it fairly quickly (desserts at lunch and dinner and bread had been my downfall) and I continued to dance and exercise at least a couple of times a week. I accelerated during my second year in school, and soon after doing so I was diagnosed with mono for the first time. Otherwise I was fairly healthy in college, at most maybe ten pounds overweight, and I was able to graduate in three years which saved me a lot of money.

It wasn’t until after college, when I returned from my first summer of summer stock – where I was often playing the piano for more than twelve hours per day – that I began to struggle with pain along the lines of carpal tunnel in my arms and wrists. I saw a chiropractor for the first time who also practiced natural medicine. She helped get things realigned but scared me when she prescribed me vitamins that made me break out all over, so my visits there were short-lived. After that, I found that as long as I kept doing upper body exercises, I felt pretty good, and if I didn’t overdue it, my carpal tunnel symptoms stayed away too.

The Grand Project & the Aftermath

In 2010, I started a theater company. This new project was incredibly fulfilling, but over the next four years, it took over my life. It also added a lot of stress – sometimes an insane amount – into my already extremely busy schedule. By 2013, which was the most stressful year for me as Artistic Director, I began exhibiting new symptoms. On a visit to the dentist, I was informed that I was suffering from extreme dry mouth. We talked about how medications (like my allergy medications) could be contributing to it, and I was told to use a different toothpaste to combat it. I believe Sjogren’s syndrome might have been discussed as well. When I had my annual eye appointment, we had a conversation about ways to self-massage my eyes to combat my dry eyes – ultimately we resorted to medication, and I now take Restasis to combat this. And in conversations with an allergist, dermatologist and my gynecologist, my dry skin issues were discussed and I was diagnosed with keratosis pilaris and rosacea for the first time. I also unexplicably began dealing with herpes symptoms – we still haven’t figured out how I acquired that, or if it was related to mono! So that added a new medication to the mix as I started taking Valtrex. And I began battling frequent yeast infections that resisted treatment – I was told to cut out sugar when that happened, which did seem to help, but infection would always reoccur soon enough.

In retrospect, it’s very obvious to me that the stress of the theater company was having a very detrimental effect on my health. In practice, everything I was dealing with just seemed like a minor annoyance. I never thought to put it all together, and neither did my doctors, so we continued to just treat the symptoms even though I heard over and over again that “they’d never seen this in someone as young as me”.

By 2014, I switched to a new doctor – finally I had a doctor who was observing and listening and not just taking my money! After I took on a full-time desk job for the first time, she quickly diagnosed me with carpal tunnel, and while I was there, she asked if I had Raynaud’s Syndrome. After I did some research and found out it ran in my dad’s side of the family, I accepted that I had that too! My fingers and limbs had always changed colors in ways my friends’ didn’t, but around 2014, I began having issues with both my hands and feet losing circulation. Once we put a name to it, I began stocking up on fingerless gloves and planning accordingly – I’m much better at managing it now. It was also around this time that I began to recognize that although I had scaled back my theater projects and responsibilities (and although my wedding had passed), I was too tired. Chronic fatigue was making me want to be in bed by 9 p.m. And by 2015, it had gotten worse – it was hard for me to stay awake after 8 p.m. many nights! This was so different from the me who had gone to theater rehearsals 4-5 nights a week that I knew something was wrong.

So in June of 2015, I returned to the doctor complaining of chronic fatigue and wanting to find a solution. We began testing for everything under the sun. Because I’ve always been someone who slept really well, we ignored the sleep study option because it seemed much more likely that something else was going on. When I returned to the doctor’s office to go over my results (all negative besides a very minor Vitamin D deficiency), my doctor was on vacation, so I saw a nurse practitioner. She told me to stop taking Valtrax and she ordered a bunch of additional tests.

One week later, I returned to go over the results – this time with my doctor. Since stopping Valtrax, my symptoms had gone through the roof. Instead of just dealing with fatigue, I had dehabilitating fatigue, making it impossible for me to focus or work for more than a couple of hours a day productively. My doctor mentioned that she’d test me for mono again since everything else was negative – and based on the results we got back, I was told I had mono. Again. Only later did I learn that chronic mono is an unusual thing – I shouldn’t have gotten mono a second time, and if I did, it was due to extreme stress and/or a compromised immune system. Also, the fact that my symptoms worsened after I stopped Valtrex pointed to another possibility, according to what I read online – Valtrax is used to treat chronic mono (off-label) successfully for many, so perhaps I’d actually been fighting it, perhaps since 2013, and thanks to Valtrax I hadn’t had to really deal with the symptoms until now?

My mono, or whatever it actually was – my gynecologist didn’t believe it, and my new rheumatologist has pointed out that although the markers showed I was fighting a disease, they couldn’t have proven it was an active mono infection as opposed to an active something else – lasted about four months. The second half was much more manageable, thankfully, and my boss allowed me to work 4 days a week instead of five so allow me to rest mid-week, which helped.

When my chronic fatigue continued, my doctor referred me to a rheumatologist for the first time. Almost three months later, in January, I had my first appointment.

Adventures in Rheumatology

My rheumatology appointments were odd, to say the least. Although she asked lots of questions, she would abruptly leave without telling me what we’d do for next steps. After my first appointment, I had knee xrays done (they’d given me major issues during a Disney trip) and she tested for a variety of conditions. The only thing I was positive for was an extreme Vitamin D deficiency, which we treated successfully. She tried treating me for dryness, but all the medicine did was give me nausea and possibly some fun rashes, so I stopped the meds. When I called to follow up, I was told she didn’t want to see me again unless my symptoms changed. So much for that….

Soon after I began working with the rheumatologist, I decided I’d start exercising every day. I was already eating healthy food 90% of the time (mostly vegetarian, lots of fresh produce, etc.) but I knew I could stand to lose a few pounds – and more importantly, everything I’d read had pointed to the importance of moderate exercise in managing auto-immune issues. I told myself even 5 minutes counted…and I stuck with it for more than 90 days in a row! Exercise definitely makes me less tired, and I lost my extra pounds too.

A Focus on Nutrition

I also requested a visit with a nutritionist. She wasn’t interested in doing anything but an anti-inflammatory diet until we had a firm diagnosis for my fatigue, so unfortunately I decided I’d have to go it on my own in that department, although I did discuss things with my primary care physician. I generally followed the  anti-inflammatory diet for lack of a better plan, but I kept reading and researching, feeling like I’d need to do more and consider an elimination diet if I wanted to see real change. Although I’d never been diagnosed with food allergies, I had a feeling that I might have a gluten sensitivity – I’d had major digestive issues during mono, or “mono” in the fall, and gluten seemed like it might be a trigger. And I knew that I might have issues with dairy too – it did seem to contribute to nasal congestion, if nothing else.

In researching on the vast and wild world of the internet, I learned about the AIP – the auto immune protocol. I am still only a beginner at understanding what this is, but it’s basically a series of guidelines for those with auto-immune diseases and symptoms. To follow the protocol, one begins by eliminating any foods, drinks or spices that can cause gut irritation for those with auto-immune symptoms. After a period of allowing the body to heal, one begins reintroducing foods – and for some people, they’re able to return to a “normal” diet, but many find that they need to stick to some version of the AIP forever.

It’s a challenge, but the benefits that people cite from this diet are amazing. Many report eliminating or greatly reducing their symptoms – even people who have been severely dehabilitated! So as much as I have always felt like I do best using moderation, not elimination, in my diet, I had to give myself the chance to try this. After all, even if I can’t get a correct diagnosis, if my symptoms go away, I wouldn’t have anything left to resolve with my health! I read the Whole 30 book in hope to gain some scientific understanding of why diets like this are helpful (and not crazy talk). It definitely confirmed for me the importance of a diet like this. It would give my body a chance for a reset, and hopefully it would make it so that everything from my allergies to my arms would be better for it.

So on July 18th, I began following the Whole 30 Auto-Immune Protocol. I will talk more about what this means in future posts, but the list of what I cannot eat on it is extreme. No sugar or anything like sugar (including maple and honey), no dairy, corn, soy, nuts, legumes, grains or anything that resembles grains, no nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, etc.) and any spices from nuts or seeds.

Where I Am Today

As a result, I am cooking my meals daily – eating out is almost impossible – and getting more creative with the food I can eat. I’m already seeing mild improvements in my dry mouth, nasal congestion and fatigue, so I’m optimistic that this can really be effective for me.

So that’s where I’m at. At this point, my new rheumatologist is out of easy tests. Rheumatoid arthritis was the final negative we got. So for next steps, I can either do some serious tests looking for carpal tunnel or Sjogren’s, or we can try treatment and see if it works. So before I take a next step, I’m going to see how I do with my own self-care, focusing on diet as well as exercise, meditation and stress management.

Future blog posts will be focused on a specific topic, generally speaking, and will be MUCH shorter. But thank you for reading and I hope you’ll come back soon! And please tell me about yourself. I look forward to hearing about your own health challenges and how you’re working to handle them – and what you’d like to read about in the future!