Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Process: Elaine Gottschall, Onions and Zebras

I have had many health issues over the years, some major but most pretty minor. Or so I thought. As I have worked through these symptoms one by one, though diet, herbs, chiropractic, and other approaches, I have learned that most of my issues, even the minor ones, are related. And therefore, they are not as insignificant as I had imagined (or had been told, by doctors, among others).

What's a concerning "minor" symptom? Really, they are legion, but let's start with heartburn (a sign of gut dysbiosis, food sensitivities and lack of--yes, you read that correctly--stomach acid). How about foot pain? Plantar fascitis is treated as a management problem, with the recommendation to change your footwear. But it can be a sign of metabolic disorders, like thyroid issues. Tinnitis? That super-annoying ringing in the ears can be a sign of allergies, which in turn are a product of both gut dysbiosis and adrenal insufficiency (and that pesky thyroid again).

I could go on, but I think the point is clear: minor problems are often (usually?) signs of something going wrong on a deeper level. I wish I had known that when each one of my kids developed eczema as a baby. Even my naturopath didn't seem all that concerned, suggesting things like borage oil, but no overall changes in our diets or other approaches (in retrospect, I don't think he had any idea what to do. He was a vegetarian, skinny with a bloated gut. That should have been a tip off--except those were my veggie days...) We were using Bandaids to fix trickles that were later to become hemorrhages...

Over the years, I have had to become educated about each issue we faced. Because no one practitioner seemed to have all the answers, and because some of the answers we were given were not only wrong, they were damaging. I learned about lung function when 3 kids developed asthma. I studied the blood when one developed ITP (a condition where the body destroys its own platelets). And I delved into digestive disorders when one developed ulcerative colitis.

A mom will do anything for her kids, right? So I stayed up at night researching--night after night. I tried different things (sometimes all at once, which I don't recommend--very complicating). And I eventually found a path that resonated: The SCD (Specific Carbohydrate Diet). At about the same time, I discovered Nourishing Traditions. Suddenly, and it really was like being hit by lightning, I got what was wrong: we were eating products. Processed food. Organic vegetarian junk food. And it was gonna kill us if we kept doing it for much longer.

So I dumped the junk (well, being a miser and a bit of a skeptic, I put it into our utility closet. I threw it out some years later when I found the bags full of cockroach-infested containers. Ugh.) And went whole hog into the world of grain-free grass-fed goodness. We did dabble with soaked grains and we drank our fair share of raw milk, but eventually we found our way to GAPS, where Dr. Natasha teaches the same marrying of the SCD and traditional diets, with emphasis on food quality, digestible preparations and ferments. That is what I had been trying to figure out myself! I was thrilled.

Well, now I should be writing about the Happily Ever After part, no?

Life is never that straightforward, though. The day I spoke on the phone with Elaine Gottschall I shook as she told me "your daughter is very sick. It took a long time for her to get that way and it will take some time to heal her." She was one tough cookie.  She wasn't going to waste a second allowing me to be emotional and indulgent. She wanted me to roll my sleeves up and dig in, for the duration. For my daughter. And as it turned out, for us all.

I wish I knew the date of that call. I'm going to guess it was in 2004 or 2005, not too long before she died. She shored me up when I was wavering---albeit in her gruff, no-nonsense style. When I asked her a specific question she barked, "didn't you read my book??" (yes, of course I had, but I was still confused, and scared, and...) G-d love her. She helped so many.

I started down this path to find answers for my kids. But I am the one who really benefited. I had had more years to get sick than any of my children, so I am still working it all out, but the changes have been enormous. I liken the whole process to peeling back the layers of an onion--the Health Onion. Each step gets us closer to the core, but you have to be patient. And, for sure, we will shed tears in the process.

As I have mentioned previously, to unravel these health mysteries we must be methodical and analytical, like scientists. Keeping good notes helps, taking baby steps helps, keeping the variables simple is essential. And yet, sometimes things are still murky. What to do then? Different situations call for different approaches. I read a lot, looking for clues (that's how I figured out I was hypothyroid). I talk to people about their experiences (always keeping an open mind and a grain of salt handy). I do things like Intro which give me a lot of insight, if done carefully.

And still things may be unclear. For example, in the last week my lower legs have been swelling every night, filled with fluid that goes away within a few hours after lying down. I have had this before, when pregnant and when my hypothyroidism was at its worst. But neither of those conditions apply now. So what's going on?

In midwifery school we were taught the common medical aphorism "when you hear hoof beats, don't look for zebras (look for horses)". Which means that the common explanation or diagnosis is more likely than the rare, odd, dramatic one. This is meant to keep med students from assigning the disease-of-the week to every patient they see. It's a useful guideline for us too.

I saw my chiropractor yesterday and asked her about my legs. She reads my blog (hi Dr. Jody!) and suggested that perhaps I am sitting for longer stretches of time than I had been accustomed to because I have been writing so regularly (and reading everyone else's blogs) She showed me a few stretches and recommended that I take frequent breaks to get my lymph flowing (by walking and doing the movements she showed me). I am writing this lying down, with my laptop propped on a pillow. I am also trying to create a standing workspace. Varying my movement has already improved the situation--tonight my legs feel pretty normal.

Learning what works is like that: use all of your resources, experiment with different approaches, go back and learn some more. Try it again. Each time you will dispatch another layer of that onion. And just when it seems too confusing, remember the zebras: they live in Africa, not in your backyard. What makes the most sense in your world? Look there, because there might be your answer.

What tools do you use to problem solve? How are you working on your "health onion?"


Jennifer said...

Intuition is definitely my most used and important tool! Unfortunately, try and try again seems to be the biggest food for my intuition. ;) I'm also finding that food is the best healing tool for us right now. It's much harder to use it wrong like you can with a supplement. Your body is better able to tell you how it responds to food and the vast majority of supplements are man made so not really compatible with our systems. We have a local naturopath that I was looking into seeing for my family, but he keeps blogging about iodine supplements for most people and wrote some books on different 'needs' we have. I've since changed my mind. My question? Yes, but what do I EAT? If I can't get enough from food or water, there's a deeper problem that needs to be uncovered!

Justine Raphael said...

Hi Jennifer--

I totally agree. And there is a sort of "bridge" if we aren't getting enough from food (seeing as many foods are not as replete with nutrients as they ought to be, in addition to our difficulties extracting them): superfoods and herbs, especially as infusions. In a way, ferments are superfoods, and liver is certainly one. Wild greens are way more nutrient dense than any commercially grown (even organic) greens. When we are more advanced in the diet things like seaweeds are amazing to add to the diet, and Dr. Natasha does recommend them (again, when acute symptoms like diarrhea are gone)

So eat the Intro progression, and, as Baden says, reevaluate as time goes on and see if any further supplementation (including with superfoods) is necessary.

Karen Feldner said...

I find there are a few other components to excellent health. I've been studying BodyTalk, which is a complete energy based healing protocol. It addresses problems that can't be addressed by food. It has completely changed my life! Also, I meet every week for mindful chanting/meditation. I never imagined how much this could influence my health! And lastly I even now go to laugh yoga, which has been the most fun thing eveh! My entire core enjoys such release and freedom. I absolutely love it.

Justine Raphael said...

Hi Karen,

Yes, there are wonderful healing modalities that have nothing to do with food--it's great that you have found some that resonate with you. Still, I would never suggest that someone who has gut dysbiosis ignore the necessary dietary changes and only use energy healing--there is too much at stake to keep eating processed food and think that yoga or reiki or whatever will fix the problem. I heartily agree that we should all attend to the spiritual/energetic parts of our beings, so that's not what I am saying. My feeling is that we need to do BOTH! Thanks for pointing that out.

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