Thursday, March 20, 2014

GAPS Month One Update

Let me tell you a few things about myself.

One - I love coffee.

Two - lately I don't feel like writing. Why? I don't know. Sometimes I think Satan is trying to to keep me from doing something that I firmly believe is a calling for me. My blogs may not show it of late, but I actually am a good writer. And I have stuff to say. But it just won't come out right, so I get frustrated.

Three - all my adult life my hair has had a weird kind of annoying, uneven wave that was neither curly nor straight.

Four - I love chickens, and I have a lot of them!

The first three things relate to this update. The fourth thing I mentioned just in case you were wondering. :)

I'm going to throw three weeks of updates at you at once... because, see #2 above. I keep putting my updates off, until here we are almost seven weeks in, and I am just now forcing myself to finish this.

So, here goes.

Week Two: Couch and Curls

My second week on GAPS was characterized by a desire to rest constantly, and I spent a good portion of the week lying on the couch. Not surprisingly, I had no desire to cook. On thing  you have to do on GAPS is cook. Some days I feel like never get out of the kitchen. At some point, maybe I'll get organized enough to do all my cooking for the week on one day. Like Mondays would be my cooking day, and I'd do all my food prep for the entire week. Who am I kidding? Nice thought, but homeschooling two kids and trying to run the beginning of a homestead, my "organizational" style is more like fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and put-out-the-fires-in-front-of-me. Back to week two and my desire to lay on the couch... we ate lots of eggs. I was still making bone broth, and would boil it with onions and mushrooms and eat that twice a day. I ate almond butter with raw honey mixed together in a bowl, lots of avocado, mini hamburgers, and chicken from making the broth.

At some point during the week I began to think seriously about getting a juicer. The book says it's not a necessity, but I was already buying processed apple juice for my son to mix his probiotic powder into. He'd have about 2 ounces in the morning, so not a lot. But it just didn't sit well with me that it was processed and not fresh. For those who don't know, juice starts to oxidize and lose its nutritional and detoxifying benefits within a very short time after processing. I also knew that straight apple juice isn't all that healthy anyway; I wanted to get carrots, celery, beets, etc. into his juice. But at the time I couldn't afford a juicer.

So here's an amazing thing that happened in week two - my hair started getting curly, and I loved it! I'd use a shampoo bar in the shower, then put a small amount of avocado oil on it after it had dried for a few minutes. Truly wash and go - no more time spent trying to blow dry or hot iron out that weird wave. I have no idea what has been suppressing my curly genetics (I'm really the only one of my siblings with straight hair), but apparently it's not happening any longer.

Also during week two my digestive problems improved dramatically, and my skin stopped itching. Praise the Lord for progress!

Week Three: Pain, Coffee, and the E word.

I turned the corner on my exhaustion. My energy levels started to increase, and I no longer wanted to lay around all day. I took my afternoon nap only three out of seven days that week. On the flip side, I had a flare up of a foot condition I have that is so painful it's debilitating, even though I have a high pain tolerance. I knew that taking ibuprofen would help, but I also knew that it would set me back in my gut healing. As a doula and childbirth educator, I am familiar with natural pain coping techniques, but this foot thing is a different (scary, vicious) animal. Both heat and cold cause more pain. I can't tolerate water on it or anything touching it. I didn't have any Arnica pills in the house, or I would have tried that first. It would have been nice to lay down and focus all my energy on mental coping techniques, but I couldn't stop my life for that. So I reached out to my Facebook friends. What can I use to control this pain? A friend suggested the Turmeric Vitality Tea that I had recently bought from her. Apparently, turmeric is a natural anti-inflammatory. The tea took the edge off for a little while. But then I woke up in the middle of the night, sobbing. It was excruciating. Worse than any flare-up I've had in a long time. So I took the ibuprofen. And fifteen minutes later I was thanking God for the person who invented it. The flare-up lasted a few more days, and I took ibuprofen a couple more times. Whenever I was able to touch it, I also used this cream (recommended by my mother), which helped with the pain.

Many people thought this flare-up was a die-off reaction, and I agreed. I was also felt bloated and had a constant minor but annoying headache that week. My thought was that my body wasn't ridding itself of die-off toxins fast enough. So... I decided to go for it... the E word... a thing that is very common in eastern cultures, but westerners don't even like to think about. That is, I bought an enema kit and gave it a try. Enemas are known for having incredible detoxifying and healing capabilities, including having an almost immediate positive effect on liver function. Adding probiotics to the water also allows for a concentrated dose of good bacteria to bypass the hostile environment of the stomach. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and, honestly, afterward I felt amazing. If you're brave enough to try for yourself, an important point here is to get a reusable enema kit and use only filtered water with no salt added.

By the end of week three, I had moved out of the introduction diet into the full GAPS diet. Things I still can't eat include high-starch vegetables, legumes, grains, and processed sugars. The book is very helpful in that it has a lists of recommended foods and those that aren't allowed. I copied these pages and stuck them in my purse in case of unexpected trips to the grocery store. I started making baked goods with almond and coconut flours, and bought an amazing cookbook - Against all Grain. It's a paleo cookbook, so some of the recipes I can't use just yet, but it's still one of the best (and most beautiful) cookbooks I've ever used.

Coffee is allowed on GAPS - one cup a day, freshly-brewed, without cream or sugar. Despite loving coffee, I hadn't added that back in because I don't like it black, so I didn't see a point. But I have a confession to make. At the end of week three, I was out running errands that took me by Starbucks. I had been thinking that a trial of eating something I wasn't allowed to have would help me see if this crazy diet was actually helping. So I decided that thing would be a Caramel Machiatto. For the purpose intellectual inquiry. Are you buying that? No? Me neither. The truth is that I saw the Starbucks and tried to come up with an excuse to get a drink. just. this. once. So I talked myself into it (which took all of about 3 seconds), and got a tall. First, after being off processed sugar for three weeks, this drink that I used to love was way too sweet. Second, I stated to pay for it almost immediately. Over the previous three weeks I had experienced a gradual lessening of symptoms related to my interstitial cystitis. Well, those came back along with stomach cramps and a headache. In the end, my "intellectual inquiry" did teach me something - my body doesn't like Starbucks.

As an aside, putting coffee in your enema has an even more powerful effect on your liver, and, I've read, can stop a migraine almost immediately. That I have not tried.

Week Four: Sauerkraut and Setbacks

Because of my profession, my mind conjures birth metaphors on a daily basis. As I finished out my first month on GAPS, I would liken it to the pushing stage of labor. Difficult. Lots of hard work. Two steps forward, one step back.

I got some 7 month old homemade sauerkraut out of the fridge and decided to give it a try (after inspection for nasty smells, slimy stuff, and mold). It was not only delicious, my body seemed like it couldn't get enough of it. I knew that I needed more probiotic foods in my diet - actually a fundamental part of GAPS healing - so I ate some sauerkraut daily. Also, the Lord blessed us unexpectedly with money to buy and Omega 8004 juicer/nutiriton center, so we started juicing every morning. Our typical just consists of carrots, apples, beets, and beet greens. Sometimes celery. The recommended ratio of "therapeutic" ingredients to "flavor" ingredients is 50:50. We are doing about 60:40.

But then I started to feel bad again. My skin started itching and my nose started getting runny and stuffed up again. I again started getting tired every afternoon.  This is the hard part about going into the full GAPS diet without introducing one food at a time (which is time consuming and annoying): when you do have a reaction to something, it's hard to know what that something is. So I was faced with this puzzle. It could be that the combined detoxing effect of juicing and the sauerkraut put me back into a die-off phase. It could be that I'm sensitive to the brassica family of vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.) It could be that I'm sensitive to the almond flour I was using with increasing frequency. Perhaps it was something else I was eating. Taking the advice of one of my wise younger sisters, I dropped the sauerkraut from my daily regime to see if that helped. It didn't.

So at the end of month one, I am significantly better off than what I was at the beginning. Some problems are reverting, and I have the detective job of finding out why. Life is crazy and GAPS is hard. I still crave Starbucks.

And this is still the best decision I have made on behalf of my health in a very long time.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

GAPS - Week 1: I can breathe again!

I can only describe this first week on the diet as rough. Debilitating. Depressing.

Whenever a person starves the bad bacteria in his or her body, the resulting "die-off" of these bacteria results in symptoms we often refer to as detoxing. Detoxing is actually the process of removing toxins- including the dead bacteria - from the body. Die-off floods the body with death pathogenic bacteria, causing sometimes extremely pronounced discomfort - including fatigue, nausea, irritability, headache, intense cravings, depression, and various other maladies.

Yeah, my week was kinda like ALL that. On top of it, my son is participating in this diet too - for mood stability, control of ADHD symptoms, and alleviation of digestive issues. He was cranky and complaining from day one. He threw up his second night. He told me every fifteen minutes almost every day that he was not doing this anymore.

But, there was one bright light in this otherwise awful week. I can breathe again. For a very long time, I have been unable to breathe through my nose at night, and always had sinus pressure during the day. I figured I was allergic to something. Apparently it was something I was eating, because after just one week on this diet, my nasal passages are open! I didn't even realize how bad it had gotten until it was better. So praise God for that - it gave me a little glimmer of hope that things would get better.

So what did I eat this week?

The GAPS introduction diet has six stages. A person moves through them as fast or slow as their digestive symptoms will allow. I got through stage three, moving into four this week. The first stage is basically bone broths, meat stocks, and soups made with meats and low-starch vegetables. My typical meal would be soup with carrots and onions boiled in broth until soft. Then right at the end, I'd add chopped garlic and let it sit for a few minutes. I'd add chicken or beef to the soups. I have also been drinking lots of organic herbal detox tea from Lost River Naturals and taking a digestive enzyme and a powerful probiotic.

The next couple of stages, I added raw egg yolks (into the soups), homemade yogurt with raw, unfiltered honey, and avocado. A key component of the meals is a high fat content. I cooked eggs in lots of butter and/or coconut oil. I'd put a couple tablespoons of butter with chopped onions and mushrooms and cook on low for 20 minutes.

Other than the detox symptoms, the hardest part of week 1 was giving up the coffee. I did, however, discover an energy booster (recommended by GAPS protocol) for an energy boost when a person can't have caffeine. See Fat and Honey on my blog Food in the Garden.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Starting the GAPS diet, Part 2: Things that Ail Me

In Part 1, I talked about my chronic anemia, of which my doctors can't find the cause. I also said that my anemia is only one of my issues. Now I'll tell you a little more, so you might fully comprehend what drives me in this undertaking.

My typical day starts with me dragging myself out of bed around 7am. The chickens need feeding, and even though I want to sleep for another two hours, I get up.  I stumble around. Not from lack of sleep, but from lack of balance. I just can't seem to put one foot in front of the other without swaying this way and that. My body compensates most of the time, but occasionally I will run into a wall, fall over when putting on my shoes, or tumble into the foot of snow that graces my property right now.

Before GAPS, I would come in from feeding the chickens and get a cup of coffee. Decaf, because I have to take my anti-seizure medication and it doesn't go well with caffeine. No breakfast for me, because 9 days out of 10 I feel nauseated. I help my kids with their school. By 11am, my body is screaming to lay down. By 11:30am, my brain starts having trouble processing. Sometimes it takes awhile to translate sound into words when someone speaks to me, and I sit there staring like an idiot trying to figure out what has been said. If I see "call…" on my to-do list, I get anxious, because not being able to see someone when they talk to me makes it that much harder. Yes, my hearing has been checked several times - it's my brain that isn't working right.

On a good day, I'll try to get some chores done. On a bad day, I'll be laying on the couch by noon, desperate to take a nap. Somewhere in there I eat breakfast and lunch. By 1pm, I have to nap. And this nap can go on for two or three hours… and I won't feel better when I wake up. I have my second cup of coffee - caffeine this time, or else I won't make it through the next few hours. I help my kids with school if they need it, try to get some housework done, and think about dinner. My wonderful daughter makes dinner a lot, because I just don't have the strength. Literally, some days I can barely lift my arm above my head (one reason I rarely blow dry my hair anymore). At dinner, I sit in the chair that's against the wall on one side, and lean on the wall. My posture is shot because I just can't seem to hold myself upright. And after dinner, I just want to sit and do nothing. Not even play a card game with the kids.

Then it's time for the kids to go to bed.  An hour later, my husband goes to bed. And I sit up. Not because I'm not tired, but because all the stimulation of the day makes me desperate for a quiet hour alone in the evenings.

All that is if I am home for the day. When I have to go out, everything is worse. One day a week we have an all-day outing (for school) that includes 90 minutes of driving each way. Those days I am so wiped out by the end of them that I can't do anything that evening or half of the next day. Even "going to town" to run errands is exhausting, and I frequently cut the list short because I need my remaining energy to make it home without falling asleep.

I hope this paints a good picture of the full weight of the word exhausted for me. Debilitating is not an overstatement. So if this way of eating increases my energy levels and my iron absorption, I will call it a success. But as I said in my first post, every system in my body has problems. My symptoms range from minor annoyances to incredibly painful. I go through periods of time when only one or two things are bothering me, and then periods of time when a myriad of things are happening at once and grind my normal life to a stand still.

My problems include a myriad of digestive issues. Being a lady, I won't elaborate on this too much, but suffice it to say I have most of the symptoms of IBS and then some. Along with that, I have been diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis, which is a chronic inflammation of the lining of the bladder. Basically, I have symptoms of a mild bladder infection (but no infection) all the time, with periodic flare ups of more intensity.

My reproductive system is all messed up - also something I won't elaborate on except to say I  have chronic pelvic pain and I get every PMS symptom known to man. I have also been diagnosed with Endometriosis.

My skin is excessively dry, itchy and pale with frequent unusual random rashes. When I am going through a "down" period with my health, my face takes on the depressed pallor of death warmed over. There is a strange problem I get on my right foot. Both the skin and nervous systems systems are involved, but it is still undiagnosed after 18 years of periodic flare ups. Even after a biopsy, the doctors couldn't tell me what it is. What I do know is that it is incredibly painful, to the point where I can't walk on it and can't have even water touching it. This is my one ailment that I usually end up taking pain medicine (Ibuprofen) for. Recently I figured out a way to describe how it feels: like my foot is on fire and has a migraine at the same time.

Then there are my neurological problems. Inability to concentrate, memory lapses, migraines, sensory hallucinations (manifesting as migratory intense pain or burning sensations, but different from my foot), Restless Leg Syndrome, and Temporal Lobe seizures, as well as being easily overstimulated. All these things are exacerbated when I'm tired, so periodic bouts of insomnia make life exponentially worse. Mood instability and anxiety also make the list… lately with a disconcerting increase in frequency.

All of this is why I'm so desperate to do something to help my body heal. I've given modern medicine its chance, and it has failed me in many ways. It's important for me to reiterate that I have sought medical help. Some of my past symptoms led to being diagnosed with a brain tumor. I've also been diagnosed with a seizure disorder, and, as I mentioned, Endometriosis and Interstitial Cystitis. I feel confident going into the GAPS diet fully understanding that I do not have any life-threatening medical problems right now. If you're reading this and you have medical problems you think the GAPS diet might help, see your doctor if you haven't. Trying to get a diagnosis, even if ultimately they can't give you one, at least gives you a place to start.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Starting the GAPS diet; Part 1 - Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures.

You'll see I've taken a long sabbatical from updating my blogs - in part because of my health challenges. The problem with wanting to write about living with chronic illness is that the thing I want to write about is the very thing stealing the energy and mental clarity I need to write. But I think this next journey I'm taking is worth sharing... even if that means some rambling, unedited posts. 

We moved six months ago from a small city lot in Maryland to a 5 acre plot in rural Virginia. And we got chickens and we built fences, and we ordered fruit trees. Now we "go to town" for things instead of "run out" for things. And my health and vitality and brain function have ridden the roller coaster with all the changes. 

Before we moved, I had been getting IV iron infusions periodically to treat persistent anemia that didn't respond to oral iron supplements. So I found a new hematologist in VA. And he, like every single doctor I have seen in the past 15 years, asked me if I'd been tested for autoimmune diseases. I'm not exaggerating when I say every single doctor. They've all thought my clinical presentation was that of a body fighting against itself, but not one of them can put a name to my condition. 

I keep coming back to the conclusion that modern medicine has nothing to offer me. 

Enter Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride and GAPS: Gut and Psychology Syndrome. She is an MD who holds a Master of Medical Science in Neurology and a Master of Medical Science in nutrition. I had been hearing about the GAPS diet from various health and nutrition bloggers and friends with undiagnosed medical problems. But it is intense, and I didn't want to admit I was there yet. 

What is Gut and Psychology Syndrome? Here's a concise explanation, from this website: 

Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAP Syndrome or GAPS) is a condition which establishes a connection between the functions of the digestive system and the brain. This term was created by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD MMedSci (neurology), MMedSci (human nutrition) in 2004 after working with hundreds of children and adults with neurological and psychiatric conditions, such as autistic spectrun disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD/ADD), schizophrenia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bi-polar disorder and other neuro-psychological and psychiatric problems. 

The principle behind using GAPS to treat other conditions - like autoimmune conditions - is that all disease starts in the gut. And people have been using the gut-healing GAPS protocol to treat many other conditions including, very successfully, autoimmune conditions. Shortly before we moved, I borrowed the GAPS book from a friend, skimmed through it, and gave it back. Like I said, I didn't think I was there yet. 

Then we moved. Months went by. After awhile I realized that in many way moving to the country had been good for me (fresh air, quiet, and the requisite slow down), but my overall physical condition continued to worsen. So I started to think maybe I am in the desperate times-desperate measures place. I bought my own copy of the book, began to read it, then came across this paragraph (emphasis mine):

Most people with abnormal gut flora have various stages of anemia. It is not surprising. They not only can't absorb essential-for-blood vitamins and minerals from food, but their own production of these vitamins is damaged. On top of that, people with damaged gut flora often having a particular group of pathogenic bacteria growing in their gut, which are iron-loving bacteria. ... They consume whatever iron the person gets from the diet, leaving that person deficient in iron. Unfortunately, supplementing iron makes these bacteria grow stronger and does not remedy anemia.

Dr. Campbell-McBride was the first doctor to offer an explanation as to why, despite taking high-dose iron supplements along with an iron-rich diet, my anemia continued to worsen.  And that was the moment when I knew I had to do it.

My anemia is only a small part of the disaster that is my health. Pretty much every major system in my body is functioning improperly. Part 2 will be about these health issues and what my expectations are. I actually start the diet tomorrow, and will be detailing my experiences here on my blog.