My mysterious spewing disease

It is 2006 and I’m in Thailand with my on-again-off-again boyfriend who’s training and fighting Muay Thai out of a gym in Chiang Mai. Our relationship is pretty unstable but I’m too much of a wuss to address it head-on; I’m too scared of losing him. I’m doing a little bit of Muay Thai myself, but mostly I’m there to be with him. I’m buying food from the street vendors every day, and every now and then I eat something dodgy and get sick for a few days – it’s pretty normal for that to happen over there. Sometime during the three and a half months I was there I picked up a bug of some sort, probably through something I ate, that was to haunt me for the next four years.

I remember the first time it happened; it was while I was still over there. I had a crook tummy and was throwing up over and over again, despite there being nothing to bring up other than bright yellow gastric juices. I don’t remember there being any pain during that first episode – the pain came later. The next time was almost a year later. This episode, and all the ones that followed, started with pain in my upper abdomen which intensified over a period of several hours and radiated out over my entire abdomen, making it feel rigid and tight and burn like ice.

Eventually the pain was severe enough that I would spew because of it. Spewing would temporarily relieve the pain, for a minute or two anyway, and then the pain would build up again until it made me spew again. Each episode, from the onset of pain through to the pain and spewing subsiding lasted for six to eight hours. For some reason, each episode almost always began in the evening, which meant that the spewing was happening in the middle of the night. While every single person in the whole wide world was surely peacefully asleep I was dragging myself from bed to toilet and back again, sweating one minute with my head down the toilet, and shivering uncontrollably the next. All I wanted was to be asleep. I knew when I was through the worst of it because I would doze off for a second between a spew and the pain coming back. Eventually I’d be able to sleep and the next day I’d be pain free and on the road to recovery, not knowing how many weeks or months would pass before the next encounter.

I saw doctors, had blood and faeces tests and ultrasounds done, I described my situation to anyone who I thought could help me. But the tests didn’t reveal anything, and the reaction I got from most doctors was “well that’s very interesting but I have no idea what it is or how to help you”. I had acupuncture and drank foul-tasting Chinese medicine, I had neurolink sessions; I tried everything I could think of. In my desperation to try and make sense of what was happening to me I even considered that maybe I was creating my sickness myself and that it was a manifestation of my negative thoughts, or something crazy like that.

At first I just endured the pain and allowed the process to run its course, but this got old after about 10 episodes. So I started presenting myself at the hospital’s emergency department so a doctor could actually see me in the throes of an episode rather than me trying to describe it after the fact. Aaaah the morphine. I can’t even begin to describe how good it felt to have my pain taken away. All of a sudden I felt human again, freed from my private prison of pain.

I take my hat off to people that live with chronic pain. Nobody can feel anybody else’s pain, and nobody really wants to hear you go on about how bad your pain is. I’ll never know if my ten-out-of-ten pain was more or less painful than the next person’s, I’m just glad it’s over.

My trips to the emergency department always ended the same way: the morphine took the pain away, the blood tests revealed nothing, so, pain-free and no longer spewing I was sent on my merry way, none the wiser as to what the hell was wrong with me. Somewhere along the way I was prescribed codeine, probably to keep me out of ED so they could focus on real emergencies. This turned out to be a big problem though. The codeine was powerful enough to alleviate the pain for a few hours, which meant I wasn’t throwing up. But the throwing up was an important part of the bug’s cycle, as I found out later, and by interfering with that I was drawing out six to eight hours of pain and spewing into about four days of temporary pain suppression and reliance on pain killers and their side effects – anyone who’s taken codeine will know how it binds you up.

Everything was coming to a head in 2010. The episodes were increasing in frequency, nothing I was doing was helping, and I was feeling increasingly frustrated and worried. Each time the now-familiar pain would set in I would feel crushed inside from knowing what the next few hours and days would entail. I was beaten down both physically and emotionally – as someone who has always been fit and healthy it was devastating for me and left me feeling very vulnerable and fragile.

Mum was also really worried about me, and seeing as conventional medicine had failed me big time, suggested I go and see and old flame of hers who happened to be a medium. Now this is where my story might start to challenge your belief systems a bit, but it happened to me, despite being dubious about it myself, so I know that it’s true.

So I went to visit this fellow, whom I had not seen or spoken to or had any contact with for at least 20 years. He immediately informed me that I had a tropical parasite living in my digestive system. It was something uncommon in the Western world and wouldn’t have shown up in a faeces test, which only tests for a few common parasites. It was also very small, about the size of a match head, so an ultrasound wouldn’t have picked it up either. He said that for most of the bug’s life cycle it happily lived in my intestines without causing any discomfort to me, its host. But about every six weeks or so it needed to reproduce, and during its reproductive phase it moved from my intestines into my stomach and (somehow) caused pain so that it could be vomited up and spread into the world.

To this day, I don’t know if this is true, and if it is true, what this parasite is called. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that the advice he gave me worked and now I am free. It was pretty simple really, he said to take colloidal silver, and if that didn’t work to take ascorbic acid – dry and undiluted – when an episode was happening, as this would come in direct contact with the bug while it was in my stomach and scorch the mother fucker to smithereens (my words not his).

So I took the colloidal silver dutifully each day, and it stirred things up a bit but it wasn’t powerful enough on its own. One evening an episode was coming on, and as I waited with grim resolve for the first spew, instead of the pain increasing to spew-point it started to recede and then went away entirely. I was ecstatic! I wasn’t completely clear yet but something was changing. During the next episode, I decided to give the ascorbic acid a go. It burnt like fire, but it was easily tolerable in comparison to the pain I was used to.

The last episode happened in September 2010. I felt the pain coming on and I just sat with it, no interference with codeine or morphine. Immediately after each spew I swallowed about half a teaspoon of ascorbic acid. I visualised the bug in my tummy being killed by the ascorbic acid and I guess that’s what happened. I’ve been completely clear for four years and counting; not a murmur or a hint of the shit times that plagued me for four long years.

The day I visited the medium’s house he told me that his guides had been particularly active that morning, informing them of my condition, amongst other things. One even stopped by while I was there, causing his eyes to narrow to thin slits and flutter about as he sat in his armchair. He proceeded to tell me some things about me, personal things, while he was in this altered state. He told me that I have a heart like a marshmallow and that it gets hurt more easily than most, which is true. He told me that I’m like a fox terrier: once I get impassioned about something I can’t let it go, which is also true. Then he said that he could see me at a crossroads; I’d been walking along a path with someone for a long time, we’d come to a junction and the person I’d been with had turned and started walking in a different direction. I knew that I couldn’t follow this person on the path they’d chosen, but I didn’t know which path to take myself so I was left standing alone at this junction, unable to move at all, in any direction. This, of course, summed things up perfectly. The person was my ex, the path was the path we’d taken together, and the crossroads symbolised him moving on and me being left behind, unable to let go or move on.

In time I did let go and move on. And I’m eternally grateful that the information came to me to allow me to heal myself, regardless of its source.

Back to the Drawing Board

My candida has come back. Mother fucker. Like an unwelcome house guest it’s snuck back in to take up residence in my body, unexpected and uninvited. That said, I have had a sneaking suspicion for the last month or so that something’s not quite right with my health. First I got thrush for no apparent reason, despite not having had it for years. I’ve also been finding that whenever I eat sugar I get terribly bloated and gassy. In the last week or so I’ve had achy muscles and joints, but I put that down to recovering from walking 100 kilometres with a heavy pack. I should have bounced back quicker than I have though, and I feel like there’s a missing link between the quality of the food that I put in and the quality of the energy that I get back.

So I did the spit test and it was an epic fail: my saliva quickly gravitated towards the bottom of the glass of water, forming a putrid powdery layer. The last time I did the spit test was about four months ago and the result was pretty good; a little bit sank but most of it was still floating on the top after a good half hour or so – an ideal result would have all of it floating on the top after half an hour (this is done first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything).

First came indignation, frustration and disappointment, then came resignation. At least this time I’m better equipped and I know exactly what I have to do. Last time, the thought of life with no sugar was almost incomprehensible. In some morbid kind of way I’m almost pleased: sugar has been creeping sneakily into my life, and I, thinking that I can handle it, have allowed it. This always happens with me – I make a rule and initially I’m very strict with it and I get the result that I want. Over time, I relax the rule a bit and it seems to be okay, so I relax it some more. Then, all of a sudden, the rule has become so relaxed that it barely exists, and I find myself where I am now – unwell and, as a result, needing to rewrite my own rules so that I can get well again.

I’m actually quite optimistic about this, up until recently I have been feeling really good, so I think with a concerted effort I can knock this candida palaver on the head without too much of a drama. This is the candida elimination diet that I follow:

BASIC RULES

  • Avoid ALL junk food and anything containing white sugar, white flour, yeast and soft drinks.
  • Include as much nutritious food as you like from a wide variety of sources.
  • Avoid ALL sugars, chocolate, honey, molasses and maple syrup.
  • Avoid ALL fruits and fruit juices.
  • Try not to eat the same foods every day.
  • Feature low-carbohydrate vegetables, seafood, lean meats and eggs in your diet. You can include one serving of high-carbohydrate vegetables OR a single portion of whole grain at each meal.

 FOODS YOU CAN EAT FREELY:

  • Vegetables: Most of these vegetables contain lots of fibre and are relatively low in carbohydrates. They can be fresh or frozen and you can eat them raw or cooked: asparagus, string beans, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, capsicums, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, onions, parsley, radishes, spinach, tomatoes.
  • Meat & Eggs: Chicken, turkey, beef, lean cuts, veal, lamb, wild game, shrimp, crab, lobster, tuna, other seafood, salmon, mackerel, cod, sardines, eggs, other fresh or frozen fish that is not breaded.
  • Beverages: Water and non-sweetened herb teas.

 FOODS YOU CAN EAT CAUTIOUSLY:

  •  High Carbohydrate Vegetables: Sweet corn, peas, pumpkin, beans, potatoes (baked only – not any other way!), kumara.
  • Whole Grains: Barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, wheat.
  • Breads, Biscuits & Muffins: All breads, biscuits and muffins should be made with baking powder or baking soda, NOT yeast.
  • Dairy: Acidophilus yoghurt (plain, unsweetened), butter.

 FOODS YOU MUST AVOID:

  • Sugar & Sugar Containing Foods: Sugar, and other simple carbohydrates including sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, maltose, lactose, glucose, mannitol, sorbitol, galactose. Also avoid honey, treacle, molasses, maple syrup, agave syrup, etc.
  • Packaged & Processed Foods: Canned, bottled, boxed and other processed, packaged foods usually contain refined sugar and other hidden ingredients.
  • Breads, Pastries & Other Raised Bakery Goods
  • Milk & Cheeses, especially mouldy cheeses.
  • Alcoholic Beverages: Wine, beer, whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, vodka and other fermented liquors and beverages such as cider and ginger beer.
  • Condiments, Sauces & Vinegar-Containing Foods: Mustard, marmite, tomato sauce (and all variants), Worcestershire sauce, MSG, chili, shrimp and soy sauces, pickles, and anything else pickled, tamari, vinegar (except apple cider vinegar), and anything containing vinegar for example mayonnaise, salad dressings (especially fat-free ones, as they are high in carbohydrates). Freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with spirulina powder and flax oil can be substituted.
  • Malt Products
  • Processed & Smoked Meats
  • Mushrooms & Other Edible Fungi
  • Melons, especially watermelon, rockmelon & honeydew
  • Coffee & Tea, Fruit Juice & Soft Drinks
  • Dried & Candied Fruits
  • Leftover food (has the potential to grow mould)

 As you can see, there’s a bit more to getting candida under control than simply not eating sugar. Luckily for me, my diet largely fits into the ‘eat freely’ and ‘eat cautiously’ sections anyway. Interestingly, nuts and seeds are not mentioned anywhere in the elimination diet, but I’d hedge a bet that they are all fine, except for peanuts, which grow below the ground so they may contain mould or fungus, and should therefore be avoided.

I do pretty much all my cooking from scratch so I know exactly what’s in it and what isn’t. The only things I’m unwilling to forgo entirely are coffee and fruit. I generally only have one coffee a day, first thing in the morning, and I don’t feel the need to cut this out at this point in time, I’ve battled with the idea of giving up coffee – the last time I tried I lasted for 17 days but I was miserable without it. At least now I’m only having one a day rather than the four or five I was often having back then.

I’m of two minds about fruit: on the one hand it contains fructose, which is sugar, and therefore will feed candida. On the other hand, it also contains fibre, vitamins, mineral, antioxidants and phytonutrients, all of which promote health. In terms of the concentrations of sugar, eating whole, fresh, raw fruit is nowhere near the same as eating candy bars or drinking soft drinks.

It depends on the fruit too; apples and pears have the most sugar, and I almost never eat these anyway. At the moment, the only fruits I’m intending to eat are strawberries and papayas, and I think this will be okay. Oh and lemons and grapefruit – technically these are citrus fruits but they contain barely any sugar and have loads of benefits, such as being highly alkalising, aiding digestion, and being high in Vitamin C and prebiotic bacteria (this is what probiotic bacteria eats). I actually eat lemons like they’re oranges: I cut one into segments and eat the flesh and the pith – it’s delicious!

As well as eating all the right things and none of the wrong things, I’ll also be barricading my system with these goodies:

  • Apple cider vinegar: This is some kind of cure-all wonder tonic, and I could easily dedicate an entire blog post to it. But for now, it’s great for alkalising, aiding digestion, cleansing the blood, and protecting against arthritis. Yes, apple cider vinegar is made from apples, which contain sugar, but the fermentation process converts the sugar into beneficial enzymes and amino acids. Anyone who’s tried it knows it is not sweet! I use Bragg‘s because its organic, contains the ‘mother’ and tastes good.
  • Probiotics: My ratio of good to bad gut bacteria is obviously skewed the wrong way at the moment; otherwise my candida would be back where it belongs, on the periphery, not ruling the show. Loading up with good bacteria will help set things straight; I like to use Reuteri, as I experience a tangible improvement when I use it.
  • Horopito: Mum just put me onto this one. Horopito is a native New Zealand shrub that’s been used in traditional Māori medicine for ages. It has natural anti-fungal properties, and yeasts are merely single-celled funguses. The product is called Kolorex.
  •  Sauerkraut: For whatever reason, cabbage appears to be superior in terms of its concentrations of prebiotic and probiotic bacteria. Fermenting it increases the concentrations even more. You should be able to find sauerkraut on your supermarket shelf (ideally you’d choose an organic one that’s been made without wine), or you can make it yourself.
  •  Chlorophyll: Chlorophyll is the pigment from plants that makes them green. It soothes the lining of the intestines and helps with nutrient uptake. I use this one.

 With this arsenal of awesomeness my spit will be floating in no time!

 

 

I love AFMs!

People talk about having an alcohol-free day (AFD) – that’s tiddlywinks. Round here I prefer to have an alcohol-free month (AFM). My first AFM was last August, and the first drink I had after a month sans booze was a bit of a let-down; I felt slightly off-balance and uncoordinated but that was about it. Then, after my six week alcohol-free stint through November and December I was even more loathe to break my fast. I knew once that first sip touched my lips I’d be right back to day zero, and I almost didn’t want to go there because I was quite proud of myself and my achievement. I felt a bit ashamed of myself while buying a bottle of wine from the supermarket, like I was some kind of juvenile delinquent who should’ve outgrown their bad habit by now.

I anticipated that by the end of January I’d probably be about ready to take another break from drinking, and so I have. Things are just better when I don’t drink. I feel better about myself and that feeling overflows into other aspects of my life: I exercise more, and when I exercise more I make better food choices, eat smaller portions, and cease to pick mindlessly at food when I’m not hungry. I sleep better too, and I’m far more productive with my time.

I always gain weight when I drink alcohol, it doesn’t matter what else I do or don’t do, it’s a simple fact. I guess it’s because alcohol is high in calories, seven per gram, yet it’s usually additional to the food one eats, not instead of. It also lowers one’s inhibitions, in the realm of food as well as other areas. Do you find all those healthy eating promises you’ve made yourself go flying out the window after you’ve had a few? Or is it the next day, when only a massive fry-up will soothe your hangover?

I’m starting to get the feeling that I might only want to drink once a month. One day, any day, out of each month I’m allowed to drink and that’s it. I need to make rules like this for myself otherwise bad habits start to creep in. Rules are good – I choose them, then I stick with them, and I get a sense of satisfaction for doing what I said I was going to do. Alcohol really doesn’t do anything for me these days anyway. I’m moving on and it feels good.

This AFM is actually five weeks. It started on the 3rd of February and will finish on the 8th of March. From the 3rd to the 8th of March I’m going tramping, like I said I was going to; I am a woman of my word, after all. The last day of the tramp marks my 34th birthday and my guy will come and meet me at the end of the track with Baileys and ice cream. Or maybe I’ll feel so pure after six days of being immersed in nature that I won’t want to pollute my body with alcohol and sugar. Ha, we shall see. I’ll let you know how I get on.

 

 

know thyself

Some days I have so much energy and feel so positive and optimistic that it feels like even my wildest dreams could easily be made realities. Other days I feel so tired and blue that I can barely move. I wish my energy followed more of an even keel, but this is how I am: consistently inconsistent.

In an effort to better understand myself and the peaks and troughs in my energy levels (and subsequent moods) I’ve been charting said energy levels for the last four months. I’ve been trying to account for the circumstantial ‘life’ stuff, like how busy or stressed I am between one day and the next, and just focus on the physical – it’s like trying to imagine the behaviour of the Coriolis force in the absence of Earth’s rotation or landmasses: a simplified model for something that is actually quite complex.

Over the last four months I’ve changed jobs, moved house, travelled, got sick once, changed my diet, and had periods of time with no alcohol at all, and periods of time with plenty. So if I could remove all of that white noise and pretend I was living in a cave on top of a mountain on my own, completely in tune with my own rhythms, I could use that knowledge to my advantage, which is the ultimate point of this exercise.

If I knew that a period of time was approaching when I usually have a lot of energy I could make use of that energy to get stuff done. Alternatively, if I know a lull in energy is almost upon me I can rest up and not feel bad about it – I knew this time was coming and have made allowances for it, so there’s no need to get annoyed/impatient/pissed off with how crap I feel and not understand where it’s coming from. It’s a kind of ‘make hay while the sun is shining’ attitude: do more stuff when you have the energy, and do less when you don’t.

So what have I found? I’m generally at the mercy of two cycles: my own menstrual cycle, and the moon’s cycle. I’m not on the Pill, so the first cycle is au naturel and arrives on a regular basis just after the new moon. I sometimes get a bit down and feel like everything in my life is shit and I’ll never be happy in the days leading up to my period starting (luckily I’ve been doing this self-analysis stuff for long enough that I can figure out why I feel this way – it’s not rocket science), but the event itself is usually relatively benign and pain-free, especially in comparison to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from other women.

The moon’s cycle, however, seems to have more of an effect on me. In the days leading up to the full moon I often feel bloated, lethargic, irritable, angsty, and generally out-of-sorts. Observing the gravitational pull that the moon has on water, and considering that we also contain a lot of water, it’s not too much of a tenuous link to realise that the moon has a gravitational pull on us too.

I often feel at my best around new moon, when the moon is aligned between Earth and the sun and the gravitational pull of each is in the same direction. Around full moon however, Earth is aligned between the moon and the sun and the gravitational pull each exerts is in opposing directions, which is often how I feel: scattered and unsettled and like I’m being pulled every which way. I don’t necessarily have less energy, but the energy I have is often fragmented.

I’ve included the last four month’s charts below, with black or brown representing being physically sick, emotionally unhinged, or extremely tired – it’s good to see that the number of these days per month is on the down. Yellow represents an average day in the sense that I’m not bouncing off the walls, nor am I dragging my feet too much either. Light green denotes ‘goodish’ – not quite good, but better than average, and dark green is ‘good’. Orange denotes ‘very good’ meaning I have lots of energy all day and feel great because of it and tend to get a lot done. I have to be careful with these days as I have a tendency to push it to the limit and then feel tired the next day.

What about you, do you have peaks and troughs in your energy or your moods? Do you know why? Can you see through the white noise of your day-to-day life to catch a glimpse of the bigger picture?

another alcohol hiatus

The last time I went without alcohol I waited until the end of the month to write about it, just in case I didn’t make it. This time I don’t need to wait – there’s no way I’m going back on the arrangement I’ve made with myself. I’m doing six weeks this time, the first three of which were super-easy; it was almost a relief to know that I wouldn’t have to be making any decisions about whether or not to drink alcohol. But this week, the fourth, things got a little testy. It’s not so much that I’m pining for alcohol, but more that I’m starting to feel a little dull and boring and that I should be having more fun and not being so serious. I hope dullness doesn’t consume me before the next two weeks are up!

The more I experiment with not drinking the more I realise that alcohol and health do not make good friends. Somehow, I used to be able to pull it off – eating well and exercising regularly all week, drinking to excess on a Saturday night, and then nursing a hangover with junk food and couch time all day on Sunday. As an example of what I mean by excess, I remember one afternoon my flatmate and I polished off a litre of white rum between us before going to town and drinking more. Sometimes I’d have such a good time while out drinking that the hangover was worth it. But gradually, incrementally, the fun diminished, rendering the hangover less and less ‘worth it’.

Us Kiwis really don’t know much about moderation when it comes to alcohol. Many of us, it seems, love to get completely inebriated on a fairly regular basis: it’s how we communicate and interact with each other, it’s how we hook up, and it’s also used as a guise for things more sinister. It would be great if we could find ways to unwind and enjoy ourselves without harming our bodies and our communities so much.

So why do we, as a nation, feel the need to get so written off? Is it escapism? Is the reality of our day-to-day lives so bad that we want and hide under a blanket of booze whenever we can, even though we know that the blanket won’t nurture and support us and will only leave us with a stale soggy hangover which makes our stark cold realities all the more difficult to deal with. The unfulfilling job, the loveless relationship, the financial stress, the physical discomfort of living in a body that doesn’t work properly because you haven’t looked after it: drinking won’t alleviate any of these problems and it’s quite likely that it will make them worse. We say that young people today aren’t responsible with alcohol, but how can we expect them to be when they don’t have any positive role models?

When I started this alcohol hiatus it was off the back of three consecutive boozy weekends: a reunion, a wedding, and a birthday. I felt gross. My skin was breaking out, I felt bloated and acidic and disgusting. If you’ve never gone for more than a day or two without drinking you’ve probably forgotten how it feels to not be constantly slightly hung-over. It’s like living with a food allergy – if you don’t completely cut out all of said food (gluten and lactose are common ones), you’ll never get to experience how good it really feels to have a body that functions as it should. That slightly headachy/nauseous/bloated/foggy/uncomfortable feeling is your new reality because your day-to-day habits cause it to be that way. But any habit can be changed, if you want to change it. For me, right now (at 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning without having had a drop of alcohol for a month), it feels more normal not to drink than it does to drink.

Why not come join me? It’s a beautiful world over here.

 

Life after a boozy weekend

As you know, I easily made it through the month of August without touching a drop of alcohol. However, since breaking my alcohol fast I’ve had a couple of boozy weekends, the last of which has wreaked havoc on my delicate constitution. I may as well have drunk petrol, that’s how raw my insides feel. Starting the week on the back foot reminds me of too many weekends spent drinking away my 20s; I’m 33 now – far too old for this shit!

It got me thinking though, about what’s actually happening in my body. What are the mechanisms behind these shit feelings? Firstly, alcohol is acidifying, and us humans like to be slightly alkaline. Secondly, alcohol is corrosive on the digestive system, I can definitely verify that, and it’s probably what caused the pain. If you’re trying to hold on to your good gut bacteria, as I am, alcohol is not your friend. But it’s not just your gut flora at stake here; did you know that 95 % of serotonin (the neurotransmitter that regulates your mood) resides in your gut? So, if your gut is acidic and being corroded by alcohol, is that likely to affect your mood as well? I think so. Sarah Wilson wrote a great article about it here.

Alcohol is also pretty high in calories – seven per gram, but has very little nutritional value. As a comparison, carbohydrates and protein both contain four calories per gram, and fat contains nine. As alcohol is usually additional to the food we eat, these calories provide an excess to what we need, which gets stored as fat which or may not be used later. I know I’ve stored some over the last couple of weeks, but it won’t be sticking around for long.

I’ve also noticed that my hand has gotten sore again. I sprained it months ago attempting to arm wrestle someone who has 20 kg more muscle than me. I didn’t win. I can’t think of anything physical I’ve done that would aggravate it. Could I be producing more or eliminating less uric acid as a result of drinking alcohol? Probably. Could the uric acid be flaring up an old injury? Maybe.

So what am I doing about it? I managed to get out for a run today which improved my mood exponentially. Often, the times I feel like exercising the least are the times I need it the most. I had no energy or inclination for running, but I knew I’d feel better if I could pull it off, and I did (pull it off and feel better).

I’m also on a mission to eat as many probiotic foods as possible. Jason Shon Bennett talks about eating raw, soaked, sprouted, and fermented foods every day. I’ve got some sprouts soaking on the windowsill, sauerkraut in the fridge, I eat yoghurt and raw greens every day… I’m also drinking slippery elm – it soothes my inflamed innards like nothing else.

Grow your internal garden

This blog post is about the importance of good gut bacteria. I will be writing about actual gardening later, but not today. For me, the learning on this topic happened alongside my learning on the evils of sugar.

It all began with an ear infection almost two years ago. When the blocked ear that I’d been ignoring and hoped would go away became a sharp stabbing pain that felt like a needle in my brain, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a course of antibiotics. All things considered, my health has been mostly good throughout my life, and I can’t remember when I last took antibiotics prior to this; maybe never. I didn’t take any probiotics with the antibiotics; I didn’t know how important this was back then. The antibiotics cleared up the ear infection pretty smartly, but left me feeling absolutely exhausted like never before.

Looking back, I’d guess that years of drinking too much alcohol and eating too much sugar had gradually compromised my ratio of good gut bacteria to the not-so-good. This set the stage for the antibiotics to come in and completely wipe out what little there was left of the good stuff, allowing Candida albicans to take over.

Candida is a yeast and like any other yeast, it feeds on sugar. I need to stress here that candida is in all of us, and is meant to be, it’s only when we have too much of it that it becomes a problem. My friend Josie used the analogy of a garden, where candida is a weed – dock or dandelion maybe – that exists on the periphery and goes about its business but doesn’t take over the cultivated plants, which are the whole reason the garden was created in the first place. The garden is filled with nutritious and delicious morsels just waiting to fill our tummies and to colonise our digestive systems with good gut flora. Everything is in balance. However, over time the garden gets neglected and the dock and dandelion start to infiltrate, sending their tap roots deep into the soil and taking hold.

So too with candida: if allowed to take over, its long branch-like structures can penetrate the gut wall and migrate to other parts of the body, including the brain. Molecules of food can also cross this barrier, which they’re not supposed to do –  ever heard of leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome?

Some of the symptoms I had when my candida was really bad included brain fog – I’d find myself staring vacantly into space, concentration and mental clarity were at an all-time low. My muscles and joints ached and my recovery after exercise took longer than normal. I also suffered from vertigo – things would be swirling and undulating around me, things that shouldn’t be moving at all, things like buildings and pavements. Chronic fatigue and sugar cravings were also happening.

It’s a tricky one because the symptoms I’ve just described could also be attributed to other things: a sleep-deprived parent could have brain fog, someone who doesn’t stretch or drink enough water could have aching joints and muscles, and anyone who’s addicted to sugar will crave it. I had an underlying sense that something wasn’t quite right with my health, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. It certainly wasn’t life threatening, but it was affecting the quality of my day-to-day life.

If you’re reading this and thinking that you too might have too much candida floating around your body, here’s a really simple test you can do. Very first thing in the morning, before having anything to eat or drink, or brushing your teeth, work some saliva into your mouth and spit it into a glass full of water. Leave it for at least half an hour then come back and have a look. If it’s still floating on top of the water, you’re in the clear. If there are tendrils of saliva dangling in the water, or if your saliva has sunk to the bottom of the glass, sorry but it’s not good news. The first time I did the spit test I didn’t have to wait half an hour for the verdict – my saliva immediately started drifting down through the water and within a minute or two it had all sunk to the bottom and looked white and powdery. Damn.

The only way to get your candida back in check is to starve it of sugar. Initially, I didn’t think there was all that much sugar in my diet, but when I had a closer look there was actually quite a lot. Lots of fruit, lots of honey, maple syrup, I added sugar to my coffee, I treated myself to dried fruit or lollies about once a week. It was certainly enough to feed the beast. One of the (many) annoying things about candida is that once you start starving it the symptoms actually get worse. The candida starts to die and as it does so it releases toxins, it really sucks. One of the symptoms of die-off is irrational anger, so be warned. Just add it to your arsenal of chronic fatigue, brain fog, and general aches and pains.

Going into this, a life without sugar seemed, to me, like a life that wasn’t worth living. I thought to myself “I’ll just do it until I get better, then I’ll go back to my old way of eating”. So that’s what I did. I was fastidiously healthy all week – no sugar, lots of cruciferous vegetables, sprouts, fermented foods, cider vinegar… Then the weekend would roll around and I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I’d drink alcohol, which is a big no-no (candida loves it) then in the aftermath of the drinking I’d make poor food choices: chocolate, lollies, ice cream… All my good work was undone. So let me tell you, from personal experience, it won’t work if you only do it sometimes, it has to be 100 %, or you may as well not bother with it at all. Let me also tell you, the rewards are well worth the effort. Do you want to live a life where you feel a bit below average all of the time, or are you willing to deal with some potentially full-on shit in order to get to a really good place?

So, if you’re serious about getting your overgrown garden back in order, yes you have to pull out the weeds, but you also have to put the good stuff back in. Taking a probiotic supplement can definitely help, but take an enteric one so that the bacteria will be released into your intestines, not your stomach where your hydrochloric acid will destroy most of it. The brand I use is called Reuteri. You also want to eat lots of foods that naturally contain probiotics rather than just relying on a pill. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) are your friends, as are fermented foods – sauerkraut really helped for me.

Eating all these alkalising vegetables will also help bring your pH back to where it should be. Sugar acidifies your body (as does coffee, alcohol, grains, dairy and meat) but your body really loves to be just slightly alkaline, and will draw alkalising minerals out of your bones if it has to, in order to keep things the way they’re meant to be. Your body will also hold onto fat and use it to insulate your cells from your blood, which will become increasingly acidic if you eat too much crap and not enough good stuff. I read about this in Dr Libby Weaver’s book The Real Food Chef.

For me, the journey to health is just that – it’s a journey not a destination (I know that this is a cliché but it’s so true!). I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I can say health has been achieved and then rest on my laurels because of all the work I put in way back when. It doesn’t work like that. A functional and bountiful garden requires constant maintenance; you can’t just pull the weeds out once and expect them never to return. Nor can you throw some seedlings in the ground and come back in a month or two expecting to find them flourishing. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Right, I’m off to eat some sauerkraut.