Living in a pain-free body (part 2)

2011 is also the year I started practicing yoga. I had been interested in it for a long time, and when a studio opened between my engineering school and my apartment, I decided it was a sign it was time to try. In France, yoga is still seen as a sorta hippy-culty-new-agey thing, so I had no idea what to expect. Well, I was completely out of shape, so it kicked my ass; but it also made me feel great. So I kept on going, and when I moved for my PhD, I kept on practicing, and as the benefits were proving everyday more and more, some of my friends got inspired and started going as well, others started asking me to teach them, and I got enrolled into a teacher training.

The body is such an amazing work of engineering. I have and will always be fascinated by its mechanics; I really think that Iyengar yoga is a great exploration tool and a complementary way of thinking about the body to my scientific research. But in the end, both my research and my practice are aiming at the same goal: a better understanding of how the body works. By the way, my favorite word EVER is proprioception. If you don’t know what it means, it basically is the awareness of your body in space. This is one of the things that yoga improves dramatically.

Four years after I started, I have no idea how I was dealing (not) with physical pain, stress and frustrations before I started practicing yoga. Teaching and assisting, I see how people get trapped into their bodies and don’t manage to communicate with them. I sometimes feel frustrated when people complain about their pain and aches and don’t want to give yoga a chance. While I know leading by example is the only way, I really want to shake them and tell them “you KNOW it’s good for you! WHY won’t you give it a try??”. And I’m not saying that yoga is a cure-all; it’s not. I was at a workshop with Garth McLean this past weekend. He has Multiple Sclerosis; and while by sustaining a dedicated yoga practice he has managed to reverse some of the lesions in his brain and spine, he still has MS. The disease is rampant, waiting for any weakness to reappear.

A couple of years ago, I was at my uncle’s house and I fell down the stairs, right onto my tailbone. I was afraid I had broken my coccyx, but I only ended up with a gigantic bruise. At least that’s what I thought until I went to the osteopath a couple of months later and he told me my pelvis was displaced. He put it back into place, and suddenly the pain I had been having during my period disappeared.

If you’re a woman reading and you have very intense period pain: whatever you’ve been told in middle school biology, period pain is NOT normal. Go see your M.D., gynecologist and/or osteopath. And while I’m at it, it’s incredible the number of women who do not know they should not be taking aspirin during their period: it’s a blood thinner. Paracetamol and Ibuprofen are fine.

Honestly, I cannot believe how much pain I endured just because I had been told in biology lessons that having pain during your period was normal. It’s not. Period. (Get used to the poor puns).

Anyhow I have to be careful with my pelvis / sacro-illiac joint; this year while I was practicing a pose modification called block setu bandha, I displaced my pelvis again. I recognized the symptoms immediately; and it was too painful to wait and go to my osteopath back home so I went here in Utrecht; the face of the osteopath when I told her “I think I displaced my pelvis” when she asked why I was coming was priceless. I guess it’s not a usual occurrence!

It was the first time I seriously hurt myself during practice (other than the usual bruises which made my mom say “I’m glad you’re single otherwise I would think your boyfriend beats you up”, not it’s just the ropes and weight bearing exercises – I know, I know, not using my core enough) and hopefully the last. But I can still feel that I am also, on my own level, walking that line between courage and caution. One mistake, and my pelvis is gonna pop out of place again. But if I don’t do anything, it’s never going to improve either. So I practice, I try, carefully, new things, different ways, see what helps, what not. It has been a great learning experience, so I am at least grateful for that. And waking up without feeling my SI joint is a victory everyday that it happens. Linked to this SI/pelvis issue I believe, is (was!) my anterior pelvis tilt which is slowly reversing. I wish I had taken a photo of it last year; compared to now you would see how incredible the improvement has been.

Credits to James Speck from Somastruck

Why has this been so important for me? Simply because reversing this, as well as strengthening my back muscles, made my back pain vanish, so that I am not considering breast reduction as an option anymore.

It sounds like I used to have so many pains and aches I had a serious illness or something. This is definitely not the case. But the more I listen to my friends, the more I hear complaints about health. It all adds up. Most of them are not even 30 years old, yet they already have to take medication. I think this is seriously crazy. How did we get to this point? The point where young, educated, relatively wealthy and active people are living with chronic pain and getting accustomed to it, not knowing what to do about it?

Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not against medication, at all. Even though I have had a personal bad experience with Western medicine, I wouldn’t be doing my PhD in the field I’m working in right now if I didn’t believe that medicine cures people. But I also think that we’re not giving people the means to their ends. There are too many contradicting messages about nutrition, what you should do and shouldn’t do.

Even in yoga, people telling you that you shouldn’t do x pose whereas others will tell you its amazing benefits – my general opinion is that people complaining about one pose should indeed not teach it since they are not able to make it safe for themselves.

I believe that starting is the most difficult part. If you want to turn your life around, it’s very hard to know where to start. We need to have state programs that help people who want to change their lifestyle and be healthier. With people who can guide them and help them step by them on how to cook for themselves, find an exercise regimen they can maintain, and a space where they feel understood, not judged. Hopefully with M.D.s who are opened to holistic, integrative approaches to our “first world problems”. So that everybody can experience what a bliss it is to live in a pain-free body.

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Living in a pain-free body (part 1)

Have you noticed how many things you take for granted until they’re not there anymore? How easily the body adapts to a new standard of what “normal” is?

This goes both ways when health is involved:

  • when you are feeling good, you don’t give a second thought about your body and how good you feel in it until you hurt yourself and realize that you went from a non-painful state to a painful one.
  • when you are chronically sick, you don’t realize how bad it makes you feel everyday until it is fixed and you feel so liberated.

I’ve already slightly brooded over the topic in my post over Matthew’s workshop and the partner work he made us do to feel the effect of a change in the location of our center of gravity, and how the feeling of loss is usually more memorable for the body.

I now want to explore another aspect of this health gain and loss problematic, which is through the psychological and scientific side of it, sprinkled with stories from my personal experience.

I’ve been hearing a lot about chronic diseases and how 30% of it was genetic (so you can’t do anything about it) and 70%, yes you read that correctly, 70% is due to lifestyle choices (i.e. mainly diet, exercise, smoking, and emotional support). So I looked up where this quote is coming from, and I traced it back to Dr Moira Fordyce from Standford University. But I couldn’t find any scientific study with this data in her name, so I tried contacting her, without luck since she since then she retired from her position as adjunct clinical professor and the faculty didn’t have her email.

Even though I was fairly disappointed that my career in investigative journalism met its end so fast (unless I were willing to pay for a third entity website and/or long distance phone calls) I started my search again, this time using Pubmed (the scientific publication search website) and a couple of selected keywords. Thanks to the fact that I’m a scientist and I have access to publications behind pay-walls via the university, I found a Science publication from 2002 entitled “Balancing Life-Style and Genomics Research for Disease Prevention” by Walter C. Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health, which is a viewpoint article referencing many studies about this topic and giving an overview of what direction should healthcare prevention go. I contacted Pr. Willett who will hopefully authorize me to reproduce the Fig. 1. of his article here:

Fig1-Willett2002

Pretty impressive, right? Having a Body Mass Index (BMI) <25, moderate physical activity at least 30 minutes a day and a healthy diet reduces your chances colon cancer, stroke, heart disease and diabetes by 70% or more. I have to say that even though I think I am quite well educated on the topic, seeing these numbers on paper was actually quite shocking. References : (6) M. J. Stampfer, F. B. Hu, J. E. Manson, E. B. Rimm, W. C. Willett, N. Engl. J. Med. 343, 16 (2000) (7) E. A. Platz et al., Cancer Causes Control 11, 579 (2000) (8) F. B. Hu et al., N. Engl. J. Med. 345, 790 (2001)

I wake up (almost) every day feeling grateful for the fact that I am living in a pain-free body. I remember a time not so long ago, when I was miserable and without any idea that my life could be any different.

When I was a teenager, I got severe acne. Like all teenagers, you will probably think. Well, not exactly. I started having acne at 10, and even though I went through many treatments, it never went away. If you think acne is not a serious problem, you’ve never been disfigured by it, never been looked at as if you’re dirty and you have acne because you have poor hygiene (disclaimer: not all acne can be cured by washing your face with an appropriate product, and if you have a lot of it, it’s unlikely this is the type of acne that will). Not to mention that it wasn’t only my face; also my chest and back were covered with it. And not a small zit either; red, huge, disgusting pus-filled, hurting rashes.

I tried all the available creams at the pharmacy, so much that I would know the products better than the person selling them. I took antibiotics, external first, then internal. I took the pill. I took anti-androgens. All of these would work for the first three months, just enough to make me hope that I had finally found a solution, until my body would get accustomed to it and acne would come back.

I ended up taking Accutane® at 15. For those who don’t know what it is, I redirect you to drugwatch. By then, the birth defect  secondary effects were already known, so I also had to be on the pill during the treatment, and have monthly blood tests to check I wasn’t pregnant. Likely because of the pill which had to be a first generation (second gen. were not compatible) and highly dosed in hormones, I started putting on weight at high speed. I was starving all the time even though I was trying to control what I was eating. I put on 10 kg in 2 months, I was bloated and basically just like a balloon. I have pictures of my summer vacation with my parents (at their place, otherwise I would have scanned one to show the extent of the bloating on a 15yo) where you can clearly see how bad I felt. I started being depressed, crying without any reasons (well apart from the fact that none of my clothes fit, I was hungry all the time and feeling like sh*t). Since depression is a side-effect of Accutane®, my dermatologist lowered the dose I was taking and I didn’t kill myself. I still got the maximum authorized dose of the medicine. My skin cleared for six month. Then it came back.

I took Accutane® in 2004, five years before it got taken off the market. Eleven years later, I am still paying for that one mistake. After years on antibiotic, my intestinal flora was likely not in very good shape when I started taking freaking chemotherapy. Which was sold to my 15 year-old self with “you will have the skin of a star!”.

Five years later, in 2009, suffering from what I still think is acne, I decided to quit all the treatments I was still having (pill, anti-androgens, creams). My osteopath suggested I may be allergic to milk, so I went on an elimination diet. It worked for a while, but it was not perfect. I started talking to my M.D. about allergy testing, only to get answered that “acne is hormonal not linked to allergies”. Well then I wonder why it’s not getting fixed by the pill and anti-androgens. Or why my thyroid results are fine. And I don’t have cystic ovaries. I’m not joking when I say we explored every. single. possibility.

I ended up having my uncle, who is a pediatrician, make me a prescription for an allergy blood test (not reimbursed by the health insurance, and very expensive. I will never thank my parents enough for accepting to pay for it – though retrospectively it was a much better investment than all the partly-reimbursed creams and pills I took over the years). It came back basically crimson (red mean highly reactive). I am allergic to gluten, dairy, bell pepper, paprika, asparagus, broccoli, pineapple, banana, guar gum and vanilla.

Me at 22, Christmas 2011. My skin is so itchy I want to rip it off, and I am bloated to death.

Me at 22, Christmas 2011. My skin is so itchy I want to rip it off, and I am bloated to death.

DSC00354

22/07/12, 7 months into the elimination diet; while still not perfect my skin has cleared up and I feel much better.

Though I will never have confirmation, my gut feeling (being purposely punny here in the middle of this depressing blog post) is that all the medication I took while a teenager, antibiotics and Accutane®, completely destroyed my intestinal flora which led to me having a leaky gut, likely a candida overgrowth, and proteins getting into my bloodstream instead of being digested, to which in turn my immune system started reacting. By this time, it was not only rashes any more; rather the rashes had gotten so bad that my throat was swollen, the plaques were itching like crazy (during the day I would resist, but while asleep I would scratch them which did not improve things); I was also having regular stomachaches and headaches which I assumed were normal. I was told may times by doctors that it was all in my head.

I went on an elimination diet; my skin started to clear, I wasn’t bloated anymore, the headaches and most of the stomachaches disappeared and my energy levels went up. After six months, I tried reintroducing gluten and dairy slowly as it was supposedly possible. I fell very, very sick and had to spent a couple of hours in bed, lying on my stomach after taking paracetamol to make it pass. I tried again after a year. Same story. I have not tried reintroducing since. A lot of people ask me if it’s not too hard not to eat the stuff. Nah. It’s really easy when you know it’s gonna make you want to die by cutting your stomach in half (btw, this comes from a girl who almost had appendicitis -funnily also at 15, on holidays in Tunisia, but that’s another story- and waited until it was near peritonitis to get operated because in the family, we just swallow physical pain and move on.).

This Christmas, it will be four years since my diagnosis. I still can’t look at the pictures from Christmas 2011 without tearing up.