So I’m a doctor now

This year has been a year of graduations. After getting my Introductory certificate, last week I finally concluded five years of graduate school by (successfully) defending my thesis and officially becoming a PhD.

I genuinely enjoyed the day, as I wasn’t too stressed before the defense (maybe all this yoga was paying off?!) and I found most questions interesting.  My PI’s laudatio was great, and both the reception and the party were amazing. It was very emotional to see all of my friends and family together to celebrate my achievement.

And now what, you ask? Well, I’m in Utrecht for two more months, working as a postdoctoral researcher in the group I did my PhD in, before I move on to a new adventure in NYC next February. Exciting times!

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This is your brain on music

Disclaimer: long article ahead. Brace yourselves!

To be honest, I’m quite surprised that this book is a bestseller. Not because I didn’t like it, since it would be unlikely that I would spend time on writing an article about it if that were the case. While I do regret that negative data is often not published in scientific journals, I do understand the reticence about spending time to write about something that didn’t work out – even if that would probably prevent other people to spend their time doing the exact same non-working thing because they didn’t know it had already been done and didn’t work.

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While I really enjoyed reading the book, I’m surprised it is a bestseller because I found it quite hard to read. For someone like me, a huge music lover and avid scientist, the difficult part was my total absence of training in music theory. I cannot read the solfege really well, and I never learned to play an instrument. So while the scientific part was easy for me to understand and I found it fascinating, the music theory part was a lot to ingest and I found a new respect for musicians and especially composers. Not that I ever thought that being a composer was easy, but there is a preconception about music school students that they do not really work much; and I found that the music theory concepts are pretty heavy to handle, and require quite a bit of understanding of physics.

It may have been because I’ve been very busy recently, and getting to bed late and already tired, it was a tough read. I had to let go of it for a while and read something lighter because I found myself re-reading the same pages again, realizing I didn’t understand what I had read. Luckily (!) I’ve had to go to the synchrotron twice this month, which meant a lot of traveling, and thus a lot of time to read and write.

While I may say I’m writing a summary for you, the truth is I’m writing it for myself; hoping that it will help me remember the concepts and ideas that I genuinely enjoyed reading and found stimulating.

The first chapter is about defining what music is, and it’s where it was difficult for me to go on. Music theory, erk :/ Plus, while I do believe that I have a fairly extensive knowledge of music for a non-professional, but I lacked some references – or rather, it’s hard for me to make the link between an artist or a song name to the actual song. I often try to tell my friends about a particular song by humming the rhythm because I am unable to remember the name of the artist or the title of song; and let’s not even count the number of times I looked up a song via the hardly complete lyrics I remembered. However, the analogies Daniel Levitin uses do help, and I plan to read that chapter again in the coming months/years, because this is probably the closest I’ll ever be to learn anything about pitches, octaves and the rest.

theory20image

Well, this still looks a lot like Mandarin to me. I don’t speak Mandarin.

The second chapter is about foot tapping, and even though there was still a lot of jargon, that definitely spoke more to me. I just recently told a colleague who laughed at my moving/dancing around the lab “if it’s got rhythm, it’s impossible for me not to move!”. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons I genuinely enjoy working in the weekend when I decide to: on top of most equipment being free to use immediately, I can just put the music as loud as I want and dance my way around the lab.

The next chapter, “ Music and the mind machine”, has less to do with music and more to do with the brain. One might think I would’ve been highly interested in that chapter, but I already knew the whole content of it so it wasn’t very exciting to read about how our mind can easily trick us for the 100th time. But I guess for non-neuroscientists musicians, this is what chapter 1 felt for me.

Chapters 4 and 5 are about anticipation and classification of music. I don’t think I learned much exciting stuff from these chapters, but it was still a good read. Furthermore, I was interested in the points that were made about non-trained musicians and trained musicians (this will come back later).

Chapter 6 is when it started being really interesting for me. Entitled “After Dessert, Crick Was Still Four Seats Away from Me”, this chapter links music, emotion and the reptilian brain. I do believe that at the deepest level, we enjoy music because of how it makes us feel. Who hasn’t felt that gut-wrenching feeling, when a song resonates with you? True artists can make you go through so many emotions in one song, you could say they are actually playing with emotions, not music. Levitin makes the point that music is so powerful because one of the brain region that activates when we listen to music is the cerebellum, one of the oldest (evolutionary speaking) part of the brain, which is already present in reptiles (thus the reptilian brain). The cerebellum is in charge of tracking timing and movement (since walking, for example, is rhythmic). It also happens to have very important connections to the emotional centers of the brain; it then makes sense that music would be able, through these connections, to awaken strong feelings while we listen to it.

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This chapter also convinced me to put Crick’s book What Mad Pursuit on my to-read list. Yes, Crick, from Watson & Crick, the Nobel Prizes of the DNA structure discovery. I’ve had many a discussion about what a shame it is that academics become so highly specialized that they lose the big picture, and with it lose any interest/excitement in the wonders of Nature – only thinking about the next grant, the next funding, the next paper.

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All through my studies, my choice has been to limit myself the least possible (I ended up studying science because I figured it would be easier to read novels and philosophy on the side than learn about differential equations or Fourier transforms on my own). That’s one of the advantages (and also a disadvantage in certain instances) of the French system, and especially Grandes Ecoles: you can keep on being a generalist until you pretty much decide on your PhD. The drawback is, I didn’t have many choices open if I wanted to deepen my knowledge of a particular topic – which led me to do it on my free time, not especially a bad thing, but since the schooling time is already pretty heavy, my to-do/to-read list became very long during my studies, and I’m only catching up now. I chose protein crystallography for my PhD because it was at the corner of physics, chemistry and biology, notwithstanding computer science nowadays (which wasn’t the case when Dorothy Hodgkin, every female crystallographer’s role model, solved the insulin structure).

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Now isn’t that insulin hexamer beautiful?

But I’m getting away from the topic at hand here, which is (my) brain on music.

The next chapter of the book dissects what it is exactly, that makes a musician a good musician. I’m especially interested in that topic because I can’t play any instrument. I however genuinely enjoy singing and dancing, and while I’m certainly not at any professional level, I guess I’m tolerable enough that my colleagues can still work while I’m singing along to the radio. My forte is dancing though, it just comes very naturally to me.

If you’ve never heard the rule of the 10000 hours needed to become an expert, well now is the time. It’s not the first time I had heard about it, being a Malcolm Gladwell fan, but I was surprised that Levitin almost dismissed any innate source of talent (but his book was published before the 10000 hours started being put under scrutiny). He also mentions that thanks to the use of chunking you can adapt and learn faster (since I read A mind for numbers not long ago it was a good reminder).

The main message: music and memory are highly intertwined. And this is also something that comes up in the following chapter.

Now we’re almost at the end of the book, and the previous to last chapter is about music taste. Why do we like the music we like? Well, we obviously get some priming, starting already from when we are in our mother’s womb. Then the whole culture surrounding us growing up has an influence, and especially who we choose to hang out with during our teenage years, since music has this bonding and social component. Furthermore, the capacity to form new neural connections during adolescence is really high and starts decreasing quickly afterwards. This indicates that if you haven’t been exposed to a certain type of activity or music genre, even briefly, it will be much harder for you to learn a new skill or appreciate a different type of music later in life. This is due to the fact that during development, there is a certain amount of time dedicated to the formation of new connections, and after that time has elapsed, pruning, i.e. consolidation of useful connections and discard of unused ones, starts.

I couldn’t possibly write an entire article about music without at least ONE song by my favorite artist of all times. It’s very interesting for me that Florence + the Machine resonated so well with me, because it’s pretty much the only band I discovered myself and neither my family or friends really like her. While it’s expected I would like her music since it’s indie pop-rock, which I do generally appreciate as a genre, nothing explains why her songs have such a strong, physical and emotional toll on me (even if it’s a strong female lead, as one of my friends likes to point out I like).

Anyhow it’s probably to late for me to become really good at playing an instrument because I’m over twenty, and most of my neuronal patterns are already being consolidated. Plus, since I also have really big issues with anything like painting or sculpting, I cannot say I have been primed for eye-hand coordination. Still, one day I will learn how to play the cello – after all, you don’t only learn things to be the best, right? Furthermore, I’d like to think that I like change and learning new things more than the average, so hopefully I keep my brain very plastic :p (Levitin does mention that there are individual differences).

In the final chapter, entitled The Music Instinct, Levitin explores why music might be an evolutionary advantage. One of the interesting points is that music could have emerged before speech, which is something I had never really thought about. While a lot of this chapter’s content is hypothetical, the main idea is that music, and dance (since it is a cultural construction to separate both as they are so intimately linked) have had an important role in courtship, through its power to remain ingrained for long times in our brains and the feelings and emotions it can stir. Indeed, who has never had a song stuck into their brain? I often keep a new song I like on repeat  until the next one, and I can easily get obsessed with a song if I recall it and cannot listen to it.

Spoiler alert: this is how the book (and this article) ends:

“As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. The combination of the two -as best exemplified in a love song- is the best courtship display of all.”

The iceman, the breath of fire, and pada III.38.

So, some time ago I heard about the iceman, i.e. Wim Hof. I read about him on the internet and decided to watch the vice documentary about him:

I was very surprised, since I live in the Netherlands, that I had never heard of him before. I find his story fascinating.

He is able to control is autoimmune system and able to teach others how to do it; all of it in a scientific setting – the results were published in PNAS, which is a high-impact factor scientific journal.

He says in the documentary that he is not the first person to be able to do this, and I believe that actually many yogis have reached a similar level during the ages. Indeed, while he does not call his technique “yoga”, in my opinion what he does is “simply” a very strong pranayama practice.

He talks about the inner fire, which obviously made me think of agni sara, breath of fire.

I really feel like Wim Hof is a yogi, also because he stays very humble through these demonstrations of “superpowers” and I am glad that his son pushed him to “market” his talent since otherwise there would be no scientific data on the fact that humans are capable of influencing their automatic nervous system.

I can’t help but think of Patanjali’s warning in the Yoga Sutras III.38:
से अत्त्ऐन्मेन्त्स अरे इम्पेदिमेन्त्स तो समधि, अल्थोउघ थेय अरे पोवेर्स इन अच्तिवे लिफ़े.
te samadhau upasargah vyutthane siddhayah
These attainments are impediments to samadhi, although they are powers in active life.

Divine perceptions¹ are hindrances to a yogi whose wisdom is supreme and whose goal is spiritual absorption. They are great accomplishements, but he should know that they fall within the range of the gunas of nature, and in acquiring them he might forget his main aim in life and luxuriate in them. If they are shunned, however, they become aids to samadhi.

The yogi may mistake these accomplishments and rewards for the end and aim of yogic practices. He may imagine that he has attained great spiritual heights, and that whatever is attainable through yoga has been achieved. In this way he may forget the goal of Self-Realization.

Patanjali warns yogis to treat these powers as obstacles in their sadhana. One should control them as whole-heartedly as one fought earlier to conquer the afflictions of the body and the fluctuations of the mind. Then one can move forward towards kaivalya, emancipation.

(Translation and commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar)

Notes:
¹ Divine perceptions: powers that have been gained through the sadhana.
sadhana: practice
gunas: qualities of nature
samadhi: equanimity of mind, profound meditation, eigth and final aspect of ashtanga yoga, bliss

Another translation and text explanation that I found clear and useful.

 

Yoga on your period

There is a lot of information on yoga to be found on the internet, in books and/or magazines. So much information actually, that it sometimes gets confusing since you can find every advice and its contrary.

One of the “hot” topics is if and how to practice on your period. To be honest, when I started practicing I did not understand why I shouldn’t do inversions on my period or a strong practice. I thought it was an old-fashioned tradition coming from a misogynist culture, like this lady or this one (who clearly misunderstands Iyengar, btw. He does  “recommends practicing inversions to alleviate menstrual problems such as heavy flow and irregular periods” but that’s in your regular practice, not on your period). And as a strong woman, I was decided to show that I was as able as a man and not a sick person on my period, so I could have a strong practice.  I don’t have much period ache (except during pelvic displacement cf previous post, but that is another story) and generally still quite a lot of energy so I would go in a 100%.

My teacher at the time wasn’t highly concerned with this and simply told us that if we felt fine doing it we should just keep on doing it. On the one hand, I do understand her point of view since it is always a good idea to listen to your body. On the other hand though, most people starting yoga are pretty bad at reading their body’s messages, me included, and it’s the role of the teacher to guide them.

There again, I truly regret that there is little scientific research on the topic (and that the little there is, is rarely linked to opinion pieces like this endometriosis article that I just spent 15 minutes tracing back and is likely the one every article talks about – relevant article on endometriosis and inversions). I thus have to write from what I know, which is my own practice and body. It’s now been four years since I started practicing yoga, and three since I practice daily. My view on yoga practice has greatly changed since then.

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Endometriosis is a condition resulting from the appearance of endometrial tissue outside the womb and causing pelvic pain, especially associated with menstruation. I was also tested for endometriosis during my undiagnosed allergy years.

I have to note that I have not been on hormonal birth control since I started yoga so my period is not externally regulated. This allows a direct monthly feedback on what is happening in my body.
Many women see their period only as an inconvenience but in fact it is a very accurate health marker. Having a regular, painless period off the pill is a sign of good health. And as with many medication, taking the pill will likely treat the symptoms but not the underlying causes – so if you stop taking it, for ex. if you want to get pregnant, all your issues will come back at you.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not against taking birth control at all; I have formerly and will certainly take some form of birth control in the future. However, I do believe that taking birth control is not a cure-all and does have consequences that most women are not aware of.

The first asanas I stopped practicing on my period are inversions. At the time I wasn’t practicing inversions everyday, but I wouldn’t care whether I was on my period or not and would do sirsasana for a couple of minutes (I couldn’t hold it for that long at that time but it always brought me a peace of mind). Until I started noticing that when I would hold sirsasana during my period, it would get irregular.
I have the habit to track my period on my calendar (which, by the way, I think every woman should do) and while it never got completely out of hand, I would get cycles ranging from 22-35 days, which is not exactly regular. On top of that, my period would stop and start again if I would practice inversions in the middle.
I am happy to say that since I stopped practicing inversions on my period as well as a couple of other poses, my cycle has been regular as a clock – 28 days, the only exception being when I take a plane which can delay for a couple of days (which is apparently due to the change in the circadian rhythm); and no more interruptions.
My case is not an isolated one. I have heard that women practicing in the early years at the RIMYI were practicing inversions and it was common that they would not get their period. Geeta Iyengar, who worked on the practice of yoga for women for years and is an ayurvedic doctor, says that inversions should be avoided because inversions, as their name indicate, inverse the flow of the blood which you want to get rid of (this follows the principle of apana) . Now, I’m a healthy skeptic when it concerns either traditional or modern medicine. I don’t want to do something simply because Geetaji said so. However, I also know how uncomfortable it is to hold headstand when your bladder is full. I think it is the same idea – if you want to get rid of bodily fluids, inverting the direction they should go to sounds like a bad idea; it’s like wanting to pour a liquid out of a bottle by holding it upright.

Other poses that should be avoided are strong twists; the reason why is quite straightforward: you may want to avoid putting pressure on your abdomen when it’s already dealing with a whole lot of pressure and swelling due to internal cleaning. Now is also NOT the time to work on getting flat abs. Yoga asanas are meant to balance your body (and your mind, but let’s focus on the body here), so that it is both strong and flexible. It is unlikely that putting pressure where there is already an excess of it is going to help. On the contrary poses where the abdomen is soft (supta baddha konasana <3) will counterbalance the gripping of the lower belly and should be practiced without restriction.

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I usually do supta baddha konasana with two belts (one over each leg) due to my pelvis issue; all the support is not needed but it does allow for an easier relaxation.

This morning I was doing some self-practice at home when I finally understood why some poses are off limits while you’re on your period. It made much sense but I didn’t realize it before because my practice wasn’t deep enough yet.
I recently started practicing mula bandha (“root lock”, i.e. using the pelvic floor muscles). Unlike Ashtanga teachers, Iyengar teachers rarely talk about mula bandha. I think I may have heard my teachers talk about it twice in three years. Somehow Matthew Sanford talked quickly about it, and I remembered my first yoga teacher telling us how important it was, so I started trying to use it. Needless to say, I realized I had been practicing many poses incompletely because I was not using it. Funnily, many instructions that my teachers previously gave me now made sense! I guess they were indeed trying to teach me about mula bandha, but it did not reach my brain until I “got”the idea of mula bandha.
It has not only improved my headstand, but also opened new dimensions in the practice of seated poses and arms balances.
So this morning I was practicing malasana and thinking of bakasana, when I realized that arms balances where theoretically off-limits because if you’re doing them properly, you’re activating mula bandha. Which means you’re locking the pelvis floor – thus preventing the menstrual flow to, well, flow.

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Credits Yoga with Jib

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.

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.

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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.