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Culinary Pharmacy: Food For Thought (part 3)

October 10th, 2014 | Posted by Monica in Culinary Pharmacy: Food For Thought (part 3)

At about this time, I joined the ranks of insomniacs around the world. Falling asleep was impossible unless it was about 5 am and the feeling of exhaustion took hold.  After trying everything from warm milk, warm bath, melatonin and whatever else I could think of, I went to the doctor.  He suggested meditation, but my mind was too active to be able to focus for long. Monkey-brain is something many people can relate to. It happens only when we want to sleep. Thoughts jump quickly from one thing to another even though none of these things are especially important or concerning. It’s like being attached to a motor that won’t turn off no matter which switch you try to pull.

Soon afterward, I began to fall victim to a series of infections. Ears, eyes, skin and even an odd rash that nobody could figure out, but treated with antibiotics and all seemed well again – sort of. I never really felt like my old self.  After seven years of feeling like my body was attacking me and almost two years of weight loss and an inability to eat much at all, people started asking if I had an eating disorder.  Heck no! I wanted to eat all kinds of things, but my body refused to comply. It was at that point that I had a really scary thought. A person can’t survive on a starvation diet for very long, so maybe I was going to die. What kind of fool was I who could listen to doctors when everything they had tried to do for me had failed? Wasn’t this exactly what I had dealt with so many times when working with dogs? Wasn’t I the same person who fought hard to help dogs that had been given up on by traditional medicine so many times? Right then, in that moment, I felt a wave of relief wash over me.  Not that I was sure I could turn my health around, but having a plan made a difference. I am, if nothing else, the type of person who needs to have a plan.

I made a list of all the obligations, and all the expectations of people in my life and tried to prioritize them.  The result didn’t look good. Once I allotted the time spent taking care of clients and family (that’s the order I’d placed them in), I’d run out of the meagre twenty-four hours in a day that all of us have. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the fourth attempt to reorganize the list that I realized I’d forgotten to put someone’s name on it. Mine.

The final draft of my list looked very different. I recognised that if I didn’t take care of myself, I wouldn’t be able to work and help the dogs I love so much, or do much of anything to help my family. So, this draft started with my name at the top, and I can’t begin to describe the guilt I felt about it. How could I explain to clients that I wouldn’t be available to them on weekends? How could I skip cleaning the house one evening just because I wanted to soak in the tub? How could I say no to anyone when they asked for something? “No” wasn’t in my vocabulary. How could I dispense of relationships in my life that were draining and abusive (we all have those, I think – people who like you based only on the last thing you did for them) rather than manageable? That wasn’t nice, and nice is how I was raised to be. People don’t change overnight, and I certainly didn’t. It took practice. One day at a time, sometimes one conversation at a time, and sometimes I still struggle with the whole thing. But for the most part, I’ve gotten better at it, and guilt isn’t as big a part of the picture. People who cared about me were relieved to see that I was starting to take care of myself. Those who’d been blood suckers balked and fought hard to hold on to the old me. But, that woman had gone and was replaced by someone who valued her sanity. It was invaluable and freeing. And yet, the gastrointestinal troubles continued.

During this time, my mind became quieter. The sleeping pattern continued to be unacceptable, but now that I’d removed some things off my to-do list, I was more aware of body signals. For example, I could lie in bed, hoping sleep would find me, and realize that my legs felt restless. Not itchy, or painful, but I felt a need to move them almost in the way someone with a mild leg cramp would.  Could it be Restless Leg Syndrome? The commercials for this disorder suddenly popped into my head. What else is there to think about at 3 a.m., after all? My doctor offered a number of prescription solutions, but I’d had enough of taking pills, so I continued baths with Epsom salts instead and found some relief. I told myself my nerves were still on edge, so a bath before going to bed at night would now become routine. And it did. Still, the feeling of unease in my legs would return 2-3 hours later.

Sometimes I’d be aware of my heart beating as if I’d just finished a very brisk walk – but I hadn’t been walking.  I wondered if anxiety could be the problem.  After all those years of pushing myself beyond my limits, being anxious wouldn’t be a big surprise, and since a bath with Epsom salt helped, I wasn’t worried.

It took a few nights of the bath routine before it struck me that Epsom salts is simply magnesium sulphate. Magnesium… hey, wait a minute! Was it possible that my diet (if one can call Boost and Ensure a diet) lacked in magnesium? Surely, after having run on empty for so long, I was bound to be deficient in many minerals and that could include magnesium.  There I was, back to diet again. Finally! – the answer seemed obvious. I’d have to start over in the same way that I do when I work with dogs, and in cases like what I’ve described mine to be, digestive enzymes can be a good thing. Despite what doctors told me about my not needing to take them, I saw no risk in trying, but neither did I expect to see great results.  There’s precious little medical information on the ability of supplemental digestive enzymes to reduce inflammation, although some suggest that it helps patients with Crohn’s disease.

Let me share that I felt a little silly. There were plenty of  bottles of great quality digestive enzymes on the shelf since we sell them on the website, and I could have tried them at any time. Now, about two years after feeling like hell, I finally opened a bottle for my own use. I took two capsules with water, waited about fifteen minutes and sat down to a meal of poached chicken and mashed potato. Chances were that I‘d be doubling over from pain in a short while, so I wasn’t about to test the waters with anything other than very bland food. The truth is that I don’t like bland foods, but can I just say that this tasted like a gourmet meal to me? Real food that I could chew was very exciting – and nerve wracking. I waited for the pain that never arrived. I waited for hours. This seemed impossible. Maybe it was a fluke event, or a placebo effect.  So, I tried it again, this time by eating plain, boiled pasta. No pain.  Over the next two weeks I was up to eating low-fat cheese, apples, brown rice, rye bread, lean fish, and even beans. Not only was there no pain, but I started to believe that this old girl could make a come-back after all. Of course, the idea of a placebo effect remained a possibility, but the fact that I couldn’t tolerate much in the way of fats made me believe that this wasn’t the case. If indeed a placebo effect was at play, one would think that I could eat anything and everything I wanted without suffering the consequences, but this wasn’t the case. Oils, salad dressings, mustard, jam (anything with much sugar) and many other foods would set me back in a big way. And yet, the mind is a curious thing, so I didn’t rule out a placebo effect. Instead, I once again went back to what I do for dogs, and that is to compare the nutrient value of the diet to what the National Research Council (NRC) advises. Let me be clear. I don’t necessarily believe that nutrition science, including the NRC, has all the answers, but it does give me a place to start.

The analysis of my own diet over a one-month period was an eye-opener.  Despite eating solid food and drinking Boost, I was deficient in nearly every mineral, most notably, zinc and magnesium.  I began by supplementing with my own brand of magnesium citrate because here again, it was (and had always been) readily available to me. In large quantities, magnesium citrate can cause diarrhea, so I was cautious. Each capsule is 170 mg in strength which isn’t much, but it was enough to give my body what it needed, and not just on paper.  I’m not sure how much time passed before I realized that my legs had stopped feeling restless and my heart wasn’t beating in my ears. Magnesium was exactly what my body seemed to need, and exactly what doctors hadn’t mentioned.  I started feeling so well, I’d forget to take digestive enzymes now and then, and my gut would protest. It seemed clear that the placebo effect wasn’t at play here.

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