Inflammation and Food

Food deeply impacts health. We know that what you consume has much to do with wellness, but the specific foods that promote or inhibit this are constantly debated. I believe that inflammation is at the root of many health issues, especially for those prone to autoimmune disease. While it’s notable that there has been a change in both discussion of and access to healthy options, there is undoubtedly a lasting and common distain for the dedication to a plant-based diet. While a plant-based diet is simple in concept it’s not always easy to do well. I am not a medical professional; I have eliminated many foods trying to feel my best, and have found this to be truest to me. If you suffer from Crohn’s or similar disorders you are likely very aware of the foods that most hurt and help your specific issue, which in some cases are contrary to my recommendations. My awareness that my pain and paralysis stem from inflammation motivates me to minimize any potential stimulation. I do not do this perfectly (not even close), and there are aspects of inflammation I won’t get into here. My only authority on the matter is my own experience, light research, and anecdotal evidence from friends and family members. In short, this is what works for me, and I hope it can help you too.

Inflammatory foods are ideally eliminated to promote everyday wellness but especially when health is compromised and you are trying to heal. To my mind, the most important food to avoid is refined sugar. It is the most addictive substance to me, and I know I need to avoid it completely. My husband, in the wake of Phife Dawg’s death, heard in an interview wherein the rapper shared his personal struggle with sugar. Phife’s tragic and untimely death was reportedly due to complications from diabetes. Those colorful, candied doughnuts make beautiful instagram posts, but they are hurting you. It’s no joke. Nothing makes me feel so instantly icky, bloated and fiery in my nerves. Most days there will be a moment I am craving something sweet. I find it helpful to have some pre-made sweet, but refined sugar-free options. I like dairy-free ice cream or healthy no-bake cookies. What is remarkable about these treats is they satisfy your sweet tooth without an intense craving to eat more. The further you get from refined sugar the less you will miss it, I swear! *Note: artificial sugars, like aspartame, are just as inflammatory, steer clear!

Gluten is a hot-topic for many, and the hardest thing about being gluten-free is judgment. I don’t even like to say the word. Many people have absolutely no allergy, and so gluten poses no threat to their health, but refined flours, like those found in white bread, flour, some noodles, etc… undergo processing that make it act like sugar, and will cause inflammation in everyone. Luckily, whole-grain options are now widely available. Pick those when you have the choice, remembering that ancient grains are delicious and nutritious. I tend to stay away from most gluten free substitutes, as they are generally unsatisfying in taste, and do little nutritionally. I do like Udi’s soft and hearty whole grain bread, and find it can make a solid platform for a decent sandwich.

As a former vegan, dairy is fairly easy to eliminate. There is popular belief that dairy is essential, and I won’t dispute the value of calcium found in healthier options like yogurt or kefir. What I think goes widely unrealized is how much better the body absorbs calcium through plants like broccoli, kale, bok choy, even parsley (it’s not just garnish!) and how much gentler this is on human bodies. Milk is utterly needless in our diets and is better left to baby cows. I find that coconut milk or cream can be a great replacement in your coffee or mashed potatoes, or wherever else you might use dairy. You can find more information on this many places, but I like this source: Why You Don’t Need Dairy.

Being social in many capacities involves alcohol, but consuming too much sets the body aflame. I won’t preach abstinence, and I won’t practice it either. I very much appreciate the work of mixologists, brew masters, and winemakers. My most intense nerve issues have been mildly and temporarily assuaged by a spirit or two, but if I am honest with myself I must admit that this habit is unhealthy. When I am in such social situations I do my best to keep it to one or two drinks, but believe that elimination is really where I should aim, especially when I’m having a flare.

Now for the question I’m frequently asked: What do you eat? When I am really good about my ideal diet I focus first on the vegetables in season, and get a whole bunch of them. They should be the stars of most meals. The best inspiration for this kind of veggie showmanship comes from the gorgeous restaurant, Vedge, here in Philly. Luckily, they published a cookbook so mortals can attempt their impressive culinary feats. When fresh produce is not available I stock up on frozen vegetables like broccoli, green beans, mixed veggies…Around that I always have on hand brown rice, quinoa, an assortment of beans, tamari, olive oil, coconut oil (all hail the mighty coconut), and I usually have some antibiotic free, free-range chicken in the freezer. Any time I can add ginger, garlic or tumeric I do (these are all natural anti-inflammatories, good to take in pill form, too). I find you can do quite a lot with these! Having fresh veggies like cucumber and carrots chopped and pre-made hummus will prevent you from eating a bag of Doritos even when they are sitting in your cupboard opened and your husband won’t notice them missing (he will always notice). Apples/celery and peanut butter have followed me from childhood and are always around house Corey. Walnuts and dried fruit are great to keep in your bag for on-the-go snacks.

It is not easy, especially when you are out with friends and family who may not understand why you aren’t partaking in the plethora of delicious, incendiary consumables. I find a mantra helpful when I reach for something I know I shouldn’t, “What is this doing for me?” Your health is more valuable than the brief joy of crappy, inflammatory foods. When you think of food in terms of what you deserve, your body becomes precious and important. It’s the only one you’re going to get this lifetime. As an added bonus eliminating these foods is likely to make you look better on the outside, too. When I am really struggling, I watch some Beyoncé videos and think, “what wouldn’t I give for the chance to look a tiny bit more like her?”

Dreaming works for me.

Continue reading “Inflammation and Food”

Breastfeeding

I should have guessed that Graves’ might affect breastfeeding, given that the thyroid regulates all hormones, but I tried my best to let doctors tell me where to worry, and let the rest be… Looking back, I would have gotten my thyroid removed during the second trimester, when it was safest for us both. The first three months of my daughter’s life I struggled with making enough milk (with hyperthyroid it’s actually the let-down that’s impacted, not production, but same result—baby needs more). It became abundantly clear when in the recovery room from my thyroidectomy I pumped more milk that I could have previously in a day. I popped a synthroid and was done with my supply problem. In another post I’ll give you perhaps a more compelling reason I should have gotten that sick gland out earlier, but today I want to focus on nursing.

Graves’ was a hangnail. It bothered me a little at first, but besides some tremors, the weekly blood draws and many hours spent monitoring my unborn daughter, there was truly little trouble. It was the Parsonage Turner Syndrome, otherwise known as brachial neuritis that was and has been more problematic. It impacts just 1 out of 100,000 people, and it’s hard to explain fully, but I’ll give you a quick scoop. Generally a flare is sparked by a trauma: injury, surgery, childbirth, anesthesia, even vaccines. It begins with sudden, intense onset of severe pain located in the shoulder/upper back area (acute phase) lasting between weeks and months often followed by lessened pain, weakness and paralysis of affected area for around a year (chronic phase). I’ve had periodic episodes in my life since age 14, but have rarely been able to identify or predict triggers.

It made perfect sense that two spinals and a cesarean birth would do the trick, and I should have seen it coming. The next day I was given three vaccines (I only learned later) known to trigger. Go figure I experience the worst attack of my life. In recovery, on morphine, I was in agony, and shuddered at the near future.

On particularly acute nights nursing would have been impossible without help. Here’s why my mom is great: she (a former breastfeeder herself, and a big supporter) would try to help her ailing daughter, “I’m going to give her a bottle, okay?” Each time when I protested, I wanted to nurse her, she didn’t question, she would gingerly take my arms and wrap each safely around my daughter, prop pillows up to keep them in place, pack my shoulders with ice, and help me take some (useless) steroids and Percocet. Sometimes she’d be brave with me, sometimes she’d cry with me. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

I was OBSESSED with increasing my supply, so much that I would double pump 20-30 minutes after at least six of 12 nursing sessions a day, drink only mother’s milk tea, and took so much fenugreek I smelled like maple syrup. I would chart how much I was able to pump at what time, how much supplementing she needed, what her weight gain was that week…When you have a baby that eats every 90 minutes, and you have to supplement, it’s the only thing you do. You can’t leave the house, because you can’t stop, ever. I was in so much pain that I wouldn’t want to leave the house, anyways. I felt guilty supplementing with formula, but also knew she was still hungry, and needed it. A few weeks later, we learned our daughter had a milk-protein allergy, and in order to keep nursing I would need to eliminate dairy from my diet. I am already gluten-free because of my autoimmune issues, so I’m accustomed to reading labels, but this left my diet pretty limited.

Why the hell would I do this just to keep breastfeeding? I don’t think formula is evil, and I don’t for one second think that mothers who bottle-feed are doing less than their best for their children, but it wasn’t the right choice for me. I did it for myself as much as my baby. I am amazed by breastfeeding—it’s absolute magic, and I didn’t want to miss out just because of my illness. Not just its production is amazing, but the benefits for mother and baby are remarkable. You may know, but I didn’t until recently: the baby’s saliva is “read” by the mother’s body, which will then create solutions for what the baby may need—this is why breastfed babies develop fewer illnesses—the mother’s antibodies literally make breastmilk medicinal. How incredible is that?

The most profound reason to nurse became my mental health. Where my body failed in so many ways, I could nourish my child. With previous episodes of neuritis, I would struggle emotionally; I felt utterly useless. Not only did I feel the famous benefits of oxytocin, but I maintained value as a person, where I couldn’t contribute in so many aspects, I was positively vital to the most tremendous little person. Once I had my thyroid out there was plenty of milk, my body never stopped getting signals to make more, so it was a really easy transition. Once my baby could support her own head, I didn’t have to concoct ways to support her with my jelly arms. We both started sleeping more, and healing little by little.

I’ve listed a couple “should haves” here, but my ignorance was retrospectively bliss. I was completely unprepared for what would be, but preparedness may have deterred me from the ultimate best choice for us. Had I imagined just what it would take to successfully nurse, I may have logically weighed the benefits and thought, “If I’m going to go through all this, I’m going to need to put partner on night duty and sleep a few nights a week.” I got through a rough time because I only dealt with it one moment at a time. What I’m saying, mamas, is with the right support, you can do it,  you really can. It might be one of the hardest things you do, but what great thing isn’t? More importantly, whatever you do, forgive yourself, hell, applaud yourself for it. Heaven know we’re all doing our best.

Truth about Autoimmune Disease

 

I’ve found one of the more persistent aspects of illness to be shame. It takes explaining for a person to understand why I, looking perfectly normal (fully clothed, at least) cannot reach to take something being handed to me, or how I got that scar, or why I cannot meet up later that day. I’ve become a knee-jerk excuser, but here’s why you should be honest about your illness.

1) The truth is ultimately easier, even when it’s complicated. If you’re constantly offering faux reasons why you cannot hang, friends, being good, will accommodate however they can, and ask again with seemingly mitigating factors in place. Until you say: “I cannot reach the steering wheel today,” or, “I have anxiety over people seeing me weak,” or, “I cannot find the strength to shower,” you’ll be chasing your truth. Your friends will understand; they will always try! And with the truth they can offer the real friendship you both need–even if all that means is good thoughts your way.

2) You will sleep better at night. My partner and I talk about guilt from time to time. He experiences guilt in a pragmatic way; how God intended if you will. He feels guilty for things he’s done with intent. I feel guilt when my intentions are good, bad, or non-existent. I’ve laid in bed trying to remember what it was that I had said in avoidance of my (health) truth, debating wether or not it was the right thing to say, and trying to bank it in my memory for the next time I see said person. It might take longer to explain, your face might turn red, but the truth takes no memorizing, and little post-contemplation as you become more comfortable with it yourself.

3) You will find support in unexpected places. Accept it: you probably need help during this time. If you are lucky enough to have a loving companion, chances are, you need more help than he or she can provide. Chances are, that person needs help, too. When you tell the truth, people will want to support you. When I was finally truthful with my school, that I could not come back to work and why, they signed up to prepare and deliver dinners specific to my very limited diet. I didn’t have to worry about a meal for three weeks. I well with gratitude thinking of it now. (I felt grateful to the point of guilt, knowing we all have complicated, busy lives, but that is different problem I need to work through!) You’ll find others with similar, if not the same issues. My mother recanted a conversation surrounding a friend’s experience with postpartum Graves’ disease, and her admiration for my perseverance and positivity throughout my pregnancy with Graves’. For whatever silly reason, it felt so good to have her praise and support. I’ve never met another person with Parsonage-Turner Syndrome, but have met others grappling with neuropathy. Sometimes it helps just to talk about pain. Together you can find the words to explain it, brainstorm what the professionals haven’t figured out yet, and hug someone with a fuller appreciation of your strength.

Maybe one of the harder parts of this honestly is the desire to not be a complainer. I want people to think I’m tough, and that I don’t for one second forget the many things for which I am fortunate. Finding a way to be factual, and forging ahead is where I’m aiming.