Wellness

Health, Wellness and Chronic Illness

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photo by unsplash.com

If there was one thing, from the emotional side of the spectrum, that I feel I should warn you and tell you to watch out for in yourself it's this: isolation.

When you aren't feeling well, you naturally pull away.  You retreat from your social life so you can rest, heal, cope.  And that's ok for the short term.  But when you are sick for longer periods of time, chronically or consistently, you spend less and less time in normal social settings.  If you're really bad off, you may even isolate yourself from your family members who live in the same house with you.

I understand that you need rest time, time to let your body "catch up".  I know that in the middle of a "bad spell" your emotions can be so raw that you are afraid you will tear the head of the next person who looks at you funny.  I know that it can feel like no one can possibly understand how you are feeling.  But don't sell your friends or family short.  No, they may never experience exactly what you are going through but if they are part of your support team they want to help.  Even if that means giving you some space when you need it.  Or checking in with you when you've been gone too long.

I recently read a very interesting article called "The Social Life of Genes." It talks about how our community effects the expression of our genes.  It's a fascinating (albeit pretty scientific) article and I found this quote especially interesting: 

"If you actually measure stress, using our best available instruments, it can't hold a candle to social isolation. Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete."

Isolation makes you sicker.  We are created to be social creatures, we are designed to live in community. The modern world would like you to think you can do it all by yourself and complete independence is the pinnacle of success.  It's a lie.

During your struggles with chronic illness there we definitely be days, maybe weeks that you simply will not be able to interact socially.  However, this will not always be the case.  When you go into a time of remission or have a string of good days, it is vitally important that you reach out socially.  Call a friend, attend a support group, meet a your cousin for coffee, watch a movie with your kids.  Go to a church meeting or go visit the folks at the local senior center.  Interact with the world around you.

There are times when I have to force myself to go hang out with my girlfriends, not because I don't like hanging out with them (because they are awesome!) but simply because it sounds exhausting and I'm already barely conscious.  But they have a way of raising my spirits and making me laugh.  Although I might be even more tired by the time I finally get home and into my bed, my soul is so much stronger for doing it.  And memories of the good times are what carries me through the bad times.

Learn to read the signals your soul is sending to you, when it's time to let others participate in your healing. Let them come in, brace you up and help you make it through another day.

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No matter what type of condition you suffer from, after extended periods of illness our souls end up in the same state.  Battered.  Worn out. Dry. Empty. Without hope. Dreamless.

Just as you need to purposely take time to restore your body as best you can, you also need to set aside time and space to work on restoring your soul. It sounds easy.  It's not, at least not at first.

So start with the things that bring you joy naturally.  About 20 years ago, ong before my body broke, I started a list entitled "Things That Make Me Smile."  I kept the list on my desk at work and every time I remembered something, big or small, that made me happy I wrote it down.  Some of the items listed were:

  • a mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream
  • the smell of the orchards after the rain
  • big fluffy blankets
  • my sweat pants
  • the smell of citrus
  • walking barefoot in the cool grass
  • working out
  • mountains, lakes & rivers
  • a good book
  • growing things

This list came in handy 20 years later when my body shut down, the world as I knew it changed forever, and I was having a hard time adjusting to it all.  After a several years with zero answers and zero improvement, my strong will that had always allowed me to "power through" had to concede. And my soul became a shriveled shell.

I don't remember exactly when I started purposely taking time to journey towards restoring my soul, I think it was pretty gradual.  But at some point I realized just how important it is.  It takes an enormous amount of mental energy and soul strength to fight for your wellness.  Some seasons you have a ton of motivation and it powers you through the pain.  Other seasons you can't imagine trying to make it through one more day and the thought of getting up tomorrow and doing it all over again makes you cry.  Those desert seasons are when you need to pull out your arsenal of soul-care.

You need to remind yourself of the things that bring you joy.  They can be a happy thought to a grandiose vacation or something you only did once in your life. And then start incorporating those happiness practices into your life. Run yourself a hot bath, read a good book, listen to soul-calming music, take a joy ride in the sunshine, watch a a funny movie, take an online art class, play with your grandkids, light a scented candle that you love, or any other thing that brings you joy.

Another way to think of this exercise is gratitude.  For patients suffering from depression most therapists will suggest keeping a "gratitude journal."  The expression of gratitude has the power to change your outlook on life, even a broken, painful life.

It's no magic pill.  You won't experience instant soul recovery and immediately feel like taking on the world. But if you felt just a little better, a bit more healed, wouldn't it be worth it?  And I can promise that if you will practice a little soul-care on a regular basis you will begin to feel stronger.  You will regain the strength you need for the fight.

If you don't know where to start, can I point you to one of my chapters in the Bible? In fact, this chapter is loved by many, Psalm 23:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I'm praying for you hurting one, praying for your soul to heal.

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Chronic illness has a way of striking the busiest people.  You have so many commitments: busy job, volunteer projects, children and their activities, teaching Sunday School, team mom/dad, best friend's wedding, hobbies, etc.  Probably most of these commitments are things you enjoy, but some you may do purely out of obligation.

Now you are struggling to to keep up.  Those 100 things you used to do in a week have suddenly become impossible.  You can barely get out of bed in the morning, let alone everything else you have on your plate.

But you don't want to let anybody down.  You don't want to be the weak link, the "flake".  You liked that everyone could depend you to get a job done, that you were everyone's go-to-girl (or guy).  But now in order for you to get all those things done you must sacrifice the precious moments of rest that allow you to survive, adding more stress to your body and soul.

Let me give it to you straight: you can't do it all anymore.  You just can't.  And for some of us that fact is more painful than the physical pain from our medical condition.

It's painful because we have to let go of projects or hobbies we used to enjoy.  We have to say no to fun activities because our physical body can't tolerate it.  We have to pass on volunteering for a great cause or helping our friends with a special project because to do it would mean spending the next 4 days in bed recovering from it.

You might try pretending that you can still do it all, push through the pain or sickness and just do it anyway.  You may think you're getting away with it but I'm pleading with you to hear me: it will only get worse.  You will start making mistakes.  You will forget things you said "yes" to.  You will have to call and cancel last minute because you are sick or flat on your back.  Instead of being the most reliable, joyful person for the job, you will gradually become the cranky, unreliable person that everyone has to clean up after.

Don't bother trying to shirk it off, acting like it's no big deal.  Saying goodbye to all those things you used to love to do is upsetting, even depressing.  Stop and grieve for it if you need to.

Then take an honest look at what you now can and cannot do.  First decide what you absolutely must do.  Like getting the kids to school. Vacuuming your house. Getting to/from doctor's appointments.  Only the most important, vital stuff goes to the top of the list.

If you have any energy or time left in your reserves you can add some lesser activities or one-time events.  But don't overdo it.  Learn to say "no" graciously yet firmly.  People who were used to counting on you are going to ask you to help them but remember that it is impossible for you to help someone else if you are operating on "empty."

If your illness comes and goes, you can do more on the "good days" then limit yourself during the "bad days."  If your illness is here to stay, narrow down to the activities that bring you the most joy while not sacrificing your wellness.

Getting used to this new life, the less busy life, can be a big adjustment. But in the end, it will be the best, most life-giving thing for your body and your soul.

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I am so excited today to turn the mic over to Chris Morris of Chris Morris Writes.  Chris has walked the road of chronic illness with his own medical challenges and in the role of the caretaker.  I have had the pleasure to read a pre-release copy of Chris' soon-to-be-released book, you ARE enough: Myths About Chronic Illness where he talks about the many myths we encounter while traveling through the world of chronic illness.  I am so thankful he agreed to share with us.  I know you are going to find his insights helpful.

Let’s be really honest with each other for a moment. Living with a chronic illness is tough. Some days, it feels impossible.

My daughter is autistic and epileptic, and I have a seizure disorder as well, so we have learned a lot about what makes living with chronic illness so difficult.

People don’t seem to understand the struggles we have. They confuse our illness with slowness, or silently think we are faking our pain somehow.

But that is not even the hardest part. At least not for our family.

The hardest part about living with or loving someone with a chronic illness is this myth: You are not enough because you are ill.

Whether we suffer from arthritis, high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease, emphysema, cancer, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or autism, we are less than everyone else because we are ill and may not get better. And nothing can change this, other than a complete recovery.

It is so easy to believe this myth. For example, because of my seizure disorder I cannot swim alone. I am a thirty-six year old man. I am 6’7”. I have an MBA in Health Systems Management. I am competent in many things…

But I cannot swim alone, because if I have a seizure I could drown.

How ridiculous is that! And yet, it is my reality, because of my chronic illness. With almost insane restrictions on our lives at times, it is so easy to buy the lie that says we are “less than”, that we are incomplete human beings.

This myth leads to so many other statements which are also untrue:

  • We don’t deserve to be healthy.
  • Our current health is the only determinant for success in life.
  • There is something wrong with us when we are not hopeful about the future.

We must overcome these myths to move forward. Otherwise, we risk despondency and an empty life. It all comes down to a choice.

We must choose hope. 

Hope is not dependent upon our health. We do not earn hope. We should not see ourselves as unworthy of hope.

We are enough. You are enough. Regardless of any chronic condition.

But it is hard. The world around us screams we are defined by our accomplishments, our material goods, our physical strength or beauty, or our salary. Some or all of these external “proofs” of being a successful human being are limited by our illness. So we settle for less, believing the best is reserved for other people. People without the same problems we have.

But we must not settle for less. So what does it look like to choose hope? To believe we are enough? The specific answers are different for each one of us, but certain concepts are universally applicable.

Apply the proper weight to your limitations. So, I am a middle-aged, 79-inch giant who cannot swim alone. This is a legitimate limitation on my life, and I can fixate on it if I choose. Or I can work around it.

Honestly, I didn't plan to be an Olympic swimmer, and I don’t even like swimming that much, so swimming in company is not that big of a deal for me. So I choose not to swim alone. And I don’t berate myself for it.

Stop hiding your dreams behind your illness. This is a tough one to swallow some days. It is so simple to blame our illness for not chasing our passions. Now sometimes, this is just bottom-line truth, and there is no unnecessary victimization happening. The quadriplegic with dreams of being a marathon runner may need to adjust some. But the person with chronic fatigue syndrome need not let their dream of being a poet be held captive by their illness. Don’t let your dream die on the vine of your imagination because of your condition.

It is because of these challenges we all face that I am in the final stages of publishing my book you ARE enough: Myths About Chronic Illness. The gist of the book is that those with chronic illness (and those who love sufferers of a chronic illness) believe myths or lies that keep us from stepping into a full life. Fundamentally, this is because we become convinced we are NOT enough, that we are disqualified from greatness or excellence because of our illness.

I also write regularly on my blog Chris Morris Writes, and I hope you will stop by. If you need hope, encouragement, and strategies to push through some crazy circumstances, what you find on my blog will help. We need a community to lift us up, practical steps to help us when we feel lost, and reminders of God’s goodness. Above all, we need to know we are not alone.

Carey again: As soon as Chris' book is published I will let my readers know so you can read more of his insights and when you have a chance please stop by his website where he shares encouraging words weekly.

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We have grazed over a lot of information this past few days about eating, exercise and treating our bodies kindly.  I hope you have found it interesting and also found something to help you on your journey.

Below is a small list of links for you to research on your own, get your brain thinking about some of these issues.  If you have any resources to add to the list please do so here or on the Facebook page!

Food Matters (or on Netflix)

Health For Change (also on Netflix)

Fat Sick & Nearly Dead (on Netflix)

Dr Oz on Nutrition

Michael Pollan (books)

Food Inc. (film)

Whole Foods on Healthy Eating

Dr. Andrew Weil on Supplements

Starting tomorrow we are going to begin exploring another branch of the journey through chronic Illness, Feeding Our Souls.  Stay tuned!

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Lactose intolerant, allergen-free, gluten-free, Celiac's Disease... there are a lot of terms being tossed around today.  It seems as though every star in Hollywood is touting some new way of eating and it drives the masses to trying it out, whether they fully understand it or not.

I don't understand them all either, but it appears what many of them seek to do is limit your intake of foods that are often allergens or most often not tolerated by the general population. The problem with this, of course, is that eliminating a whole food group really is not wise unless you know for certain that it causes your body harm.

How can they harm you?  One way is if the food is a true allergen to your system.  Shellfish, strawberries, peanuts, these foods commonly cause true allergic reactions in some people.  In fact, the reactions can be deadly.  The second way is if there is an intolerance to a particular food.  Most people who cannot eat dairy are lactose intolerant.  A true allergy will produce an immediate reaction whereas the effects of an intolerance could delay for several days.

It is important to figure these allergies and intolerances out.  True allergies are usually a little more obvious however there is a simple blood test that will test for the most common ones. It is called an IGE test.  I have known a few people whose blood work showed a true food allergy they were not aware of.  They may have noticed feeling a little bloated or migraines after eating that food and naturally steered clear of it but until it was confirmed by blood work they didn't know just how dangerous eating it was for their body.

How do you know if you  have any food intolerances?  Again, you can do the trial and error method.  I have always steered clear of poppy seeds because historically they cause me to vomit (or other side effects) within an hour of eating them.  But what about intolerances that have a delayed reaction?  Besides some diligent sleuthing it can be difficult to figure out.

That's where the IGG Wallingford test comes in.  It is not a new test, but few doctors know about it. This blood test checks your blood against a pre-determined list of common food intolerances.  The results will show what foods/substances you are intolerant to and to what degree.  These foods, the ones you are intolerant to, cause antibodies to build up in your system which in turn cause inflammation in your system.  The more inflammation in your system, the more breakdown you will feel.

When I had my IGG test I was pretty sure my results  would come back with an intolerance to wheat because I had problems with wheat when I was a kid.  But there were also a lot of surprises: rice, bananas, beef, chocolate, barley and a few others.

So once you get your results back, then what? You have a choice to make: 1) simply avoid these foods as much as possible without completely eliminating them from your diet.  This may help with the reactions you have to some foods and rid your body of some of the inflammation.  But there is another option.  2) Do a complete fast from these foods for 4-6 months to allow the antibodies and inflammation to decrease.  As with some childhood allergies, you may "grow out of" these intolerances  and be able to occasionally add them back into your diet with little to no inflammation or adverse effects.

If you would like more information on IGG or IGE testing you can try this link here.

Today is Day 19 of 31 Days of Surviving Chronic Illness.  You can start Day 1 here.

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Today is Day 18 of 31 Days of Surviving Chronic Illness.  You can start Day 1 here.

I've talked a lot over the past few days about listening to your body, listening to what it's saying to you. I learned the hard way what the ramifications of not listening to your body can be.  If I had slowed down and made some lifestyle and dietary changes (including supplements) back in my 20's I might not have crashed as badly as I did.  Crash and burn.

If this is a new practice to you, this listening, let me tell you how to get started.

Most of us (sufferers of chronic illness) did not have 1 big event that caused our immediate physical breakdown.  Most of us began falling apart one little system, one hormone, one neuron at a time. Some symptoms may have been subtle, some more noticeable, but there was most likely a pattern or logic to it.  And there continues to be a pattern today, a chain reaction of diet, environment and biology.  If we want to find some comfort, wellness or healing we need to track these patterns down.

It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually I noticed that sugar has a terrible effect on my already foggy brain.  Of course, I crave sugar because it it provides a fast burst of glucose to my already sluggish brain.  However, it's sort of like throwing lighter fluid on a fire that has nearly burned out.  It will "flash" and burn hot for a short while but burn out completely just as quickly as it ignited. I was eating little bits of sugary snacks or beverages to give me a burst of much needed energy but crashing horribly about an hour later.  Eventually, the sugar stopped working altogether and I went from bad to worse within moments of eating it. It was a pattern that I had to figure out and avoid as much as possible.

Maybe yours is exertion related; a little is good but a lot is lethal.  Or your symptoms worsen by 500% the next day if you get less than 9 hours of sleep at night.  Perhaps your symptoms are aggravated whenever you eat dairy, or pasta or peanuts. Or a stressful situation causes your body to ache for the next 3 days.  If you're a girl, you might feel horrible most days but right around ovulation you are guaranteed at least one good day.

It's list time again.  It can be a detailed chart with each day, all of your symptoms and a play-by-play of your entire day. Or it can be a simple number written on the calendar, 1-10 bad to best.  But devise some way of tracking your symptoms and see if you can begin to notice the patterns of your symptoms or good days/bad days.  Some patterns will become obvious right away, others may take weeks or months to pin down, but be diligent with it.  It will pay off!

This list can be helpful not only for you but also for your doctor.  A good doctor can look at a list of symptoms and quickly eliminate or speculate particular illnesses.

Look for the patterns!

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Today is Day 17 of 31 Days of Surviving Chronic Illness.  You can start Day 1 here.

Just as we discussed thinking out side of the box in choosing a health care professional, you may need to try some "alternative" methods when it comes to nutrition.  Although, I really don't love that term "alternative" when speaking of nutrition.  I'll tell you why...

Growing up my mother periodically took us all off of wheat & pasteurized dairy.  We took supplements like Vitamin D, Zinc and Echinacea.  30 years ago my mother and Katie Lee from our local health food store were telling people not to eat high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils and the world laughed at them.  Now every MD worth his salt is preaching it, in fact, Dr. Oz has become famous for it.  Netti pots were only for hippies, now every corner drugstore carries them because some doctor on TV decided it was OK to use. My great-grandmother taught us how to eat right, "science" is just catching up to what she already knew.

So it bothers me to call it "alternative" to suggest a specific diet, eliminating certain foods or taking herbal remedies when our ancestors knew that if they had an upset stomach and they drank some mint tea it cured their nausea.  It wasn't scientific method that brought them to that conclusion, it was common sense and wisdom from past generations.  It shouldn't be called "alternative", it should just be called natural or normal.

Yes, I know there have been problems with dosages or combining treatments or using the wrong substance for a particular ailment but guess what... that happens every day in every pharmacy across America with synthetic, potent, expensive, Federally regulated drugs.

I'll stop preaching.

My point is this, it might be time to try something different.  Are you exhausted?  Maybe you could try drinking some herbal tea with ingredients proven to provide stimulant-free energy that won't make you crash and won't cause lasting damage to your liver or adrenal glands. Do you suffer from cold sores? Over the counter lysine has been proven to improve the healing time of cold sores and can even prevent future breakouts.  Prone to eczema? Take a swig of olive oil every day it you might see some improvement, no copay.

Natural remedies and taking vitamins can feel like learning a 2nd language.  I grew up that way so it comes natural to me but if you don't know where to start or want to learn more here are a few sites to get you started:

  •  Dr. Oz-  yes, the great and might Oz has a lot of great information.  I really appreciate his ability to pair modern medicine with more natural remedies.
  • Dr. Mercola- Dr. Mercola has been around for a long time and is well respected in the medical community (they may not always agree with him, but they respect him). He provides free nutritional eating guidelines for beginners.
  • Dr. Weil- another veteran in the health/nutrition world.

These are just a few among many, many others.  At the end of this series I will be posting a list of resources for even more ideas on how to stay healthy.

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Today is Day 16 of 31 Days of Surviving Chronic Illness.  You can catch up on Day 1 here.

When you are suffering from chronic illness or pain over extended periods of time it can make you a little crazy. When you go on day after day, muscles aching, brain foggy, body broken, it can feel like you got stuck on the hamster wheel from hell.  You wake up sick, you trudge through the day sick and you go to bed sick.

So here's what I want you to do: make a list; make a list of all the things that provide your body even just a few moments of relief.  This can be more difficult than it sounds, particularly if you have a serious illness that knocks you flat for days or weeks at a time.  However, I believe if we put some thought into it and pay attention to the signals our body is giving us we can begin to recognize the activities or treatments that bring some level of healing or comfort.

Let me give you an example.  When I am feeling my worst my body aches all over, just as if I had the flu.  Except it's not the flu.  I just hurt.  Through trial and error and, well... accident, I discovered something.  I have no idea what the science is behind it, but what I have figured out is that if I take a super hot bath, shower or sit in a sauna the pain goes away.  The relief only lasts for about 2 hours, but I am so grateful for those 2 pain-free hours.

I have also noticed that sometimes if I eat a little something, anything but sugar, my symptoms will lessen.  Again, the relief is only temporary but when I need just a little more energy to get me through a rough day it's well worth a try.

I want you to start making a list of the things that bring your physical body a little comfort or relief.  Why do I want you to write it down? Because it is so easy to forget what you need to do when all you can think about is how much pain you are in. Especially if your particular illness causes brain fog & forgetfulness (mine does, it's so annoying). You may have a hard time coming up with anything at first so I'll give you some hints (some of them go along with our "exercise" theme from Day 14:

  • hot/cold bath (try epsom salts in a hot bath)
  • hot/cold beverage (especially herbal tea made with calming herbs)
  • sauna, dry sauna, whirlpool, cold pool (that will wake you up!)
  • stretching/yoga/pilates
  • fitness class, working up a sweat
  • walking, hiking
  • ride a bicycle
  • swimming
  • pedicure/manicure
  • gardening
  • change of climate (going to the beach, mountains, warmer/cooler/drier climate, etc.)
  • massage, physical therapy, spa treatments
  • ointments and lotions such as mineral ice, Tiger Balm, arnica, etc.
  • ice packs
  • a warm blanket or heating pad.
  • sitting near a fan
  • sitting with feet slightly elevated such as a recliner or laying with body completely flat, such as the floor.
  • eating a light, nutritious snack
  • eating spicy foods (it works for me!)
  • playing Wii Fit or Xbox Kinect
  • dancing
  • fitness or foam roller
  • aromatherapy (lavender is known for it's calming effect, citrus in an energizer)

I'm sure you have some home remedies of your own, try to do at least one per day.  Especially on the bad days.  And be sure to share them with the rest of us here or on the Facebook Page!

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Day 15, we have made it halfway already.  This week we have been talking about the body, how to give it what it needs.  Today is about "rest".  But instead of talking about it, today we're just going to do it.  Because my body is screaming for a rest and I bet yours is too.  So just take a deep breath, exhale long and slow, and just rest.

If you need to catch up on the first 15 days of the series you can do so here:

Day 1- 31 Days of Surviving Chronic Illness

Day 2- An Introduction

Day 3- A Diagnosis

Day 4- Doctors; The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent

Day 5- Think Outside of the Box, Pt. 1

Day 6- Think Outside of the Box, Pt. 2

Day 7- Advocacy, Guest Post

Day 8- Snags To Watch For

Day 9- Feed Your Body

Day 10- Listen Up!

Day 11- Stop Eating Chemicals

Day 12- Eat Your Colors

Day 13- Easy Veggies

Day 14- A Little Is Better Than None