6 Life Lessons I Learned From Chronic Illness
I have been wanting to share my health journey for a while now. It has not been an easy or pretty ride so this blog is going to be very real and raw - proceed with caution! I finally feel compelled to share the lessons I have learnt through my experience of eight years of chronic health issues. My journey is far from over, so this certainly isn’t a “how I cured myself” post, however I have made some massive changes in my life and learnt some pretty huge lessons that I feel may be able to serve you on your own journey to wellness.
MY HEALTH JOURNEY
(WARNING: gory details included!)
In 2010, I travelled to a remote island in Fiji to do some volunteer work and caught the worst stomach bug I have ever experienced. I became so dehydrated from loss of fluids that I was losing consciousness and my fingers and toes were numb. I was so sick I was nearly airlifted off the island for medical treatment, but managed to get by with oral rehydration salts. When I got home, I didn’t get better. I lost 10kg and could not keep any food down. I saw three different specialists before I was finally tested and confirmed positive for a nasty parasite. The next six months involved an intensive antibiotic treatment to eradicate the parasite, which I mistakingly believed would ‘fix’ my symptoms. The next seven years that followed I dealt with horrendous gut issues that were unresponsive to treatment from over twenty different health practitioners. I was suffering from diarrhoea up to eight times a day, had constant stomach cramps and bloating that kept me up at night, felt nauseous and downright depleted and flat. I started experiencing anxiety that I would never feel better and spent a huge amount of time focussing on my symptoms.
After a few years of these gut symptoms, my hormones started to become out of balance. My previously regular period became extremely irregular. When it did arrive, it was painful, full of clots and often had me cancelling my day at work or uni. Along with this came relentless acne which I thought I had seen the end of in my teenage years. I started cancelling social engagements because I just didn’t have the energy for them anymore. My self-confidence was destroyed and I felt like a phoney working in the health and wellness industry, yet being so far from a picture of health. I had all the tests and work-ups, saw every type of practitioner I could find, yet no one seemed able to give me an answer as to why I felt so sick. My days revolved around endlessly researching and looking for solutions to solve my symptoms. I felt broken.
A Way Out
It wasn’t until I stopped looking outwards for solutions, and did some serious internal work that I began to see changes in my health. I started to address some major gaps in my diet and lifestyle that had been holding me back from feeling well again. For the first time, I started paying attention to what my body felt like it needed, rather than what I had decided was a good idea through my research and practitioner recommendations. It shocked me to realise that I had I had lost the intuitive eater within me that knew deep down what would be most nourishing and healing for my body. I’d also stopped doing the things that filled me with joy and lost a sense of play in my life.
I had been following an almost vegan diet, believing that this would be the best for me because I had read stories of others ‘curing’ their chronic diseases with plant-based eating. This meant I ate a huge amount of cold and raw fruits and vegetables, grains, “healthy” sweeteners (maple, rice malt syrup etc) and vegetarian proteins like beans. I slowly became aware that this type of eating was not serving my body and began focussing on good quality, easy to digest proteins like slow cooked meats and bone broth and started eating eggs every day. I supported my detoxification pathways with plenty of greens and cruciferous vegetables to assist with my clearance of hormones. I cut out almost all forms of sugar, and reduced grains significantly. Most importantly, I added in nourishing fats to every meal and snack. This was a huge departure from my old diet and took a lot of re-wiring for me to accept that this was the way my body needed to eat. I had to let go of my belief systems, and tune in to how each food and meal made me feel.
Nourishing my body in this way and listening to what I was craving was a huge part of the initiation of my healing process. I then began meditating (almost) every day and scheduling in daily non-negotiable self care habits like gratitude journalling to help me focus on what I already had in my life, rather than where I wanted to be. I started moving my body in a way that felt good and gave me joy, rather than what would burn the most calories. I accepted that if all I could manage was a slow walk, that was still hugely beneficial.
From here, I was able to gain enough energy to start addressing some underlying imbalances. I worked with a fabulous integrative doctor to finally address my digestive issues for good with a comprehensive gut program. I employed the help of a fertility specialist to identify the root cause of my hormonal imbalances, and add in some supplementary nutrients to correct these.
Where I Am Today
Today, on most days I feel vital, have fairly consistent energy, have a regular, almost pain-free cycle, restored gut health and mental clarity. Despite this, it is easy for me to return to my old symptoms when I stop taking care of myself. Now, I see my flare ups as messages that I need to bring balance back in to my life, rather than getting caught up on how they feel.
6 lessons I have learnt from my chronic health issues
Listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Your body is so clever - it shows up with niggling symptoms to bring awareness that something in your life is not serving you. It’s your body’s way of alerting you to the fact that something needs to change. When we suppress these symptoms with quick-fix options like pain relief or medications we are ignoring the messages our body is trying to tell us. Left unaddressed, these little whispers become loud cries and the damage is much harder to repair. This is why creating daily check-ins with myself has been crucial in maintaining my health successes and getting me back on track when things start to change.
Take responsibility for your own health. Only you truely know your body, so take the time to tune in with yourself. What resonates with you? What doesn’t feel right for your body, but you still do anyway because someone (the media, a research study, a friend, a health professional) have told you it is best or worked for them? Take the time to experiment with suggestions you are given, and be okay with letting go of them if they don’t serve you.
Enlist the help of a team you trust. Seek out the health professionals who are aligned with the way you want to heal, and ask for their advice. Despite my training as a Clinical Nutritionist and extra fertility training, I would not have been able to fully recover without the help of two critical practitioners’ additional advice. An unbiased opinion can sometimes be vital. Equally, if you start working with someone who you don’t feel is aligned with your values or who isn’t hearing your needs, know that you don’t have to continue. I saw 20+ practitioners (natural and medical) before I found the ones who could truely help me. Know that the right people are out there, it just takes time sometimes to find them.
Believe that you can feel better again. After seven years of battling a parasite and having loose bowel movements up to eight times a day, I started to lose hope. I held on to a huge fear that this might be my reality for the rest of my life. I focussed on the future, rather than the here and now, began experiencing anxiety and felt completely out of control. It wasn’t until I started meditating daily that I could let go of the outcome and focus on the journey. This is something I still battle with daily, but the awareness that this is a thought pattern that I can easily fall in to is important in catching myself and consciously deciding to change that thought. Don’t underestimate the power of the ‘placebo effect’ - when you believe you are safe, supported by the right team and employing strategies that resonate with you, your body will finally be in a place where it can recover.
Self care is not negotiable. You can implement a “perfect” diet, take all the supplements in the world, exercise and sleep well, but without self-care, you won’t get better. The body needs to believe it is safe to allow true healing to take place. This means having regular pauses from the business of life. I often talk to my clients about “daily non-negotiables”. These are habits that fill you up and make you feel alive. It might be taking half an hour when you wake up to sit outside and drink a cup of tea, putting your feet on the grass or sand at the end of a long day, colouring in like you did as a child, journalling, or just sitting with yourself and truely breathing. There is no right or wrong when it comes to self-care - it just needs to make you feel good.
You are not alone. For years I stayed silent about the horrendous symptoms I was experiencing every day. Other than a couple of family members, no one had any idea of what I was going through. I didn’t even talk to my closest friends because it didn’t feel okay to tell people about my bowel movements, skin break outs and anxiety. I put on a brave face and battled through the day, only to come home and collapse, miserable and helpless on the couch. After a few years of studying nutritional medicine I started to open up to a couple of other students, and to my surprise, everyone I spoke to was also suffering from some kind of ongoing health complaint. The further I dug, the more I realised I was naive to think I was alone in my symptoms. Everyone is battling something in their lives, and being okay with opening up about the fact my life was far from perfect was a huge step in my healing process.
This blog post is the first time I have publicly shared the intimate details of my health journey and I do so in the hope that it provides some perspective for your own experience. I believe there is power in vulnerability and being able to share the darker parts of our lives, as these experiences are the ones that ultimately shape the person we become. If you feel comfortable, I would love to hear about your own health experiences and the life lessons you have been taught.
If you are struggling from gut or hormonal issues that you would like to get to the bottom of, and you feel that my approach resonates with you, I would be honoured to support you on your journey. Please get in touch to find out more about Clinical Nutrition and Fertility Awareness consults and have a read here about how I work with clients on their journey.