What a difference a day made

Just a quick update tonight.

A little more than 24 hours ago I had the blood test to test the levels of various hormones and for the immune response to gluten.

Wow, what a difference a day made. I woke with a splitting headache and bad jaw pain, as expected. But by 9am it was fairly clear I was already improving. The headache faded without the need for any painkillers, and although I was still quite tired it wasn’t the heavy, miserable fatigue that I had been feeling the previous two days. My belly also just felt lighter. No bloating, no discomfort, no tight feeling. My entire body felt light free.

The brain fog had eased a little and perhaps most significantly, my mood was much improved. For the last week I have really been struggling with feelings of anxiety and a sort of helpless misery. Today? I felt bright and effortlessly optimistic. The body aches had lessened and the malaise has totally lifted. I am not surprised but definitely delighted with the immediacy of this improvement. I look forward to more of the same and feeling totally amazing very soon!

This is good 🙂 This is a new start and I am excited. I made a delicious gluten-free honey-soy chicken stir fry tonight and I’m looking forward to more delicious fresh food in the days, weeks, months and years to come! Huzzah!

Me and gluten, part 2.

So I gave up gluten for two months and felt a dramatic difference in my wellness. Then two weeks ago I went to the doctor and while discussing a blood test for some other things, he suggested we do a blood test for an immune response to gluten. I didn’t really think I needed it, I was pretty convinced already. Then he said I’d have to eat gluten again until the test so that my body actually produced an immune response. The blood test has to be on a certain day of my cycle to test my reproductive hormones, which is tomorrow. So for the last 13 days I’ve been eating a lot of gluten again. And boy, does it suck.

I noticed a difference straight away. The first gluten filled thing I ate was some crackers, because I’ve always loved crackers and cheese. I felt sick to my stomach immediately. I am not sure if that was because I was really hungry at the time, or they were bad biscuits, or if it was just the shock to my system of highly processed, gluten-ous food that I hadn’t eaten in a while. For dinner that night I had baked beans on toast, another past favourite meal. I didn’t feel too bad after that so I thought that was a good sign.

Nevertheless, within 24 hours I noticed a difference, and my condition has continued to deteriorate with each passing day. Symptoms I had no idea even could be connected to gluten, and that I’d certainly never before connected to diet, reappeared with alarming immediacy. On top of the sinus congestion, bloating and fatigue (which I had expected), I have also had dry, itchy skin and eyes, constipation, brain fog, indigestion, cramps (which may be purely endometriosis, although some of my research suggests endo is also connected to gluten) body aches, sore throat, jaw pain, anxiety, difficulty swallowing food at times and a general worsening malaise. In particular, two things really stood out.

Firstly, within 48 hours of being back on a gluten diet I had a very familiar ache in my neck and shoulders. I hadn’t realised that I had been free of that pain for the previous 6 – 8 weeks since I’d been gluten-free. I used to get that ache all the time, and that was one of the reasons one of my new years resolutions was to get regular massages. Now I was able to connect this pain to gluten and it made so much sense. I have since heard/read about others who have similar experiences with body aches when they eat gluten. Who knew!?

Secondly, jaw pain and dry eyes. Both of these symptoms I suspected were connected with my sinus congestion, but I had not yet connected that 100% with gluten. I have struggled for years with dry itchy eyes, and frequently use eye drops to relieve symptoms. It’s a pretty minor ailment that I had basically totally accepted and thought little about. The jaw pain on the other hand has been a real difficulty for me, especially over the last 18 months. I had what we thought was a chronic sinus infection at Christmas last year, which I took a course of antibiotics for and have been on antihistamines ever since because that’s the only thing that really helped the jaw pain. Decongestants helped the sinus pain, but not the jaw. About 12 months ago it was so bad that I had an expensive ocular splint (like a plate/mouth guard) made for me to wear at night because the dentist thought perhaps I the cause of the pain was grinding my teeth in my sleep (even though my teeth didn’t show obvious signs of that). The splint and the antihistamines helped initially but over time became less and less effective. I also found that if I forgot to take the antihistamine one day, the jaw pain returned very quickly.

Anyway, since I’ve been gluten free I’ve been able to stop taking the anti-histamines and had been doing fine without them. I actually had forgotten about the jaw pain. Until last week when the jaw pain was back with a vengeance! Who knew gluten could be responsible for so many symptoms!?

Well, apparently lots of people on the internet. But I had only ever heard about full blown Coeliac symptoms like weight loss and diarrhoea, neither of which I experienced so I always ruled out any problem with gluten. This last two weeks has been a pretty uncomfortable experience for me. The headaches have gotten progressively worse each day (it took a few days for them to really start as I believe gluten is having a cumulative effect on my system). My sore throat is pretty bad this evening and the fatigue, malaise and brain fog has made it a very difficult week at work. Interestingly, I had said to my therapist the week before I went back on gluten that I was feeling the most calm and thinking more clearly than I had experienced in a long, long time. And within days of being back on gluten the brain fog and also the feelings of stress were back. Scary to think that this achey, fatigued, brain-foggy, constipated, anxious person is who I used to be all the time.

And what about all the supposedly delicious food I’ve been eating? At the start of this fortnight I viewed this as an opportunity to eat all my old favourite meals. Well, it hasn’t even been that delicious. I had a really good burger at a pub, a great burrito and a yummy piece of turkish bread at restaurants in Brisbane. But other than that? I haven’t even enjoyed it. All my old favourite foods are no longer favourites. I cooked everything exactly the way I used to, but I feel unwell enough after every meal that I’ve come to dread eating things I used to love. In fact, I have no worries about never eating any of them again. Before re-introducing gluten I felt a lot of meal envy for what others were eating. But I don’t think that will happen anymore. I am going to embrace this wholeheartedly and continue to tune into my body’s response to food.

So the blood test is tomorrow. At this point, I don’t even care what the results are. I am not eating gluten again after tomorrow. It has been an uncomfortable but very worth while experiment. Now I know I don’t have to feel like this all the time and I’m looking forward to feeling good again very soon! I’ll keep you posted! 🙂

Me and gluten, part 1.

So following on from the previous post, I have recently had a real growth spurt in my understanding of my body and what food makes me feel well. Two weeks into the school holidays and I had only had 4 headache free days since finishing work for the year. This didn’t make sense to me. I had been blaming the headaches on work stress and fatigue, but by this time in the holidays I didn’t have any reason to be stressed and fatigued.

During this time I was also doing a lot of reading, researching and podcast-listening on the topic of health. I was and still am investigating a range of gynaecological issues, predominantly suspected endometriosis. Somehow after two weeks of learning, paying more attention to my food and reflecting on the foods I’d been eating on days when I had the most headache symptoms, I figured out that gluten might be a possible trigger. This wasn’t really a sudden penny-drop kind of moment, more of a slow realisation. And I didn’t like it.

I’d always been pretty staunchly against a gluten-free diet. It does seem to be a bit of a fad of late, and I had seen and heard of people going ‘gluten-free’ without any actual diagnosis of coeliac disease or gluten intolerance from their doctor. This, to me, seemed ridiculous. Plus, I loved gluten-filled foods. When I was 17 I went on a student exchange to Italy. The ONLY reason I chose Italy was the food. And boy, was that the best decision I ever made, or what!? I had an amazing time, met wonderful people and stuffed my face with pizza, pasta and ice-cream for almost 6 months. It was delicious! Nine years later, I still was eating a lot of pasta and even more bread, not just because it is delicious but also because of convenience.

Anyway, after two weeks feeling rather miserable with headaches and migraines on my holidays, I finally decided to try it. I had a friend who had recently done an elimination diet to figure out what foods weren’t working for her, so I thought I’d do the same. No gluten for 3 – 4 weeks, then add it in and see what happens. I pretty much thought I’d be just doing 1 month and then go back to my normal eating habits. I was basically looking at it as a way to not over-do Christmas lunch and eliminate the niggling feeling I had about food having anything to do with my health. I didn’t want to change and I didn’t believe it would work.

By Christmas Day I was a believer. I had been headache free for 5 days and I remember telling my pre-med cousin about this and feeling very excited about it. Her response? Something along the lines of “It’s a bad sign if 5 days is a long time for you without a headache.” Which is completely true, but I had become so accustomed to the seemingly unexplained headaches, I had forgotten that it isn’t normal to feel like that all the time. (But when have I ever been normal…!)

11 days after I gave up gluten, I had my first headache. At 47 degrees Celsius, it was also one of the hottest days on record where I live, so I’m pretty sure that was the trigger. Later that week, I had another headache caused by a huge amount of smoke in the air from a near-by bushfire. The next week I had my period and I had two days of mild headaches that were completely bearable compared to the 3 – 4 day migraine episode I was used to during my period. I went to the pharmacy to refill my prescription for migraine medication just in case (I was so used to getting migraines during my period I didn’t believe I could make it through the week without the medication), and the pharmacist actually commented that I’d been refilling the script more and more frequently over the last few months and he had been getting a bit concerned, but was pleased to see that I hadn’t needed it over the Christmas break. That was a bit of a wake up call!

So, the end of my 1 month elimination rolled around and I didn’t stop. Eight weeks later I could count on 1 hand the number of headaches I’ve had since I gave up gluten. It was such an immediate improvement that I couldn’t ignore it, and definitely didn’t want to go back to being the pill-popping headache girl that I had been. It seemed like I had it all figured out. But wait, there’s more…

Agenda Item #4: Food

So this is a big one. In all honesty I didn’t realise just how big of a deal this was until about 2 months ago. I have been through a huge growth spurt in my understanding around food and nutrition in that time and of course am only really just beginning this journey of finding out about food, what is good for me and what isn’t, what is sustainable and what isn’t, and what I can actually manage to maintain. Food is also a highly emotional issue and everyone has a story. To make things harder, there is so much information out there — often conflicting — that it’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. But I am slowly figuring out what works for me and that’s why this is the next item on the agenda. Maybe by telling my food story here, and sharing my experiences as I continue to figure food out, I can help somebody else join the dots in their food story. So here goes:

I lead a very busy life, like most people in this modern world, so finding time to shop and cook is a constant challenge. I often work long days, I live in a small town where there is no giant supermarket and the local shops close early on weekdays and even earlier on weekends (I don’t have a problem with this, it just makes it harder to get to the shop), I frequently commute an hour each way so that I can spend time with my partner in another town, and I struggle with fatigue and chronic illness. All of these factors mean that I tend to cook once or twice a week and freeze left-overs in portions so I can have lots of meals ready to take to work for lunch or to eat for dinner on nights I either don’t feel like cooking or got home too late to go to the shop for fresh ingredients.

For many years I have tended to stick to the same few meals that I believed I had adapted to be as healthy as they could be while still being delicious. By that I mean lots of veges, no bottled sauces full of additives and buying fresh and local wherever possible. I grew up in a house with parents who were both good cooks, and nearly everything was made from scratch, so I am no stranger to using real ingredients. I don’t think I’ve ever made a packet cake in my life. I have always been quite aware of food and was never a big eater of fast food or junk (one advantage of small town living — no fast food!) But, I’ll admit, I ate those foods on occasion and in the last few years my partner and I have started eating out more (sometimes take-away food, sometimes fancy restaurants) probably simply because we are both working full time and it feels nice to splurge after years of part-time uni jobs. Plus, I do have a sweet tooth and although I rarely drink alcohol or soft drink, I probably still consumed a lot of sugar by way of snacks and desserts.

Until late last year, I honestly believed I ate quite healthily and didn’t need to change anything. I was always adding more and more veges in my diet and because I rarely drink soft drink or alcohol, I believed that the sweets I ate were ok. I still don’t believe in depriving oneself if it leads to a later binge, and that was always my justification for ‘treating’ myself. Despite my efforts though, I was gradually putting on weight. This just didn’t make sense because in 2013 my thyroid hormones were good, I’d cut back on work so I was less stressed than before, I was the most active I have been in 6 – 7 years and, like I said, my diet was pretty healthy. I thought I was doing all the right things. But still the number on the scale gradually increased and I had consistent sinus headaches, frequent migraines (that had changed from their previous predictable pattern) and lots of aches, pains and fatigue.

December 2013: light-bulb moment. I was two weeks into my 7 weeks of Christmas holidays and I had had headaches probably every second day of the previous 2 months. At least.

I hadn’t been keeping track very carefully and it was easy to blame the headaches on the stress and feeling of being run-down at the end of the school year, my menstrual cycle and fatigue. I was also experiencing a lot of abdominal discomfort, but this was put down to the menstrual problems I was having. During the last term of school I looked towards the holidays like a beacon of light….”I’ll feel better when I get to rest, relax and rejuvenate on the holidays.”

Low and behold, two weeks in, I was still taking frequent painkillers and going through lots of my migraine medication. I would estimate I had 4 days headache free in that two week period. The thing was, I didn’t really think that was odd. I’d become so accustomed to headaches and migraines that I hadn’t really noticed that the number of headache free days was decreasing so dramatically.

During this time I was also doing a lot of reading, researching and podcast-listening on the topic of health. I was and still am investigating a range of gynaecological issues, predominantly suspected endometriosis. Somehow after two weeks of learning, paying more attention to my food and reflecting on the foods I’d been eating on days when I had the most headache symptoms, I figured out that food, might be a possible trigger.

Over the last two months I have realised this is definitely the case. I have learnt so much about nutrition, my body and how food affects my chronic diseases. That’s why figuring out food is agenda item no. 4. Based on my experiences over the last 2 months I can tell this is only the start of my journey and it will be a long process to get my food ‘right’. I plan on sharing my journey on this blog so that I can keep track of my realisations and keep myself accountable, and maybe help somebody else figure out their food too.

 

Agenda Item #3: Spend less than I earn

It’s a pivotal element of personal finance.

If you wanted to pick just one rule to follow, this would be it and you wouldn’t regret it.

Very simple concept. Not quite so easy to implement!

This blog is about my growth in all areas of my life, and creating balance and harmony between them. The reason I have made personal finance the 3rd agenda item is because I believe that a lot of the other items really hinge on this one. Most of the things I want to do in my life are going to cost money or require some degree of financial security.

How do I achieve that? Spend less than I earn. Pay myself first. Save a little each month.

Whatever you call it, however you think of it, it’s crucial. Before you can pay down debt, you have to spend less than you earned in that pay cycle so there is money left over to make debt payments. Before you can save money for an emergency fund or a holiday, you have to have spent less than you earned so you can set some money aside for those goals. Before you can invest money or start a business or take a year off work to go travelling, you have to have a fair bit of money saved and that only happens if you have made it a habit to spend less than you earned over a number of months or years.

This topic has been top of mind for me this week as I have had an influx of bills and some unexpected expenses. This is particularly annoying because I have just gone back to full time work after spending most of last year working only 0.8 of a full-time teacher’s load and therefore earning only 80% of a full wage. So I was very excited to receive my first ‘full-time’ pay for the year. There are many things on my ‘to buy’ list, some of which are wants but some are needs. I was looking forward to having some more discretionary money…

Then the bills hit. Most of them were expected as I have been keeping fairly good track of my finances over the last 2 years. However, there were several unexpected expenses that also reared their head these last few weeks. I had a specialist appointment that cost nearly three times as much as I was expecting. As a result of that I now have to pretty quickly gather a few thousand dollars for some day surgery. And then I got a big crack in my car windscreen, which now needs to be replaced.

Fortunately, I spent most of last year saving a good portion of my lower salary. I was extremely frugal, and had put off many non-urgent buys (such as new running shoes) repeatedly. I also have a regular savings plan that automatically sends small amounts of money each pay to various accounts so that it just builds up gradually over time. Most of these are e-accounts and I can manage them online. My bank even lets me give them whatever names I like, such as ‘Car Expenses’, ‘Health’ and ‘Annual Fees’ to help with budgeting. Isn’t internet banking a brilliant tool!?

The good thing about all of this is that all of the bills that arrived this month were planned for and I have plenty to cover them. But, even better, is that due to my regular savings plan I am also able to easily afford most of the unexpected expenses, with the exception of the surgery. I could afford it immediately if I dipped into my ’emergency fund’ but I don’t consider it an emergency as I have time to save for it. This, to me, is a better strategy because I want to keep my emergency fund only for truly desperate situations. More on that in another post.

The best thing about all of this is that one year ago I would not have been in such a comfortable position when this combination of expected and unexpected bills arrived. I have spent the last 3 years working ‘contract’ which means I didn’t always get paid over holidays like a ‘permanent’ teacher would. I moved house several times in 2011, which was very expensive. Before that, I was a nearly-broke university student with a multitude of health problems that both cost money and prevented me from working much to earn more.

All of this makes me even more proud of the position I find myself in today. I am by no means rich, and I don’t feel at all financially secure the way I’d like to be. There isn’t nearly enough in my emergency fund yet, but I have at least been putting enough away every fortnight and letting it build to find that I am able to cover all the extra expenses this month easily.

The only way this is possible is that I have spent less than I earned consistently over the last year.

This experience only makes me even more determined to continue to do so. I want to build my net worth, rid myself of all debt and begin investing. Whether I can achieve this in 2014 remains to be seen but that’s the big, hairy, audacious goal I am aiming for.

If I spend less that I earn, I just might make it happen!