My microbiome has two major inputs, ages 9 and 13. They work hard cultivating their microflora- sampling all available surfaces for exotic species, and scrupulously avoiding the depletion of their biome through hand washing.
While it is reasonably clear that a diet of donuts and potato chips is not a boon to human health, the road gets slippery from there on out.
I was considering writing a bit about my highly unqualified thoughts on the various qualifications of dietary philosophies...but I just haven't the heart.
I'm haven't eaten many animal products over the last few years, and I haven't consumed any grains, legumes or processed foods over the last few months, but this does not make my diet Vegan or Paleo.
The whole topic and the ferocity with which people debate it makes me want to take a nap.
...Or produce a ridiculous drawing of my head sandwiched between a Bison and a giant pumpkin.
More on the topic of food. I disliked the following drawing so much that I neglected to post it during Inktober... But in the interest of completism, here is it is with its commentary:
Unsubstantiated Nightshade Sensitivity:
The Sad and Silly End of the Mostly All-Nightshade Diet Or Anything Fun on the Menu Probably Has Nightshades in it.
Of the many food categories that I had removed from my diet recently,
nightshades seemed like the most obviously troublesome. There is a high
correlation between autoimmunity, particularly psoriasis, and problems
There's lots of information out there, some of
it plausible, some very unsubstantiated, about the supposedly
problematic qualities of this category of plants. I can't say I have an
opinion at this point, I am just playing it safe for the time being.
But before my recent health issues, I had never focused on just how
much of my daily menu was made of, or at least seasoned with, nightshade
vegetables. And this goes beyond the obvious staples of pizza, pasta
marinara, french fries and spicy foods.
Over the summer, we had
dinner with friends. They had heard that I had some health related
dietary restrictions, and kindly prepared a spread of vegetarian options
including: grilled eggplant, cherry tomatoes, roasted bell peppers,
As much as I enjoy not having a disgusting rash
over a large portion of my face and body, and am happy to go without
many foods to remain this way, I must admit that I do miss tomatoes,
potatoes, peppers and gogi berries...
I have consumed a lot of "health and wellness" information somewhat indiscriminately over the last few months. I've read a good many books and listened to a good many podcasts put out by people of various credentials and levels of expertise on topics that did not necessarily relate to my specific concerns. While it is reasonably easy to weed out the ridiculous, it's harder to discern what is the most useful among the non-ridiculous information.
"The Microbiome" is a hot topic lately, as a potential source of all sorts of disparate problems. Most of the conversation is about the gut.
But the microbiome of the digestive system begins in the mouth. There is less information on this aspect...but theoretically, all the things that we do to clean our mouths- the brushing and scraping and rinsing- might actually be depleting the ecosystem.
And some say that persistent mouth breathing is also injurious to the biome.
I would not have described myself as a mouth breather, but now that the weather has turned colder, I am finding that I have to constantly remind myself to shut my mouth and use my nose.
Is this really improving my microbiome's health?...hard to say.
But maybe best not to be a mouth breather anyway.
(On a side note: this image is a definite callback to a photograph I took 14 years ago. At least this time I did not have to shove a small sculpted head covered in oil paint into my mouth- something that was certainly not good for my oral microbiome)
When my older son was a toddler and experienced frustration or anger while playing with another kid, he would sometimes turn around and whack me. As his primary interface with the world, I was also the place he chose to deal with his negative feelings. Not always pleasant for me, but definitely part of the parenting job description...and also better that he should whack me than whack another child.
12 years and another child later, fortunately no one is hitting me because a toddler took away a toy. However, both kids do still tend to verbally vent their frustrations in my direction. While they are now in my weight class, they're still at a pretty young age when it comes to emotional management. In the throes of intense frustration, they are more than willing to tell me I am the worst mother in the world and that they are going to call Child Protective Services to report me.
Of course one does not take things personally and express irritation at such comments when one is a responsible, mature, parent person....
Nonetheless, it is sometimes hard to not to get a little stressed, while assisting the stressed child to process his negative emotions.
Protecting oneself from some of the wear and tear while still being open and available to parent is...well, maybe an art and a science.
Putting other people first is not always a workable solution.
For most people, the idea of motherhood is pretty much synonymous with the selfless care of others. I never thought of myself as particularly selfless or maternal before we had our first child. In fact, I would have described myself as mostly self-centered and self-serving...(hopefully in the somewhat positive way that men are allowed to be, but is considered unappealing behavior in people who can gestate and lactate.)
Nonetheless, I have undeniably found certain aspects of caregiving to be very gratifying.
And yet I find some aspects ungratifying. Particularly, now that we are thirteen years in on the parenting project and I find myself still doing many things for kids who really should be doing more for themselves. This is of course all my fault, as I am their parent and should not allow the situation to persist.
Things have improved a bit recently because they had to. Asking your mother, who is just finishing a five day fast, to carry your backpack up the subway steps because you are kind of tired... Well, you might not do it so often after the error of your ways has been pointed out to you. However, you would probably still expect her to make you dinner, clean up after you, and do your laundry....
But on the other side, if you are a mother who does too much for other people and does not leave enough time to take care of yourself, you could end up run down and develop problems with your health...and then you would not be able to take care of those other people as effectively.
And you would be further inconveniencing those other people you are supposed to be caring for by making them worry about you and your crappy health problems.
Of my many health crimes, sleep deprivation was clearly the biggest and the least debatable. I felt fine on 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night for over a decade. I did. And I was an excellent sleeper during those few hours that I was in bed, rarely having any trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
And I could look at my blaringly blue-lit phone right before bed, say at 1 am, and not have it effect my sleep either.
Of course, I was so horrendously sleep deprived that really nothing could keep me awake.
Now that I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to various authorities tell me how essential regular sleep is and how damaging the bright blue light pouring out of all of our electronic devices can be to circadian rhythm, I can't look at my phone after 7 pm without wincing.
But I am still doing it. Case in point, finishing this post at 8:56 pm. while wincing.
But I do have my phone set to "night shift" And I am going to put my phone away and go to bed really soon.
Mice are used to study most human health problems. We share at least 95% of our genome with mice, and they can be manipulated to mimic almost human disease...But there are some significant differences between the immune systems of mice and people, so the model may not work as well for autoimmune issues as it does for, say, cardiovascular risk. And autoimmunity is often a complicated problem with diet, stress level, activity levels and genetics all playing a role.
There is always the urge to act quickly to implement new research, but treatments and "lifestyles" that benefit rodents don't alway work for people.
Meanwhile, my pet deprived younger son and I have often discussed the possibility of a mouse or rat filling the furry creature void at our house. I think, however, we might see feral rodents too often on the New York City subway platforms for a similar creature to be a snuggly companion.
...And it would certainly be a stressful and potentially unhealthy life for any mouse models living at our house.
As I have mentioned before, I took up meditation as part of working on treating an autoimmune problem. I've not been trying anything fancy, just breathing in and out.
But this mindfulness stuff has reminded me how terrible I am at breathing.
I have to remind myself constantly all day long to stop holding my breath and clenching my jaw...while on I am the train, while I am exercising, while I am listening to my 9 year harangue me about how he absolutely needs to buy a Nerf gun with a bayonet attachment.
And just thinking about my breathing makes me tense, which I am pretty sure is not the intended effect.
What effect does all this ingestion of "natural" herbs and roots really have?
I sought help from what one might call "alternative health" because I wanted to avoid taking a chemotherapy drug with some rather well known, and rather substantial, side effects.
However, the avoidance of Methotrexate has ironically led to the ingestion of many other less well studied substances. Ideally, if a substance is more or less a food, and perhaps even a food that has been consumed traditionally in another culture for hundreds or even thousands of years, it must be relatively safe...maybe?
Adaptogens are a particularly relevant. They are defined as "natural substances considered to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes" They are supposedly able to perform the magic trick of supplying the body what it needs when it needs it to achieve homeostasis. Most of us have heard of Ginseng, but there are many others including Licorice, Eleuthero, Schisandra, Aswaganda, Holy Basil, Rhodiola, etc, etc.
While such adaptogenic herbs are not inexpensive, there is no serious pharmaceutical money in them, and therefore few well-funded, double-blind, peer-reviewed studies on their effectiveness and side effects. No drug company can own Licorice root, so there is little incentive to fund a study. This is in marked contrast to the super-expensive "Biologic" medications for autoimmune disorders that can range from a few to a hundred thousand dollars for a year of treatment. (At least Methotrexate, bless it's toxic and no longer patented soul, is extremely cheap.)
I've taken quite a few adaptogens and other supplements over the last few months without any apparent negative consequences so far. My skin is mostly asymptomatic and at this point, I don't even test positive for autoimmunity.
Was it the adaptogens?...or the getting more sleep?...or both?...or the lack of gluten and dairy?
I feel cranky and stupid: Does my brain look swollen to you?
It has been clear to medical science for a while that chronic inflammation can contribute to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. There is now additional evidence that inflammation can also have consequences on basic mood and cognition.
I'm definitely not at my sharpest or my most generous of mood. And given my recent adventures in autoimmunity, I definitely have an inflammation problem. Could the two be related?
Or am I just a cranky, sleep-deprived middle aged woman?
I am eating a lot less sugar lately...but, of course, I am still surrounded by it.
There is more and more evidence that consuming too many easily digested carbohydrates can have serious health consequences that are neurological, cardiovascular and autoimmune. Most of the sugar we ingest is stored in cells in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen for future use. But we can only store so much at a time.
The Paleo community argues that we ought to eat more like our Paleolithic ancestors did. These hunter gatherers probably walked something like 11 miles a day in search of foods that were extremely low in highly processed sugars. If these people were hunting animals, they weren't looking for those manufactured by Haribo.
So, maybe a head covering made out a giant gummy bear might not be a good idea.
But Paleo folks are very much pro-collagen, with the strange result that there are many "Paleo" recipes for gummies. And indeed, the gelatin in most gummy bears is made from animal skins and bones. (Google it if you doubt- it's one of those "frightening things you didn't know" sort of memes)
Sadly, both refined sugar and animal skin and bones have not been on my menu lately. I have at least temporarily starved out much of my "appetite" for sugar. After a few days without food, something like romaine lettuce tastes remarkably sweet. But I was a lifelong appreciator of excessively sweet things, so future overconsumption of carbohydrates still seems like a strong possibility.
I can't really say, however, that I miss gummy bears.
Meditation does not always produce a tranquil mind.
In my continuing, and arguably neurotic, quest to not again be covered in a revolting skin disorder, and to generally be more healthy, I have tried to pick up the habit of meditation.
This is not because I particularly enjoy the activity. According to my former internist, research has shown that a regular meditation practice is "more effective than topical steroids!" A low bar, perhaps, but still relevant.
Trying to find time to just think about breathing is of course a challenge. I wake up 15 minutes early at 5:45, and try to work on the breathing in and out thing while still in bed. (Ha! I know. It barely counts if one is still in bed)
My "practice" is often interrupted by the sounds of video gameplay coming from the living room. Sounds of explosions...mayhem...giant lizards...
Metabiosis is a process in which one organism prepares an environment for another. This term usually refers a "parasitoid relationship," and perhaps it might also describe procreation and parenting...
There was a period during my first pregnancy where my son's father and I cheerfully referred to our future child as "the parasite."
Now that he and his brother are in the world, sitting on our couch, waiting impatiently to be served a tasty afterschool snack, perhaps metabiosis might still come to mind.
There is definitely no question that they have infected my mind as well as my body.
(You might not want to think too long about what is in your colon)
When much recent scientific research underlines the importance of diet and the gut microbiome in overall human health, one could be reminded of the old school digestion-obsessed health gurus like Dr Jenson, Paul Bragg, Dr. Shelton, or even John Harvey Kellogg.
Obsessing about what is going in, and what is going on inside, can often lead to obsessing about what is coming out...or about what is not coming out.
We've all heard someone make the ridiculous statement that people carry around 10 pounds of health-endangering decaying fecal material in their colons- that is unless they have done something extraordinary to remove it.
In the slightly more plausible theory of "autointoxication," proponents argue that poor diet leads the body to reabsorb waste products through the walls of the large intestine from material retained within.
And...is that really what happens? Well, maybe not...but no one feels good about poor internal housekeeping, so to speak.
While I remain mostly frightened of the various procedures that might access my contents of my large intestine, during the last few months, I have spent more time discussing the bowel habits of myself and my family than I ever imagined possible.
I can't make fun of anyone else for spending too much time talking about poop, as I now live in a glass house on this topic.
In the Functional Medicine model, one tries to move past just treating the symptoms to determining the source of the problem. Instead of using a medication to cure/suppress the headache, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or the disgusting rash, one tries to find the underlying cause.
I am all for this philosophy, and I did my best to refrain from medicating my disgusting rash into submission...but underlying causes can be pretty murky, multifaceted and hard to pin down.
Sometimes a little- or a lot- of suppression isn't all bad.
What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger...Unless It Annoys You to Death.
Poor Self-Regulation Can Be Contagious.
Hormesis "is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses." Exercise might be described as hormetic. Antioxidants in food could be another example.
Thinking about about my immediate superficial stressors, I kept coming back to the people yelling at me...either in my own house or virtually on TV.
Of course they are yelling because they are poor self regulators...either because they are children...or problematic adults.
But I find that stress...and annoyance...can certainly be contagious, perhaps more often than it is hormetic.
There is a common theory that as one is being treated for an infection or to remove a toxin, the treatment will initially make the symptoms worse, or cause apparently unrelated new symptoms. The official term is the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction...or more colloquially, when discussing parasites or yeast, "die-off."
Functional medicine is always looking for the underlying cause of a problem, poor diet, life style, or some sort of infection or toxic exposure.
I was certainly an offender in the lifestyle category as I hadn't gotten a full night's sleep in 13 years (pretty close to a completely factual statement)...And I had consumed some gluten, dairy, nightshade vegetables and sugar over the years. Having removed those crimes, I am left with the potential infection or toxin.
Treatment for suspected interlopers is not necessarily making me feel any better of course.
....And just because symptoms get worse doesn’t mean that one is necessarily experiencing die-off.
During my recent haphazard medical research, I discovered that "Brain Fog" seems to be on the symptom list for practically every condition, autoimmune or other.
This is certainly a symptom I could ascribe to myself. Even before I became distracted by my skin problems, and before I put all my mental processes into slow motion while fasting, I was definitely suffering from cognitive fog. I used to ascribe my inability to retain information and general slow-wittedness to 13 years of sleep deprivation, but at this point, I am not so sure. The idea that my mental lapses might be autoimmune in source is at least more appealing than the idea of premature dementia.
In my cognitively compromised and time pressed state, much of my medical research has happened via Audible or through podcasts.
One podcast I have been listening to is "Smart Drug Smarts" hosted by Jesse Lawler. Not too long ago, he interviewed Michael Graziano a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University who wrote "Consciousness and the Social Brain"(2013) Their conversation was mostly about the problem of determining the source and effects of consciousness. Mr. Graziano used the story of a patient of a doctor friend who believed that he has a squirrel in his head to explain the nature of the questions we can ask about consciousness. Using the squirrel as a metaphor for consciousness, he pointed out the difference between the question of "why doesn't the squirrel show up on an MRI?" vs "why does the man think he has a squirrel in his head?"
While probably not following all of the conversation, my compromised mind found the idea of the brain squirrel pretty compelling.
One of the many recommended treatments for brain fog and health problems is mindfulness and meditation. I've been giving it a shot, but I am constantly afflicted by what is often described as "monkey mind"- constant chattering in the head.
Maybe what I am suffering from is actually squirrel mind.
While I had what looked like a skin disorder at the beginning of the
summer, I quickly discovered that my digestive system was probably at
least implicated, if not entirely to blame. One cannot read three
sentences about alternative health or functional medicine lately without
tripping over the aesthetically unpleasant term, "leaky gut."
would have said that my digestion was pretty exemplary before the fun
with the rash began. But now I have to self-identify as someone with
"chronic intestinal permeability." Why this continues to be the case now
that I go to bed early and no longer eat anything fun or convenient
(pizza, bagels, ice cream, food in restaurants, etc, etc, etc) is a
mystery that has yet to be solved.
But I can say for sure that I spend way too much time thinking about my gut and its contents.
...and that a good way to mess up your digestion is by worrying about it.
(I was originally gong to wrap my head with a human colon, but that
proved to be too gross even for me to draw...although probably more
interesting than just some generic intestine...maybe later...)
And for those who are becoming slightly annoyed- or are already very
annoyed by me and my whining about health, perhaps I should add that
this drawing series is just for #inktober2016 and will definitely not continue indefinitely.
While treating my autoimmune disorder through "alternative" methods early this summer, I made some visits to the land of eating disorders. While I would like to think I was just being a tourist and not a potential resident, I did not come back entirely unaffected.
As I had never dieted before in my life, my first 5 day fast was a bit of a sneak attack on my body, and I ended up alarmingly thin.
Afterwards, I did my best to stuff myself back to a more normal size as quickly as possible. I needed to gain weight so I could fast again, and again, in order to successfully get rid of my disgusting skin symptoms.
And no one was please to see me so thin. My family was quite alarmed, and acquaintances and strangers were peculiarly, and sometimes intensely, hostile.
While my fasting goal was about clearing the symptoms of my autoimmune condition and not about being thin, since it has changed so much over the last few months, it is still a little difficult to not be confused about what size my body should be now.
The general health benefits of intermittent fasting, and ketogenic diets are very much in the media lately, and there is a lot of conversation about "fat adaptation." Ketosis suppresses epilepsy, appears to limit inflammation and brain degeneration, and might be used to cure autoimmune disorders and cancer. One is supposed to consume so few carbohydrates, that the body "learns" how to burn fat as it does while fasting.
Despite fasting several times, I don't think my body ever learned this fat burning trick, and I can't imagine myself pulling off a ketogenic diet as it requires consuming a mere 10% of calories from carbohydrates and a remarkable 70% from fat. Supposedly after one is fat adapted, or "in ketosis" one can go long periods without food while not becoming weak or tired...or cranky. The metabolism is more efficient, and, ironically, less likely to retain unhealthy fat.
To all of this, I say ha, ha, ha. While definitely not "fat adapted," after being starved a few times, my body is now much better adapted to holding on to fat.
Continuing the non-napkin series of drawings based on sciencey terminology inspired by my recent marination in pseudo and alternative medical research.
To explain a little: I came down with an autoimmune condition involving my skin at the beginning of the summer. Needless to say, many have suffered much worse things. If you have to choose between, say something overtly life threatening like cancer, and a really gross rash on your face, neck, arms and legs, well, no contest, right?
I tried to see it as a fashion opportunity: Sunglasses, a stylish scarf, arm sleeves (they come in fun patterns and make it look like you might be healing some cool arm tattoos) and new long pants to wear during the hot days of summer.
Everyone from my internist to my dental hygienist was happy to inform me that once I had an autoimmune condition, I was surely going to have it for the rest of my life, so there was some work to do on the acceptance of my situation and the mourning of my ability to every wear short sleeves in public again without frightening strangers on the train.
I would have identified myself as a pretty healthy specimen before the advent of the disorder...never really got sick, able to take care of everyone else, able to function on 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night for 13 years...
Clearly my skin was telling me that I had committed some health crimes and was not really in great shape after all.
The short version of the story is that after a lot of research and some slightly scary alternative treatment, involving not eating a lot of stuff, and not eating at all for several days at a time, my skin is all better for the moment....(strangely it is more compliant that it has ever been)
But, while presently asymptomatic, I am still afflicted with a mild obsession with health issues. Thus, the terminology in this series of drawings. And probably the grossness.
Silly pseudo- sciencey names as the departure point for weird stuff on heads is the theme for these drawings.
This is based on some silly health issues we've been working on around here which had led me to wallow in a lot of pseudo-sciencey research...
Sadly, these will not be drawn on napkins. Just ink and watercolor.
But there will be more napkins with recognizable characters and no rat feet coming up, I promise.
Inktober is a monthlong daily "drawing challenge" to do one ink drawing a day for the entire month of October, initiated by author/artist Jake Parker. (See inktober.com or mrjakeparker.com for more information)
I am always a sucker for a structure which provides an excuse for me to do dopey things with lowered expectations... "I had to do one every day, so of course they were going to be lousy!"
I'll just apologize now for what might be coming up...if I manage to actually produce one a day, that is. My late night drawing privileges have been revoked since the advent of the silly health stuff, so I have to draw things like rat feet on my head during daylight, while other people are awake...which makes it much harder.
"Mom! Why are there rats on your head?"
"Because I couldn't in good conscience put them on anyone else's head, honey."