My travels are not entirely blissful and carefree, like the romantic daydreams I had back when I first got the itch to take a time-out and wander freely. This is real life. There is bliss, and there are challenges. While traveling, I will also be attempting various treatments and dealing with the symptoms of my health condition. I could have chosen to stay home, but instead I chose to continue on with my plans to travel with my husband and accept the challenges that my health will likely cause along the way. The great thing is, we all learn the most from the challenges in our lives. That’s why I want to share our challenges along with our wonderful travel adventures. This is the background story on my health and the lessons my body has taught me about nature.
I coasted through my first 33 years of life with only minor bumps here and there. I grew up in rural Maryland, exploring the woodlands, meadows, and creek on my parents’ three-acre property and along hiking trails nearby. I caught and identified butterflies, collected wildflower seeds, and often pretended I was a scientist. It’s no surprise that I chose to study biology in college and then began a career in environmental science and policy. I moved to California for graduate school and then ended up spending nine wonderful years in Ventura, California. I had a job in local government where I felt like I was making a difference. I worked with some of the most amazing people I have ever met, both intelligent and compassionate. I was living in coastal southern California, where I could hike in the mountains and walk on the beach year-round. I met the love of my life and married him in a beautiful little ceremony in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We hiked nearly every weekend and traveled to parks and wildlife refuges throughout the West on vacations. We became avid birders and wildlife trackers. I had never felt so alive! I only wanted to explore more, hike further, and learn more about nature. Looking back, I sometimes miss those innocent days when I didn’t even realize how good I had it.
Then one day, I was walking back to my office from lunch down the street. My feet were suddenly in so much pain, and my right foot felt as if it forgot how to walk. I barely made it back to work. My health went steadily downhill after that day, and many of the activities that had enriched my life were no longer possible without extreme pain. It seemed like a sudden change, but in hindsight, it was the climax of a slow deterioration. Even when I was at what I thought was my peak of health, I had a list of “issues.” I had developed chronic dry eyes, and even after seeing a half-dozen doctors, I had not gotten to the bottom of the problem or resolved it. I had some digestive problems, but I was able to put up with them. There were days every few months or so when those digestive problems kept me home from work, but given my past experience with doctors finding nothing and doing nothing to help me with my health, I never did take this problem to a doctor. I just enjoyed my good days and put up with the bad days. I figured having these “issues” was just a part of life. Most people around me had a list of their own issues.
Since the day my feet stopped working, it has been a four-year journey trying to find my way back to health, and I am still on that journey. I spent the first couple of years working my way through several medical doctors, but each and every one failed to find an explanation for my symptoms and gave up on me. I tried so many different shoes in an attempt to minimize the severe pain in my feet. Ordering from Zappos.com was a regular event! I tried arch supports and multiple orthotics, taping, icing, soaking, and physical therapy. I started to believe what the doctors hinted at as I was leaving their offices – that I was CRAZY!
Solving the Mystery
Then the learning finally started, slowly. The instructor of my wildlife tracking classes told me about a postural alignment program that really helped him, so I gave it a try. The goal of the program was to undo all the harm that unnatural and repetitive positions, such as sitting in a chair studying and working for many years, had done to my body. The physical therapist who developed this program, called Symmetry, explained that I would be working to regain the posture of a 5-year-old. The program did minimize some of my muscular pain, and I still do many of the exercises I learned today.
This physical therapist then suggested I try acupuncture. I had always been skeptical, but after reading several studies that found positive effects from acupuncture, I gave it a try. The acupuncturist was the first to ask me about my digestion, as if that had anything to do with my feet! Although it seems quite obvious that all of our bodies’ systems are connected, and one can affect the other, I had been trained by our medical system to consider each of my symptoms as a separate “issue.” I honestly thought I was just unlucky to have all of these health problems at the same time! The acupuncturist was the first to put it all together for me: the digestive system, immune system, and connective tissues.
These new realizations made me adjust my Google searches – after all, aren’t we all asking Google for help these days? I keep hearing that doctors hate “Dr. Google” and patients who come in with a self-diagnosis based on Internet searches. Sure, medical information found on the Internet has the potential to lead us in the wrong direction and cause fear and anxiety, but if you approach this vast library of medical information with a rational mind, the Internet can be extremely helpful. If I hadn’t spent hours Googling my symptoms, I would probably still be in the dark today. I eventually came across a story that sounded much like my own, and the doctor who posted the story recommended finding a doctor who practiced Functional Medicine. This was the key that unlocked the mystery of my illness.
A medical doctor who practices Functional Medicine was the first to diagnose me with SIBO – small intestine bacterial overgrowth. This is essentially a disorder of the microbial ecosystem that lives inside of our guts and helps us with important processes like digestion and immune response. In SIBO, the microbes that belong in the large intestine make their way into the small intestine where they don’t belong and overgrow there. They have access to undigested food in the small intestine, and they ferment that food and produce gases like hydrogen and methane. This kind of fermentation is not supposed to happen in the small intestine, so it damages the intestine, leading to nutrient deficiencies and leaky gut, not to mention many very uncomfortable digestive symptoms. Leaky gut happens when the small intestine is damaged and allows larger particles, such as undigested food, to flow out into the bloodstream, initiating an immune response. Immune response = inflammation. Inflammation throughout the body can result in an array of bizarre symptoms. Mine include brain fog (poor concentration and poor memory), tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, chronic dry eyes and blurry vision, tingling and numbness in my legs and feet, and these are just some of my symptoms. These are the kinds of symptoms that make medical doctors throw their hands up in the air and tell you it must all be in your head!
Another unusual but critical online discovery for me was “Correct Toes” toe spacers, invented by a podiatrist in Portland, Oregon and natural fit shoes (more about that here). I was hesitant at first, but these toe spacers have helped me tremendously – I am actually walking and hiking again!
I have learned a lot through this health challenge, and I continue to learn as I experiment with various treatments. At first, I was uncomfortable with the idea of sharing such personal information with others. However, I frequently meet others who are suffering in silence and finding no answers. Scientists are extensively researching the influence of our gut microorganisms on all aspects of our health, but many medical doctors are unaware or refuse to acknowledge that changes to these tiny organisms populating our guts may be at the root of our health problems. That is why I am happy to share my personal experiences with SIBO to educate others so that maybe the next person to read my blog will not have to suffer for so long. Plus, I am a biologist. While this topic has caused me years of misery and derailed my life, I take comfort in geeking out on it!
The greatest lessons I have learned from this experience are to listen to my body, be kind to it, and allow it to function as it naturally does. When I first became so sick, I was angry at my body for failing me, but I had failed to be kind to my body. I had subjected it to the unnatural, knowingly and unknowingly, on purpose and by accident, and within my control and outside my control. I chose to eat processed foods, many of which I thought were safe and healthy. I chose to drink a glass of wine or two every night. I chose to wear “cute” shoes that pinched my toes. Like all of us, I was also subjected to countless chemicals in my food, water, and air. And I was ill advised by doctors to take harmful pharmaceuticals for my health “issues.”
My body has taught me that natural is best. My big toe does have a purpose (a lesson I have learned from Correct Toes), and it does its job best when allowed to function in its natural position! The microbes in my gut provide me with important nutrients and help my immune cells to function properly, but I must feed them the foods they evolved to eat. My hormones know what to do, but if I keep bombarding my body with chemicals, they won’t be successful. My goal now is to live with nature and not against it. Many things are outside of my control and some things (like living the lifestyle of a true cave-woman) are just unreasonable, but I pledge to try to live as naturally as possible within the constraints of my modern-day life. I am still far from recovered, and I don’t know whether I will ever fully recover. There are still some mysteries, like how exactly did I wind up with SIBO, and will I continue to suffer from auto-immune symptoms even if I am able to beat SIBO and heal my small intestine? I will have to go through some difficult treatments, but I plan to treat my body with kindness and always maintain the goal of helping my body to heal itself.