14 June 2015

Don't assume you know what progress looks like

Oh running, you are a fickle one.

Some of my recent runs have been amazing. I have done 4-milers which ended with me running (okay, jogging very slowly) up the 150' hill near my house. I couldn't do this a few months ago. I have done 3-milers that ended with me stumbling up the stairs to my front door, hoping the neighbors didn't think I was drunk. I even ran my first 10k race recently, which (to be fair) included a fair amount of walking, but it felt like a triumph anyway.

I'm still adjusting to being a marginally disabled runner. I say "marginally" because I don't look disabled at the beginning of a run, but sometimes I do at the end. Some days I feel pretty accepting of the whole thing, and sometimes I'm squarely in denial or bargaining mode. In my best moments I learn something from everything, and today on my run I saw a parallel between my intense desire to never be wrong, and my reticence to continue taking myself seriously as a runner.

Lately I hope that every run will be the magic run where I am like the Portia of two years ago who could just run forever. But I also know that it's unlikely, and in my more pathetic moments I think maybe I should just quit running while I still can, to preserve the memories of being a "normal runner," whatever the heck that is.

This morning, as I fished my running pack out of the back of the closet, I was planning for an 8-miler but at the back of my mind I knew that I might not be able to run 8 miles.  I chased those thoughts away, prepped my water bladder and pitted some dates (a whole food gu alternative), leashed up the dog and got going.

Things were going swimmingly at first. It was a beautiful day and running felt easy. But around mile 4 I started feeling the dreaded lazy feet; it feels like I can't pick my feet up, even though the rest of me feels fine. If I keep running, eventually I start tripping over my own toes and even when I start walking, I look a little tipsy. Then, severely drunk.

Instead of getting frustrated, I slowed to a walk and ate some dates. And I started thinking. What's so bad about walking during a run anyway? Why does it feel like such a failure? And then I realized that the act of setting out on an 8-mile run and being unable to finish it makes me feel Wrong. I was Wrong. I cannot run 8 miles. Wrong.

Ever since I was a kid, I have hated being wrong. Being wrong fills me with shame, and to avoid this I constantly fill the air with caveats about how I might be, am probably, could easily be wrong. It feels better to presage every statement with an excuse about how wrong I might be, because that means I will be Right! "See? I told you before, I was probably going to be wrong!" So I get to be right either way. Most importantly, I don't look stupid (a.k.a. Wrong, a.k.a. shameful) in front of other people.

But.

When you avoid putting yourself in situations where you could be wrong, you might maybe miss out on trying something cool. You will avoid encounters with failure, and success. And everything else! Being chronically safe isn't very interesting.

So I'm there walking instead of running and I thought, "Who cares? It's a beautiful day. So I'm walking. So what. I was Wrong, and NO. ONE. CARES." I continued walking and jogging on and off for 7 miles. My mile splits went from 10:00 to 12:00 to 13:00 and then finally 17:00 for the last mile, which I mostly walked. But I did 7 miles, which is my longest run-like-thing since November.

Well.

Behind me is the familiar solid ground of caution, and in front of me is oh-my-god-I-have-no-idea. I have had this important realization with respect to running, which is great, but can I carry it over into the rest of my life? I think it could be quite awesome to live with the reckless possibility that I might occasionally be wrong. I could fail. If I could accept that, maybe I could try more things. See, I avoid trying stuff because it's possible that I could fail. Wrongness awaits. But... maybe... who cares?

Having an incurable degenerative brain disease is not awesome, but it's a fantastic teacher.

If you've read this far, you might want to check out these TED talks, which have no doubt influenced me recently:

03 May 2015

Progress: Four weeks on AIP

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." -Lao Tzu

Is that so cheesy? The quote thing? Oh well.

I've been doing the Autoimmune Protocol for 4 weeks. At first nothing changed; if anything, I felt a little worse and my running was even more affected by foot drop. It took a shitload of perseverance to keep eating meat and fish (and stinky stinky bone broth!) but I kept at it. If I quit, I would never know if the diet could have worked.

After about three weeks, my energy stabilized. In weeks 1 and 2 I had some great moments and some crashes, but the past two weeks have been amazing. I get up at 5 most days, I run 4 times a week, I work at a pretty (mentally) demanding job and I still have energy to hang with Sean and Maple when I get home. Sometimes I get a little tired around 9pm cause you know, I'm human.

So what have I been eating? Here's a typical day of eating from the past month:

  • Breakfast: Two chicken patties (made at home with ground pastured chicken thigh) sautéed in coconut oil, and a kale/blueberry/coconut milk/banana/spirulina smoothie. 
  • Midmorning snack: Banana
  • Lunch: Giant salad (greens, carrots, beets with olive oil, salt, and apple cider vinegar). Sometimes some leftover roasted veggies from the night before.
  • Afternoon Snack: Coconut butter out of the jar and a granny smith apple.
  • Dinner: Salmon, collards, and a baked yam/sweet potato, or liver and onions with bok choy and basil, and roasted root vegetables and asparagus, or chicken curry soup (made with bone broth).
  • Dessert: Strawberries and peaches.

I also take cod liver oil, probiotics, and a few other vitamins and supplements every day.

So is it working? Yes. This shit works. My energy is better, I'm less wobbly and shaky, and I realized the other day that a symptom I've had for NINE YEARS (vertigo when I lie on my right side - random, right?) has completely gone away.

What about running? It's getting better, slowly but surely. I've been trying to increase my long run length, and today I had a breakthrough run: 6 miles, with 5.5 miles before the dreaded foot drop. Feels like a miracle.

The Autoimmune Protocol is not only about eating. Here are some other things I'm doing:
  • I meditate, or indulge in "brain rest" (where you do absolutely nothing), or visualize some new age healing thing at least once a day.
  • Sit-ups and push-ups a few times a week (this is more for bathing suit reasons than health reasons, but I figure it doesn't hurt).
  • I make a serious effort to avoid stress. I have changed my outlook about things that threaten to disturb my peace. This sounds hard, but fundamentally it's just this: I decided I won't get stressed out. Sean taught me this years ago, that you can just decide. You just walk away from the old thing. It works most of the time, and when it doesn't, I immediately take a time out to calm my nerves. 
  • I also make a serious effort to think positive thoughts. Like "I am healing my MS with food!" and "I will run long distances again!" I even registered for a 25k race in early 2016. Cause I'm crazy. And hopeful. And positive!
  • I'm doing this cool online Shakespeare course, which means I'm reading one play a week for 4 weeks. Last week was Romeo and Juliet; this week is A Midsummer Nights Dream. Using your brain is good for it.
  • I've examined some nonphysical parts of my life that were unhealthy (ahem, money) and I decided to change some things. It's probably not as helpful to spend so much energy on my diet and continue to be unhealthy in other areas of my life.
  • I encouraged Sean to retire from the bakery so he can be my personal chef. He's really (really) good at it, and yes, I know how lucky I am. So. Lucky.

I also saw a new neurologist and I'll be starting a very low dose of medication soon. She considers this a preventative, and I'm finally cool with it. It's funny; I have always wanted to heal myself with diet and lifestyle and not meds. And now I'm doing it - the diet and lifestyle part - and I realize I want meds too. Why not use every tool available?

So what's next? Since this diet is alternately boring and horrifying, and definitely limited in terms of how many things you can eat, I am already starting to reintroduce some foods, like white rice and chocolate. (Most people wait a few months or more to reintroduce foods, but I would rather do it a little early than fall completely off the wagon with Pop Tarts.) Lentils are my next reintroduction - Tuesday! I'm vegan at heart, and the sooner I can find some plant-based protein sources that agree with me, the better. Liver, salmon, and bone broth are superfoods and they are helping me right now, but I am hopeful that I won't need them forever. (If I do, I can live with it, but I'd be happier on a 100% plant-based diet.) I believe the most important things about my diet are being gluten-free, sugar-free*, and dairy-free. Those should be with me forever, but maybe the animal stuff can go eventually.

* A note about my version of sugar-free: I eat sugar in whole foods like fruit - not tons of it, but some fruit every day. I occasionally have maple syrup, dates, or coconut sugar.

I know this post is pretty long already but if you have any questions about the Autoimmune Protocol or anything else, ask away!

05 April 2015

And now for something completely different

I've been vegetarian for half of my life, and it's a really important part of who I am. I never thought I'd stop being vegetarian. But, I also have multiple sclerosis. For about 10 years it was pretty dormant but recently it's gotten worse. Not like "wheelchair" worse, but "messing with my life and getting hard to ignore" worse. I realize this sounds like a stupid complaint from someone with MS, but I'm also a runner, and I can't run more than about 4 miles these days. At this point, if someone told me that I could cure my disease by getting a giant "I love Ronald Reagan" tattoo on my forehead, I probably would.

A few months ago, I started reading a book called Healing Multiple Sclerosis. The author cured herself with a very restrictive diet with the goal of healing her gut. Apparently all autoimmune disease is either caused by or related to gut problems. I'd seen the book before and dismissed it as crazy. After all, MS is incurable. Who did this lady think she was, promoting a cure that was as simple as changing what you ate? Who wants to change what they eat anyway? Not this Pop Tart lover. Dumb.

But when my symptoms started getting worse, I bought the book and read it. I wasn't convinced this diet was going to cure me, but while reading the book, something unexpected and amazing happened. I started thinking that maybe my disease could be cured. It was a huge shift for someone who often joked about her "incurable degenerative brain disease" like it was the funniest thing ever.

On March 1, I started following the diet. I immediately felt better, despite the sugar and bread cravings. But after a couple of weeks on the very restrictive diet (my only source of protein was nuts and seeds), I started to feel weak and hungry all the time. I decided to eat some chicken. It was temporary, I rationalized. After a few months on the diet, you could add legumes, and if I could eat lentils and beans, I figured I could cut out chicken.

But something was bothering me about the Healing MS diet. The author prescribed certain foods and prohibited others, but didn't really explain why. This gnawed at me. Around this time I discovered two more books that promised, if not to cure MS, to at least reverse some of the symptoms and stop the progression of autoimmune disease in general. I inhaled The Wahls Protocol and The Paleo Approach.

As a vegetarian, I'd always thought this paleo stuff was crap, designed to make cross fit freaks feel better about their high cholesterol. But when I started hearing that paleo could have a major impact on autoimmune disease, I perked up. Maybe chicken was my gateway drug or something. But the cool thing about these two books - especially The Paleo Approach - was that the authors explained exactly why they were suggesting the foods in their diets. And it made sense. So I am trying it.

So what does my diet look like? I eat meat, fish, and vegetables. That's pretty much it. I eat lots of fat. I don't eat my beloved potatoes. No rice, no bread, no sugar. No packaged or processed foods. I eat some berries every day, and sometimes I have an apple. It tastes like candy to me now.

There have been some ugly moments since I've started making this transition. I've had some major energy crashes while my body tries to figure out how to fuel itself without the massive amount of carbs I used to eat. Sean has become a full time chef, which is pretty hard since he gets up for work at 4:30. I've sobbed like a stupid baby while choking down meat or fish that I never expected to eat again. I try to convince myself it tastes good and that it's good for me, but it's not quite working.

Do I feel better? I'm not sure yet. It hasn't been very long so I'm withholding judgment for now. I don't feel worse.

Vegetarianism is my religion. I feel strongly about not consuming animals, about not wasting the earth's precious resources to grow animal foods in the stupid ways we typically do (i.e., factory farms). I always thought it was healthier to eat vegetarian, and if I had never gotten this disease, I'm sure I would still feel that way. I acknowledge that this whole experiment might fail, and maybe I'll get worse instead of better. It wouldn't be all bad though, cause then I'd get to go back to eating the way I want to!

Not all the changes I've made are food related. I'm also running a lot less, which I like about as much as the bone broth that's currently simmering away on my stove. I hope the running diet is temporary, but it seems like the right thing to do right now. Healing requires that you take it a bit easy. You should still move, but you probably shouldn't train hard, because it will likely take energy away from the healing that your body needs to do. I've often said my health is my highest priority, but then I put running first, crossing my fingers and rationalizing that running is good for my health. But that hasn't been working so well.

I'm doing a lot of things that feel wrong in the short term, with the hope that they will help my health in the long term. Taken together, these are the some of the hardest things I've done in my life. I don't know if it's courageous and awesome or just a desperate pipe dream (or totally irrelevant!), but I'm doing it anyway.

I want to be healthy again. I want to run long distances again.

I'll keep you posted.

Edited: All the diets that I researched over the past few months are pretty similar. The main points are to eliminate refined sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, and legumes, which will help heal your gut and therefore (hopefully) reverse or stop your autoimmune disease. The Paleo Approach, or Autoimmune Protocol (a.k.a. "AIP," which is what I ended up deciding to do) is the most restrictive of them all, additionally disallowing nuts, grains, seeds and seed oils, eggs, and nightshades. But it does allow fruit, which the Healing MS diet does not. I'm using this cookbook heavily, and the food is actually great, despite all the limitations. Anyone who eats meat would love these recipes.