Wellness Wednesdays, and making time for me

You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day. Unless you are too busy; then you should sit for an hour.

Zen proverb

A friend shared this proverb with me a long time ago, and I often think of it when I am struggling with my own meditation practice, dietary habits, and all the other things that I try and prioritise because I believe they make a difference to my wellbeing.

There is no denying that we live in an incredibly fast-paced world. The level of expectation on all of us to achieve and to ‘do’, is crazy, and finding the space to slow down and take time out for ourselves is becoming increasingly difficult. However, I do also think that it is our own responsibility to choose what we prioritise. The phrase “I don’t have time for that” is one of my biggest bug-bears, even though I catch myself saying it often, if not out loud then at least in my head. Because what we really mean when we say “I don’t have time for that”, is “that’s not a priority for me”. How can I tell myself I don’t have the time for meditation today while watching dog videos on facebook or googling some shit that I really have no need to google? And when I write it on my blog it sounds totally ridiculous and stupid, but it is a genuine struggle to make time for the things that really matter when technology provides us with constant distractions.

There are lots of things I try to prioritise in order to help my health. This includes eating a paleo diet, which means cooking pretty much everything from scratch and very few shortcut meals like pizza or sandwiches or pasta. It includes regular meditation which I know has a positive effect on my stress levels and therefore on my health. I have found that the key to a successful regular meditation practice is setting aside the same time every day in which to do it. But this brings its own challenges, especially since the only time I reliably have free every day is first thing in the morning. And getting up half an hour earlier is all well and good when I’m feeling well, but when I am sick and literally feel like I have the flu, it’s not so easy. Stress is a huge trigger for my health and so I try really hard to not overdo it, to keep at least a couple of evenings every week free in my diary for rest and recuperation, and to allow myself plenty of downtime. But this becomes increasingly difficult the better I feel. If I’m having a good day or a good week then I want to do absolutely everything right now – I want to embrace the good and make the most of it, because I know there is a good chance tomorrow won’t be so good.

I am grateful that chronic illness has shown me the importance of looking after myself. I am grateful that I know how to take care of myself and that I have the resources to do so. But, I am still human after all. I still have a job, a house to look after, a relationship to nurture, friendships to cherish, rabbits to take care of… as well as all the stresses of chronic illness.

So this week I have introduced ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ into my life! This is one day of the week where I promise to myself – no social media, no excessive scrolling through google, no rushing around like a headless chicken. Today I have meditated, I have eaten well, I have rested, and I have chosen to prioritise the things that nourish me. That’s not to say I won’t try to do all of those things again tomorrow. I try to do them every day, but I also accept that it is not always easy. Wellness Wednesdays is an opportunity for me to remind myself of what really matters. To prioritise me. I would love to have some company in my quest for Wellness Wednesdays, so if you fancy joining in, message me! 

Living on a knife-edge

Chronic illness is a constant weigh-up between looking after your body, giving it the best chance at wellness, and still allowing yourself to live a life and have a bit of fun.

I’m leaving my job of 4 1/2 years this week to begin a PhD. Last night I went out with my wonderful team of colleagues as a ‘farewell’, and needless to say I had several glasses of wine too many. I drink fairly infrequently these days, so my tolerance for it is pretty low and I am fully regretting my choice this morning!

For most people it seems that, although a hangover might feel like death at the time, a day or two later it becomes a source of humour; a light-hearted “oh silly me” and then it’s all forgotten about, until the next time they want a drink and the cycle begins again. But when you have chronic illness, something as seemingly mundane as a couple of drinks too many can be the difference between being well, and having a major flare of sickness that, for me, can potentially last days or even weeks.

Luckily for me, it is rare that one single event triggers a serious flare. It tends to be more of a cumulative effect – if I’m stressed, and I’ve had a bad nights sleep, and I have a few drinks, then that is likely to lead to a flare. Lots of people with chronic illness are even more sensitive than me and an alcoholic drink or two can be enough to push them over the edge. Nonetheless, alcohol absolutely has an effect on my general health and wellbeing, and on my body’s ability to cope with the inevitable stresses, physical and emotional, of life in the 21st century.

Chronic illness is a constant weigh-up between looking after your body, giving it the best chance at wellness, and still allowing yourself to live a life and have a bit of fun. Getting that balance right is one of the things I find hardest. It is difficult to know at what point sensible becomes obsessive, but equally when does letting your hair down become stupid and irresponsible? I guess these daily decisions are not unique to those with chronic illness, they’re decisions we all have to make. But with chronic illness, the consequences of those decisions can be huge, and therefore the stakes of each decision feel much higher.

I try my best to look after myself in all the ways I think make a significant difference. Mainly – I don’t eat gluten or dairy, I aim for 8 hours of sleep a night, I get moderate and regular exercise, I take time out for yoga and meditation, I try to remain calm as much as possible and avoid getting into unnecessary arguments with anyone, and I avoid sugar (this, I confess, is the hardest of all and the one I slip up with most often). The words ‘aim’ and ‘try’ are key here. I do my best. But I am human, and these things are hard. So therefore when I have a night like last night where I very clearly overdo it, I feel like a bit of a twat. What is the point of trying so hard, day in day out, to make careful and difficult decisions for the sake of my health, and then ruin it all by getting drunk? And the really stupid thing is, I don’t even like alcohol that much. Don’t get me wrong, an occasional glass of wine goes down a treat, but the feeling of getting drunk really doesn’t do it for me anymore, and the hangover is just horrendous. How on earth did I ever do this so often in my youth?!

Last year I gave up alcohol entirely for nearly 12 months and honestly, I didn’t even miss it. But at Christmas I decided I wanted one small glass of wine, and over the course of a few months that gradually crept up to where I’m at now. To be fair, I really don’t drink a lot by most people’s standards, but nights like last night just can’t happen anymore.

So, I officially announce to the world that I am giving up alcohol once more. This is one of those few sensible/fun decisions that is actually quite easy – my health is frankly more important than getting pissed.

Gluten free dining

I’ve been meaning to keep a record of gluten-free restaurants for some time now, and the blog feels like a perfect way to keep an ongoing record. Luckily for me and all the other peeps out there with food intolerances, many restaurants and cafes now cater for a range of dietary requirements. This will be a record of my experiences of eating out. Please note, I will only include on the list restaurants that I have actually been to myself, but if you have suggestions of places you’ve visited I’d love to hear from you!

*FYI – in my experience, restaurants either cater for dietary requirements, or they don’t, so if somewhere has good gluten-free options they are generally good for people with other requirements too, but the focus of this list will be gluten.

Devon, UK

  • Atlantis fish bar, Exmouth – offer gluten-free batter. There was a bit of a wait, but they said if you phone in advance they’ll get it ready. The fish and chips were fine, but if you really want fish and chip heaven, see Premier fish cafe below.
  • Boston tea party Exeter, Honiton & others – do gluten free bread and normally have gluten and dairy free cakes. Boston’s is best for breakfast in my opinion. Their eggs are free range and meat ethically sourced, and there’s lots of veggie options too.
  • Dart’s Farm Restaurant, Topsham – have separate gluten-free and low carb menus, very well marked and gluten-free bread so most things on the menu are feasible. Even offer a choice of white or granary gluten-free bread which is a rare treat!
  • Fingle glen hotel, Exeter – the chef here may just just be a magician. They do themed nights every so often and me and my boyfriend went to a Moroccan night recently. The food was incredible. They sent me a list of gluten free options by email beforehand, and the waitress gave me full details of allergens on the night.
  • Premier fish cafe, Budleigh Salterton – offer gluten-free batter and oh my word, they may just be the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.
  • Tea on the green, Exeter – an independent cafe on the cathedral green. They have homemade gluten free bread and paninis, pasties, cakes and scones. Also have soya milk for tea. Lovely little cafe.
  • Urban Burger, Exeter – man oh man, this was some good sh*t. Homemade burgers using local Devon meat, they offer both a gluten free bun and a bunless option. All burger patties are gluten-free. And they offer a ‘build your own’ where you get to pick your own meat, sauce and extras, which is extra helpful for those of us with multiple dietary requirements as you know exactly what’s in it.

Chains

  • Byron burger – offer a ‘skinny’ option with a salad in exchange for bun, burgers are gluten free and pretty yummy. As an added bonus they do sweet potato fries (yum).
  • Pizza express – offer gluten free pizza bases. They also do a cheeseless pizza for dairy free/vegan peeps and someone once told me if you take your own cheese they’ll use it for you, but I can’t verify if that’s true.
  • Pret a manger – good for gluten/dairy-free, veggie and vegan lunches. All their food is well marked with allergen info and there’s several gluten-free options.

Other UK

  • Minnack theatre café – if you happen to be visiting the minack theatre on the south coast of Cornwall, their cafe had several gluten free, dairy free and vegan cake options.
  • Mirren’s restaurant, Newtown, Wales – offer a good range of gluten-free tapas dishes as well as several other dishes. Menu is clearly marked with GF, Veg or Vegan, and the food was delicious.
  • The Italian kitchen, St Ives and Hayle, Cornwall – Offer all of their pasta and pizzas as gluten free. Their gluten free pasta was made from scratch and was really tasty. Highly recommended if you’re in cornwall.
  • The Raw Chocolate Pie Company, St Ives – I felt like I’d walked into heaven. This lady makes raw ‘chocolate’ bars using cacao, coconut oil, and other raw ingredients. This place won extra brownie points with me because, unlike a lot of raw treats branded as being ‘healthy’, these had a super low sugar content and really were pretty healthy as far as I could tell. Winner! They have an online shop too, FYI.
  • Treen cafe, near Penzance, Cornwall – this was one of those absolutely random, ‘eh?!’ moments. We stop into a teeny tiny cafe in the village of Treen on the south coast of Cornwall, assuming there’s not a chance in hell of there being anything suitable for me. They had homemade gluten free tarts (including a veggie option), and dairy free ice cream, amongst other things. Happy days! If you happen to be in the area, take a walk along the south west coast path to nearby Pedn Vounder beach – breathtaking scenery.
  • Turk’s head, Penzance – a little pub that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but had a lovely menu, although we were admittedly a little disappointed with the food. When asking about allergen information they replied ‘most things are gluten free and the things that aren’t, we can make gluten free’. Sweet nectar to any coeliac’s ears!

Avoid!

Luckily this list is pretty small for me, but it’s worth keeping a note of the places that really don’t do a good job of catering for dietary requirements.

  • Wetherspoons – sorry to burst the wetherspoons bubble, but they really do not cater well for gluten-free. The menu is a little confusing with regards to food intolerances, and last time I checked there were only two options for gluten-free, one of which was a salad (yawn).

When life’s an experiment

For the last couple of years, my life has been one giant experiment. Since getting a diagnosis, the experiment has at least been somewhat focused. When you don’t even know what the problem is, finding a solution is next to impossible. In fact, for most of the years prior to getting a diagnosis, I don’t think I really even bothered to look for solutions outside of my GP’s office. I think we live in a society where the doctor is assumed to have the answer to everything. If you’re sick, they’ll do a test, tell you what’s wrong, and give you a pill to fix it. Putting so much faith in medicine’s ability to fix it means that if medicine can’t fix it, life feels pretty grim. Where do you go from there? If the doctor doesn’t know, who the hell does know?

It was probably just over a year ago that something changed. I spent several months being sicker than I’d ever been, and my mindset changed. This couldn’t just be it. This couldn’t be what the rest of my life was destined to be like. If the doctors didn’t know, I’d at least try and work it out myself. It was at that point that I started looking for possibilities outside of medicine. Nutrition and wellbeing became a large focus of my efforts. Coming from a science background, I think making the transition away from medicine was hard for me. A lot of ‘alternative’ (which I now know is really just a word for ‘not funded by the drug industry’) treatments are really scoffed at by people in the medical community, and I was surrounded by that community both in my professional and personal life.

At this time a year or so ago, I read a lot about food intolerances contributing to chronic illness, and I decided to get tested. There are a LOT of nonsense food intolerance tests out there. And this is where it gets tricky – trying to tease out the sensible from the stupid. But I found a blood test that detects antibodies to certain foods and food components, and I was happy with the science behind it, so I went for it. It showed that my immune system was reacting to gluten and dairy, so I eliminated both completely. It’s hard to know exactly how much of an effect that had. Ultimately, I was still sick. I still had the usual symptoms of EBV. But there was a definite improvement in my fatigue and some other weird symptoms that I’d never really even th0ught about. I used to get really severe mouth ulcers. I almost always had at least one mouth ulcer and anything up to 15 at once. They were so horribly painful that I dreaded anyone speaking to me, knowing that the pain of talking back would be unbearable. I also used to get a rash called folliculitis, inflammation of the hair follicles, on my chest. When I cut out gluten and dairy, both of these things improved significantly.

Gluten has been permanently removed from my life ever since, and I don’t really miss it. You can get gluten-free everything these days. But last Christmas, I was craving cheese. Dairy felt much harder than gluten because there aren’t the same dairy substitutes, unless you want to consume soy all day long. So I reintroduced some dairy, starting with cheese, then butter, then yoghurt, and finally, a couple of weeks ago – milk. I went for organic whole milk thinking it was least likely to cause upset. For the last two weeks, my mouth ulcers have come back with a vengeance. Just as one starts to heal, another one rears its ugly head. God I hate those things. And that weird little rash has started to creep back in too.

So, it is with much sadness, that dairy has been booted out the door again. When I think about it, I don’t really agree with eating dairy anyway. I believe that cow booby-milk was designed to be fed to baby cows, not adult humans. It kind of makes sense to me that a lot of people might have problems with dairy, because I just don’t think we’re designed to consume it. But alas, there’s no denying that having a big dollop of clotted cream on your strawberries just ticks an awful lot of boxes. Eating out becomes tricky too – most places cater for gluten free, and a lot are ok with dairy free too, but somehow when you ask about both, you get an ‘oh-she’s-one-of-those‘ eye roll.

Of course, if it helps me become ulcer-free once more, it’s a small price to pay. But that’s the trouble with this god damn experiment. It’s just that – an experiment. I really have no idea if dairy is the issue here. It’s a stab in the dark based on a rough correlation I think I’ve seen. But who really knows? There are so many factors at play at any given moment that it could be anything. And honestly, when the uncertainty and potential risks of every single life choice, down to whether to have whole milk or soya on my granola this morning, are so huge, life feels a little depressing.