Living a natural lifestyle

The last couple of years, I’ve become more and more interested in learning about the chemicals in our environment and the effect they have on us. I remember the exact moment my interest began. I was catching up with a friend I’d not seen for some time (I really hope she’s reading this, she’ll know who she is!). One of the first things I said when I saw her was “wow, your hair looks great!” She replied “oh thanks, I’ve been doing no-poo!”. No-poo, she told me, does not involve chronic constipation, but is in fact short for ‘no shampoo’. And so began a long conversation about the no-poo craze, and my interest was sparked.

Shortly after that, I tried no-poo myself for a while. Just to clarify, it doesn’t require you to never wash your hair, but just to use things other than commerical bottles of shampoo and conditioner to wash your hair. It’s actually pretty incredible the things you can use – bicarbonate of soda, soapnuts, lemon juice, rye flour, and even raw egg! I have to confess that at this point in my experiments, as I had raw egg running off my hair and into the base of the shower, things started to feel pretty surreal, and it dawned on me – I was a hippy! I was that person I would previously have listened to with curiosity, nodding and smiling while secretly thinking to myself, why on earth doesn’t she just use shampoo?! But being on the other side of hippyness is suprisingly liberating and honestly, I’m proud of being a bit alternative!

As it happened, I didn’t get on that well with no-poo. I found it a lot of effort and was never quite happy with how my hair turned out. I now use so-called ‘low-poo’, which is a term often used to describe commercially-produced shampoo that contains no harsh ingredients. For anyone who’s interested, my favourite one by far is this one by Avalon Organics: http://www.avalonorganics.com/en/products/hair-care/shampoo/scalp-treatment-tea-tree-shampoo/

Through my experiments with no-poo, I started learning more and more about the various ingredients found in common products, including shampoo, shower gel, hand soap, washing powder, washing-up liquid, deodorant, makeup, perfume, and pretty much everything else that 21st century women (and men, but to a lesser extent I think) are assumed and almost expected to use. The more I learned, the less appealing my cabinet full of products became, and slowly I started to investigate more ‘natural’ alternatives. (I use quote marks for the ‘natural’ because I think we have become a bit obsessed with marketing buzzwords like natural, organic and chemical-free, when most of these things are still factory-produced and in reality, even so-called ‘natural’ ingredients are still chemicals, like bicarbonate of soda for example).

Regardless of the terminology we use, though, there is no denying the fact that hundreds of ingredients used in every-day products have proven negative effects on our bodies. If you’re interested in finding out more about the products you use, this website is a fantastic resource: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ It has products listed by brand, provides the individual ingredients in those products, what the research says about potential harmful effects of the ingredients, and then an overall traffic light system to show the perceived safety of the product. If you have a spare 5 minutes it’s well worth a look. I was gobsmacked the first time I checked it out.

As a person with chronic illness, it is hard not to care about this. We work so hard to achieve wellness: using medications, supplements, eating the right diet, researching our conditions… why would we want to risk ruining all our hard work so needlessly by using all these things? I don’t think this is unique to those with chronic illness though, and lots of my friends are becoming increasingly concerned about these same issues, and with that, people are showing an interest in the sorts of alternatives I use.

So I thought my blog is the perfect platform to share my thoughts and experiments with natural products. If one person, somewhere, has their interest sparked in the same way I did by my first ‘no-poo’ conversation, then I’ll be pretty damned chuffed. In particular, over the next few weeks I’ll start sharing some of my recipes for homemade products (starting with  deodorant, my absolute favourite homemade product!), and discussing the pros and cons of various shop-bought alternatives. If you have any of your own recipes you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you!

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.

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.