For part two of this series, I thought it might be helpful to share with you the resources and support I have leaned on these past few months to help get me through the medical challenge, both physically and emotionally.
When I got sick earlier this year, even before we knew about the hole in my heart, or PFO (patent foramen ovale) with atrial septal aneurism, I knew that my own toolbox of holistic care practices was going to be crucial to healing and recovery.
Prior to definitive diagnosis and scheduling of surgical closure of PFO (end of March, yay!) to fix my heart, complementary medicine played a part in getting me where I am today. (I will write about surgery and recovery in part three of this series.)
I was already pretty dang healthy.
It’s important for me to write that. To let that sink in.
I. Was. Healthy.
After months of feeling pretty badly thanks to the PFO, it’s sometimes easy to forget that before this started, I was feeling great. (Which I guess is part of what also makes acceptance of my condition even harder some days.)
But, thankfully, being healthy is probably what helps me to
- Suffer less
- Recover faster
- Advocate better
- Research and understand more
- Know what is and isn’t normal for me
I am a nutritionist, so I eat healthy. Like the-butt-of-healthy-food-jokes-healthy.
Check me out on Instagram if you want to see some of my food pics.
Even my not-so-healthy is still pretty healthy.
My vices have always been coffee, wine, chocolate and cheese - in that order.
But, my standard food plan is mostly organic, gluten free, often grain free, high-quality, emphasizes fats and is loaded with veggies. I choose my meats consciously. I strive for balance on my plate.
I don’t have rules. I listen to my body; I eat what I crave; I practice mindfulness as a part of every meal.
So, luckily, just before my first transient ischemic attack (TIA also known as mini stroke) in mid-January, I had actually just completed a one-week detoxification program. I typically embark on a detox one or two times per year.
The benefits of detox for me:
- Reducing my vices if they have started to creep in more than necessary
- Inspiring new food choices, variety, different recipes
- Focusing on hydration
- Letting my digestive system rest and reset to improve my overall health
Since my mini strokes occurred, I have kicked my healthy eating in to overdrive.
Blood sugar imbalance was one of the initial struggles I faced. So I have boosted my protein to over 90 grams per day. I especially try to get protein in first thing in the morning - breakfast is a struggle since I have been feeling badly, so I sometimes eat two smaller morning meals.
I have strived to consume 10 or more servings of vegetables per day. In the form of soups, salads, curries, stir-fries, roasted veggies, steamed and fermented - variety is key.
Healthy fats are critical for a healthy brain and heart. Salmon, nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut oil and olive oil are a major part of each of my meals.
I have not had any alcohol, white sugar or caffeine.
My water consumption is around 80 ounces, plus several cups per day of herbal teas, 6-12 ounces daily of kombucha, and nut milks in smoothies, etc. Every few days I have a fresh pressed green vegetable juice - store bought brands like Evolution Fresh.
I have been strict with eating on a schedule and balancing the macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein). We have been blessed with home-cooked meals from friends and neighbors. I am cooking as much as my energy allows.
The important piece is keeping the menu simple for easy digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Movement is key.
I have never been what I would consider an “athlete.” (My parents - if they are reading this - are laughing out loud remembering my foray in youth sports.) I am 100% non-competitive and lack total and complete hand-eye coordination.
I actually hated exercise until I found yoga.
And, honestly, only then did I start to move to help me feel better on the inside and out. Once I started stretching, bending, strengthening and flowing, I could not stop.
For years, I was practicing yoga 3-4 times per week, spinning once per week and speckling in a barre class here and there. I was walking my dog for 25 minutes or more every day. Sometimes it felt like I never sat down.
I love being active and moving and feeling my body.
When my PFO/hole in my heart started *beeping at me* around the holiday time, I lamented (truthfully, I had a fit) that exercise intolerance was one of the most annoying symptoms. I simply could not do it. I even had a hard time walking my dog around the block.
But, you know what, I can stretch. I can move my body in a way that still feels good.
I have had a night time stretching routine for years, and I continued to stretch EVERY DAY - even when my brain or my heart felt like it was going to explode.
For stretching, I use my foam roller. I use a yoga strap. I just hold the position for as long as it feels good. I make stuff up as I go.
Stretching every day since my first TIA has grounded me and kept me as connected to my body as I could possibly be.
The right supplements: personalized to my needs.
I reached out to my tribe of nutritionist colleagues and friends and asked for advice and ideas on what supplements my body needed in midst of this new set of circumstances. (I personally believe there is no one size fits all answer, and I believe our needs for nutrients change with age and health status.)
First, I tested my micronutrient status with a Spectracell blood test RIGHT AWAY, so I knew what my body was actually needing and then added on from there.
- Vitamin B12 plays several important roles in keeping the cardiovascular system on track, in particular the production of red blood cells, which are critical for transporting oxygen throughout the bloodstream. B12 also supports a healthy brain and nervous system.
- Manganese is a cofactor for an enzyme called manganese superoxide dismutase (MnSOD), which is a potent antioxidant associated with protection against free radical damage. I want to protect against free radical damage which can increase complications of heart disease and worsen my PFO symptoms.
- Essential fatty acids/EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) & DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are crucial for the prevention of heart attack and stroke. Proper function of the nervous system, including the brain, also depends on the presence of DHA.
- Lithium Orotate easily crosses the blood brain barrier and is a powerful neuroprotective supplement and may help with neuro-repair after TIA/mini stroke.
- Iron plays a key role in transporting oxygen to tissues. Due to the shunting of blood from my right atrium to the left atrium, there is a mixing of oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood going to my brain, organs and muscles. Oxygen support is key.
In addition to taking the nutrients I tested deficient in, I also added the following supportive supplements:
- Betaine/hydrochloric acid helps digestion by supporting gastric acid secretions needed to denature proteins and absorb minerals and vitamins, including calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a calming neurotransmitter which helps relieve anxiety, agitation, stress, panic and poor sleep, and instead provides feelings of calm and relaxation. Read more about calming neurotransmitter nutrients on my colleague Trudy Scott’s blog - she is an excellent resource for natural mood support!
- Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) is a micronutrient whose antioxidant capacity provides extraordinary defense against mitochondrial decay and may even stimulate growth of fresh mitochondria! (Low mitochondria activity is responsible for bone-crushing fatigue and brain fog - which were both affecting me dramatically for a period of time after my TIAs.)
- Vital Brain® Powder (available through your FullScript account) is a supplement for mental performance, brain vitality, and helping to restore brain function. The powerful nutrients support mental focus, memory, concentration, positive outlook and brain wellness and will help with neuro-repair after having many TIAs.
This regimen has been the right fit for me as I have noticed improvement in my vision, cognition, mood, sleep, energy, digestion and blood sugar control - all of which worsened immediately starting right after my first TIA.
And, worsened even further with each successive episode. I plan to stay on these nutrients for at least 3 more months to gain additional improvement.
Functional medicine to reverse the damage.
Seeing a functional chiropractic neurologist who understood what was happening to my brain and nervous system was my first step towards getting better. Without his support, I would not be writing for my blog already. And, I am driving (short distances) again. Yay!
Dr. Steadman and his team performed detailed neurological examinations, vision tests, metabolic and laboratory analysis and physical assessments in order to create a customized treatment plan. I completed 10+ hours of rigorous “brain camp.”
His approach quickly addressed the very subtle changes in the function of my nervous system.
Subtleties other neurologists weren’t picking up on.
I will continue to work with Dr. Steadman following my PFO closure procedure (did I mention - end of March, yay!!!!).
Once I reach a new baseline for enhanced brain oxygenation and see what improvements that brings on its own, I will know more of what I need to keep working on with him.
Acupuncture to rewire body, mind and spirit.
Leslie Huddart is my “body whisperer.” She listens to, understands and gently responds to the body’s energetic needs.
I have been seeing her for years for acupuncture, but never before was it more necessary than when (due to multiple neurologic events/TIAs) my brain was literally NOT COMMUNICATING with my body.
Each treatment with Leslie is both therapeutic and cathartic.
Leslie uses Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and tapping methods to help unlock stuck emotions in the body. The post-traumatic stress I experienced from two TIAs while driving had me nearly paralyzed with fear - fear of driving, fear of never driving again and fear that because of my condition, I was somehow a danger to myself or others.
Leslie taught me how we could gently release those experiences and lay down new neural pathways. She gave me mantras, breathing techniques and visualization tools to overcome those traumatic experiences and move forward.
“Even though this happened...and it was scary...and it’s OK that I am worried it will happen again...I am safe...and I deeply love and accept myself…”
Meditation becomes my new normal.
I wish I could say that meditation has long been a part of my tool box. Honestly, I am better at my own personal style of “mindfulness” - like paying attention, slowing down, breathing and checking in.
But, a true meditation practice has always felt out of reach to me. Even with all my years and background in yoga, meditation intimidated me. I felt I had to be perfect before I could try it. Perfect at what?
I downloaded the “CALM” app on my phone for $100. Yes, that seemed pricey at the time - but it has paid for itself already. I have completed nearly 35 hours of meditation in the past month alone. Often I fall asleep. Most of the time, my mind is wandering.
I am far from perfect.
But, I am greatly enjoying the benefits. The slowing down. The turning inward.
I get it now.
I can’t say I have a schedule for this practice - I just listen to my body and pay attention to when I need it. And I do it right away.
I have used the app in doctors’ office waiting rooms, before bed, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the night, and even a few times when I got in my car to drive a short distance and felt a little off.
It immediately sets me straight.
Other self care rituals making a strong come-back.
Just a quick list of other things I have been doing to take care of myself in midst of this health crisis:
- Deep breathing.
- Sitting outside in the sun whenever possible
- Eating soup as much as possible
- Reading easy, fun books and favorite magazines and catalogs when my vision allows
- Taking baths or showers at bedtime to foster warmth and deeper relaxation
- Use of essential oils and herbal tinctures for energy OR relaxation/calming
- Sleeping with an eye mask to help promote deeper REM/restorative sleep
- Herbal teas - 6 or more cups per day of rooibos, lavender, lemon balm, ginger, turmeric, dandelion and more
- Music to lift my spirits
- Napping, lots of napping
- Saying NO to whatever does not serve me
- Letting go of things that do not matter
- Accepting help from family and friends who want to help (this is a hard one, I am an independent woman - usually I am the one making soup for others!)
- Being more present with the people I love - cherishing every moment and making mental snapshots of our connections, without thinking about what lies ahead
- Prayer - I often don’t even have anything to say...I just reach out to the universe for THE almighty being/God to come and just be with me...
A story to keep me going.
I love this story. My friend recently told me about her husband’s cousin.
This man, in his mid-40s, suffered a terrible heart attack and actually died in the emergency room.
He was brought back to life by an incredible team of doctors and staff in a great hospital. His body, deprived of oxygen for a period of time, suffered some damage. His stay in the hospital was 2 weeks and he was terribly sad to be away from his wife and four kids for that long.
But, he had to receive all kinds of healing treatments and procedures.
The man cried while talking to one of his nurses one day. “What did I do wrong? I was trying SO HARD to be healthy! How did this happen? I eat healthy and exercise!”
The nurse looked at the man and said, “Sir, it is precisely BECAUSE you were trying to be so healthy that YOU ARE HERE TODAY, having this conversation with me.”
You are as important to your health as it is to you.