There is no doubt, we are a culture of thinking about our health after the fact. Most people don’t think about their health at all until something goes wrong. Even as a naturopathic doctor, most of the patients that I see have a significant health issue bringing them in. Sure, we pay prevention lip service—eat well, exercise, quit smoking—but most people don’t really understand what prevention entails. And prevention, ain’t always easy.
We are also a culture of pill takers. Have a headache, take a pain killer. Have allergies, take an anti-histamine. Have high blood pressure, take a diuretic. Still have high blood pressure, add an ace inhibitor. Even people interested in natural medicine can get caught in the same trap. Bloated, take a probiotic. Inflammation, take curcumin. Can’t sleep, take melatonin. What we are not doing enough of, is asking why. Why do I have these issues in the first place?
Changing the big things—diet, exercise, stress management—is hard and a big part of my job is to really support people in making these changes. And, I really get it, because I’ve been on both sides.
I have an inflammatory bowel disease. It runs in my family. It is now completely under control with a gluten and dairy free diet (and sadly, as I get older, a less spicey diet as well). I do take a few supplements to support my digestive system, but sticking to my GF/DF diet is really the key. And stress management—I am much more likely to have a flare during periods of high stress. So, while in general I stick to my diet as best I can, I am extra vigilant when stress gets high and I prioritize anti-stress activities and sleep.
As for the why—certainly my genes play a big roll—but I didn’t identify my food sensitivities until my late twenties. Up until that time, my health followed a specific trajectory—ear infections and strep throat (and a billion antibiotic prescriptions), then asthma (puffers), chronic headaches (Advil), severe heartburn (Xantac) and then the more serious digestive concerns. I would control each symptom with the appropriate drug and my body would have to scream a little louder to get my attention, until I finally decided to look at my health differently. Identifying the food sensitivities was like peeling the layers of symptoms away. But, the damage to my immune system and digestive system was done and while it is 90% improved, that last little bit will be my constant struggle.
I can’t tell you the number of gastroenterologists that have offered me long-term prescriptions—even after I explain to them that everything is under control as long as I stick to my diet and manage my stress. “But, then you’ll be able to eat whatever you want.” is the inevitable reply. As if my body wouldn’t find another way of letting me know that, for me, these specific foods do more harm than good. As if suppressing a certain group of symptoms wouldn’t just force my body to raise another red flag somewhere else. As if a grilled cheese sandwich is worth the possible side effects of a systemic medication taken long-term. I don’t bother arguing with my doctors, our philosophies are too far apart. I politely decline the prescriptions.
This brings me to my son. He has asthma brought on by seasonal allergies (both of which I had as a child). We have puffers to use in an attack, but instead of using a daily steroid puffer to prevent asthma attacks, we opt to be strict about his diet during allergy season—no dairy, no sugar. This, and some specific allergy/immune supporting herbs and supplements, make a huge difference—both to the allergies and the asthma. But, he is six, and sometimes the food restrictions are hard. There have been a few public meltdowns when denied a cookie or ice cream. Recently, I heard an acquaintance mutter under her breath “You know, there are drugs for that” after explaining why he was upset (understatement) about not getting a cookie. But I know how slippery this slope is. I’m okay being “the bad guy” when I have to say no and I’m okay when other people don’t understand these choices. The same way I have to be extra strict during stressful times, he is going to have to be extra strict during allergy season—and in doing so, hopefully his symptoms won’t continue to ramp up like mine did. And, when the grass has stopped pollinating, we’ll get to go out for gelato again.