You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and that is true of so many things. A good night of sound sleep. A quiet neighbor. Gum tissue. Your favorite hair tie. Your keys. Most of all, a general lack of pain.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a hot, throbbing pain directly behind my navel. That was a week and a half ago. I can recall it distinctly because it’s been bothering me off and on ever since.
Nothing else was wrong. Nothing graphic, don’t worry.
I’ve been blessed with a cast-iron stomach all my life. I can eat extremely weird combinations of foods. My kitchen tends to be stocked with dozens of spices, half a dozen vinegars, at least two types of mustard, and exotic things my husband can’t pronounce.
I don’t get motion sickness. I can read in the car, face any direction on the train, and ride in ferries and boats, no problem. I can even do the spinny rides at the amusement park.
I don’t usually even lose it when I get a stomach bug. I’ll just find that I’m tired and have no appetite, to the envy of those around me who are leaning over their buckets, green for two reasons.
All this is to say that days of burning, stabbing pains wandering around my stomach and duodenum were out of character for me.
What the heck was going on?
My life has been a mess since I got COVID-19. It’s really one darn thing after another. While I’m proud of my body for fighting off something that has killed a million people, it feels like the watershed between when I felt fairly young and athletic, and when... well, maybe that will change, but... Now it feels like I’ve turned the corner and I’m walking the straight path toward old age.
I figured it was a virus. Then I thought, what is it really? Aren’t these things usually of the 24-hour variety? But then I remembered the two occasions when I’ve gotten a norovirus, and those lasted more like five days.
Then I thought something that normally occurs to me more quickly. What if there is a nutritional fix for this?
I’m going into detail on my troubleshooting process here, because I know a lot of people have mysterious digestive complaints and they haven’t been able to get answers from their doctors. Just because your doctor can’t figure it out in a 15-minute appointment doesn’t mean there is no solution.
Let me say that again. Just because medical science hasn’t done enough clinical trials or peer review, that does not mean that a health issue is untreatable or permanent.
My basic organizing principle is that different people get different results with their energy level, mood, and overall state of health because they eat differently over the course of a year. In some cases, there may be a genetically-based food tolerance issue. Otherwise, I believe it’s a combination of timing (more than anything), volume, and proportion of cruciferous vegetables to everything else.
The food input regulates the gut flora, and the gut flora help process the nutrients, and the nutrients determine everything else.
Wonk that I am, that’s my working hypothesis.
This is an objectively testable hypothesis. Let me point that out. It’s common for ‘alternative medicine’ to make untestable claims, and that’s fine, because a lot of subjective things like mood are quite real and a major determiner of quality of life. I do think it’s helpful to distinguish when there is something that could be tested in a lab, something that could be the subject of traditional double-blind peer-reviewed studies.
With the will, with the funding, with the time...
I think all of this will happen over the next couple of decades. I think Big Data will provide a lot of answers. This is going to include all the DNA testing that so many people are doing. I also think we’re going to find more and more previously unidentified viruses that cause all sorts of health problems that were previously chalked up to ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety.’
Psst: What if ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ were not root causes, but in fact near-universal symptoms of underlying 100% physical causes, such as viral infections, chronic sleep deprivation, or nutritional deficiencies?
So anyway. Here I was with this haunting, distracting, annoying gut pain that seemed to have no obvious cause. I knew I hadn’t injured myself because I’ve torn an oblique before, and this was definitely chemical. Or was it? I started to wonder if I had an ulcer (something with a bacterial cause) or maybe something way weirder. It went on long enough that my husband told me to call my doctor.
Which never happens.
Then I suddenly remembered the existence of probiotics.
See, I had a deadly viral infection this year, little thing name of coronavirus, and then I had to take courses of antibiotics twice in three months. It seems obvious to me that the balance of helper microbes in my body might have been thrown off by all this.
We went to the store, and I bought a 32-ounce carton of juice with probiotics in it. I proceeded to drink it out of the bottle, since we were on a long walk and I had no way to refrigerate the rest of what was the only form factor of this juice in the store.
I started feeling better literally within minutes.
By the end of the day, the pain was back.
We went to Whole Foods, a store that stocks a much broader range of probiotics. I bought more juice (half the price that it was at the conventional grocer) and some little shot-size containers. The quantity that I proceeded to consume was probably double what was recommended. I didn’t check because I’ve used this stuff before, and it worked, and I was fighting a bigger fight this time.
Over the previous several days, my pain level had been between a 3 to a 5. It woke me up at least once every night and came at me in waves throughout the day.
As soon as I started getting the probiotics down, literally within minutes, the pain would recede.
Three days later, I’m basically fine.
This has been an impressive experience for me. I didn’t have to take more antibiotics. I didn’t have to get palpated or have some kind of body scan. Basically I got to avoid going to the hospital and getting exposed to possibly contagious people, which is my priority right now. I didn’t even take antacids (not an acid problem) or anti-inflammatories or anything.
One day, possibly in the near future, it will be possible for the average person to do a simple, inexpensive test, and find out which specific things make up their personal gut flora. There will be better data and better access to personalized treatments. There will also be better indications that something like probiotics actually aid human health - or don’t. A lot of “treatments” will eventually go the way of the goose, flapping off into the distance while making a great deal of noise.
For today, I’m a person who gets my flu shot, who takes my antibiotics as prescribed, who regards mainstream medicine seriously and obediently. I also think it makes sense that if I eat a thousand meals every year, what goes into my meals matters, and has a lot more to do with my daily state of health than a rattling bottle of pills.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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