In honor of Naturopathic Medicine week, I decided I wanted to share my experience from a patient’s perspective. Though I’m so lucky to work with an awesome team of Naturopathic Doctors at Cascade Integrative Medicine, I struggled at the time to find a great doctor to help me with my own health. Here’s a bit of my health journey where I share about how I was diagnosed with Lyme disease and how I recovered from following a vegetarian diet. I initially shared them as a series of instagram posts but and putting them all in one place here for reference.
This guy married me at my worst.
I was sleeping 15+ hours a night, too exhausted to exercise with any intensity. I had been coughing for 2 years, was forgetful and clumsy, experienced debilitating periods, had recurrent yeast infections, nonexistent libido, felt dizzy and fainted with regularity, had nonstop gas and bloating, was unable to keep on weight, and felt lonely and depressed, among other symptoms. But honestly though, who goes to sleep at 9 pm on their wedding night?!
"You are the picture of health", I was told this by the many doctors who I saw, implying that being skinny, "fit", young and vegetarian was all that mattered in the world. I began to think that this was my normal.
My husband on the other hand, who at the time was in school studying to become a Naturopathic Physician, promised me otherwise. He gave me hope, saying, "I don't care what these doctors are telling you. This is not your normal and you don't have to live like this. We will find out what is going on and I won't stop until we do." He still has this approach with his patients who often drive hours to come see him after other treatment options have failed them.
Having seen 10+ doctors over the years, I had given up on trying to figure out what was going wrong. After all, my bloodwork "looked normal". You see, the thing I love about naturopathic medicine is that the doctors don't write you off just because your bloodwork looks normal. You only get the answers to the questions you ask. Are your doctors asking the right questions?
"You should be f***ing like rabbits!"
That's what my doctor told me at our first visit when I finally agreed to see him. This was one of my husband's Naturopathic Doctor professors who also had his own clinical practice in Seattle. Mark came home from school one day and said, "I think this guy can help you." So I sent him a Word document of my health timeline because by that point I was tired of recounting all the details to each new provider.
In our first visit together, he acknowledged my feelings of hopelessness and frustration at the state of my being. Though I absolutely love rock climbing, it was the only exercise I felt comfortable doing because I didn't have the lung capcity or stamina to do anything else. He validated that it's not normal for me to not have the energy to do the things that I love and that he will do his best to find out what was the obstacle to cure. Naturopathic Doctors don’t just put a band-aid on symptoms, they seek to find the obstacle to cure, the barrier keeping one from attaining health and well-being.
"Your bloodwork looks normal," He said.
"But your neutrophils are on the higher end of normal, what I would consider out of range for YOU."⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
You see, reference ranges are variable based on the lab you use and who is setting the ranges. Plus, each individual has their own range normal. Just like we can't expect someone from the Pacific Islands to look and weigh the same as someone from France, why should we expects our lab values to be the same? There's a range of normal and my normal may not be your normal.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
So he dug deeper. He used muscle testing to identify which treatment protocol would work best for what my body was dealing with. What came as a surprise to both of us was that I tested strongest with a broad-spectrum antibiotic.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
NDs have a wide scope of practice. Many choose to specialize in certain treatment modalities but one commonality between them is that they believe in the healing power of nature. They also have the capacity to choose to use treatments from foundational health principles up the hierarchy of harm, depending on if the case indicates necessity. Of course we both knew the potential harms in using an antibiotic, but he trusted that the muscle testing indicated that the antibiotic was indicated. And I trusted him.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Within days, I had enough energy to pick up a kettlebell and man did it feel good to swing it! Instantly, my moods had brightened, finally seeing a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
But, unfortunately after 7 days, I developed an allergic reaction, breaking out in hives and vomiting. I immediately stopped the treatment and returned to my dull state of being. Though I was obviously disappointed, he was encouraged. My positive response to the antibiotic confirmed that my body was fighting a bacterial infection, so he decided to test me for Lyme disease. And it was positive.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
After receiving a positive Lyme diagnosis, you can't imagine how happy I was.
I had an answer! Finally, I could blame SOMETHING for how I was feeling. Though I made strides of improvements since changing to an omnivorous diet and identifying food sensitivities before the diagnosis (more on that in another post), I was still left with residual, unexplainable symptoms.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
My doctor admitted that he is not a Lyme specialist but shared a little bit of the controversy with me. Though, there was nothing controversial about my testing as it was positive both by lab (Igenex) standards and CDC standards, I was annoyed for the people who felt how I was feeling but whose doctors only wanted to stick to CDC Lyme diagnostic criteria.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
He gave me the option to work with him and be a "guinea pig" since he hadn't worked much with Lyme or to be referred to an integrative MD specialist (who has unfortunately since lost his license due to the controversy of how Lyme is treated). Since I was paying out of pocket (not that insurance would have paid for it anyway...) I decided I wanted to see the specialist and get it overwith.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
My husband and I, being fairly newly married and both still in school, burned through our entire savings put together to pay for doctors visits, testing, medications and supplements (and there were a lot of them, see photo). You can only imagine how guilty I felt to have him literally invest so much in me right off the bat, but he says he would do it all over again if we had to. #truelove ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
As you can see though, it wasn't just Lyme.
Instead of only treating the infection, my doctor chose to support and balance all other processes going on in my body: eliminate yeast overgrowth, support lung health, support adrenal health, promote a healthy microbiome, rebuild iron stores (severely lacking from my "well-planned" vegetarian diet), and support thyroid health. This is called treating the whole person, not just the disease.
I followed this treatment protocol for a year, switching to herbal antibiotics midway. Though, I reached close to 100% recovery after only 4 months of treatment. If you know someone with chronic Lyme, it's highly likely that they've had a harder or longer time recovering.
I honestly believe that I recovered so quickly because I had already figured everything else out: I optimized my diet, I was active (as much as I could be), I minimized and managed stress, I listened to my body, I slept as much as possible, I cleaned up my skincare/environmental toxic exposures, I loved and felt loved, I felt part of a community. It's never just one thing with health.
After addressing the infection and helping my body come back to balance though these other means, I finally had the energy to pursue my Masters degree, to fulfill my work as a massage therapist with more strength, to be fully present for myself and my husband, and to of course, climb trees and open coconuts 😉🥥.
I came to Bastyr University, a school for natural medicine, in September of 2011 to study Nutrition and Exercise Science.
In my first quarter I took a Whole Foods Production class, where we essentially learned how to prepare whole foods from scratch. I was in heaven.
But one thing came as a shock to me: When we moved to the lab (kitchen), our instructor asked everyone who has any dietary restrictions to go in one group. I honestly assumed that everyone else was *obviously* going to be vegetarian like I was, I mean, we were there to get our nutrition degrees weren't we?? I was the only vegetarian in the whole class! While I was cooking with tofu and tempeh (which I hated), everyone else was cooking with pasture-raised chicken, wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef and organic bone broths.
I had been so closed-minded at the time that I didn't even know those things existed! I just assumed that all animals were treated inhumanely and fed an unnatural diet of corn and soy like I saw in the documentaries (and man, has the production of those biased documentaries skyrocketed since!). I followed a vegetarian diet because it was what I was told was the best diet for health and the environment, and I just couldn't get on board with CAFO treatment of animals.
Learning about the differences in animal treatment/feeding and how that impacts their nutritional quality was quite an eye-opener for me. And it turns out that not all animal agriculture is bad for the environment. This planted the seed for me to consider changing my diet.
“How’s that working for you?”
This often comes to my mind when I meet someone whose “healthy” habits don’t reflect the state of health that they’re in. And this was something my husband once said to me.
I met Mark not long after I arrived at Bastyr. Though he had been eating low-carb paleo at the time, he never criticized my vegetarian diet.
He has a skill of helping people come to their truth on their own. When I was explaining the long list of symptoms I had been experiencing, he asked what I thought was the cause. My answer: “this is just how I am.” He doubted me and told me that I deserved better health.
When I told him it couldn’t possibly be my diet as the cause he asked, “And how’s that working for you?” That forced me to consider: could it actually be my diet that’s making me feel this terrible? Could optimal energy, mood and well being actually be a possibility for me? I took a huge gulp of my pride and decided that my health was worth the challenge of reintroducing meat. After all, I was studying to become a nutritionist wasn’t I? That seed that was planted earlier has started to grow.
We went on a trip to Vancouver, BC and were eating out at an Indian restaurant. Mark had offered some food off his plate but since he had ordered lamb, I decided to just have a bit of his rice (I was converting him from his low carb ways 😉). “Oh my God, what is that flavor?!” The lamb broth had soaked into the rice and my Persian genes were turned on right on the spot. It was a flavor I hadn’t tasted in YEARS and my iron-deficient body was all over it.
Alas, I was converted.
When we returned home, I gave up my sugary granola and soy milk breakfast and replaced it with bacon, eggs and kale. I replaced my hummus and pita chips with beef liver pate and celery sticks. I gave up my flour tortilla, spinach and cheese quesadillas (with rice!) and replaced them with grass-fed beef burgers (no bun), avocado and sweet potato fries. I replaced my canned bean soups with homemade bone broth.
You get the picture: I got rid of my severely nutrient lacking, high-glycemic meals and replaced them with local, organic, naturally-fed/grown nutrient-dense, protein and fat-rich, animal and plant-rich meals.
All of a sudden I lost the chronic bloat I had in my belly. I hardly passed any gas and when I did, everyone around me survived. Finally I could make it through mid-morning and mid-afternoon without involuntarily falling asleep due to blood sugar crashes (though my energy didn’t fully recover until we treated the Lyme.)
Within 3 months, I noticed I was performing particularly well on my exams and had to study WAY less in order to do so. My memory was improving! I also found I was becoming more coordinated! I later learned that neurological degeneration and memory loss are side effects of vitamin B12 deficiency (found bioavailable only in animal foods). Despite eating eggs and dairy on my vegetarian diet, I was still obviously deficient in B12, as I wasn’t eating sufficient amounts.
It took some time for my iron status, and thus menstrual issues, to completely recover. In retrospect I would’ve gotten iron infusions to speed up the process.
I chose to quit “cold turkey” because I was motivated. I was literally sick and tired of feeling how I was feeling. I have few vegetarian patients who are willing to go home and eat beef liver right after they meet with me, so I remind myself that I am an outlier and everyone changes at their own pace. I always feel honored to be that person who guides someone through this journey back to health. If your health is in a state any less than optimal, schedule with me and I’ll do my best to get you on track to thriving, not just surviving.