Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Invisible Enemy

I can count on one hand the number of times that I've been ill and wanted my mom.  When I was young (probably late elementary age or early junior high) my parents were away on a much deserved vacation.  The girl who was staying with us, who we adored, was doing our hair in front of my mom's dressing mirror.  Lit with dozens of 60 watt bulbs, the mirror reflected my sad face as I tried not to cry.  I don't remember if I had the flu or what exactly, but I felt badly and I wanted my mom. 

The next time I remember wanting to be cared for by my mom was on RAGBRAI, the 7-day 500-mile bike ride across the state of Iowa.  On our 5th night we slept in a tent in a rainstorm.  I woke up with the worst case of bronchitis/ pneumonia.  I was scared because I couldn't breathe my lungs were so full of mucus and I couldn't even talk.  I could barely choke out a whisper when I asked the director if I could take the SAG van to the next town, where my mom was scheduled to meet us.  In order to do that, he said, I had to get on my bike and at least make it out of town before I could flag the van down for a ride.  I couldn't breathe, let alone get on my bike, so I opted to walk (with my bike) to the gas station on the outskirts of town where my mom could pick me up.  With 10,000+ cyclists, traffic into the campground was ridiculous and not even an option.  My husband and friend rode on to the next town, while my sister accompanied me to the gas station where we drank hot chocolate waiting for mom to come to the rescue.
A week ago, dealing with a nasty sinus infection and the after affects of food poisoning, I felt so badly that after working a 12 hour shift on Wednesday, I nearly cried because I was so exhausted and I just wanted my mom to take care of me.  Unfortunately, I'm 36 years old, and my mom is in Hawaii so she couldn't take care of me.  My husband, as wonderful as he is, just doesn't measure up to mom.  I wanted someone to tell me it would all be OK, this wouldn't last forever, and bring me everything I needed so I wouldn't have to get out of bed.  Ever. 

This was the not-so-happy ending to the 6 weeks it took me to trash my immune system.  So in an effort to permanently memorialize my experience so that I will NEVER do it again, I'm going to share.  I suspect that there are quite a few of you who can relate to my experience. 

For starters, I'm never sick.  Ever.  I don't get the flu once a year or come down with the funk that my step-daughter routinely brings home from school.  I've never missed a day of school or work due to illness since before junior high (a very, very, long time ago).  I. don't. get. sick. 

It all started in October.  After sleeping in a tent with my sister who had bronchitis, I KNEW that it was inevitable I would be sick.  There was no way around it.  Thankfully, I took a week off of training, got some extra rest and I felt better, if not 100%, for my Ironman race in November. 

Enter:  Stress #1.  Financial burden. 

We found out that week that my husband would be losing his job as of November 1.  It wasn't a complete shock, and we had already begun working on a back up plan but we have a mortgage, and bills to pay, and the thought of being the sole provider on my salary was a bit too much for me to bear.  We got through Ironman and put our plans to open our own retail shop into high gear.  Meanwhile I'm working overtime trying to make enough for the three of us to live on.  It's post-season so my training is minimal.  I'm sleeping in more, but most nights I lay awake for hours trying to fall asleep. 

Enter:  Stress #2.  Lack of sleep.

Some people eat too much when they are stressed.  My body reacts by plaguing me with worries at all hours of the night.  And then I drink too much caffeine to try to be functional at work, further compounding my inability to sleep. 

On my off days from my job, I was trying to help my husband get everything set up for the new store.  At the same time, as some of you know, I was experimenting with some diet changes.  I had been reading about plant-powered diet (also known as veganism, though I hate the negative connotations that go along with telling someone you're "vegan").  I began to eat less and less animal products, focusing more and more of my meals on plant based foods.  It's wasn't drastic.  I was still eating some animal proteins at that time.  And to be honest, we've been following a vegetarian diet 80% of the time anyway, so I didn't feel it was crazy.

Enter:  Stress #3:  Travel.

We went home for Christmas during which time we followed a "normal" person's schedule, rather than our own.  We tend to be early to bed, early to rise types.  At home, we stayed up late and slept in later than usual.  We also drank more than we normally do, celebrating with family and friends.  Add to that communal air pumped into the cabin on our long flight home.

Begin respiratory illness #1.

Right after we got home, I came down with a mild respiratory funk that consisted of congestion, post nasal drip and mild sore throat.  It didn't last too long, maybe 3 days or so.  I slept a little extra, got on top of it.  No big deal.  I chalked it up to the travel.

Enter:  Stress #4:  More stress, more lack of sleep.

At this time, it's now mid-January.  I've started to try to follow a more normal training plan, though I'm having a hard time getting out of bed early.  Things with the store are coming to a head- we've jumped in with both feet and signed the lease, there's no turning back now.  We seriously need to start making money, cause otherwise we're about to be homeless but the shop is not open yet.  And then, a good friend asked me to do a week long trial of a product that she is distributing for a company that makes "natural" dietary supplements.  I trust my friend and was happy to help.  She raved about how great she felt, and the vitamins, and whatnot.  She called it a "cleanse" and told me that I was going to be getting rid of toxins from my body and gaining energy naturally without coffee.   

I started the cleanse on Monday, January 7.  The program consisted of a shake in the morning- filled with vitamins and natural energy for my workouts.  Followed by a pill to help suppress my appetite later in the morning.  Then a different pill in the evening.  And some tea to drink at bedtime which was supposed to help me poop, which I never have trouble with anyway, but whatev.  She acknowledged that I didn't need to lose weight, but it was all part of the detox program.  After the week detox, I could just use the shakes for my daily vitamin. 

I drank the shake.  I had a good workout that day swimming and biking with my husband.  I took the morning pill after our workouts.  3 hours later, I'm dizzy, nauseated and shaking.  I text my friend and she says that I shouldn't have drank my normal coffee since the product has natural caffeine.  OK, I think, I probably just overdid it on the caffeine. 

I don't sleep that night.  The next day, I have decent workouts but feel a little bit fatigued.  I find myself having a similar reaction to the drug, though not as severe as I've skipped coffee.  I'm starting to feel like I'm on crack.  Not that I know what that feels like, it's just one of those things people say when someone is jittery and can't focus.  My friend tells me that it's all the toxins leaving my body.  I'm skeptical but everyone else apparently swears by this and has lost tons of weight and have amazing energy. 

I don't sleep that night.  The next day, I'm back at work.  By now I'm exhausted from not sleeping in 48 hours.  I feel sluggish, fatigued, and like I'm underwater.  I HAVE to drink caffeine to try to make it through my 12 hour day at work.  I have a little time on my lunch break so I do some research online.  I discover that the drug I've been taking has an amphetamine derivative similar to pseudoephedrine (sudafed's active ingredient).  Suddenly it all becomes clear.   I can't take medications (benadryl, sudafed, cold medicine) because my body is very sensitive to them.  One benadryl will make me comatose for 3 days.  No lie.  I NEVER take cold medicines of any kind because I just can't handle them.  So my dizziness, nausea, shaking, and lack of sleep were all from medicine head because (turns out) I HAVE been doing crack.  Just the legal kind. 

Begin respiratory illness #2:

I stop taking the product.  The notes in my training log indicate that my sore throat started that Friday, January 11.  That's what happens with 72 hours of zero sleep.  From there, it progresses back into congestion, runny nose, and sinus pressure.

Enter:  Stress #4:  More diet change.

With the nearing of February, I really wanted to make the commitment to try a vegan diet for a month.  So I further began changing my diet.  I still was taking in enough calories and I never went 100% vegan, but I was stressing myself out about it more than I needed too.  And then, on Super Bowl Sunday, I got food poisoning.  I didn't even get to enjoy a beer during the game.  For 16 hours I was nauseated and couldn't eat or drink a thing.  Then for the next 4 days, everything I ate made me feel sick to the point that I was barely eating anything.  (And yes, this was food poisoning and not the flu.  There was no fever, chills, body aches.  It started 6-8 hours after I ate the offending bite.  And it resolved in about 12 hours.)

From January 11, my respiratory illness continued and progressively got worse to the point that I wanted to crawl into bed last week and cry.  (February 6th, by the way.  4 WEEKS after my symptoms started, which was only a week after they ended the first time.)  Having progressed to full on sinus infection, I finally started some antibiotics last week and the sinus infection cleared up.  Despite that, I continued to feel tired, fatigued, and unable to maintain my normal schedule with work and training.  I basically took a week off of training and tried my best to make it through my work days, which was challenging enough. 

I was starting to become really paranoid, thinking there could be something really wrong with me.  Valley fever.  Mono.  Pregnancy.  I knew it wasn't overtraining because I had taken 8 weeks off after Ironman and I really hadn't done much in the way of training yet.  I was supposed to be training for Boston, and Texas, but I was physically unable to do anything remotely resembling a workout. 

And then, as if the message were sent by God himself, I got an email yesterday with the monthly newsletter from First Endurance.  One of the articles was about cortisol and how it affects the immune system.


The wheels began to turn in my head and I realized that I probably didn't have some deep seeded viral infection.  And it wasn't likely that after all these years, my birth control pill had failed me.  But I had deprived my body of sleep, and taxed it to the point that my adrenal glands cranked so much cortisol into my bloodstream that my immune system became suppressed and I became susceptible to these upper respiratory infections.  And the only way I was going to get better would be to take care of myself and allow my immune system to return to normal function. 

Believe it or not, I have an amazing immune system.  As I've said, I haven't been sick in years.  Decades practically.  But everyone has a breaking point and I found mine.  After finishing the article, I wrote down the suggestions on how to reduce cortisol levels and boost the immune system.  I popped an Airborne.  I drank a liter of water (extra, that is).  For dinner last night, rather than reach for a bowl of cereal which is my usual after a long day at work when I get home late, I made myself a proper meal with fruits and vegetables, and protein and carbohydrate.  And today after my workout, I drank my Ultragen recovery shake with proper amounts of amino acids and proteins. 

I can't say that I feel great, but I can say that I feel a whole lot better.  Just knowing I'm not dying of pregnancy or valley fever is a weight lifted.  I'm paying attention to how I feel and I'm going to bed a little bit earlier.  (I know, how can you go to bed earlier than 8 pm, right?)  I'm eating better and I've given up the whole vegan thing for now.  Not that I'll never consider it again, but now is not the right time for me.   

For now, I'm going to go back to MY normal.  I will listen to my body and do what it allows me.  I've got a full schedule this year planned, but nothing that really matters to me until November.  So if I run a slow race at Boston, I'm OK with that.  I'm not going to stress about it even more.  Yes, I might be the plumpest runner on the starting line, but hey, I qualified, right?  At one point I was fit enough to deserve it.  SOMEday I will run Boston in great shape, and super fast.  But it won't be this year, and I'm OK with that. 

I'd rather focus on getting well for the future, not just one marathon.  I have realized this year, in a very short period of time, how important it is to focus on total wellness.  Sleep.  Nutrition.  Stress management.  Thankfully, Cadence Running Company is open now and my stress level is decreasing as we get into a rhythm.  My job is stressful, but as long as I keep everything else in check, it is manageable.  I firmly believe that exercise is important, that endorphins are a positive influence on the immune system.  But I'm not going to stress out if I don't do as much as I would normally be doing at this point in Ironman training. 

If we don't have health, we don't have much.  I have never taken my health for granted, but now I'm appreciating it even more. 

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