For years I have endured a broken body. I equivocated that things weren’t so bad, others had similar problems, etc. Then I fixed things – and life is better. Don’t ignore a broken body. Fix it.
Problem: Can’t fucking breathe.
Nisqually Glacier on Mt. Rainier – altitude 9K ft. I’m taking three breaths per step and dry heaving. Can’t fucking breath. My climbing partner Julie is totally fine – she pitches camp early because I am weak and wimpy. We don’t summit.
Ben: ‘You must have really worked hard to get into great shape.’
Julie: ‘I’ve played a bit of frisbee – but really I’ve been a bit lazy’
Ben: ‘What? I’ve been kicking my ass for months preparing for this – how are you kicking my ass up here?’
Julie: ‘Doesn’t sound right – maybe there is something wrong with you. Ever heard of exercise induced asthma?’
For my whole life I’ve dealt with being a terrible cardio athlete and puking with exhaustion on long hikes – especially at altitude. I equivocated by telling myself I ‘just wasn’t good at cardio’, ‘must be out of shape’, ‘don’t adjust well to altitude’, etc. All reasonable possibilities.
These were reinforced when an exercise induced asthma test in Boston post-Rainier showed all clear. I let things lie for another few years and continued gasping for breath.
Fast forward to last December. I had arrived in Jackson Hole and spent a couple days truly gasping for breath at 6-10K feet. Damn altitude. I started going to the gym (Mountain Athlete kicks ass) and puking during every workout. Damn my deplorable fitness level – which was a wee bit confusing considering I had been training hard for over a year. My friends arrived and acclimatized better in a day than I had in a month. A 3600ft ski tour left them tired and satisfied – it left me puking, wheezing, and sick as a dog. WTF.
Another friend echoed Julie. ‘This doesn’t sound right – let’s go see a doctor.’
To make a long story short – 4 doctors and a huge exertion of personal willpower later I arrived at a diagnosis of exercise induced asthma. It’s triggered by altitude, cold, and dry air – ie. wouldn’t show up on a test indoors in Boston. I’m now on some lovely steroids (Advair) and a rescue inhaler (Ventolin). On a similar 3400ft ski tour post-medicating I felt amazing – I could have turned around and done the whole thing again without trouble.
This is a story about my shit. Feel free to skip it
Problem: Poor digestion pretty-much all the time - diarrhea, bloating, etc.
A Paleo diet fixed many things in my body – but digestion remained terrible. I resolved to finally fix this after having lived with it 10+ years. Other people seemed to have no digestion issue whatsoever. Curious.
Traditional Medicine: GI doc tested me for really nasty stuff like Giardia and Celiac – said I was clear of all that – and was left only with the squishy/bullshit diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Basically - ‘If patient is still complaining of poor digestion and we don’t know what’s up – diagnose with IBS and tell them to choose a less stressful life.’
Alternative Medicine: Got a stool analysis at Your Future Health. Had a great discussion with a specialist over there who basically said ‘your gut is full of bad bacteria – you need to wipe it out and get some good bacteria in there.’ Solution: Monolaurin and Citric Seed Extract to kill the bad stuff, a probiotic to boost the good stuff. I was strongly discouraged from taking antibiotics. I did that supplement stack for 2 months before giving up with nothing to show for it.
The actual solution was a complete accident. I took a course of antibiotics (Z-Pack) to clear a suspected sinus infection. I was still taking a probiotic daily. Within a week my digestion problems cleared up completely and unexpectedly. I took an enormous amount of satisfaction in my single well formed daily shit. Now when I have digestive problems they are easily diagnosed – I did something dumb like drinking or eating tons of crappy food.
A wellness blood screening revealed a TSH of 11 (normal range .3->3). This was my brain not-so-subtly screaming at my body to produce more thyroid hormones. I didn’t have any of the typical symptoms of hypothyroidism (lassitude, weight gain, dry skin) - but I may have been on my way. Experimenting with synthetic thyroid hormone replacement therapy (sounds scary – but it’s a pill a day and with no side-effects) has brought my TSH down to 2.9 and I’m headed lower. This week I had an afternoon of brain-dead lassitude – and realized I hadn’t taken my thyroid meds that morning. May have been coincidence – but I’m glad my body isn’t red-lining on thyroid function anymore.
- Fix Your Body. I’ve experience a substantial improvement in my quality of life just fixing my asthma and digestion. It was worth the difficult path and expense to get to optimal health.
- You Are Responsible for Your Health. Doctors and others do their best – but they aren’t in your body and they are crippled by a lack of good tools and a fucked-up medical system. Numerous doctors told me to stopping complaining about something that was ‘normal.’ Most docs would never test the thyroid level on a young male with no hypothyroidism symptoms. I listened to these folks for years – and I’m glad as hell I started listening to my body recently.
- You Need to Be Smart and Dedicated. It took me a ton of intellectual horsepower, $$$, time, a few brilliant friends, and a quantified-self approach to fix these problems. I really don’t know what to do for the tons of people out there without all those resources…
I’m happy to report that I don’t know of any major remaining issues in my health. I am keeping a watch on a few things:
- I’ve injured both of my shoulders in the past and have occasional pain.
- My right knee occasionally gives me trouble on long down-hikes.
- I think I have to get up to pee more often than I should during the night – but I don’t want to drink less water and get dehydrated.
- A couple maybe-not-optimal blood markers remaining: Vitamin D, Ferritin, Homocystene, ApoB. I’ve got some supplementation going on and some other stuff planned to watch/work on this stuff.
There are a ton of other things I’m working on – endurance, getting ripped, balance, etc. – but in all these areas I’m striving for enhanced performance rather than fixing a deficit.
I’ll be listening to my body carefully and acting quickly to fix problems in the future.