Arthritis is not just a physical condition

I haven’t blogged since December 2014! How did that happen?!

Mostly, it’s because I’ve been too busy, rather than too ill. I’ve been loving my work at Manchester Mind, though it does keep me pretty occupied and sometimes a bit stressed too. However, the fatigue and flares have been manageable, and I’ve not had to take any time off because of my arthritis so far. I’ve continued to stick to the gluten free diet, though I’m finding staying off the sugar slightly harder to stick to these days. Overall, however, I think I’m doing okay.

I’ve even managed to start trying vigorous and athletic styles of yoga and been shocked and amazed by what my body is actually able to do. I’m building up my upper body strength and even managed a headstand unaided at last week’s class.

So overall, life with PR is pretty positive at the moment.

But what I did want to write a bit about is a new development in my work which I’m pretty excited about.

Living with palindromic rheumatism – or any type of chronic condition – isn’t just as simple as living with the physical symptoms. The flares, the pain, the restrictions and the fatigue also have a psychological and emotional impact and this isn’t often taken as seriously by medical professionals. When the consultant asks how I am, he is interested in how bad my flares are, and whether there’s any joint damage. He’s not generally asking how I am coping with my PR. Coping with the unpredictability, with the chronic pain, the lack of sleep, and the fatigue isn’t always that easy. I think that sometimes the psychological and emotional impact of the condition can be even harder to deal with than just the physical symptoms. A friend with rheumatoid arthritis told me that she wished she was told when she was diagnosed that it wasn’t just a physical illness she had, but a mental illness too, its psychological impact has been so profound at times.

More than once, I’ve phoned the rheumatology nurse, or Arthritis Care Helpline  in tears. It might have been after a disastrous appointment with a consultant who hasn’t taken my symptoms seriously or just during a long flare when I’m at the end of my tether from lack of sleep and constant pain. The early days were particularly stressful and upsetting – when I didn’t know what I had, what to do about it, or what was going to happen to me. I didn’t have any coping skills, and it felt as though no one really ‘got’ what I was going through. It took 8 years before I was even referred to a pain management clinic – by which point I’d already learned the most useful tool I was ever going to learn – meditation and mindfulness.

Life can be stressful enough without a chronic condition, but throw in an unpredictable and little understood invisible illness which causes chronic pain, disability and fatigue, and stress increases massively. I can point to plenty of different stressors. There’s the frustration of not having any effective pain relief when I’m flaring. The stress of the pain and lack of sleep. The disappointment and frustration of having to cancel on friends, or having to take to bed from fatigue. Even people trying to help by offering ‘helpful’ suggestions or commenting “but you don’t look ill” can be a frustration and a stress. There’s also the stress of the financial cost of living with a long-term illness, and in the current economic climate with a whole raft of disability benefits being cut, this is a huge stress for a lot of people.

In the early days, I was often very low, worrying about the future or giving up on certain dreams. Sometimes I still spend a lot of time just wishing I didn’t have this stupid darn condition. Of course, wishing things were different uses up and wastes a lot of energy, and it’s something that happens much less since I discovered mindfulness. But it’s still something that I have to revisit time and time again and work on – the transition from resistance to acceptance. After all, why wouldn’t you wish you didn’t have a lifelong condition that probably wasn’t going to be cured?

One thing that’s been really rewarding for me over the past year is my job for Manchester Mind, which is running a ‘resilience’ course for people with diabetes or heart disease. The course teaches people cognitive behavioural and positive psychology techniques and introduces meditation and relaxation and stress management techniques too. It has really helped some people and I’m really excited because now we’re going to be offering the course to people with arthritis too.

I think this is hugely important. We don’t get taught these skills at school, and unless we are referred to a therapist or counsellor by our GPs, or gone of our own accord (not always affordable for many people), we don’t learn them as adults either. We don’t get taught the importance of relaxing and of deep breathing, and we don’t learn that we don’t have to believe the negative self-talk that can often drag us down into a pit of depression. We don’t learn that accepting pain and illness can be more beneficial to our mental health than trying to resist it. (This doesn’t mean giving up – a longer post is needed to explain this more fully!)

Teaching people these techniques and seeing them learn from each other, and integrate relaxation and meditation into their lives hasn’t just helped them cope with their conditions – it’s helped me with mine. And it’s not a case of such courses or techniques only appealing to a certain, narrow age range. The youngest person I’ve had on the course so far, is 20, the oldest 89. They’ve pretty much all said that they’ve learned something and it’s helped them in one way or another.logo

Thanks to some additional support from Arthritis Research UK, from July Birmingham Mind, and Manchester Mind will be extending the Building a Healthy Future course to anyone with arthritis. It’s completely free. It won’t make your pain or your fatigue disappear, but it will help you cope with all the extra mind stuff that comes along with a diagnosis of arthritis.I’m so happy to be involved and know that my work can help people with diabetes, heart disease and now arthritis too.

2014 – a Summary

It’s the penultimate day of 2014, which seems as good a day as any to look back over 2014.

I’ve been using the Rheumatrack App on my phone since October 2013, which means that, for the first time ever, I can look back on the year and have a realistic idea of how much PR has affected me.

The good thing about using an app like this is that you can export all the data – within a specified time frame – as a file, so it means I can get a good overview and even do a little bit of analysis.

On the app, I record my pain on a scale of 0 – 100. I also record where in the body I’m in pain and sometimes I add notes too. Most days, I enter the data in the early evening, but sometimes, if the pain changes (dramatically increases or decreases) there will be multiple entries on the same day.  I record something even if there is so flaring at all.

The year in Numbers

So, time for some geekery as I look at 2014 in numbers. There were 355 entries in total.

  • 173 records out of 355 were COMPLETELY PAIN FREE! That’s almost half!  (48%). I’m pretty sure that is higher than it would have been in previous years.
  • 89 of the records were values of 30 or less. That means that for a quarter of the time, I am not in much pain at all.

Adding them both up, this means, that ¾ of the time, I’ve been in no or neglible pain. I’d say that was a pretty good result.

  • I had NO flare ups where the pain was higher than 85 (it’s at about 80 and above that I am crying in pain and can’t really function well at all) and only 24 days where the pain was higher than 65/100. this is only 6% of the time.
  • Which leaves 21% of the time – (1/5th) I was in some sort of uncomfortable pain, but could still function.

I had the longest run of pain in the early part of the year while there was a lot of stress going on in the house due to building work: 42 entries over February 14th til the 25th March. I had a long run again in the summer – 27 entries 19th July – 14th August. I wasn’t particularly stressed and can’t pinpoint anything to that particular run.

I had quite a few nice spells with no pain at all, with the longest being 17 completely pain free days in a row in May (4th til 22nd). This was also during and straight after my detox retreat in Spain. This may or may not be a coincidence.

Where do you flare?

Most of the flares in the early part of the year were persistent in my elbow and shoulder. Most common areas for flares continue to be somewhere on the hand – wrist, base of the thumb, or any of the finger joints. My toes are rarely afflicted, but they have flared once or twice. I had a jaw flare twice. My knees have been troubling me off and on, but it seems that this may be down to tendonitis. I’m waiting for a physio appointment to assess this further

What I have not recorded in the app much is my fatigue or energy levels. I have three days of note where I was completely incapacited with fatigue.

Diet stuff

Overall, I do feel healthier at the moment, despite flaring from time to time. My energy seems more manageable, my mood more stable and my ability to cope with my PR much higher than it has ever been. I’ve been gluten-free since April and have been sticking to a fairly ‘clean’ alkaline type diet about 80% of the time. I notice that when I eat more sugary things, my mood and energy levels are both affected. I’m pretty committed to this new way of eating – which is just a stricter and healthier version of the mostly vegetarian diet I had already been following. But now, I eat less dairy, no gluten, and cook a lot more from scratch than ever before.

What about exercise?

I have done very very well when it comes to exercise this past year. I have definitely found that a daily morning yoga practice with my energy levels, as well as alleviating the morning muscular aches and pains I have, possibly from the fibromyalgia. I did an amazing fitness bootcamp in March and completely surprised myself with what my body could handle. And I have continued to fit in various exercise classes into my working week. In May, I got a new job working for Manchester Mind, and I enjoy it a lot. What’s also great is that I am able to fit in my lifestyle around it – continuing with my twice weekly zumba classes and working my hours over 3 days instead of 2 1/2. As part of the job, I had to visit a lot of people around Manchester and so over the summer, cycled about 70 miles a month JUST FOR WORK!  I also did a 26- mile sponsored cycle ride and raised over £400 for Refugee Action.

Since I decided to prioritise my yoga practice first thing, my meditation practice has taken a bit of a back seat. There isn’t enough time to fit in both yoga and meditation every day in the morning, so in the days when I’ve not been able to do both, I tend to meditate right before sleeping.

Looking after my Mind is important too

During 2014, I also learned to lead others in meditation on the Breathworks course learning to teach Mindfulness for Health. I felt hugely self-conscious the first time I led a meditation. Previously I’d just read it off a script or played something on the Ipad when I’d led meditations before. I still feel a little self-conscious, but I’m getting more confident simultaneously meditating and leading. I also got such great feedback on the last course I ran (I run 6-week long stress management and emotional wellbeing courses for people with diabetes and heart disease) that my confidence has really been boosted in that area. My meditation practice has really been life changing and it really does help me cope when things are tough.

Looking ahead

I’ve got a bunch of goals and hopes for 2015, but my main one is to continue with everything I’ve been doing that helps my health – so that means sticking with the alkaline diet, keeping exercising and doing yoga as well as meditating too. I have two yoga retreats booked – a weekend one in March, and a week-long retreat in Morocco in May, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Of course, one of my hopes is that there will be many pain-free days ahead, and fewer ones full of pain, but at the end of the day, that is something that I’m not completely in control of. I really hope that sticking with my healthy lifestyle over a long period of time might mean fewer and fewer flares. I can live in hope. But I also know that my healthy lifestyle helps me cope better with pain and fatigue so even if it doesn’t ‘cure’ me, it certainly helps me live better and be happier.

Happy 2015! Thank you for reading.

 

Research into PR finally!

I have just returned from Chapel Allerton Hospital in Leeds where I was able to sit in on a presentation to the Patient and Public Involvement group about Palindromic Rheumatism and the research there into PR (funded by Arthritis Research UK) and also early arthritis.

There were three presentations in total, two specifically on PR. I think I need a little time to digest it all as there was a LOT of information given in a very short space of time (half an hour for each presentation). However, I thought I’d blog now about some of my initial impressions.

Firstly, it’s great to know that there is finally some research specifically into Palindromic Rheumatism. As anyone who has read my blog for a while will know, there is precious little research into PR itself. So, I was really pleased to hear Prof Emery say that PR was particularly interesting to study, NOT just for getting a better understanding of PR, but also for possibly improving our understanding of rheumatoid arthritis too – after all, some of us with PR will go on to develop RA. But not all.

Another thing he said –though not in his presentation – is something that I think is pretty important, but not something I have considered before. We were talking afterwards, and he said that there was something going RIGHT about my auto immune response in that it was able to switch itself OFF. I hadn’t thought about it in that way before. I mean, yes, I’ve often felt grateful that in ten years, I’ve got no obvious joint damage and have not apparently progressed to RA (though this does not mean I won’t in the future), but I’ve always thought about my inflammation and flares as something going wrong in my immune system, rather than thinking about the fact that I have days and sometimes weeks of no inflammation and pain as something going RIGHT! As Prof Emery said – there is something going right in that the inflammatory response switches itself off and I go back to ‘normal’, whereas for someone with RA, the switch is almost permanently set to ON (as I understand it)….

It leads me to think that it’s probably equally important to look at what’s going RIGHT with people with PR as well as what’s going WRONG in order to understand it better and possibly help prevent progression to RA – and maybe even prevent flare ups altogether? I had truly never thought of it like this before.

The second presentation was about the results of research into people who had a diagnosis of PR. The numbers were small – only 58, but the results were still interesting. Of the 58 people, 48% did not (during the time of the study) progress to RA, and 52% of them did. One of the most interesting thing about the findings was that there seemed to be three things that seemed to make it more likely for someone to develop RA (any one of them increases the risk of developing RA, but if someone has all three, that will increase the risks even more).

  • Smoking. I find this particularly interesting. I had never known about a link between RA and smoking, and I can’t give up something I don’t currently do but it could be useful information to PR patients who do smoke as an extra incentive to give up.
  • The intervals between flare ups were smaller in those who progressed than those who did not. Sadly (for me), the intervals between my flare ups can be really short – though they seem to be getting longer since I’ve been following my new regime.
  • Anti-CCP (ti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibody) – was a big indicator and seemed to be very significant. I can’t remember the figures here, but high levels of Anti-CCP seemed to indicate that people were more likely to progress to RA than those who did not have any or had lower levels.

As Prof Emery said – if we can understand better who is more likely to develop RA, then we can intervene early with treatment in order to perhaps prevent RA developing and joint damage happening in those people.

As soon as I got home, I went to look at my last lot of blood tests to see what mine showed. I couldn’t see whether or not they had tested for Anti-CCP, but on the letter to my GP after my appointment, it said under diagnosis that my CCP antibodies were negative, so they must have tested me for it at some point. I’m not sure how recently that was.

All the presentations were very interesting, but it is a passing comment that Prof Emery made that also piqued my interest from a personal perspective. Just towards the end of the session, one woman in the audience told us how starting to exercise – first by doing swimming and then tai chi – had made a huge difference to her life. Prof Emery responded to this by saying that the immunology of exercise was very interesting and that exercise could make a difference to your immune system, and that further research was needed, but that he believed that it could be an important therapy for RA, possibly improving the immune response.

It made me remember my own experience earlier this year at the bootcamp – how six days of intensive exercise did not exacerbate any pain or flares, but actually made my flare disappear altogether (after a six month almost permanent flare). And it also reinforces my belief that my regular yoga practice and exercise regime (almost daily cycling, plus zumba classes twice a week, sporadic pilates classes and daily home yoga practice) is probably as crucial to my current and future health as any drugs I might be taking.

So, what conclusions can I draw from what I heard today? Well, I’m definitely incredibly happy to know that at least someone finds PR interesting enough to study. However, it’s not likely to make an immediate impact on me or other PR sufferers.

I truly do believe, however, that taking care of my health holistically could be the key (in my case) to managing my symptoms and helping my immune response right itself. In me, this means following my current diet regime, doing lots of stress management (yoga, meditation, exercise), continuing to exercise (not just for the happy and stress-busting impact, but also for the immune system too, as well as helping keep me mobile, supple and build up strength), and managing my energy – resting BEFORE I need to and not overdoing it. Since I have been stricter about this holistic approach to my health, I have had more energy (I am even able to work a full 7 hour day, which would have been unheard of this time last year), fewer severe flares, and more pain-free days. Long may it continue.

Thanks for reading and thanks to the Leeds Musculoskeletal Biomedical Research Unit for having me along today. I apologise if there are any inaccuracies in the blog – I was writing as quickly as I could during the presentations, and so it’s highly possibly that I misunderstood or misinterpreted something!

November News

It’s been a while since I last wrote, and happily, the summer flares that plagued me throughout July and August have subsided, and I’ve had a pretty calm Autumn.

Just after I wrote my last post, I saw a rheumatologist who ordered a whole raft of blood tests – five vials full! I got the results through my GP surgery, but they couldn’t make head nor tail of them as they hadn’t ordered them (!). My vitamin D levels seem pretty low – which given I take supplements AND I had been outdoors a lot in the summer, seems worrying to me. Neither the GP nor the rheumatologist thought it was worth taking any action on. Other levels are mostly normal, except for one marker that the rheumatologist said was consistent with inflammatory arthritis. Clearly, if he isn’t worried, then I shouldn’t be.

The main thing that came out of that appointment was a diagnosis of something new. Fibromyalgia. It was quite upsetting at first – getting a label of another chronic condition on top of the one I already have. Particularly as Fibromyalgia appears to be little understood and some medical professionals don’t even believe in it. But as my mum said, I’m already living with the symptoms, so getting the diagnosis shouldn’t really make much difference, particularly as there aren’t really any decent treatment options that seem to be appropriate for me.

The diagnosis has helped in some ways. It explains why my neck and back can be incredibly painful, despite the amount of physio I’ve had, and regular pilates and yoga that I do. It also explains why, when I don’t do any exercise, I feel like I have fewer spoons (and less energy) than when I do. My funny symptoms – the ones like my skin feeling sunburned or super sensitive, could also be down to fibro. So it’s good to finally get an explanation for that.

Since my last blog, I’ve had gluten twice. Both were small amounts and on both occasions, I was convinced that it would be fine, and it was too little to make a difference. After the first time, I had a three day flare that was pretty bad and painful – more so than anything I’d had for a long while. The day after the second occasion, I felt totally out of spoons and full of brain fog.

Coincidence or caused by the gluten? It’s difficult to know, but both incidences are enough to persuade me that it’s worth staying off gluten. I do feel as if I have more energy without it and I’m still eating healthier.

Since September, I’ve also been doing a daily morning yoga practice (just 15 minutes if I’m short of time, 30 if I’m not) on top of my meditation. The yoga is helping with general stiffness and pain, and is good for my energy levels too. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, and it’s a great way to start the day. I’ve got a bunch of asanas that I like, but before I felt confident in self-practice, I used some online videos, including some from a website called Do Yoga With Me and the  30-day yoga challenge by Erin Motz

As far as my diet goes, I’ve got even stricter with what I eat and don’t eat. So, as well as totally avoiding gluten, I’m mostly avoiding dairy (mainly having goat’s or sheep’s dairy if I’m going to have any), still largely avoiding refined sugar, – (refined anything actually), avoiding additives and processed food and making as much food from scratch as I can. I don’t eat meat – but that’s not a new thing.

I’ve mainly been following recipes from Honestly Healthy  which recommends an ‘alkaline’ diet (which I guess is what I’m following). I have two Honestly Healthy cookbooks, which are great. I’ve also got a few nice recipes from Deliciously Ella.  Both are good sources of vegetarian, dairy free, gluten and sugar free recipes.

I also went back on a detox retreat, run by Olive in Spain. It was the second time I’d been and was as wonderful as the first time, which I reviewed for Queen of Retreats. I came back bouncing with energy (as I had done the time before).

The retreat reinforced the path I’m currently taking, and so I want to be as disciplined as possible, as far as I can. Hence the ‘mostly’ and the ‘largely’ when it comes to dairy and sugar. It goes without saying that I’m not drinking a lot of alcohol, and I’ve even cut down on coffee. So far, I’m pretty positive. I still get flares but they seem to be shorter lived, and I’m still having long periods of no pain (two weeks and counting currently).  My energy remains pretty good overall too.

The biggest challenge to the whole diet thing remains (as it was in August), eating out. That, and occasions where everyone brings in cake that I can’t eat.  This means that I imagine that the upcoming festive season is going to pose the biggest challenge yet. But I plan on making lots of lovely GF/Vegan/sugar free treats so that I don’t feel too left out.

If you want to know more about the types of food I’m cooking and eating, you can follow me on Instagram where I’ll post occasional photos.

Thanks for reading. : )

Some of the delicious meals served at Olive Retreat

Some of the delicious meals served at Olive Retreat

desserts at Olive Retreat - all sugar, gluten and dairy free.

Desserts at Olive Retreat: Sugar, gluten, dairy free.

Reporting back on my gluten free experiment

Reporting Back

The last time I blogged back in April, I was about to give up gluten, cautiously optimistic that it might improve the severity or duration of my flares. For about two months, I was practically pain free. I had continuous runs of days with no pain or flares or fatigue at all. I even had a full 18 day pain free run – the longest that I can remember for quite a while. I had good energy and when I did flare, it was short lived and generally mild.

I was strict with the no-gluten thing, and gleefully filled out my pain record app with 0 pain and 0 joints flaring more times than I had done since I’d started keeping records in September last year. I thought I had it cracked. Finally, after 10 years of not knowing what causes my flare ups, I thought I might have worked out a cause. And so that’s what I cautiously told people, that I may have cracked it. It felt like a major achievement. A eureka moment. A miracle. If only I’d known this years ago, I said.

And then… the flares resumed. Sometime, around mid June, my joints started complaining again. As before, there appeared to be no pattern. It felt as though my body was playing games with me. Flaring in a toe one day, my elbow the next, hopping from joint to joint, varying in its severity and length of time in each joint. I woke up every day, trying to guess where it would land today, and wondering how bad it was going to be. It felt like the arthritis was taunting me. “You thought I’d gone away” it seemed to say “but really, I was just sleeping for a while. Taking a rest. Now, where shall I hang out today? Shoulder? Maybe. Little Finger. No. Too insignificant. Wrist? Yes, why not? Not been there in a few days.” 

Still, there were pain-free days – sometimes as many as three in a row. But over the last month, there have only been four of those, and again the balance is tipped again, with pain and flares being the norm, rather than no-pain. 

Yet, I’ve continued to the no gluten diet. And it’s been a pretty healthy way to live overall. I’ve eaten way more fresh fruit and vegetables than I ever did when I did eat gluten, and avoided lots of sugary treats. I’ve got pretty inventive and imaginative in the kitchen, and have enjoyed making sugar-free, gluten free and vegan treats such as courgette and apple muffins, or brazil nut cookies from my Honestly Healthy cookbook.

So, here’s what I’ve concluded of my gluten free experiment.

  • My energy and fatigue has certainly still been better OFF the gluten than on it, even once the flares returned.
  • Eating out as a non-meat eating, dairy avoiding gluten free person is a nightmare and minefield.
  • I am using a lot of almond flour and dates in home-made treats
  • I’m eating WAY more salads, vegetables and fruit than I ever used to, and this is probably a Good Thing
  • I’m eating a much more varied diet too – eating lots of different salads for lunch instead of resorting to cheese on toast, or a cheese sandwich
  • Store-bought gluten free bread is rubbish and not really a real replacement for a decent healthy wholemeal, granary loaf.
  • Eating on the go is almost impossible. I’ve had to be prepared and bring lunches with me whenever I can, and things to snack on.
  • I’ve enjoyed being prepared – making gluten free pancakes on a Sunday to last the week, or sugar-free snacks to take to work (I have a new job).
  • I have NO idea whether my two pain free months which coincided with giving up gluten were a complete co-incidence or directly related to the giving up of gluten

So, I’ve decided to keep up the gluten free diet for a while longer. I think it’s better for me, I think it’s good for my energy, and if it isn’t the only cause of my flare ups, it could well still be a contributory factor. As long as I can eat a healthy, varied and balanced diet without gluten, I think I’ll continue.

I am going back to the rheumatologist at the end of the week. The last blood tests were clear, indicating that I’ve not yet progressed to rheumatoid arthritis. Not sure whether to try a different lot of ‘disease-modifying drugs’ (I’m still on hydroxychloraquine) in the hope that they will silence the flare ups more permanently. The trouble is, these drugs come with so many side effects (plus regular blood tests) that I am scared to try them. I spend so much time and energy not putting chemicals and horrible stuff into my body by eating healthily, do I really want to take a rather toxic drug? If it ‘cures’ the flare ups, will it be worth it? I can’t even be sure it’ll definitely work. So, I’ll probably put it off for yet another year, or until I can’t bear the flares any longer.

And the truth is, while the pain is a pain, I’m still functioning. I’m still working. I’m still pretty happy. I feel mostly good. I’ve faced the disappointment of the returning flares, and grieved for the pain-free days. I’ve had to re-realise that I can’t control my flares or my arthritis – no matter how hard I might try or how much I want to. And so if I have to live with it, I’d rather do all I can to stay well and healthy with it. 

Going gluten free

On the palindromic rheumatism facebook group, there are often posts from people wondering whether there is any link between diet and their symptoms. I’ve written about this before, and have never really been convinced that my flare ups relate to any particular food or food groups. I tried keeping a food diary, but there was no conclusive results in two months and so I just stopped doing it as it got really tedious! Eighteen months ago I drastically cut down on sugar, in the hope that it could be a culprit. It sort of helped my energy levels a little, but I didn’t think that it was a cause of any flares.

Yet on the facebook group, a number of people DO seem to feel that some foods do trigger their symptoms, though the foods themselves are not the same for everyone. Variously, they single out gluten, sugar, MSG, artificial sweeteners, tomatoes, and processed foods. Meanwhile, plenty of well-meaning people continue to advise me to give up various different foods, convinced that they are the cause of arthritic symptoms.  There also seem to be lots of people online talking about following an alkaline diet or the ‘paleo’ diet. I’m not so sure myself. The paleo diet seems to be very meat-based and as I haven’t eaten meat since 1990, it’s not something that appeals!

One of the things that comes up a LOT when people talk about diet and arthritis is avoiding gluten. But I’ve been quite resistant to giving it up. After all, gluten is in lots of foods, and I do really love bread and toast and so I’ve never really given it a go. I already avoid sugar, meat, various dairy products and follow a low-GI diet as much as I can. Do I really want to cut out another food group?

And yet…

When I was at the Apples & Pears fitness bootcamp, my symptoms completely disappeared. Even the flares that had been ‘stuck’ in joints for weeks and months went away. Part of me is convinced that this is down to the exercise getting rid of all the stress that had built up in my body after a bereavement and having builders in the house. But another part of me also wonders – could it be down to the fact that my gluten intake during that week was very low? Or could it be a combination of the two?

Even more confusingly, when I got home, I flared up within 24 hours of getting back. It could have be the stress of being back in a builder-infested house. Or, it could have been the slices of toast that I had the evening I arrived home.  So, I decided to cut out gluten and see what happens.

It’s been ten days now since those slices of toast. The returning home flare-up disappeared soon afterwards, and I have had quite a few more pain-free days with only very mild flare ups in my fingers after a very long day at work. It’s too early to draw any real conclusions. I’m going to have to stick with it for a couple of months and monitor symptoms during that time. If I haven’t flared by then, I’ll try reintroducing gluten and see whether it triggers anything.

Justin, my partner, reflected that this whole process was a win/win situation. Either gluten triggers my symptoms – in which case, I can control (to some extent) my condition by avoiding it. OR it doesn’t. In which case I can have toast and bread again! :) Either way I win.

I am using rheumatrack, an app, to monitor my symptoms, so I will have something concrete to refer to at the end of the experiment.

So far, I haven’t found it too tricky, but I imagine it will get harder as time goes on. I know I’m going to have to be more prepared with my lunches and bringing food to events with me. Any suggestions, advice or good gluten free recipes welcome!

I promise to report back.

 

 

Body confidence

Like most women, I’ve had a pretty love/hate relationship with my body for as long as I can remember. Teenage years were full of mild amounts of self-hatred towards my breasts and belly, and general apathy towards physical exercise due to being rubbish at pretty much all sports.

While not a classic yo yo dieter – I’ve never got particularly fat, nor particularly thin – my weight has fluctuated over the years, as has my body confidence. Despite having read classic feminist texts around body image (“Fat is a Feminist Issue” and Naomi Wolf’s “Beauty Myth”) it’s really hard to completely and utterly fully shake off pervasive societal influences.

I only started to exercise properly when I was 30, and when I did, I developed a new attitude to my body. One which was around seeing my strength and stamina improve, and reaping the rewards of being properly fit when I trekked for three weeks in the mountains of Nepal – one of the greatest achievements of my life so far.

When the arthritis struck ten years ago, a whole bunch of different emotions towards my body emerged. There were negative emotions about my body letting me down, causing me pain and preventing me from fully functioning in the world. Despite years of mindfulness and meditation practice, it’s hard, even now, when a flare rears up to not feel disappointed in my body. When fatigue forces me to cancel something I wanted to do, it takes a conscious effort not to feel angry and upset with my body for letting me down.

This is why continuing to exercise has been crucial to my body and my self-image, as it’s enabled me to focus on what I could still do, rather than what I can’t. And yet… and yet, I’ve often wondered – what could my body still really do, how hard can I push it before the arthritis rebels? I haven’t done a physical challenge for a while (apart from living with arthritis, which is challenge enough), so when the opportunity came to review the Apples & Pears fitness bootcamp for Queen of Retreats, I jumped at the chance.

Lots of people pointed out that I didn’t need to lose weight, but that wasn’t the point for me. I wanted to see what I could do in a week. What I could put my body through and what I was still capable of. I was clear to myself from the outset – if I was too fatigued, or my joints were hurting too much, I’d rest, or not do the activity or exercise. The trainers were understanding and supportive, and reiterated to everyone the importance of listening to your body, and respecting its limits.

I arrived at the bootcamp, both nervous and excited. I am generally pretty fit at the moment. Despite the arthritis (or maybe because of it), I exercise most days – cycle on my bike, go to zumba classes, plus some pilates or yoga too. But would I be able to cope with six full days of exercising ALL DAY? I was also arriving in the middle of a flare – my elbow (in the tendon and joint), and in my shoulder, plus fingers flaring up and down. This meant I was extra cautious in all the weight bearing and resistance activities. The shoulder was particularly troubling as it had been constant for over a month, had been really painful and was impacting on my mobility.

On less sleep than I get at home, I found that I had enough energy to do pretty much all of the activities during the week, missing out on only a few. I swam, I boxed, I did silly relay races and team games. I played basketball (badly!), and hiked for 13 miles. I cycled, did circuits, kettle bells and used medicine balls. And at the end of each day, instead of being fatigued, out of spoons and incapable of functioning, I was only as tired as everyone else. Given that the week before, I’d had evenings where the pain had been so bad that I was too exhausted to have a conversation, this was a complete surprise.

As the week progressed, my flares even began to dissipate, and my shoulder, which had been so bad the previous week that I could not lift it above my head, actually made a full recovery. By the end of the week, I was even able to do shoulder presses and other weight bearing exercises with no apparent ill effects at all. To say I was proud, pleased and shocked was an understatement. I was blown away.

By the end of the week, I had cultivated a completely new relationship with my body, and one that had been absent for a while. I actually started to respect it. At 43, it was still pretty fit, still pretty mobile and it was able to exercise for at least six hours a day without paying me back with arthritis flares or fatigue. Yes, I was hurting – but the muscle pain caused by exercise felt like an achievement rather than a punishment.

On the last day, legs heavy from having done about a million squats, and muscles tired from six days of exercise, we walked up a hill for forty minutes, and then did a timed run of just over a mile (1.6 miles I was told). I started at a jog and I continued on from start to finish. I didn’t stop. I pushed myself as much as I could and kept going despite screaming lungs and petulant legs. Finishing (first!) at the end of the test without having stopped once was one of my biggest achievements of the week.

I’ve returned from bootcamp completely in awe of my body and what it can achieve and overcome. I love it for all of its aches, pains, faults and anomalies, for what it can do and what it can’t. I’ve learned that it can do even more than it does already in terms of exercise, and not to be scared of using weights. I’ve learned that inactivity is more likely to use up limited spoons, than activity (which is something I sort of knew anyway), and that I can be as fit and active as the next person. Most importantly I learned that I can still love who I am, (and including my limitations and my arthritis in that), from head to toe, from inside and out.

Big thanks to all the staff at Apples & Pears: Woody and Gary, Katie, Heather, Annie and Harriet.

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