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Week 5 - Physical Health - A Pause for Reflection

(If you’ve arrived here and want to know a little more about me, Margaret, and the background to this project this 3-minute introductory read is for you. You can also see my other Posts in the Wellness Project series here. These are my personal views. I'm just an interested, serious, lay person with no medical or scientific qualifications. I’m very open to learn and rethink things).

If you read my Week 2 Post - My Wellness List - (thank you!) you'll have seen that Physical Health is on my list of wellness topics to explore, rather obviously. In this Post I was planning to talk about the physical wellness related things I'd like to measure/test/check and keep an eye on in the expectation, or hope, that doing so could benefit my health. However, as I've mulled this over whilst walking the dogs or making lunch, I've realised that first I need to take a step back and reflect on a couple of important subjects.

How I actually feel today.

How learning more about my physical health may affect me.

I don't want to leap to blood test results, sleep scores and DEXA scans without putting these tools into context and considering how helpful the results might be to me. So, this Post is an unscheduled but utterly valid personal pause to examine those two topics.

How do I feel?

My (lovely) Dad used to rail against things, sometimes for no apparent reason. Amongst his pet hates were round robin letters in Christmas cards about little Archie getting his grade 9 violin etc. Every time I send one of our Manoir Mouret Newsletters I think about this! Another was Drs asking "How do you feel, in yourself?" The "in yourself" bit was the problem here for my Dad...pause...start rail.

But perhaps there's some logic to this question. Perhaps before asking any other question about what to measure or scan we should pause and really ask ourselves "How do I feel, in myself?"

I've been reflecting on this. I'm actually in a very fortunate position in that my life today, and for the last 3 or 4 years, has given me the time and opportunity to tune in to how I feel physically and the things that improve and detract from my feelings of physical wellbeing. Jack and I use a guided app (Headspace) for a short daily mediation and this includes a prompt to consider how my body feels and me silently scanning from head to toe to take an inventory. Quite a revealing exercise over a period of several months.

This January I kicked off the year doing Dr Will Bulsiewicz's 21 Day Microbiome Challenge. Basically a lot of focus on poop and how to help achieve a 3 or 4 (if you know, you know)! He's a serious gastroenterologist trying to help improve gut health through diet and lifestyle. The course shared a huge amount of good quality information (all for 37$). He's also the US Medical Director for Zoe. Anyway, we'll talk more about gut health later, but during the course Dr B mentioned microbiome testing, briefly and with no hard sell. He said the most important 1st step was to really understand how our gut (yes, including poop) felt and to keep a record of this so we have a baseline to see if and how adding say more fibre to our meals or drinking more water changes things. He said there was no reason, other than interest, to invest in microbiome (poop) analysis if all the physical signals tell us that our gut is healthy. "Poop" is Dr B's chosen word.

Thanks to the changes I've made to my lifestyle over recent years, I feel better than I have in decades, possibly my whole adult life. Sadly much of this improvement is because I was coming from a pretty low base. I didn't prioritise my health enough when I was younger and living a life which was much more stressful, sleep deprived and time poor. I can't have a "re-do" on those years but the memory of that time does help me appreciate the challenges for many people and how fortunate I am now.

I currently feel well. When I have a headache or some aches or low energy I can feel the difference. This helps me work through what could be causing the problem. Often it's something logical like I'm a bit dehydrated or I need more anti-inflammatory foods or I've had a poor night's sleep. I'm absolutely not complacent and, of course, feeling well isn't proof or a guarantee that I am physically well. In fact I received an email this morning from my medical insurance association (here in France) encouraging me to participate in all the cancer screening provided even when I'm in good health "Cancers : se faire dépister même quand on est en bonne santé", but such screening is for discussion in a subsequent Post.

A cautionary tale

On a normal working day when I was in my late 30s I woke up with no feeling down the right side of my face or in my right hand. I was also jumbling my words, just a little, thinking one word but in fact saying another without realising it. I definitely didn't feel right "in myself".

The issues continued so I went to my local GP (we were living in the UK at the time). The GP brushed me off completely - no diagnosis, no advice or follow up. I could get very vocal at this point about how many of my female friends have equivalent and indeed much more serious stories of being patronised and ignored when they had real health issues but that's not what this Post is about (perhaps for later?). I knew there was something wrong and went back to the GP taking Jack with me to make sure the GP took me (or at least Jack) seriously. A subsequent consultation with a neurologist was no better. He didn't look up from his desk and said to Jack, "oh I see your wife is 60" (late 30s remember, date of birth written on my notes - Jack's still furious). Anyway, an MRI identified that I'd had a brain haemorrhage from a cavernoma (a deformity in my brain). The cavernoma was, and still is, inoperable due to its rather tricky location. It took about 6 months for me to feel fully well again. The cavernoma still puts a kink in my step every so often by bleeding. I have made sure that I now have a much better doctor and neurologist!

So the point of this cautionary tale is, the better we know ourselves physically the better able we will be to be powerful, persistent advocates when we feel that something is wrong and the professionals may miss important things.

How may learning more about my health affect me?

This is a great question to ask and our answers will be unique to each of us. I've thought about this for a while. My conclusion is that I'd rather have more information about my health even if this risks sending me down some investigations which are dead ends and even if the problem revealed is something I can't do anything about. In either case my current view is that I'd rather know than not know.

Why does that conclusion feel right for me? I'm quite nerdy and curious by nature. I'm not a particularly anxious person. Knowing about my cavernoma (see my cautionary tale above) hasn't caused me to worry or change my life other than perhaps to nudge me to try to be in good health to deal with the consequences of any future bleeds. However, I appreciate that this is a very personal choice. Dr Peter Attia in his great book Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity talks insightfully about needing to carefully counsel his patients to consider how they might react if say a fully body MRI shows some unexplained results which might need more interventions to diagnose even if ultimately there is nothing harmful going on. Would the stress of the known unknown be worse than the unknown unknown (to channel Donald Rumsfeld).

The UK doctor and health influencer Dr Rangan Chatterjee has also talked on his podcast about the potential unintended negative consequences of wellness technology such as wearables. For example, a sleep tracker which only serves to highlight to an anxious insomniac how poor their sleep is may be counterproductive. Anyone with a current or former eating disorder might need to be extra careful around some measures and wearables. I've been concerned recently by the social media around blood glucose. Some influencers use imagined illustrations of "spikes" in blood glucose levels (presumably as shown by a continuous blood glucose monitor) to tell us about catastrophic effects on our health without context or nuance. Dietician Reene McGregor is an expert in the field of sports nutrition and disordered eating and has deeply considered resources in this area on her website.

I can be a little obsessive on topics once I get the bit between my teeth (you may have spotted that already!!). I'll need to watch that if I do discover some new facts about my health that need further investigation or if I become too focused on say a sleep tracker or other monitor. I'll also ask Jack to give me a supportive talking to if I appear to be disappearing down a proverbial rabbit hole in any area (which I undoubtedly will at some point).

Some measures typically used to assess physical health can be demotivating for me such as body weight and body composition. I'd like to explore the reasons why this is and to try to change my instinctual negative reaction if the measures could be helpful to me.

My Week 5 Take Aways

  • Being in tune with our bodies and knowing how we feel is important.

  • If we think something feels physically off, we're probably right. It's always worth looking for a cause and solution, however small the niggle or big the possible problem.

  • Think carefully about how the use of monitors and/or the results of health tests (or even the act of having a test) will affect you before you dive in and start measuring and testing.

  • Perhaps have a friend or coach to talk through what you plan to measure/test and why, to give you a sounding board and to share your thoughts with.

Thanks for reading, Margaret

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