At the risk of hitting readers round the head by taking the liberty of writing an ‘Intro 2’ at these early stages (honestly who do I think I am?) I would just like to briefly differentiate between the two health struggles I’ve been dealing with and clarify the details a little further-
1st - Osteoarthritis (OA)
2nd - Autonomic nervous system disfunction (ANSD)
As I said in the previous post – the two absolutely contributed to one another, both accelerating the negative decline of the other, but they are at their roots, two separate ‘issues’.
The first, Osteoarthritis (OA), I developed around 10 years old. It can be simplified down to being a ‘mechanical issue’, an internal physical problem requiring a physical ‘solution’, for me, surgery. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of Arthritis, often referred to as ‘wear and tear’ of a joint. It occurs when the cartilage of a joint breaks down leaving the bones exposed to rub against each other resulting in deterioration, bone deformity and inflammation. Its degenerative, incredibly painful and takes a real toll on your emotional health.
The Second, Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction (ANSD) ‘started’ two years ago and was a result of multiple, internal and external factors. ANSD is when the body goes into ‘survival mode’, a continuous state of ‘fight-or-flight’ or extreme stress. When your body lives in this state for too long it begins to shut-down what it deems as ‘nonessential energy expenditures’ in order to preserve and direct all of its resources to a perceived ‘threat’.
ANSD is a little more complicated so I’m going to do my best to explain it in a some more detail -
So, your body senses danger and shuts off functions it deems as unnecessary or harmful in a fight-or flight situation, directing all of its energy to fight the ‘threat’ so you can survive. You see the saber-toothed tiger, pool all of your energy to run away and hopefully reach your cave and gobble down your berries (a very reductive way to describe our ancestors daily struggle and strife but you get the idea) Sounds pretty smart right? Yes, but ...
The ‘nonessential functions’ your body shuts off are things like digestion, hormone balance and reproductive function, metabolism regulation, temperature control, heart rate, sleep, hair growth etc etc! Having experienced this, I would seriously question their categorisation as ‘nonessential’ but I’m trying to build a healthy, symbiotic relationship with my body again so … zen, clam, breathe, no blame … (bright red face, steam coming out of ears)
And the ‘threat’? Well, what happens to the body when the danger isn't immediate? But rather long-term, chronic physical and emotional stress? This was the case for me - a slow build up, retrospectively full of micro-warning signs but ones that would go unnoticed or unidentified, muddled in amongst all of the expected and tolerated stressors or 'threats' of modern living, tipping my body over from homeostasis to continuous 'fight mode'. Our bodies are effectively blind when it comes to our immediate physical responses and cannot differentiate between all the varying types of threat, regardless of the imminency. Throughout our evolution we have maintained the same biochemical processes to help ensure our survival but the landscape and form of our threats have morphed and changed, and this is the realm I have found myself in. Right instincts, wrong execution. Some modern threats require a more long-term fight, a fight of endurance and resilience, rather than an explosive sprint for safety. If you're privileged like me, death isn't necessarily the danger, but a combination of multiple stressors.
I’ve broken them down very simply here but will explore them in far more detail later.
. Existential threats - Who am I? Am I achieving enough? Where’s my life going?
. Personal threats – Work stress, money, relationships, boilers broken … again
. Physical threats – Poor health, environmental disasters, accidents and injuries etc
. Societal threats - Reverence for individualist living, break down of community, social media pressures, comparison culture, anxiety epidemic
Biochemically, when our body senses a potential danger or threat, we release a stress hormone called Cortisol. The power and affect this hormone has on the body, and the potential fallout it has when there is a dysregulation in its supply are demand, are immense and vastly underestimated. Prior to experiencing ANSD I had no idea there even was such a thing, and I fear that many people may be unknowingly exhausting and overusing this hormone as a direct result of the overwhelming stresses in our modern lives. Because they are so overwhelming. They may have shape-shifted form, and over the course of evolution, may even feel like we’ve eliminated some of the immediacy the dangers pose to our health and safety (lions, tigers and bears) but I would argue that the dangers have not depleted, but have in fact, grown. Like looking at the molecules of a virus under a microscope, they have multiplied and multiplied into thousands of microscopic particles, which are potentially more harmful and widespread to us as individuals and as a society.
I would like to add that whilst some of threats I mentioned above played their part for me, I also, unintentionally turned my fight inward. The way in which I lost weight was rapid, naive and harmful to my body. Driven by fear of my condition and the operation, lifelong poor self-esteem and a need for control and purpose whilst living through the pandemic I treated my body poorly and unfortunately am now paying the price. As I say, it was always in the pursuit of health (ironically) and a desperate desire to love myself, or at the very least, respect myself. In a nut shell, I under ate and overexercised, doesn't sound like to serious a crime does it? But along the way, I unknowingly forced my body into surviving on adrenalin and cortisol. I cut out essential food groups (good fats, carbohydrates), I skipped and replaced meals and increased my exercise exponentially. Shockingly, for a time, I felt good, my energy levels were high, I was happy and more confident, and people told me I was looking better, but my digestive function basically stopped. Unsure of what to do I started taking over the counter laxatives which obviously provided me immediate results allowing me to continue with my routine. But overtime I stripped and changed my gut microbiome, which is having severe consequences on my overall health today. My periods also became lighter and eventually stopped altogether, but honestly, having come from the periods that used to make me vomit with pain, what did I do? Nothing. In fact I loved it. I thought it was great, what a relief to be free of them! I felt lighter and liberated and as I said, better than I ever had. But I was depleting my fight reserves by asking my body to consistently function on so little whilst increasing the demand so much. It was stupid. But I can't blame myself (despite having done so many, many times). I reacted moment to moment to my body, if it wasn't doing something - I gave it something to work, if it felt okay to do something, I did more of it. And I kept going like that until it didn't work anymore. I can't be more critical of myself other than saying I was naive and acting under a huge amount of pressure of misinformation.
I will go into more detail of my personal road to ANSD at a later date. There are many factors I haven't mentioned such as the role of antibiotics, NSAIDS, endometriosis which have all contributed as well.
And for now, I'll leave that there. As I say, I’m still learning about the science of ANSD and fear I am attempting to explain something far beyond my rather limited understanding and comprehension. But to round off:
. I have two ‘conditions’ – Osteoarthritis (OA) and Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction (ANSD)
. They are separate but some of the ‘threats’ associated with OA - waiting for and undergoing surgery during a global pandemic, chronic pain, rapid weight loss, over-exercising, poor nutrition etc are all ‘stressors’ that contributed to putting my body into a heightened cortisol state.
. We all produce cortisol, it is a wonderful, necessary hormone to help regulate our bodies functions but when levels are too high or become unbalanced, the affects can be devastating.
. I will explore both conditions separately in more detail but also their cross-overs
. High cortisol levels are, I believe, especially dangerous for female health, with their effects on the reproductive system – I am going to be posting soon about ‘red flags’ to look out for and tips on how to avoid, manage and heal from ANSD.
And if I can leave you with one general takeaway for cortisol balance you can do immediately! – do something today after reading this that is just for you and solely you! Doesn’t matter what it is – go for a walk, take yourself for a coffee, hell a glass of wine! Have a bath, watch a film or shit TV, anything that brings stress hormones down and serotonin (happy hormones) up – without judgement, without no pressure on it being an Instagram version of ‘good for you’ - if £20 candles, yoga mats and ridiculous skin routines aren't either affordable or your type of self-care it doesn't matter, just anything that genuinely brings your mind a little peace and your body a little balance ... I'll be at the pub if anyone needs me ...
Thank you for reading !