I lost four hours of my life on Thursday to Moorfields Hospital A&E Department. (And I was one of the luckier ones.)
I had hurt my eye a few days prior and it wasn’t quite getting better so I thought I’d go to the optician – who was worried so referred me to hospital.
Brilliant nurses and a truly lovely doctor all pumped dye and eye drops and other ‘stuff’ into my eye and shone lots of bright lights in there for good measure.
Conclusion? Inflammation – or “iritis”. Pretty bad, but I’d live. Go away, take an intensive course of two different eye drops. The downside? I won’t be able to focus properly, or read things very well and my pupil will be permanently dilated whilst on the drops. Oh – and I can’t stop them because the inflammation “will just come back”.
Friday came and I started on the drops. By Friday night I couldn’t really fancy my dinner, but was really wanting to eat something easy, processed and sugary… so I did.
Saturday I continued to put drops in every hour. I felt OK initially (and despite the sugar intake the previous night, I wasn’t suffering with aches and pains or any overt symptoms, seemingly). But half way through the afternoon my temperature dropped and I felt a bit weird. I was also hungry, much hungrier than I ever am. That evening I ate but felt like despite being hungry I couldn’t digest food very well.
Sunday (today) and I’m walking through the local park and my saliva tastes funny, I’m feeling sick and my head aches. I’m wearing a dental orthodontic appliance (which I will write about in detail at some point) and so I assumed it was just something to do with this. Feeling worse and worse, I went to the supermarket, where I found myself absentmindedly looking at (and wanting) the Christmas Yule Logs, Cadbury’s Selection Boxes and white chocolate Toblerone.
So What Do I Normally Eat?
For context: my diet is incredibly clean, simple foods, low carb, high fat, pretty much autoimmune protocol. For many reasons, this just makes me feel much better than eating anything else and I don’t struggle to keep this up, normally.
I am non-coeliac-gluten-sensitive with a collagen disorder and histamine intolerance. I react badly to sugar and processed foods. I also have a ridiculous amount of self control and spend a good amount of time flirting with the edge of ketosis (i.e. using ketones instead of sugar for my body’s fuel source).
Eating Yule Log is NOT on my agenda… until there’s something wrong. I fall off my diet occasionally, and always to processed sugar or nut butters – and only ever when there’s an issue I am not addressing (whether that’s stress, digestive illness, emotional etc.)
I got back home, feeling very strange, and put another eye drop in. I went to the computer and swallowed… and there was that taste again, and that sickness feeling.
And it hit me. I was tasting the eyedrops. I was literally swallowing the eyedrops (all of the bodily fluids around the head area are secretions from the body which share much of the same avenues). And what are the eyedrops? A corticosteroid and an anticholinergic. I hadn’t even thought about it or looked at what on earth they were. I just followed the advice of a professional, whom I trusted – because whilst I do Functional Medicine, I know very little about blunt force trauma to my eyeball.
But I’m someone who hasn’t even taken paracetamol in over half a decade…
The Liver and Drugs and Cravings and Me
My reason for writing about this is because anyone even slightly knowledgeable about health and nutrition is used to the typical reasons we run towards the sugar cupboard: candida and gut dysbiosis causing an increased desire for sugar, or emotional problems or high stress causing us to reach for the sweet stuff. We’re also increasingly aware of insulin resistance in diabetics or the obese, where the body is crying out for sugar despite glucose being in plentiful supply. These are all really good reasons or possible explanations behind sugar cravings.
However, with me over the last few days the reason behind my hunger and weird desire for chocolate and sugar is because of the fact that my liver has been trying to metabolise a toxin. There are some voices out there lamenting toxicity, but this is mostly in the context of chronic illness and autoimmune diseases.
There are very few people openly acknowledging the dramatic – and yet very subtle – impact that toxins sometimes have. Rather than the illnesses which manifest as profound disease states, there are much smaller, everyday experiences wherein toxins change the way our bodies feel, and what our systems cry out for in order to both compensate and be able to handle the insult of the toxicity.
My system had taken a downturn because it was struggling to deal with a foreign substance that was attempting to alter the way my body functions. Not only were these drops foreign to my body, but they were trying to interrupt the normal autonomic functions of my eye: permanently preventing my eye muscles from contracting and simultaneously trying to shift my innate immune response to inflammation. Suppressing the inflammation was the focus of the doctor. Because we all know inflammation is bad, right?
My body’s response to this drug was to fall into a stressed space. Much like the stress from any other source (like the candida or emotional stress mentioned above), stress is a compromise on every physical system: the digestive system, the immune system and all the hormones and messages that go between those systems which guide how we feel and what we feel compelled to do.
Add in the fact that dealing with toxicity disrupts chemical signalling and is also an enormous energy drain on the body…
You have the perfect recipe for sugar cravings.
I didn’t slip into a disease state, but the shift in my biology changed my food cravings, my hunger sensations and my physical signalling between gut and brain. There is complex biology behind all of this to do with the liver detoxification pathways and mitochondrial metabolism when faced with substances that are toxic to the body. However, the net result of this is that within days of using something on my eye – not even taking it internally – every ‘normal’ service inside my body went sideways.
Our Toxic World
Toxins are increasingly being shown to directly impact cellular function, mitochondrial signalling and energy production and liver function. And we aren’t living in a world that is making any effort to regulate our exposure to toxins, whether environmental or chemical. Whilst we acknowledge the serious implications (in studies like those above), what about the more subtle side-effects of introducing toxins into our lives?
I often praise conventional medicine for its ability to deal with acute medicine. I say that because I feel I should pay credit where it’s due to those who have the capacity to save lives. However, I must confess I am permanently worried about the way conventional medicine treats illness. Mostly because it uses substances which are completely foreign to the body to adjust the way the body itself functions. As someone who comes from a naturopathic paradigm, and someone who truly believes in doing no harm, it is alarming that we approach something as simple as ‘inflammation’ as something that must be stopped at all costs. But it is also alarming that we use substances capable of completely interrupting physical systems to do so.
Modern medicine is based on the act of quelling symptoms. Functional Medicine is based on the art of interpreting symptoms.
The beauty of my model of healthcare is that I literally use my client’s symptoms as indicators of what messages their body is trying to tell me. My gift is to be able to help my clients understand the messages hidden within their symptom pathology and work with the answers we find.
I should have gone to the doctor to check that I hadn’t done anything stupidly serious to my eye that would require an operation, like tear my retina. When she said, “inflammation”, I should have remembered my own approach to inflammation: that it is a healthy and necessary reaction of the body in acute circumstances. My eye pain was a symptom that my body was hurt and trying to heal
I shouldn’t have chosen to use a toxic substance, a chemical and foreign substance, to try to resolve something that is a natural response.
But more specifically, I should have remembered that toxic substances to my body are a recipe for disaster. I did do one thing right, though, I listened to the second set of symptoms: the sugar cravings and the sickness and behavioural shifts. I noticed then that my body was showing me it was unhappy with how I had chosen to handle this situation.
Toxins and Cravings and You: What Should You Do?
Not everyone will be as sensitive as I am. But toxicity is everywhere around us and we are all dealing with it day in and day out. My life is relatively toxin free so I really notice the slightest exposure.
But the truth is that toxins directly affect our biology – in small, subtle ways. And biology can directly affect everything from the most basic of functions to our behaviour, mental capacity and even our thoughts themselves (Toblerone, anyone?!). Even if you aren’t as sensitive as I am, do you know for sure that toxin exposure in your own life is not affecting the way you think, feel and behave?
There are often arguments about whether those in integrative healthcare are too focused on “detox”, and “toxicity”. I must admit, I am not a fan of liver flushes, nor am I ridiculously strict with my personal care products, or insist on having a house that is entirely toxin free.
But there is no doubt that I live a relatively low-toxin life because I know the effects of the burden of toxicity on my liver and my digestive system. I have also watched mould toxicity seriously affect my health and have witnessed hormonal levels in countless clients be affected by oestrogenic compounds in what they were using in their homes and personal care regimes.
So my approach is simple – it is based on keeping my life relatively toxin free, which is mostly helped by a complete lack of processed foods. I drink masses of water, and a very naturally antioxidant diet. But I also make sure that I am aware of my body at all times… which is why I recognised what was happening to me after only a few days. I had the awareness to know that something was off, and the trust in myself to listen to those symptoms which showed me something was wrong.
And this is where I may differ from other practitioners, because I don’t believe in keeping an overly restrictive, toxin-free life is a recipe for either health or happiness. The stress of trying to maintain this can often cause the very symptoms you’re trying to quell.
Instead I focus on listening to the signals when something has gone out of line, and also in creating the right mindset, physiological resilience and immunological wellbeing to restore balance to the system when things are knocked off kilter.
The Misplaced Guilt of Cravings
The other factor to all of this is to touch back on the subject of cravings. My toxin exposure could have led to anything, but it led to cravings. The problem is that sometimes we become too ashamed to admit our cravings due to the shame and guilt that are associated with them.
Human beings find it ridiculously easy to be hard on themselves. We do a good line in guilt and self-doubt when we are witnessing our own weaknesses: whether watching our brain fog, judging our fatigue or feeling guilty for our desire for a certain substance even though we know it harms us.
I deal daily with people who feel terrible that they can’t make behavioural changes, and feel powerless. But what happens if life’s toxicities are causing these behaviours to occur, and our cravings to persist?
The problem is that “cravings” is a pejorative word which almost implies that these are a ‘bad’ thing that we should feel ashamed of. We then hide in secret, frightened about what those cravings say about us. But cravings occur as a result of something.
They are a signal and sign, much like any symptom. If we get caught up in the guilt for craving something, we lose the ability to listen to the message hidden in the craving.
Cravings are genuinely a good thing: they tell you something about your life. This is my approach to any symptom that is manifesting in mine and/or my clients’ lives. As practitioners, they are sometimes our most important and relevant diagnostic tools. But they are only good and useful if you listen – and understanding and interpreting the storyline associated with the symptoms is what a good Functional Medicine Practitioner is there to do.
So if you’re struggling with yourself, wondering why you can’t change and challenging yourself endlessly about what makes you do what you do – it may be worth considering that you aren’t an island, but instead are faced with many situations, interactions, experiences and toxins that could be piling stress into your system which you’re not equipped to handle. Perhaps your cravings and behaviours stem from your body’s cries to alert you to the fact that something is not right. Rather than judge yourself, I wonder if it would be worth considering whether you’re dealing with a load you cannot handle, and your body is just trying to tell you that.
If you’re wondering whether toxins could be playing a role for you, or whether there is some other load or burden that you need to identify, perhaps start with watching Dave Asprey’s Moldy movie (it’s American) or looking in your medicine cabinet or the products that you come into contact with every day.
And if you need some help trying to understand the messages your body is trying to send you with its symptoms, finding a practitioner who can help interpret these is always a great first step to developing the ability to listen to your own body and begin to learn how your body is trying to communicate with you. If you’d like to reach out to me to help you with that process, just head to my enquiries page, or click here to email me directly.