The Top 9 Things I Do To Sleep Better At Night Despite Chronic Pain & Fibromyalgia

Do you feel like ‘the Princess and the Pea’ when you try to get a restful sleep? Here are my top 9 recommendations for improving your quality of sleep if you live with fibromyalgia, chronic pain or chronic illness.After being my own guinea pig, I wanted to share the most effective non-drug, natural solutions I’ve found to beating ‘painsomnia’.

Top 5 Things I Do to Sleep Better Despite Fibro and Pain

The never ending search for a good night’s sleep… if you have fibromyalgia, chronic pain, or chronic illness, you know what I’m talking about. Getting a good night’s sleep is one of my biggest challenges day-to-day. Almost everyone living with FM (or CFS, chronic pain or another chronic illness) can relate to this struggle. There seem to be so many obstacles to getting a full night of restful sleep:

  • pain
  • changes in how the brain regulates sleep/wake cycles (researchers have found that Fibromyalgia patients have disordered deep sleep – intrusions of ‘alpha waves’ associated with light sleep during deep sleep ‘delta waves’)
  • hormonal changes, such as reduced production of growth hormone, responsible for night time tissue repair
  • increased environmental sensitivity, such as to light or sound

Like a lot of other people with fibromyalgia, getting enough sleep is probably the single most important factor that determines my quality of life. In my case, I need to get about 9 hours of sleep to be able to function the next day. If I don’t, I am miserably exhausted and everything seems to go wrong – pain goes up, mood goes down and brain fog sets in.

A few years ago I did a sleep study. Before we move on, I would like to just say, for the record, that sleep studies really should be classified as a modern form of torture – what else can you call being forcibly held in place by many restraining wires, while watched through a Big Brother camera by the night guard, err, nurse?

Anyway, moving on… My sleep study showed that I woke up 66 times during the night, or about 14.3 times per hour. In addition, it found that my sleep efficiency was very low, at 64.5% (total time I was actually sleep divided by the time I lay in the bed). Basically, like many other people with chronic pain or illness, I’m just not getting a very restful sleep.

Over the years, I have tried countless supplements, medications, lifestyle changes, products and strategies to help me get a better night’s sleep. While most of these turned out to be ineffective, a number of them have significantly improved the quality of my sleep. I thought it might be helpful to share the results of being my own experimental guinea pig with you!

Quiet Down: Reducing Noise Distractions for Better Sleep

I think I might have actually become the world’s lightest sleeper since I developed fibromyalgia. I get woken up by trucks going by, my husband’s snoring, early commuters closing their car doors, my cat cleaning herself, my husband’s snoring, snowplough machines, dripping faucets, my husband’s snoring… You get the picture. Sudden noises are the bane of any insomniac’ s existence. Even if you don’t actually get woken up by a disruptive sound, it can disturb your sleep by shifting you from deep, restorative sleep into a lighter stage of sleep (Prevention). This is especially problematic for people with fibromyalgia, who already get less restorative sleep than the average person because of their illness.

1) Silicone earplugs: The first thing I tried to block out sound was, of course, earplugs. I tried all different kinds, and eventually settled on silicone earplugs. You might recognize these as a type of earplug used by some people when they go swimming to prevent swimmer’s ear infections. Instead of putting these plugs into the ear canal, the silicone molds to cover and seal the entrance to the ear canal. Personally, I find them more comfortable and effective than regular foam earplugs. For regular use, I think silicone earplugs are safer because there is less worry about damage from impacted earwax (caused by frequently pushing something into the ear canal).

2) White noise: But what if earplugs aren’t enough? This is where white noise enters the picture. White noise is a sound that contains many frequencies at the same intensity, like the sound of a fan, rainfall, or static on the radio (Prevention). By providing a constant, soothing background sound, white noise can blanket or drown out disruptive sounds that wake light sleepers. It works by reducing the noise differential between background noise and the disruptive sound – if the background sound is just silence, then a disruptive noise is very jarring, but if the background sound is white noise, then a disruptive sound is, well, less disruptive.

At first I wasn’t sure how adding noise would help me sleep better, when noise is what frequently wakes me up. But I found that I quickly adapted to the constant sound of the white noise. Best of all, I stopped being woken up by sudden noises!

Initially, I tried a number of free apps to play white noise on my phone. This is a good option to find out if white noise works for you. Over time, I found that my phone wasn’t able to play white noise loud enough to mask sounds like the neighbour’s leaf blower. Additionally, the app would sometimes cut out in the middle of the night and wake me up (yes, even sudden silence is enough to wake me). That’s when I found my new best friend, the LectroFan white noise machine. It is a small white machine that plays 10 types of white noises and 10 fan sounds. I really appreciated that it has a precise volume control so you can incrementally increase it to the right sound volume for you, and it can play a surprisingly loud sound for such a small machine. The best part is that it has an option to play continuously, instead of having an automatic shut off after a set period of time, like many other machines. Now, I’m never anxious that sudden sounds will wake me up because I know I can mask them with the white noise machine.

Lights Off: Why Darkness is Better for Sleep

Your body’s sleep-wake cycle is governed by light and dark. Darkness cues production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to get you ready for a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, artificial light can suppress the production of melatonin, which makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep (National Sleep Foundation). One of the simplest and most effective things you can do to improve your sleep is to reduce exposure to artificial light at night and early sunrise in the morning (unless you prefer to get up at the crack of dawn). Absolute darkness is an insomniac’s best friend. Here are the tips I have found most effective reduce light exposure:

3) Black-out Blinds: if you aren’t familiar with them, blackout blinds are made of specially treated material prevents light passing through them. In my experience, they’re one of the most effective ways to keep my room dark enough for a better night’s sleep. Whether streetlights, headlights or sunlight keep you up, blackout blinds are one of the best solutions. You can even buy portable black-out blinds for home or travel. Heavy drapes or curtains can also keep your room dark. Since I usually need to sleep in relatively late in the morning in order to get enough sleep to last through the day, blackout blinds have been a saving grace because they keep the sunlight out. However, it’s important to open all your drapes and curtains and blinds when you to get up, because sunlight in the morning helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.

4) Sleep mask: in addition to blackout blinds, I often also use a sleep mask. That might seem like overkill, but indoor artificial light is another sleep disruptor for me. The lights from digital clocks, nightlights, computers/TVs, someone else making a midnight trip to the washroom, and many other sources can wake me up.

5) Blue Light Filter: Different wavelengths of light affect your brain differently. Researchers have found that blue light, which has a short wavelength, suppresses the release of melatonin to a greater extent than other wavelengths of light (National Sleep Foundation). Blue light is given off by electronics like computers and cell phones, as well as energy-efficient light bulbs. If you use one of these devices shortly before going to bed, you will probably find it more difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. The best option is to simply turn off all of these electronics a couple of hours before going to sleep. The next best option is to install a blue light filter on your phone/tablet. By reducing the emission of blue light, you can reduce the negative impact of using the device on your sleep. Some phones come preinstalled with a blue light filter, like the Samsung Galaxy, but there are blue light filter apps for every type of phone or tablet. Often you can preset the filter to turn on automatically at a certain time in the evening, so you don’t even have to think about it.

Strange Bedfellows: Coping with ‘Painsomnia’

If you live with chronic pain, you have probably endured countless sleepless nights. Because insomnia often accompanies pain, the term ‘painsomnia’ was coined to describe this struggle. When my pain flares up, I sometimes see my bedroom as a torture chamber rather than on oasis of rest! After much experimentation, here are my recommendations for making your bed more comfortable so you can sleep better at night:

6) Neck Pillow: Personally, without a supportive neck pillow, I develop serious neck pain and migraines. Orthopedic or ergonomic neck pillows are often designed in a contoured wave-like form, and support the natural alignment of the head, neck and spine. If you sleep on your side, there are specially designed contour pillows for you (usually advertized in the product description). Materials like memory foam, latex or bamboo fibre help provide consistent, durable support. Orthopedic neck pillows are more costly than regular pillows,. In my experience, though, buying one is totally worth it! Pillows should be replaced every 1-2 years.

7) Customize Your Mattress: I’m pretty sure the ‘Princess and the Pea’ fairytale was written about a girl with fibromyalgia. A bed can feel like some sort of torture device to someone trying to sleep with chronic pain. I recently had to buy a new mattress because my nighttime back pain was too much to bear. In the process, I learned that there are  many decently affordable online mattress vendors. Once you’ve selected a mattress, they ship it to you in a surprisingly small box, and give you a three month trial. If you decide to return it, you get your money back and the pickup service to retrieve the mattress is free. It was such a relief to know that I had enough time to test out my new mattress and, if I decided to return it, I didn’t need to worry about the cost.

8) Heated Mattress Pad: Unfortunately sometimes even the best mattress can feel uncomfortable to someone with chronic pain. My muscles become very tense at night while I sleep, and I often wake up quite stiff or with a muscle spasm.  One of the best things I have discovered for improving my sleep quality is the existence of heated mattress pads. A mattress pad looks like a regular fitted sheet but it has small wires woven into the material that release a gentle heat. You can’t feel the wires at all, at least not sleeping on the heated mattress pad that I bought. There is a bedside dial that you use to adjust the heat level, and if you buy a queen-size one or larger, each side of the mattress pad has a separate dial for you and your partner. Sleeping on the gentle heat of the mattress pad all night has definitely reduced the number of muscles pain flare-ups I experience. I am less stiff and less sore when I get up in the morning, and I sleep better overall.

9) Mattress Topper: Another option to make your mattress more comfortable is to use a mattress topper – an extra layer to provide additional support while you sleep. I previously used a memory foam mattress topper on my old mattress, which I found helped to relieve pressure points by contouring to my specific shape. Another mattress topper option is the CuddleEwe, which uses specialty wool, and is designed to relieve pressure on your body contact points when lying down (ex. shoulders and hips) by diffusing weight better than a mattress can.

(This post contains affiliate links, but recommendations are based on my own opinions and have been in no way influenced by third parties. Anything you purchase through the affiliate links helps to support this blog, so if you are planning on doing some retail therapy anyway, consider clicking on the in-text links).

 

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Chronic Blog Round-up: 6 Insightful Blog Posts About Celebrating the Holidays With a Chronic Illness

Chronic Blog Round-up: 6 Insightful Blog Posts About Celebrating the Holidays With a Chronic Illness

Chronic illness complicates holiday celebrations. Trying to prioritize self-care while also participating in the holiday season is, at best, a tricky balancing act. Recently I wrote about how I use mindfulness meditation to get the most of this time of the year – to stay present, savour the good moments and manage stress.  I often turn to the collective wisdom of the blogosphere to learn how others approach the challenges of life with a chronic illness. I wanted to share a few of the insightful posts that I’ve read written by chronic illness bloggers. Some of them share helpful strategies and important ways to manage expectations so you can enjoy this time of the year. Others provide valuable insights that validated my own thoughts and feelings about what the holiday season is really like for people with chronic health conditions. I hope you get as much out of  reading them as I did!

Disabled Diva: Six Ways to Dominate Christmas With a Chronic Illness

More than just practical tips for getting through the holiday season, this post suggests great ideas for changing your  expectations about how to celebrate. For example, it asks whether you’re wearing yourself out trying to re-create past Christmas memories. I definitely fall into this trap every year! The suggestion to create new traditions that fit that are workable for someone with a chronic illness is really great advice.

My Brain Lesion and Me: A Christmas Symbol of Life With Chronic Illness

This lovely little post describes how a snowflake is the perfect holiday symbol for life with chronic illness. The experience we each have with chronic illness is as unique and individual as a snowflake. There are several important lessons this symbol can teach us, including that comparing ourselves with other people is an unproductive exercise.

Chronic Mom: 5 Gifts People With Chronic Pain Really Want This Year 

This post talks about the non-material gifts that people with chronic illness wish they could receive – like having their boundaries respected or not being criminalized for taking opioids to manage chronic pain. Raising awareness about the social changes that need to be made to really accommodate people with invisible illnesses is important because, really – that would be the best gift of all.

My Medical Musings: A Merry Little Chronic Christmas

I thought this post really captured the ambivalence that people with chronic illness may feel about the holidays – we hope we’ll be able to enjoy the plans that we’ve made, but we feel anxious that our symptoms will get in the way. Many people with chronic illness will be having a quiet Christmas or other holiday celebration. And while this can be truly enjoyable, we can miss the get-togethers and festive preparations going on around us.

ME/CFS Self-Help Guru: The Alternative Spoonie Gift Guide

If you care about someone with a chronic illness, this post describes the best way you can give your love and understanding to them this holiday season. For example, how to connect with them when a traditional holiday event just isn’t possible. This post really puts into words what I want to communicate to family members and friends this time of the year in a clear and thoughtful way.

Feasting on Joy: When Holidays with Chronic Illness are Hard: How to Find Rest and Survive Them 

This post is a very thorough guide to getting the most out of your celebrations this holiday season. It shares a mix of practical tips and important realizations for balancing rest and purposeful activities. This post is written from a Christian perspective on celebrating Christmas, yet I think the realization that intentionally focusing the activities you do choose on what is most meaningful to you can be helpful to anyone with a chronic illness celebrating a holiday. Prioritizing self-care and rest can take several forms and this post describes several useful strategies.

May your days be merry and bright this holiday season and may you be surrounded by the people you care about most! xx

Your Mindful Guide to Surviving The Holiday Season With a Chronic Illness

Celebrating the holiday season presents many challenges for people with chronic illness, which can be very stressful. I’d like to share three easy mindfulness practices that have helped me to not only survive the holiday season, but get the most out of it. Mindfulness  is a practice of “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Your Mindful Guide to Surviving the Holidays

It’s early December and that means we’re about to crash straight into the holiday season. As the shortest days of the year approach, many of us are anticipating gluttonous feasting, exchanging gifts, enjoying the company of family and friends and celebrating everything we have to be grateful for this year. Others are also anxious about the hectic schedule, financial strain or encountering certain crazy relatives (most families have at least one).

Chronic illness can complicate the holiday season further. Some people with chronic conditions feel like their family members don’t fully understand their limitations. Even the pressure to “just stay a little bit longer” or “pop by for a short visit” can cause us to push through when we really need to pull back – often resulting in a flare later on. If there are underlying conflicts with family members or friends, then spending a lot of time together attempting forced cheerfulness can also add stress. Constant fatigue, brain fog, food intolerances and pain can make frequent, large get-togethers focused around eating quite challenging, to say the least! Somehow we’re supposed to do it all without crashing from fatigue, badly flaring or getting a virus.

How To Get the Most Out of the Holidays By Using Mindfulness to  Manage the Stress

The consequence of having too much to do and too little time to do it in is stress. The symptoms of emotional and cognitive overload that accompany stress worsens chronic illness and  is a real challenge to manage this time of year. Emotional stress symptoms include irritability, anxiety, and low mood. Cognitive overload results in having trouble remembering things, difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness and constantly ruminating on what’s bothering you. If you find yourself feeling this way during the month of December, you’re not alone! My question this time of year is: how do I get through all of the challenges in order to be able to enjoy the holiday season?

I’ve come across many helpful posts challenges written by bloggers with chronic illnesses explaining how we can pace ourselves through the holidays, delegate responsibilities, adjust expectations and mitigate potential challenges. I’d like to contribute one more strategy for surviving the holiday season with a chronic illness – mindfulness.

I’m not talking about anything new-agey, religious or fringe. Mindfulness is a practical, evidenced-based approach to managing stress and reducing the symptoms of chronic illness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine, mindfulness means “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Meditation is a way to practice being mindfully present. During meditation, the aim is to focus our attention by concentrating on a particular object, like breathing,  scanning the body, or repeating a mantra. Inevitably, we lose focus and become distracted by thoughts, worries, plans or emotions. When we realize this has happened, we gently bring our awareness back to the present moment – this breath, this moment.

“That sounds great,” you might say, “but the last thing I have time for is learning mindfulness meditation right now.” Do you have five minutes a day to watch television? Then you have five minutes to sit and listen to a guided mindfulness practice. Just sit. Just breathe. Just listen. That’s it. Here are three easy mindfulness practices that have helped me to not only survive the holiday season, but get the most out of it.

1) Take A Mindful Pause

One of the first casualties of a hectic schedule is time to process your experiences. The brain needs rest so that it can effectively take in information, process emotions and make good decisions. Otherwise we can become mentally and emotionally overloaded by trying to push through the stress and get on to the next thing. Mindfulness is a switch from the ‘doing mode’ (thinking, planning, worrying, shopping, baking, visiting… you get the idea) to the ‘being mode’ (think watching a sunset or savouring the taste of a great meal). Taking a few mindful breaks throughout the day gives us the mental rest we need to prevent becoming overwhelmed.

A mindful break can be as little as 1 minute but is usually 3 to 5 minutes. It involves intentionally shifting your attention to just sitting and breathing in the present moment. This year I’m planning on incorporating these pauses into my day. If I’m visiting, I might take a few extra minutes in the washroom just to breathe. Even if there’s nothing I need to do on a particular day, mindful breaks can still help reduce anxiety about future tasks and plans I’m worried about, by bringing me back to the present. The Free Mindfulness Project offers a number of excellent guided mindful pause meditations to download (as well as longer mindfulness meditations).

One of my favourite meditation teachers finishes his guided mindful break meditation by asking “what’s the next best thing you can do for myself right now?” Sometimes you can’t solve all your future worries but you can do something to improve things right now, such as making a cup of tea or delegating a task.

2) Put Love & Kindness at the Centre of Your Holiday Celebration This Year

Every year I face a battle with my own expectations about what the holidays should be like. It’s very easy to internalize expectations about what you ought to be able to do and feel guilty if you can’t live up to those self-imposed standards. Maybe you wish you could give your kids the perfect Christmas morning, go to every holiday party you’re invited to or cook the perfect traditional meal for your entire extended family. When you have to cut back on your activities, it can be hard to feel like you’re letting down some of the people you care about most in order to look after your health.

Unrealistic expectations, whether internalized or externalized, only cause unnecessary stress. Instead of trying to have a holiday worthy of a Lifetime movie, what if we refocus our energy on putting love, kindness, gratitude and giving at the centre of our celebrations? These practices can be incorporated into traditional family celebrations – like this idea of having each family member dedicating an ornament to something they are grateful for before hanging it on the tree.

But how do you stay in the spirit of the season despite the pressure of expectations? The ‘loving-kindness meditation’ can help you deepen compassion, and increase your feeling of connectedness to the people around you. In the guided meditation, we are invited to focus on our feelings of love and compassion for people we are close to by repeating wishes for their health, happiness and well-being (“May they be happy, may they be healthy, may they be free from suffering, may they be peaceful”). Then, we extend those feelings to strangers and people we may have difficult relationships with. Finally, we practice extending love and kindness to ourselves – a powerful and important component of the practice, especially if we are feeling guilt over our limitations. Here is an additional guided practice, along with the script, from Mindful Magazine.

3) Take in the Good

Are you more likely to remember compliments or criticism?  If you’re like most people, you pick the latter.  That is because the human brain has a built in “negativity bias”, which allows us to learn from and protect ourselves from bad experiences. Unfortunately, it can also make us stressed and anxious. During December, I often spend most of my time worrying about how I will make it through all my plans . Once it’s over, I sometimes feel like I’ve missed out on enjoying the best moments because I was worried about the next thing. One way to rewire your brain so that it takes positive experiences into account, along with the negative, is to be intentional about what Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good”. This is akin to the old saying to “stop and smell the roses”. But exactly how do you go about making this a habit?

The first step is to be mindful of positive moments (to notice the roses) – the warmth of a good fire, sharing a laugh with loved ones, the taste of turkey and mashed potatoes. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help with this part, but you can also just start with the intention to take in the good today. Second, pause for 20-30 seconds and focus your attention on savouring the experience, instead of moving on to the next thing. Then, let the positive experience sink into you.  You can do this by visualizing a warm feeling spreading through your torso or by mentally recognizing that by doing this exercise you’re rewiring your brain to tilt towards positive experiences.

If you do this several times a day, you can change the neural pathways in your brain so that positive experiences are ‘registered’ more in your overall outlook on the day.  This practice has been really helpful for my mental and emotional health while I deal of the challenges of chronic illness. Sometimes symptoms get in the way no matter how much pacing or stress management we practice. This can be disappointing. But I have found that taking in the good and enjoying the small moments really helps me to balance out the disappointments. One year I was too sick to leave home and had to miss Christmas Day with my family, but eating homemade cookies at home, with the tree lit up, while watching a Christmas movie was still a nice, cozy evening.

 

 

Chronic Illness & Pets: The Healing Power of Hope

Did you know that spending time around pets can reduce pain and improve mood? But more than that – through their affection and antics – they give us a sense of optimism and hope for the day ahead. The slow-paced life that comes with chronic illness means we can give them companionship and endless cuddles. It’s a perfect match!

Chronic illness and pets

Two days ago this cutie came to live with us and we couldn’t be more excited. Her name is Sarah and she’s an affectionate, but shy, two-year-old grey tabby. Her arrival felt like a ray of sunshine on a grey day.

sarah

Pets enrich our lives and the benefits can be measured in health improvements: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets… can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. They can also increase opportunities for getting exercise and engaging in outdoor activities, as well as provide more opportunities for socializing with others” (Confronting Chronic Pain). In particular, contact with animals been found to benefit people living with chronic pain. For example, visits with therapy dogs at a pain management clinic was found to reduce pain and emotional distress in patients, as well as improve the emotional well-being of friends and family members who were there with them (Confronting Chronic Pain). Pets help reduce pain and stress, as well as giving their humans companionship, and a sense of purpose.

IMG_20170409_102413

Four months ago we had to put our lovely 18-year-old cat Lily to sleep. She was originally my husband’s cat and we all moved in together about five years ago. Lily with fiercely loyal and affectionate. Initially she didn’t think much of me because I took up too much of my husband’s attention. Her modus operandi was nonviolent resistance – she never scratched a human being in her life. Instead, Lily showed her opinion of me by scratching my chair and attempting to get my husband’s attention if she felt he had not paid her due deference. But since I was her daytime companion, the giver of treats and nearest available warm lap, we became friends and, eventually, family . Lily’s favourite time was when the gang was all together in the evening, sitting together – and preferably paying attention to her. She was always there for me on the hardest days when I felt unwell, and it meant a lot to me that I was able to be there for her in her golden years. Saying goodbye to her has been a big loss and has made getting through my health challenges that much harder.

We knew that if we waited to ‘get over’ losing Lily to adopt another, we would probably wait forever. Enough time has passed that we felt ready to welcome a new, and different feline into our lives. Sarah has had a difficult two years of life. She was a stray who comes from a high-kill shelter and didn’t have much contact with people, until a foster family took her in. They provided her with a good home, but apparently the presence of multiple cats and kids was a little overwhelming for this skittish girl.

They think she will thrive in a peaceful and quiet environment. That pretty much describes life at home with me and my husband. Living with a chronic illness necessitates a slow pace of life. Sleep in; breakfast, coffee and the news; stretch and meditate; spend the afternoon writing and on the computer, nap breaks in between; go for a walk when my husband comes from work; and spend the evening together catching up on our favourite shows. Sarah will have lots of company, plenty of time for play sessions, and no one will interrupt her cat naps. I will gain companionship, the endless amusement that cats can provide (like watching an endless playlist of cat videos) and the enjoyment of taking care of another (something other than my health).

As a person with chronic illness, living in a society obsessed with productivity, I often feel like a round peg in a square hole. My goals include learning to savour the small moments, staying present more of the time, and learning to take more time off and push myself less. The goals of my friends include career success, home-ownership and completing their first triathlon next year. For them life is busy busy busy and for me it’s the opposite. There’s something wonderful about the fact that Sarah will fit into my slow-paced lifestyle like a round peg in a round hole. Once she gets used to us, my hope is that living here will be safe and healing for her. I hope she will be sleeping on our clean laundry, getting into trouble and generally bossing us around in no time.

Hope. It’s a powerful force. When you live with a health condition that’s lifelong, the chronic part can blunt the hope part. It’s easy to become habitually cautious about anything new – after losing many of my abilities, I have a lot of self-doubt about what I’m capable of. When we saw Sarah’s picture and read her story online, I was torn between hoping we could provide her with the right home and the creeping doubt of trying anything new that people who live with chronic illness develop over time. I worried about the differences between looking after a geriatric cat you know well and an energetic two-year-old cat you’ve just met. Writing the animal rescue coordinator to start the adoption process was a spontaneous act of hope. Of course, there are things that I reasonably should not attempt to do because they will leave me feeling awful, such as working full time or attempting a triathlon. But that there are other things that I reasonably could attempt to do, but a lack of spontaneity – of joie de vivre – and, yes, of hope –held me back. I’m glad I didn’t listen to the voice of doubt.

For the moment, Sarah has primarily taken up residence living under the futon. Last night she came out for the first time while we were awake, walked around, and lay down to survey us. It was an exciting moment, and the first step she took in trusting us. Eventually she will be part of our family and, besides all of the health benefits of adopting her, I think it’s the healing power of hope that pets like Sarah offer us most.

Fibromyalgia Fatigue: The Top 8 Supplements I Take to Improve My Energy

Fatigue is a disabling symptom of fibromyalgia – but I have benefited from several supplements which improve my energy. This article explains the difference between adrenal and mitochondrial energy supplements, how they work and what the research says.

This post contains affiliate links, which help support this blog. I only link to products that I use and like – my opinion has been in no way influenced by the makers of the products I recommend.

Tart Cherry

My Christmas present one year was an evil cold. I had been lucky the past several years not to encounter any viruses. After reading about the  negative experiences of other bloggers with FM or CFS who have caught a flu or a cold, I was nervous about the potential consequences. My worries were realized when, after my other cold symptoms cleared up, the extra fatigue didn’t disappear too. My fibro fog and afternoon fatigue were the worst I had ever experienced!  I spent the months after trying to figure out how to recover my energy to my baseline level.

Prior to this cold, my ‘energy envelope’ consisted of:

  •  required 10 hours of sleep
  • most energetic in the late a.m. and evening, lowest in the afternoon
  • able to do 3-4 hrs of blogging per day
  • able to spend one evening per week out

Now, even 11 hours of sleep was unrefreshing. I had to drop my classes because of afternoon crashing. The strangest symptom was visual over-stimulation – for example, difficulty making sense of store displays during an energy crash. My acupuncturist explained my post-viral fatigue as a failure of my body to turn off the sickness response. In other words, your body makes you feel tired and achey when you get sick to induce rest, so energy can be redirected to your immune system. Usually that response stops when you get better, but sometimes your body fails to ‘flip the switch’ from sick mode to healthy mode.

In the last few years I have discovered that my energy is impacted by two primary factors – adrenal function and mitochondrial function. The challenge is to figure out how to best support energy production in your body, both at the cellular level (mitochondrial) and organ system level (circadian rhythm and/or adrenal fatigue).

Adrenal Glands and Energy Production stop scrolling down

In a previous post, I wrote about the results of my adrenal function test. The adrenal gland regulates the production of several critical hormones, including cortisol and DHEA. Cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone’ is produced by the adrenal glands (glands that sit on top of the kidneys). Cortisol regulates many of the body’s responses to stress, including blood sugar levels, metabolism, immune responses, blood pressure, and central nervous system activation. Although high levels of cortisol are released, alongside adrenaline, to initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situations, it also plays a role in day-to -day functioning. Cortisol is released in the morning to help you become alert and focused. It is supposed to decline gradually during the day so that by evening you feel sleepy and ready for bed. Proponents of the theory of ‘adrenal fatigue’ argue that initially, in stressful circumstances,  adrenal glands overproduce cortisol. But if a high-stress situation persists over time, the fatigued glands begin to under-produce cortisol, resulting in low daytime levels and worsening daytime fatigue (Life Extension: Stress Management).

The results from an adrenal function test show that my cortisol curve is all off. I start the morning at the low end of the normal range, but then my cortisol slumps significantly by mid-afternoon, and finally increases to the high end of the normal range by bedtime. These results explain my mid-afternoon crash and energetic evenings (not to mention insomnia). According to my naturopath, this pattern of low daytime cortisol and high nighttime cortisol is characteristic of a disordered circadian rhythm in some people with fibromyalgia.

So how can you improve your overall energy by supporting your adrenal function?

  • Vitamin C and B5 (Pantothenic Acid): Both of these vitamins help promote adrenal function. They are inexpensive and provide a good foundation for re-balancing cortisol production. Vitamin B5 is a lesser known but still important member of the B vitamin family and it is used for energy production in the body. According to Dr. Teitelbaum, “your body’s highest levels of vitamin C are found in the adrenal glands and brain tissues, and the urinary excretion of vitamin C is increased during stress” (From Fatigued to Fantastic p. 90). Vit C formulations can be more or less potent and come with or without added antioxidants. I like Natural Factors Extra C + Bioflavonoids.
  • Licorice Root Extract:  In order to try to sustain cortisol throughout the afternoon to prevent the usual crash, I added licorice tincture on really tired days. It helps slow the breakdown of cortisol in the body, so whatever you do produce stays around longer (Life Extension: Stress Management). (Licorice is not for people with high blood pressure, so please check with a health care provider to see if it is appropriate for you and do your research first). I prefer to use a liquid extracts/tincture because I can tailor the dose – I found the average capsule dose made me jittery but with a liquid I can take just a few drops. Dr. Teitelbaum recommends the equivalent of 100 to 150 mg daily.
  • Time Release Melatonin: In order to improve my circadian rhythm, I added 5mg of sustained / time release melatonin at night.  Melatonin reduces cortisol, so it helps me with my elevated night-time levels (Life Extension: Stress Management). This stuff is quite effective! I have been sleeping through the night more regularly since I added this to my night time pill regimen. (I found regular melatonin did not have this effect).
  • Rhodiola: finally, I am also taking Rhodiola to support my nerve and endocrine system functions. Rhodiola is considered to be an adaptogen, and studies demonstrate that taking this supplement improves stress tolerance by “influencing key brain chemicals, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, and natural feel-good opioids such as beta-endorphins” (Life Extension Magazine: Rhodiola).  Rhodiola helps to promote mental focus and energy – key for those of us with fibro fog!

Fibromyalgia and Mitochondrial Function: Improving Energy One Cell at a Time 

Secondly, mitochondrial function is a critical part of increasing energy in fibromyalgia. Mitochondria are the power plants of our cells.

Studies suggest the energy factories may be running a bit low in FM. Muscle biopsies have found patterns of mitochondrial dysfunction (abnormal mitochondria, mitochondrial defects and muscle fiber abnormalities) similar to those typically found in mitochondrial disorders. Some skin biopsies have shown patterns of neurogenic inflammation and oxidative stress – two factors that negatively impact the mitochondria. Peripheral blood cells have demonstrated CoQ10 deficiency, mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress and mitochondrial degradation (Health Rising: Is FM a Mitohondrial Disorder?).

I’m trying to take a combination of supplements that are factors used by mitochondria in the production of energy.

  • D-ribose:  D-ribose is a sugar produced in the body and taken to alleviate fatigue and pain in fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Teitelbaum contends that CFS/FMS is caused by “energy crisis” in the body, leading to a cascade of different symptoms like fatigue, pain, sleep disturbance, among others. One root cause of the energy problem, he argues, is that the ability of the mitochondria in your cells to generate energy is suppressed. Mitochondria produce the energy, called ATP, used by your cells to carry out all their functions. D-ribose is essential to the production of ATP. Therefore, taking additional D-ribose should help to support mitochondrial function and improve energy output in fatigued patients.  Dr. Teitelbaum has authored a few pilot studies that have demonstrated some promising results. The most recent study was an open-label study published in 2012. Significant improvements were found; specifically a 61.3% increase in energy, 37% increase in general well-being, 29% improvement in sleep, 30% improvement in mental clarity, 15.6% decrease in pain (Teitelbaum: From Fatigued to Fantastic).
  • CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant, is the catalyst that enables mitochondria to produce 95% of all cellular energy (in the form of the compound ATP). A Spanish research team has conducted several studies that demonstrate a CoQ10 deficiency in people with fibromyalgia, leading to mitochondrial dysfunction and increased oxidative stress. These researchers have also found that supplementing with CoQ10 improves clinical symptoms of fibromyalgia like pain, depression and fatigue (Phoenix Rising: CoQ10).
  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine, is an amino acid produced in the body from l-carnitine which is used to manufacture fuel for energy via mitochondria. This nutrient is also used in bodily processes that regulate muscle movement, as well as heart and brain function. People with fibromyalgia have been found to have low levels of carnitine. Supplementing with acetyl l-carnitine has been found in a double-blind placebo-controlled study to improve pain levels, depression and quality of life among people living with fibromyalgia (Prohealth: L-Carnitine).

Since starting this combination of adrenal and mitochondrial support, my afternoon crashing has evened out. My fatigue does not bottom out in the afternoon (less brain fog and no visual over-stimulation). I finally regained my pre-viral energy envelope. I am sharing all of this in the hope it gives some direction to others finding themselves in a similar situation! Take care of yourselves, dear readers!

 

Life Extension (Rhodiola)

Life Extension (Stress Management)

Health Rising (Is FMS a Mitochondrial Disorder?)

Phoenix Rising: (CoQ10)

Prohealth (L-Carnitine: Typically low in fibromyalgia and ME/CFS; Promotes healthy mood and energy)

Teitelbaum, J. (2007). From Fatigued to Fantastic. Penguin Books: NY.

Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with Lost Jobs, Less Income and a Tight Budget

 

Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with a Lost Job, Low Income and a Tight Budget

Chronic illness hurts all over, and that can extend to your budget. It’s not polite to talk about money, and that can lead to a cone of silence around this difficult subject. When I developed fibromyalgia five years ago, I was forced to leave my graduate program because I could no longer keep up. In the process, I lost my scholarship and my teaching assistant position. Now my husband and I live on a single income. I think it’s important to be open about how illness and disability impact income. First, it is vital to break down the stigma that ‘people who live on a reduced income are lazy.’ Second, I think it can be helpful for people living with long-term health problems to share their experiences and support each other with advice on how they cope with the challenges of life with illness.

Unfortunately, my inability to work is far from being an exception.  According to a Community Health Survey, 14% of people with fibromyalgia report being permanently unable to work (Parlor, 2007). That rate is 25% for working-age people with arthritis (Arthritis Society, n.d.). In Canada, only 51% of working-age people living with a disability are employed, compared with 75% of non-disabled working-age people (CCD, 2013). In addition, people living with a disability are two times more likely to work part-time than non-disabled people (CCD, 2013).

Not surprisingly, the reductions in employment levels among people with illness and disability lead to reductions in income. For example, 43% of people living with fibromyalgia reported their annual personal income to be below $15 000, compared with only 29% of the general population (Parlor, 2007). Overall, 20.5% of Canadians living with disabilities live below the poverty line  (CCD, 2013).

In addition, there are out of pocket medical expenses. This is bad enough in Canada, my home country, where many people may not have extended health insurance for medical drugs or treatments like physiotherapy or massage. In the U.S., there is no public medicare (national health insurance), so the medical expense of just seeinge a doctor can be prohibitive. The CDA (2013) reports that, in the U.S., medical problems are behind 62% of personal bankruptcies and almost 50% of home foreclosures.

Finally, for those who qualify for social assistance, income support is severely limited. In Ontario, Canada, the maximum financial support for a person living with a disability is $1151/month, for all expenses (Community Living Ontario, n.d.). In the U.S., the average monthly benefit for a family paid by Social Security Disability Insurance is $1,130 (CDA, 2013). Since this amount would barely cover rent and food, it is hard to imagine how anyone could even begin to pay for vital medical expenses or enjoy any quality of life.

Those numbers can look pretty bleak and do not capture the strength and resiliency shown by so many living with chronic illness!  It is important for those who do not live with chronic illness to understand that we work harder than anyone you know, everyday, to manage debilitating symptoms, earn a living if we can, participate in our family and social lives, and advocate for ourselves and others.

If your politics tells you that social assistance should provide only survival support for medical and living expenses in order to “incentivize” recipients to work harder, then you are condemning to poverty people whose only ‘crime’ has been to develop a chronic illness. Working harder is not a cure fore a chronic disease or permanent disability. I believe a compassionate and farsighted society should provide adequate medical and income support to people living with illness and disability, because inequality wastes human ability and restricts the freedom of people to participate fully in society. Appropriate accommodations can be put in place so that we can work, including flex hours, remote work opportunities, and many others. We all have something to contribute, and many of us would be able to do more if adequate social supports were put in place.

I’ll get off my soap box now. It’s time to get practical. Since we are where we are in terms of reduced income for people with chronic illness, what can we to do?

  • Build a budget. No matter how limited, every dollar will stretch further if we spend it on what we need. For a simple and practical approach, I like using Gail Vaz Oxlade’s budget builder http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/resources/interactive_budget_worksheet.html
  • For your weekly expenses, use cash! If you also suffer from brain fog, then you will sympathize with how hard it can be to remember how often you swiped your plastic this week. If getting out to the bank is a hassle, then get cash back at the grocery store, so you can do two chores in one.
  • Put your cash in labeled jars or envelopes, keep your receipts, and record your expenses. Clear glass jars work best for me. My budget jars are labeled: groceries, entertainment, drugstore, pet, clothes, transportation and allowance:  http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/articles/budgeting/magic_jars.html.
  • Don’t be too proud to get the help you need. Whether asking for financial advice, applying for social assistance, buying second hand, or going to a food bank if the fridge is bare, remember this isn’t your fault and you deserve the best quality of life possible.
  • Coping with debt and bankruptcy when you have a chronic illness, by Lene Andersen https://www.healthcentral.com/article/when-the-money-runs-out-chronic-illness-and-bankruptcy
  • Here is some advice on winning your fibromyalgia social security case, by Donna Burch: http://nationalpainreport.com/winning-your-fibromyalgia-social-security-disability-case-8831202.html
  • If you are interested in extra ways of making money from home, here are a few resources from Being Fibro Mom:     http://www.beingfibromom.com/category/financial/make-money/

References:

 CDA (2013) Disability Statistics

CCD (2013) Low Household Income and Disability

Parlor (2007). Canadian Women’s Health Network: Understanding Fibromyalgia

Community Living (n.d.) ODSP

Arthritis Foundation (n.d.) Arthritis Facts

Arthritis Society (n.d.) Facts and Statistics

 

Tune In: How Listening to Music Improves Fibromyalgia

Listening to music can reduce pain, improve functional mobility, increase sleep quality, and reduce depression in people with fibromyalgia.

How Listening to music improves fibromyalgia

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we may not all like the same music, but we all like music. Our favourite artists help us celebrate the good times, express our emotions in the difficult times, and while away the time in between.

I’ve seen many article headlines, written by authors with chronic illnesses, acknowledging the role that music has played in helping them get through flare-ups, and other health problems. I’m not going to lie though, around the time that I was diagnosed, I mostly stopped listening to music on my own. You know how a song can carry you back to a moment in your past, like a soundtrack to your memories? Well, I didn’t want to be transported back to a time when I was healthy and free, by listening now to the music I played then. I also didn’t feel like finding new music. I’m not sure why, except that I didn’t feel that certain joie de vivre it takes to explore new things in life.

Research on the Impact of Music on Fibromyalgia

Then, I came across a study that made me rethink this choice: Listening To Music Can Reduce Chronic Pain And Depression By Up To A Quarter.[1] Researchers found that when people with chronic pain listen to music for an hour a day, they experienced up to a 21% reduction in pain and a 25% reduction in depression. Another important finding was that listening to music made participants feel less disabled by their condition and more in control of their pain. It did not appear to matter whether individuals listened to their favourite music or relaxing music selected by the researchers.

I decided to do some further research to find out whether these findings applied to fibromyalgia. It seems that I wasn’t alone in asking that question. Several studies have investigated the impact of music on fibromyalgia.

A recent study looked at whether listening to a relaxing water and wave sound CD could reduce pain in individuals with fibromyalgia. There was a significant reduction in pain levels among participants who listened to the CD over a two week period, compared to a control group who did not listen to music at all. The study concluded by recommending music therapy for pain management in patients with fibromyalgia.[2] That’s an exciting finding, but since I don’t have access to the exact CD used in the study, how can I take advantage of these findings? I decided to delve a little bit deeper.

A second study investigated whether listening to your favourite music can reduce your pain levels if you live with fibromyalgia. One caveat of this study is that the self-chosen music was relaxing and pleasant. The study found that pain did indeed decrease after listening to music, becoming less intense and less unpleasant.[3] In addition, participants who listened to music also experienced improvements in their functional mobility, measured by the ease of getting out of a chair and walking. This effect lasted even after the music stopped. This suggests that music might be able to help individuals with fibromyalgia perform everyday activities more easily because of its pain relieving effects! Patients in the control group, who listened to “pink noise” (the sound of static) did not experience pain reduction.

But pain isn’t the only unwelcome fibromyalgia symptom. What about sleep? Listening to music designed specifically to improve sleep was found to be effective in a small study of patients with fibromyalgia. After four weeks of listening to the music at bedtime, individuals reported significant improvements in sleep quality.[4] The sleep music was embedded with delta sound waves, which pulsate within specific frequencies of brain wave activity that are associated with deep sleep (0.25-4 hz). Delta brain waves, which are the slowest type of brain wave, are associated with deep sleep. Listening to delta sound waves is thought to stimulate the production of delta waves in your brain. While this may sound like high tech science, unavailable to the average patient, finding this music is as simple as searching for “sleep music delta waves” in YouTube. Personally I have found this really valuable for falling asleep, getting back to sleep and resting during the day.

Why Music Improves Fibromyalgia Symptoms

The nerd in me wanted to know why music seems to have this pain relieving effect.[5] One possibility is that music is an effective distraction from pain (research has found that distraction activities, like memory tests, can help reduce pain). Listening to music is associated with the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is known to have a role in the body’s natural pain relieving mechanisms. Music also produces relaxation, which in turn can help reduce pain levels.

Researchers of this last study believe it is important to listen to music you know and enjoy, because familiarity is helpful for sustaining attention. When we pay attention, where more likely to experience the benefits of listening to music. In another case of science proving the obvious, studies have shown that music has a powerful effect on emotions and mood, and that emotions and mood can affect pain. If you enjoy the music you are listening to, it may be more likely to improve your pain levels.

Needless to say, I’ve decided to put my headphones back on.

How Listening to Music Improves Fibromyalgia Symptoms

References:

[1] Blackwell Publishing. (2006, May 24). Listening To Music Can Reduce Chronic Pain And Depression By Up To A Quarter ” ScienceDaily. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/05/060524123803.htm>

[2] Balcı, Güler & Babadağ, Burcu & Ozkaraman, Ayse & Yildiz, Pinar & Musmul, Ahmet & Korkmaz, C. (2015). Effects of music on pain in patients with fibromyalgia. Clinical Rheumatology. 35. DOI 10.1007/s10067-015-3046-3.

[3] Garza-Villarreal EA, Wilson AD, Vase L, Brattico E, Barrios FA, Jensen TS, Romero-Romo JI and Vuust P (2014) Music reduces pain and increases functional mobility in fibromyalgiaFront. Psychol5:90. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00090

[4][4] Picard, L. M., Bartel, L. R., Gordon, A. S., Cepo, D., Wu, Q., & Pink, L. R. (2014). Music as a sleep aid in fibromyalgia. Pain Research & Management : The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society19(2), 97–101.

[5] Garza-Villarreal EA et al. (2014)

The 3 Best Diets for Fibromyalgia, According to Science

Learn about 3 diets that improve fibromyalgia symptoms: plant-based, low FODMAP and gluten-free –including an explanation, the science and resources for each diet.

The 3 Best Diets for Fibromyalgia, According to Science

Is Food Really Medicine?

Is there such a thing as a diet to treat fibromyalgia?  While there is no consensus on a single diet to treat FMS, research does point us in a few intriguing directions– specifically, symptoms improvements from plant-based vegetarian diet, a low-FODMAP diet and a gluten-free diet.

Fibromyalgia is difficult to treat. Presently, there are only three prescriptions that are approved by the FDA for fibromyalgia (pregabalin, duloxetine and milnacipran). Unfortunately, although these medications can provide partial relief for some people, none are a magic bullet for treating fibromyalgia. That’s why specialists recommend a multidisciplinary approach to FMS treatment. We know that diet plays an important role in preventing and managing many diseases, such as diabetes and autoimmune diseases, so why not fibromyalgia as well?

In this article, I want to lay out the scientific evidence for three different diet approaches to improving fibromyalgia: plant-based, FODMAP and gluten-free. My hope is that this article can serve as a starting point for you to explore how to use food as medicine to improve your symptoms.

Nutrition can be empowering. That might sound overblown. But, unlike prescriptions or appointments with doctors and physical therapists, there is no intermediary between you and what you choose to eat. Food is personal and what you decide to eat is ultimately up to you. For a person living with fibromyalgia, having the ability to make decisions over something as important as nutrition really is empowering. However, changing daily habits can be a challenge, which is why I have included several free and affordable resources for each diet if you are interested in making any changes.

Fibromyalgia and Plant-Based Vegetarian/Vegan Eating

At least three studies have shown that people with fibromyalgia benefit from a plant- based vegetarian or vegan diet.[1] It’s important to stress the plant-based focus of this dietary therapy. It is possible to eat a diet that is vegetarian, but primarily made up of processed, nutrient-poor, junk food. This won’t improve your general health or your fibromyalgia symptoms. Plant-based foods, including fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and nuts, contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that provide crucial nutritional benefits. It’s quite possible to also obtain balanced macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats) from these plant sources. While vegans and vegetarians both eat plant-based foods, vegetarians also consume dairy, eggs, honey (and sometimes, fish). Vegans do not eat any animal-sourced foods.

Studies have shown that fibromyalgia is linked to high rates of oxidation (damage to tissues caused by particles known as oxidants). Antioxidants neutralize oxidants and serve an important protective function in the body. Researchers hypothesize that consuming a diet rich in antioxidants might help to improve fibromyalgia symptoms.[2]  One study showed that fibromyalgia patients on a vegetarian diet had an improved antioxidant status; 70% of participants also reported lower pain levels and increased well-being.[3]

Another benefit of eating vegetarian is weight loss. Carrying extra weight worsens pain, sleep, depression, and other fibromyalgia symptoms.[4] However, it can be very difficult to lose weight when you have a condition that makes moderate exercise painful. If you have struggled unsuccessfully to lose weight, could it be time to consider going vegetarian or vegan?

A recent study of diabetic patients found that, compared to a conventional low-calorie diet, a vegetarian diet was almost twice as effective in reducing body weight.[5] In a separate investigation into the effects of eating vegan on fibromyalgia symptoms, research participants who were overweight had a significant reduction in body mass index, as well as cholesterol levels.[6] This 3-month study found that eating vegan resulted in significant improvements in FMS symtoms: reduced pain levels, and joint stiffness and improved quality of sleep and quality of life.

After my diagnosis, I ate a lot of processed, packaged food because of the convenience. But it cost me a lot in terms of my symptoms getting worse and gaining weight. After I switched to eating plant-based vegetarian, I lost about 20 pounds and found that some of my symptoms improved, including more sustained energy, no low blood sugar crashes and greater ease of movement.

If you are interested in going vegetarian/vegan, or just incorporating more meatless main dishes into your diet, here are a few resources to get started:

Fibromyalgia and the Low FODMAP Diet

This is a weird sounding diet, right? FODMAP stands for several types of short chain carbohydrate and sugar alcohols. Research has shown that a diet low in FODMAPs is the most effective diet plan for managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which includes symptoms like bloating, nausea and changes in bowel movements). In addition, a low FODMAP diet (LFD) can reduce fatigue, lethargy and poor concentration.[7]

Based on these findings, a new study investigated whether reducing FODMAPs in your diet could improve your fibromyalgia symptoms.[8]  The results were positive – a statistically significant reduction in body pain and gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as an improvement in quality of life. I find it interesting that these results indicated improvements beyond only G.I. symptoms . Research into probiotics and dietary interventions has been pointing to a gut-brain connection. Since fibromyalgia involves a sensitized nervous system, perhaps one way to dial down the sensitivity could be via the gut? It’s important to note that this was a pilot study, with a small sample size, and further research needs to be done. However, if you have IBS or significant G.I. issues along with fibromyalgia, a low FODMAP diet might help you manage digestive symptoms and reduce your pain!

How Does a Low-FODMAP Diet Work?

For some people, FODMAPS are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. When they pass into the large intestine, they are quickly fermented, which contributes to gas, abdominal bloating and pain. They also attract water into the large intestines through osmosis, which can alter bowel movements. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These can be further divided into five groups called fructans, galacto-oligosaccharides, lactose, excess fructose and polyols.

Foods that contain FODMAPS include:  onions, garlic, mushrooms, apples, lentils, wheat, rye and milk. Importantly, not everyone is triggered by all types of FODMAPs. Instead, the FODMAP diet takes an elimination approach. Initially, all FODMAPs are removed from your diet. Gradually, they are re-introduced one by one so you can determine which ones cause you a negative reaction. Only your FODMAP triggers are permanently removed from your meals.

If you are interested in learning more, you can check out these resources:

Fibromyalgia and the Gluten-Free Diet

It’s impossible to have escaped the gluten-free diet fad that has swept the mainstream in recent years. The evidence is seemingly in every grocery store and on every menu. While it may seem like only a fad, there is a scientific rationale behind why some people may benefit from a gluten-free diet, even if they don’t have celiac disease (CD): “Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is increasingly recognized as a frequent clinical condition with symptoms similar to CD in the absence of the diagnostic features of CD.”[9]

Without getting too deep in the weeds on this topic, gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and similar grains. In some people with a weakened intestinal barrier, consuming gluten triggers an inflammatory immune response. Some of the symptoms of a gluten sensitivity include gastrointestinal problems like bloating, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting, as well as muscle and joint pain, brain fog and chronic fatigue. Although the clinical markers of gluten sensitivity are different from celiac disease, scientists have uncovered markers of intestinal cell damage and increased immune activity, which normalized after eliminating gluten for six months.[10]

A small pilot study investigated whether fibromyalgia patients with gluten sensitivity improved after beginning a gluten-free diet. Patients with confirmed gluten sensitivity experienced an improvement in pain, fatigue, neurological and gastrointestinal symptoms after beginning a gluten-free diet. Of the 20 participants in the study, fifteen experienced a significant reduction in body wide pain – some shortly after beginning the diet and others after a few months. The authors conclude that this pilot study suggests non-celiac sensitivity may be a treatable cause of fibromyalgia, but that further research needs to be done.

If you are curious whether gluten might be worsening your symptoms, it’s best to begin with a trial elimination diet. This means eliminating all sources of gluten from your diet for several weeks. During this period, keep a food log of what you eat and what your symptoms are each day. Then reintroduce gluten into your diet, and observe whether your symptoms change or worsen. Since more than half of FM/CFS patients see their symptoms improve when they eliminate certain foods, including corn, wheat, dairy, citrus and sugar, you may want to add other foods to your elimination diet.

If you suspect that gluten may be impacting your fibromyalgia, it’s good to rule out celiac disease first. Start by making an appointment with your doctor (and bringing your food log). In order to rule out non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you may want to consider working with an integrative medical doctor, naturopathic doctor, or nutritionist. Although research supports the existence of gluten sensitivity, the mainstream medical profession lags behind when it comes to accepting this condition, so alternative and complementary health professionals may be better to work with during this process.

Here are a few resources to check out if you are interested in going gluten-free:

 

References

[1] https://vegetarianprescription.org/2016/11/01/the-treatment-of-fibromyalgia-with-a-plant-based-diet/

[2] https://vegetarianprescription.org/2016/11/01/the-treatment-of-fibromyalgia-with-a-plant-based-diet/

[3] Høstmark A, Lystad E, Vellar O, et.al. Reduced plasma fibrinogen, serum peroxides, lipids, and apolipoproteins after a 3-week vegetarian diet. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. Jan 1993;43(1):55-61.

[4] http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/fibromyalgia/articles/obesity-fibromyalgia.php

[5] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170612094458.htm

[6][6] Kaartinen K, Lammi K, Hypen M. Vegan diet alleviates fibromyalgia symptoms. Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology. 2000; 29(5): 308-13.

[7] http://fodmapfriendly.com/what-are-fodmaps/

[8] Marum, A.P. et al. (2016). A low fermentable oligo-di-mono saccharides and polyols (FODMAP) diet reduced pain and improved daily life in fibromyalgia patients. Scandinavian Journal of Pain 13:166-72. http://www.scandinavianjournalpain.com/article/S1877-8860(16)30084-2/fulltext?mobileUi=1

[9]Isasi, C. et al. (2014). Fibromyalgia and non–celiac sensitivity: a description with remission of fibromyalgia. Rheumatology International , 34 (11), 1607-16.

[10] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/312001.php

My Fibromyalgia Story: Learning How to Manage One Day at a Time

my story

Part I: From Onset to Diagnosis

For Fibromyalgia Awarenss Month, I wanted to share my illness journey here on the the blog. My story starts eight years ago. It wasn’t a climactic beginning. It was just achey low back pain that got worse the longer I sat writing my M.A. thesis. It seemed like a common enough problem to have, except for the fact that I was 23. The nurse told me to take ibuprophen 24/7 and stretch. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. About a year later, my body gradually began to fall apart, limb by limb. My back pain worsened. My knee gave out. My shoulders become too painful to allow me to type. This is what the doctors call “gradual onset”.

I thought I was losing my mind.

My doctor at the time told me all she could do was suggest Robaxacet. At this point I was starting my PhD. The physical demands of reading and writing 24/7 began to take their toll, exacerbating my pain. Daily functioning on my own became increasingly difficult. My fiancé (now husband), who was living 4 hours away,  had to come every weekend to help me with the chores (groceries, cleaning, etc.) that I could no longer do.  In retrospect, I think the stress of the program and my fear about not being able to meet expectations, as well as not being able to understand what was happening to me, pushed my body past the point of no return. After that I developed more of the classic fibromyalgia symptoms, like insomnia, fatigue and digestive problems.

I was fortunate to have been referred previously to a pain clinic for pelvic pain. This meant I was able to see a pain specialist for my musculoskeletal pain within the same year all my fibro symptoms exploded. In March 2012 he diagnosed me with fibromyalgia.

Part II: Change, Anxiety and Trying to Cope

I was so relieved after my diagnosis that my symptoms had been validated – and given better medication than NSAIDs. I was given tramadol, which reduced my pain, and doxepin, which helped me to sleep. But I still hadn’t absorbed yet what this diagnosis would mean for my future. After my diagnosis, it became obvious that even with treatment, no amount of accommodations would allow me to continue my PhD. I had tried everything I could think of so I could stay – withdrawn from my TA position, put in place disability accommodations to allow me to submit work late, bought expensive adaptive devices and installed voice recognition software.

Feeling like my life was spinning out of control, I started having panic attacks on campus. When the spring term ended, I went back home to move in with my fiancé, and decided to withdraw from the PhD program.

With huge relief, I  went on medical leave from my studies. However, I was immediately confronted by the problem that my days were empty of activity or responsibility. I remember dragging myself out to a local cafe in the afternoons while my fiancé was at work. I wanted the anonymity of a public place, where I could feel ‘normal’ for awhile. It was the only cafe I could go to because the chairs were sensible rather than funky.  Still, I had to bring my back-rest with me, which generated stares from other patrons.  I would cover it with my coat in order to try to hide it from attention. I could no longer type or hold a book due to pain, so I was embarrassed to be sitting at a table without a laptop or reading material, like everyone else. I listened to audiobooks or free online course video lectures instead. I would set up my tablet so that it looked like I was working, rather than listening and staring around. I envied all the other people my age, surrounded by papers, purposely tapping away on their computers. The goals that I had been pursuing were on pause, indefinitely. I grieved for my old life. I pushed myself to go to the cafe, even on days I experience brain-fog or fatigue, because staying home felt like giving up. I spent that year in a state of shock. I was always someone whose identity was wrapped up in my work. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Part III: Learning Self-Care Skills to Manage my Fibro

Gradually I started trying to put the pieces back together. When I got diagnosed with my chronic condition all the information about exercise seemed so out of touch with the reality of my life. At the time, I had trouble bending forward, which meant I needed help with basic tasks like shaving my legs. I had trouble getting up or down from sitting on the floor. I rarely took the stairs and had trouble walking or standing for longer than ten minutes. Since I was already tired, sore and busy then I wasn’t going to be able to go to the gym. I couldn’t afford a personal trainer. With my back pain there was no way I could participate in the group yoga classes I used to take in university. Even more frustrating was the fact that all the research I came across proved how beneficial exercise is to health. I knew that I should exercise but I felt like I couldn’t.

I found two at-home instructional DVDs in yoga/pilates and tai chi that I was actually able to do, which helped me to improve my physical functioning. I started seeing a physiotherapist who put together a thorough stretching routine for me to do daily. Without doubt, this is the single most effective thing I tried to improve my health and well-being. My pain decreased and my quality of life increased.

I was fortunate to be referred to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program by my pain clinic. I found participating in the course very valuable for learning tools to  manage the negative thoughts and feelings that accompanied my fibromyalgia. One of the core parts of the program was learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” I learned that I tend to think in “all or nothing” terms – a cognitive distortion. I would say to myself things like “if I can no longer pursue my career, I am a failure in life”. In CBT, I learned to challenge these distortions with the reality of each situation. For example, in response to the statement above, I challenged it by saying “While being in pain means I have to do less, that does not reflect on my personal worth, nor does it mean what I can do is meaningless”.

I was also referred for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course by the pain clinic. In this course, I learned to be more mindful of the present moment. I learned that worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, only makes me suffer more in the present.  It’s better for my quality of life if I return my focus to the next best thing I can do for myself in this moment. Critically, the MBSR course reminded me that, even with pain and flare-ups, there are small moments of enjoyment, if I only stop and notice them – the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favourite hobby. One of the key lessons I learned through mindfulness is that my thoughts, feelings and sensations, no matter how difficult, are changeable, like the weather. When I hold on to the fact that even my darkest moods will eventually lift, I feel calmer and more in control.

Part IV: Coping with Relapse

In 2014 I started a part time distance program for social work and completed the first year. But it wasn’t to be. I got a cold over the 2015 holidays and suffered the worst fatigue and brain fog I’d ever known. At the time I was just starting to look for a social work practicum placement. There was no way I could commit to working 15 hours a week out of my home. For the second time I had to withdraw from school.

I felt completely overwhelmed at the outset of my fatigue relapse last year.  First, there was the emotional reaction to a new situation: anxiety about whether it was here to stay, frustration that life was about to get more difficult, and grief at the prospect of losing what abilities I still had.  Secondly, there was the practical challenge of figuring out how I would cope, like what new treatment options to try or how to manage my daily routines and responsibilities.  Lastly, I faced the impact of a relapse on my relationships, such as the increased caregiver burden on my partner, and feeling less able to be present with family and friends.

My relapse brought me back to the beginning of my illness journey and how I coped after my diagnosis. I was able to use many of the lessons that had been learned the hard way the first time around. In essence, what I have learned is that I have the power of choice over what I focus my attention on each day. Through challenging negative patterns of thinking, being present, taking in the good, and pursuing an enjoyable hobby, I try to emphasize what enriches my life and let go of what doesn’t. Of course there are always bad days and I don’t believe any amount of positive thinking frees us from ever experiencing difficult times. I personally have found, however, that changing my worldview has dramatically lessened the amount of suffering I go through during relapses and has improved my quality of life. I spent that winter using the time to learn new things. I taught myself calligraphy, I read, and I wrote more often on my blog.

Part V: Moving Forward, Maintaining Balance

That spring, my energy began to slowly improve. I found a kind of peace in accepting that whatever I do next, it needs to allow me to work with my body and not against it. I think that’s why blogging and writing has ‘clicked’ more for me now than when I first started. I have found that grieving for your old life and finding acceptance in your new life is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done kind of thing.

Being at home allows me to respond to each day as it is. I’m fortunate to be able to stay at home. I sleep in late because without ten hours I am a brain-fogged zombie. I can’t type because of shoulder pain but I can use speech recognition software. I stretch, do gentle exercise, walk, and make sure I move around during the day. I balance my activities with self-care, which is how I am able live more fully, even with fibromyalgia.

In the summer of 2015 I felt well enough to finally plan my (fibro-friendly) wedding. On a beautiful August day I married the man I’d fallen madly in love with eight years earlier and who has been my saving grace through this whole journey.  He didn’t blink when it came to assuming care-giving responsibilities – he does the housework, the laundry and the dishes on top of his full time job. He is always understanding when we have to change plans or just stay at home. Most of all he is so supportive. He celebrates the small accomplishments of my life without ever making me feel ‘less than’.

I’m grateful for how I’ve grown through encountering all of the challenges that come with chronic illness. Learning mindfulness meditation and focusing on the present has given me a more helpful perspective. I’m a happier person when I remember to ‘stop and smell the roses’. I feel like I’ve become more patient, more adaptable, more assertive and more accepting than I was before fibromyalgia.  I’m proud of making it through every day, especially on the tough days where no amount of self-care stops your symptoms, and you just have to hold on to the knowledge that it will pass. Everyone living with chronic illness should be proud of the strength they have developed to manage daily life.

My new motto is something I read shortly after my diagnosis –  “It’s not the life you imagined, but it’s a good life nonetheless.” It’s something I hope for myself and everyone who lives with fibromyalgia.

National-Fibromyalgia-Awareness-Day-May-12

Acceptance, Grief & Chronic Illness: The Top 4 Ways I Learned to Cope After my Diagnosis

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness:THE TOP 4 WAYS I LEARNED TO COPE AFTER MY DIAGNOSISYou probably vividly remember that moment when you sat in a doctor’s office and were told that the explanation for all your confusing symptoms was summed up in a word: fibromyalgia. For some of you, this diagnosis was the first chronic condition you were diagnosed with. For others, it was the second. And for those who had already been diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses, this one was just another to add to the collection. The reality is that fibromyalgia is one of ten conditions the National Institutes of Health recently labelled Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions (COPCs ).[1] These include chronic migraine and headache, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, IBS, low back pain, endometriosis, TMJ disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome,  In addition, fibromyalgia is commonly diagnosed alongside autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.[2]  Finally, anxiety and depression are much more likely to be co-morbid (found simultaneously) in people living with fibromyalgia.[3]  Many fibromyalgia patients will have the déjà-vu experience of sitting in a doctor’s office and being diagnosed with yet another chronic illness.

I recently relived that experience myself. I sat in my OB-GYN’s office and was told that a recent laparoscopy confirmed that I have endometriosis alongside my fibromyalgia. I told myself that after years of dealing with chronic pain, this was no big deal – same problem, different location. All I needed to do was learn what my treatment options were and then go home and use the self-care skills I have developed over the years to manage my pain. A few days later, while I was examining my incision scars, I broke down in tears. “Get a grip,” I told myself, “this is nothing new“. But as the pelvic pain returned, despite the laparoscopy, and I confronted the reality of dealing with another hard-to-manage chronic illness,  I had to acknowledge my feelings of anger and sadness over this new diagnosis. Intellectually I know that being diagnosed with endometriosis will not change my life as dramatically as my fibromyalgia diagnosis did. I’ve already had to leave my career because of my disabling fibro symptoms. Instead, I stay at home pursuing hobbies, like writing and calligraphy, while I look after my health.

So I wondered, why is this second diagnosis affecting me so much?  To answer this question, I needed to remember what I experienced after my first diagnosis.  As anyone who has had a significant diagnosis knows, you go through a period of grieving afterwards. Grief is the “primary emotional process of reacting to… loss” (Absenger, 2015).[4]  The stages of grief after a diagnosis include: numbness-disbelief, separation distress, depression-mourning, and recovery.[5] While there are similarities to the stages of grief that people generally experience after any loss, the grieving process for people diagnosed with a chronic illness has unique characteristics.  In an article for social workers helping clients with chronic illness, Kate Jackson (2014) explains the difference:

Most often, grief is a reaction to a single, time-limited event… Grief associated with chronic illness, however, is more complex for many individuals.  For people who are chronically ill, the losses are multiple and permanent and therefore difficult to resolve. Because these losses are unending, they’re known as infinite losses.

The scope of losses due to chronic illness are broad and complex, and they can change during the course of an illness.  The loss of health and ability can, in turn, cause losses in a person’s career, social life, sexual function, body image, relationships, parenting ability  and daily functioning, among other areas.  Most fundamentally, these secondary losses caused by chronic illness can fracture self-identity and diminish self-esteem.  The fact that many people with chronic illness feel that their experiences are invalidated by stigma and disbelief can further their sense of isolation.

The concept of infinite losses helped me to understand why a second diagnosis brought up so many difficult emotions. I have had to acknowledge that the grieving process over one, or multiple, illnesses is not a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. Grief comes in waves. If your illness changes, or you develop a new illness, your emotional response will also change because, correspondingly, the losses you experience are new and different. Prior to the pelvic pain that led to my laparoscopy, my fibromyalgia symptoms had stabilized and I had reached a state of acceptance about my illness. I wanted to believe this was a permanent state. I resisted the idea that a new condition would cause me to grieve again (because who wants to go through that once more?). However, I have come to recognize that the losses caused by endometriosis in my life are significantly different than those caused by fibromyalgia.  For me, endometriosis is entangled with my desire to start a family and be a mother, my body image and my sense of femininity. In contrast, fibromyalgia has primarily affected my career aspirations and the part of my identity that was defined by my professional accomplishments.

Once I acknowledged that I was grieving over my second diagnosis, I felt a greater sense of peace.  Resisting these feelings consumed a lot of my energy and effort. Jackson (2014) explains that “people with unresolved grief may experience more profound and difficult-to-treat depression and anxiety”.  Furthermore, the symptoms of a chronic illness can be worsened by unacknowledged grief, including pain, fatigue and cognition.  As people living with chronic illness, I think it’s important that we be on the lookout for experiencing grief when we develop a new illness, or a change in a current illness.  Understanding that grief and acceptance are fluid states can help us be more open to acknowledging grief.  It’s important to seek out support and help once you recognize these feelings. Here are a few tools and resources for coping with grief about your chronic illness, based on what has helped me:

  • Mindfulness meditation: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in medicine. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach mindfulness to patients had demonstrated remarkable benefits for reducing chronic pain as well as anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia.[6] You can find an MBSR program in your community, or there is a free version online http://palousemindfulness.com/. Alternatively, you can learn meditation using a free app on your phone. Two of my favourites include the Insight Timer and The Meaning of Life Experiment. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, body scans, mindful eating, or mindful movement like yoga or Tai Chi.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Studies have found that participating in CBT can help reduce pain, depressive thoughts, and improve quality of life for people with chronic pain.[7] One of the core parts of the program is learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves” (Grohol, 2016).[8] These programs also focus on helpful behaviour changes like learning deep relaxation as well as pacing activities. CBT programs are run in most communities and your doctor should be able to refer you to one.
  • Find a support group, whether in person or online. It can be incredibly powerful to know that you are not alone in facing the challenges caused by your chronic illness. There are private facebook groups for every condition, where you can find support and people with shared experiences. The #spoonie hashtag can help you find other people with chronic illness on twitter. If you are able to, an in-person support group can be an important source of connection if you are struggling. No matter how much support your family and friends can provide, it can help to talk with people who have the same condition(s) you do.
  • Talk with a professional therapist: Unresolved grief is a difficult issue to work through. Many people benefit from talking with an experienced therapist, one-on-one. My advice is to find a counsellor with experience in working with clients who have chronic illness- your specialist may be able to refer you. It’s critical that you ascertain that the therapist validates the existence of your chronic illness and does not tell clients that the illness ‘is all in their head’. Think of the first appointment as an interview, where you see if you are compatible and ask about their professional experience. You may wish to learn more about the therapeutic approaches used by different therapists prior to choosing one. For example, I found that the empathetic, strengths-based counselling provided by a social worker fit much better with my personality than the objective, analytical technique used by a psychiatrist.

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness

[1]http://www.overlappingconditions.org/About_COPCs

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025619615002438

[3] https://www.verywell.com/fibromyalgia-comorbid-overlapping-conditions-716184

[4] Absenger, W. (2015). Mindfulness and the Stages of Grief in Chronic Disease. ACEF. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://amacf.org/mindfulness-stages-of-grief-in-chronic-disease/

[5] National Cancer Institute. (2014, October 8). PDQ® grief, bereavement, and coping with loss. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/bereavement/patient

[6] Paul Grossman, Ulrike Gilmer, Annette Raysz and Ulrike Kesper. 2007. Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-up Benefits in Well-being. Psychology and Psychosomatics 76: 226-233

[7] Holmes, A., Christelis, N., and Arnold, C. (2012). Depression and chronic pain. MJA Open Suppl (4):17-20.

[8] Grohol, J. (2016). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/