Turning 51, part One of Healing is Possible


I. 

In one week, I turn 51. I’m really happy about that. I was not happy about turning 50. I made a big deal out of it, built up to it, threw a big party. I’d hoped it would be great. The lead up was great, fantastic even. That’s when I was 49. Everything after 50, not so much. Until now. 

Today is April 26 and it’s 7:39 am on Saturday. I’ve eaten breakfast (a big bowl of onions, daikon radish, baby broccoli, brown rice, hemp seeds) after downing several glasses of water. In other words, a normal start to my day. 

I teach a Nia class in 90 minutes, and I can choose several things to do right now. I can keep writing this blog. I can keep reading the novel I started last night. I can practice some Nia before class.

50 year old me probably would keep writing. But acting like the 51 year old that I almost am, I’d like to get moving. I need a head start before class plus it will feel nice to be prepared for class. 

Yeah, that’s how I want 51 to be.  A little less rushed, a little more lubed and ready to go.


II.

I’m tired, I’m cold and despite having just eaten breakfast, I’m hungry.  Let me explain.

Today is Sunday, April 27, and it’s 8:36 am. I’ve been awake since 5am. I wake up at night often and it’s difficult to fall back asleep. I’m not worried, or maybe I am. I simply can’t settle. I know to heal I must rest. 

I’ve been going to Cindy Wu for acupuncture for years, and she’s done an amazing job of supporting me through allergies and perimenopause. I had called her on Friday, feeling somewhat desperate for an appointment and she fits me in, as she often does. She says this is kidney yin deficiency, gives me a treatment, gives me Chinese herbs, and says the ringing in my ears and dry mouth and all the other symptoms will get better. I will get better. 

It’s as good a story as any: I will heal. 

This is a lovely article about kidney yin deficiency. It explains that according to Chinese medicine, we’re born with a certain amount of Jing (think of life force or Qi energy; how much Jing we have at birth is inherited from our parents). We replenish Jing through nutrition. But age and excess drain our Jing, and age may inhibit the powers of our digestion, too. 

Oh, and menopause -- too much yang, not enough yin. Those of us who have been pushing hard for years find we still push, flashing out our Yang energy like a shield, but underneath it all, we’re soft, tired, depleted. The Yang energy we project is a mask, not a true strength. 

The symptoms for kidney yin deficiency -- dry mouth, tingling, ears ringing -- feel similar to the ones I’ve ascribed to eating issues, that is, difficulties digesting and metabolizing. 

That’s because it’s right after I eat that the symptoms begin or worsen. Sometimes there’s a tingling in my arms or even my lips tingle. My throat may be tight and my jaw is even tighter. My ears feel full, stuffed, though the worst is the ringing, sometimes painfully sharp and shrill and other times a dull high roar. Sometimes I can’t describe the sensations except to say I feel strange, or wrong. 

I have been searching the internet to find out why this is happening. Why did my intuition say not to eat the guacamole? Is there something(s) I’m eating that set off these reactions? The internet points me to histamine intolerance and I see a list of foods that set off a reaction. Avocado is there along with tomatoes -- that’s the guacamole. 

The list includes many foods that I love and so many foods that I am not sure how to eat enough calories each day. Sometimes a little of this or a little of that is fine, but supposedly it’s the sum total, as it usually is with allergies and intolerances. It all builds up. Some foods contain more or less histamine depending on how ripe they are, so the less ripe banana may be tolerated well by someone at some points. There isn’t a simple list of Eat This and Avoid That. 

One site I appreciate very much, the Low Histamine Chef. She reminds us that we need histamine to digest our food. That’s why sometimes we react to everything we eat, not just the foods that are high in histamine. She urges us to eat foods that support our overall nutritional needs, even if it’s supposedly high in histamine. I appreciate her words but I’ve become afraid anyway. I’m afraid because I can’t tell anymore, not by keeping a food log and tracking symptoms and not by intuition, which foods nurture and which foods deplete. 

I do not see how I can pare my diet down any further. I eat no beans or legumes, the source of my allergic reaction three months ago. I try not to eat nuts because the histamine intolerance internet sites warn against them, but I’m hungry. Does the chicken or do the eggs I eat worsen the symptoms? I’m hungry. The pumpkin seeds seemed to make my symptoms worse and sesame seeds may as well. Can I eat sunflower seeds? I eat hemp seeds for protein along with whatever I get from quinoa, brown rice, and vegetables. I eat more eggs and chicken than I really want because, well, I’m hungry and also because I want to be sure that I’m getting all the nutrition I need.

I cycle through my responses. Hey, I’m hungry so I’m eating this food anyway because it’s a truly healthful food. Ack, I hate these symptoms so I’m not going to eat anything that might be causing a problem. Oh, I will never get well. Oh, stop whining, it’s not that hard; as long as I can eat some grains, some seeds, and vegetables, really, I’m getting good nutrition and I’ll be fine. 

Mostly I wonder if the internet is right. Mostly I hate that I am becoming Crazy Food Lady, the one with long lists of what she can’t eat and a crazy reason she can’t eat it.

Dr. Wu says these symptoms are due to the kidney yin deficiency. I search the internet again. Which foods should I eat to help with kidney yin deficiency and which should I avoid? The list looks a bit like my histamine intolerance list and a lot like my intuition. Yes to warm foods, yes to soup, yes to greens, no to spicy or stimulating foods. 

I decide that Dr. Wu will help me heal and I’ll stop having these intense reactions, eventually. It’s as good a story as any.

III.

I’m quiet. 

It’s still April 27 and now it’s 11:18 am. I surrendered and went back to lie down in bed. It felt right. 

Today is run day and I don’t know if I’ll run. Friday was run day, and I didn’t run then. I wanted to run and I could tell my body didn’t really want it. 

For the past three weeks, I’ve been adding mileage. I am so in love with the sensations and experience of running outside. I love extending my runs so I’m out there long enough to get further into the bosque, farther into the North Valley. I’m just under 20 miles a week, 3 runs a week, with my long run at 7 or 8 miles, which is really luscious. 

Not this week, though, and that can be a good response to adding miles, taking a week to back off. 

I have been healing my sore achilles, though I have a ways to go. 

Healing way one: letting the experts work on me, using ART to release some of the adhesions. I saw a lot of relief and progress from working with Dr. Maggio for several weeks.

Healing way two: eccentric calf raises several times a day. I’m not as consistent as I should be, but this method has made a huge difference.

Healing way three: changing my diet to exclude foods that caused inflammation. This has been incredible. Within two days of not eating the foods to which I’d had an allergic reaction, my achilles improved markedly. I’d had no idea how much eating those foods had kept my entire system on alert, inflamed, taxed, and achy. My spirit felt that way, too, actually. When I changed my nutrition, my essential life energy shifted. 

Healing way four: backing off my running miles, all the way down to nil, building up slowly, continuing to work on form and experimenting with finding a shoe that feels good (currently Inov-8 Bare-X 180). 

There’s more healing to do, much in the form of strengthening. Stronger core and hip abductors will mean better form, which means a lighter step. 

I’m still healing my diet, healing my energy, improving my sleep, learning to rest. I’m still healing my spirit, too, getting stronger by being more optimistic, praying more, being kinder in my thoughts to others, being more forgiving toward myself. You might not think this has anything to do with running but it has to do with everything. 


IV. 

Sunday was transformative. I stopped writing after completing the post above. I treated myself as if I were sick -- lots of rest, no expectations -- except I didn’t have to get a cold or the flu or anything to deserve it. It was a pre-emptive strike. I didn’t run. I didn’t even go for a walk since it was nasty cold and really windy. Twice I lay down to nap, though I don’t think I slept. I made my first ever green soup (squash and dandelion greens). 

I also read a really great book. The Last Best Cure by Donna Jackson Nakazawa chronicles “my quest to awaken the healing parts of my brain and get back my body, my joy, and my life.”  Nakazawa nailed the exact right mix of bringing in scientific research to explain what she’s doing and letting us in on her personal life.

After not one but two debilitating bouts of Guillian-Barre syndrome, and having suffered for decades with autoimmune disorders, Nakazawa’s energy and physical abilities were greatly diminished. She managed to continue to keep a household running, raise two kids, and work as a journalist, but she was awfully tired and all out of joy. She wanted more. 

Her new doc specialized in psychoneuroimmunology. They decided together to keep all of Nakazawa’s medicines the same but add in elements that might help her heal. She wanted to use only elements that were accessible and could be made available to everyone. That is, she was experimenting with her own life and hoped others could benefit as well, which I thought was a really lovely way to go after her own healing and to start the cycle of healing -- by focusing not just on herself. 

She chose meditation, yoga, and acupuncture.

Her doc helped her understand that her childhood could have affected her immune system functioning. Greatly simplified, the book describes how some people are like dandelions; they can adapt to any condition. There’s more plasticity in their brains. 

A smaller portion of the population are like orchids, and they thrive only under very specific conditions. They respond more strongly to stress, and on the upside, they respond more strongly to nurturing as well. There is a gene marker to distinguish these two (I’ve also read this gene, 5-HTTLPR, described as the happy gene, indicating which of us are born leaning toward happiness and which of us are not). For some people, then, an adverse childhood event (ACE), such as dealing with poverty, parental divorce, and even abuse, may have a stronger effect on a person’s immune system. 

Childhood trauma is “a strong predictor of adult illnesses,” and her doctor explains, “Your brain became wired early on to be stress reactive. Your immune system has paid the price. The early trauma you experienced sparked neural pathways and a pattern of hormone and inflammatory chemical cascades that have impacted you on a cellular level for decades.”

I want to add two things here. First, thinking in terms of Chinese medicine, imagine how much jing is expended to deal with those childhood traumas. First, it’s traumatic, and that’s hard on anybody. 

But, compounding that, kids don’t have a ton of resources. Depending on their age, they may not even have the resource of logic; for instance, a four year old relies on magical thinking. Imagine being stuck in a four year old’s head. This is what happens with trauma to our thoughts and emotions and nervous system and immune functioning. It gets stuck at the trauma. It worsens if we don’t talk about it and shut down. 

The second thing I want to add is: healing is possible. Exercise, for instance, creates new neurons, and after about six weeks of activity, these new neurons have been shown to be stress-resistant. Here’s the double plus good about exercise. It also stimulates the creation of BDNF, which helps us learn. That means we can replace the negative messages and emotions we created with the trauma by creating new memories on top. In other words, we re-frame the memory so it’s not stuck in a four year old’s point of view. Now I see what happened to me from the perspective of a 51 year old. 

When I’m running, I pray. “May all beings be well, may all beings receive love and compassion.” I also re-frame. I tell my hips that they’re safe now, really, and they don’t have to hold on so tightly any more. 

The psoas has been called the fight-or-flight muscle, and even as it has to work for me to run, I let it know there’s no danger here, there’s no tension to hold as it works. 

I explain to my spirit that I’m strong now and capable, and I wasn’t when I was just four years old. 

I soothe my emotions, acknowledging that I will never ever forget how bad that trauma was, how devastating, but we don’t have to keep feeling those emotions in order to honor and remember. 

I’m running, and I’ve got this cognitive stream going, talking myself through my past and into a new future. You thought I was just going for a run because it’s a fun way to move. It is. It’s also an invitation -- maybe not every run but as often as I need -- to do the deep work that I won’t do sitting in my room. 

Exercise, and in particular running, sets off my joy meter, and joy has a positive effect on not just my mood but also my hormones. Just as worry or pain “can activate the brain to send forth a brew of inflammatory chemical messengers, molecules, and hormones,” joy and a sense of well-being encourage an anti-inflammatory response. 

Running gets me being in nature and exercise, and while it’s not meditation, it certainly feels meditative at times. Being in nature is highly restorative to our brains. 

Our brains are malleable, Nakazawa learns, and she realizes, “The more I learn, the less willing I am to accept that my life now should feel like my life when I was twelve. The more determined I am to change.” Amen, sister. It’s that determination that I think is the beginning of her healing. She also needs the science. She writes, “If we are not our thoughts, then we can change our thoughts,” which sounds pretty new-agey, but she continues, “And if we can changes our thoughts, then perhaps we can change our cells.” 

I think this is practical, not just woowoo. When we change our thoughts, we decide to change our attitudes and behaviors, and we can change to more positive thoughts and behaviors. 

Nakazawa wonders if meditation works not just to soothe the parasympathetic nervous system (so there are fewer fight-or-flight responses -- you know, like how we flip out when we’re stuck in traffic for 30 seconds -- oh, or maybe that was me, not you). Meditation could stimulate “the production of growth hormones linked to the preservation and maintenance of each cell.” Basically, we learn to perceive stressful situations as what they are and then we choose our response. Traffic is a drag, for sure, yet I can choose to be calm or to get agitated. 

Nakazawa gives another example of this. She sees that the clerk at the dry cleaner looks as if he’s in a bad mood. She sends him some loving-kindness, just in her thoughts, and then notices he’s smiling. Did her loving-kindness thoughts work? Did he receive them? Or is she looking for evidence of his happiness and that’s where her attention goes? Does it matter? That’s a fun experiment. Go ahead. Send messages of loving-kindness (any version of “may you be safe, may you be well, may you be happy”). See how your day transforms.

Mindfulness, often a byproduct of meditation, helps in other ways. One UCLA study found that when we label an emotion (“I’m feeling sad now”), this labeling required the prefrontal cortex to be active and simultaneously turned “down the amygdala alarm center response in the brain.” 

That’s genius. Imagine yourself, tired at the end of the day, feeling ill at ease, and craving, ummm, a pizza. Yeah, that’s it, a pizza, cheesy greasy goodness floating on top of soft, chewy bread. But pizza isn’t really a part of your healthful diet this week, so you stop for a moment of mindfulness. You realize, “I’m tired. I feel sad.” The craving for pizza is interrupted. 

“The more we utilize the center of our brain that names feelings,” Nakazawa writes, “the less stressed we feel by them.” I adore the simplicity of this technique. It’s not broad, as in “be mindful of your feelings.” Instead, it gives me something specific to do, name my emotion. I might still choose the pizza, for sure, but the drive, the intensity, the screaming amygdala, gets to shift down for a moment so I can make a choice, and that choice could lead me to greater or less inflammation. 

Want another easy way to feel better? Sigh. A sigh “helps to kick in the parasympathetic nervous system and calms us down.” Make a sound to release some feelings. A little groan will do. 

Nakazawa doesn’t cite her sources here but explains that “mood-related ‘sound signatures’ help us to release the stress and tension we unwittingly hold tight in different places in our bodies. Again, this is practical and quick and easy. I never liked the admonition to “just relax” and “breathe” when I’m stressed out. However, if I make a sound, I have to breathe. I release the sound and there will be a big, corresponding, enriching, soothing inhale that follows it. 

Nakazawa puts together what she calls her emergency toolbox, techniques such as the above that we can use, immediately and effectively, to switch from a high-stress response to a lower stress response. 

She also employs optimism, holding on to the belief that things can get better. This is important in choosing to do the things that might make us feel better. It helps her to see progress, too. Martin Seligman conducted a long-term study that showed that optimism was the most important factor in which cardiac patients would suffer another heart attack and die and which would be alive and kicking eight years later. 

Add to the emergency toolbox some standard practices. For me, that’s Nia and running. This writing that I do. Gratefulness. Being in nature. Remembering to get more hugs. 

Nakazawa explains another of Seligman’s techniques for happiness and good health. Write down or just think about three good things that happened during the day. It will feel great to recollect them and it’s a nice way to unwind before bed. But here’s the kicker. Then ask why each good thing occurred. Did it occur because you were willing to listen? Because you paid attention? Because someone else was stupendously kind -- and you were willing to accept and receive? Note what you did to make good things happen for you in your life. 

Nakazawa even writes her three things down each night on 3X5 cards and then puts them under her pillow to sleep on them. She sets the cards aside and when she re-reads them later, she savors them. She literally feels her heartbeat slow down as she remembers. The healing goes deep. She’s creating a new nervous system and she’s reinforcing it every day and night. 

As Nakazawa begins to heal, her relationship with her kids gets better. She yells a lot less, they tell her. When her teenage son does the type of truly stupid, impulsive and potentially dangerous thing that teenage boys do, Nakazawa starts with a shout -- and then shifts to a hug. Hugs are bonding, hugs are re-assuring, and hugs release oxytocin that makes us feel good. Hugs heal. She tells her son a line she stole from Anne Lamott, a line that makes me cry just thinking about it. She says, “You are preapproved. Just as you are.” Think of everyone you know whom you really love. Preapproved. Now shine that on yourself. Preapproved. 

The overall message of the book is that healing happens, and, indeed, Nakazawa’s health, well-being, and joy level have increased tremendously by the end of her year experiment. 

She’d decided it didn’t matter if she were a dandelion or an orchid. “Growing scientific consensus tells us that efforts to meditate and train the brain might help to rewrite bad epigenetics and even induce new, better epigenetics. Undo the damage of gene methylation, or what some scientists now term our ‘DNA memories.’” 

We all can engage in practices “that downshift the fight-or-flight response and grow new, healthier neural and chemical pathways, simply by adjusting your psychological state of mind.” That’s psychoneuroimmunology. Change your mind, change your body. Change your practices. Change your life. You’re not stuck with your past as if you’re in the past.