Chronic Illness

When Getting Sick Is What Teaches You How To Be Healthy

These lessons in self-care are what arthritis and Crohn's disease have taught me.

Self-care was never my strong suit, but it’s something I’ve learned to embrace. Growing up a hopeful athlete, movement was more my thing. As a child, it took the form of kicking footballs; during my teens and early adulthood, it morphed into martial arts, strength training, and all things high intensity.

Keeping fit is generally a healthy pursuit, but like many things in life, the poison is in the dose. If you’re not balancing a silly amount of exertion with a hefty stint of R&R, at some point, things break.

Said breaking point for me came at university. Juggling a high workload, anxiety, and homesickness, my coping mechanism was to train hard. It was something I could lose myself in up to three times a day, whenever I felt down. On the mats and at the gym, I shut off from the BS in my head.

With no thought towards recovery or stress management, inevitably my health deteriorated. The body screamed for rest, but like an overzealous gambler, the mind ignored the signs of looming trouble. 

Suffering is a Valuable Teacher

It’s probably no surprise that after years of masochistic sporting endeavors, I received a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease and Seronegative Spondyloarthropathy (a form of arthritis that I still struggle to pronounce). While it’s certainly no fun waking up to a boatload of joint pain or having to run to the toilet ten times a day, the illness has taught me a whole lot.

There’s often a genetic component to autoimmune conditions, but I believe I inadvertently formulated the perfect cocktail to trigger the onset. The good news is that today, by reverse engineering those triggers, I’m largely able to manage my symptoms and enjoy an active lifestyle without any pills or potions. 

The good news is that today, by reverse engineering my triggers, I’m largely able to manage my symptoms and enjoy an active lifestyle without any pills or potions. 

Note, I’m not vilifying pharmaceuticals as they’re in many cases absolutely necessary. But I’d love to share some of the more natural solutions and lessons that have helped me out. Not just for the folk who are currently in pain, but also those of you who want to be more proactive with your health. Take it from me—it’s better to look after your body from the start than to wait until it’s shouting at you to do so.

Lesson 1: Stress is The Foundation 

Stressors are inevitable. They’re constantly out there, whether we notice them or not. The way I (try) to see it, my health conditions brought about a heightened sensitivity to stress. 

It’s kind of my own weird superpower (although I’d trade it for superhuman strength if there are any takers). My messed up spidey-sense means that if I’m not on point with stress management, I quickly spiral into a cascade of joint pain and stomach issues which can last for months. 

For others, the consequences of stress might not be so immediate or obvious. But I’d argue that it’s still something worth addressing. 

Now, I don’t get it right all the time. But when I’m consistent with a few key practices, I can often avoid a flare up or at least more easily sit with the feelings of pain and discomfort.

  • Meditation. My go-to is Headspace or free guided meditations. Just 5-10 minutes in the morning and a few mindful minutes sprinkled throughout the day can massively improve my ability to handle stressors in a productive way.
  • Breathwork. It sounds new-agey, but the power of the breath is incredible. Just a few minutes of box breathing or a similar technique helps me calm the nervous system down in times of heightened stress. 
  • Cold Exposure. There’s been a lot of interesting research out lately about the role of cold exposure and the Wim Hof method in managing autoimmune conditions and chronic pain. A cold shower most days or a dip in the Celtic Sea are a big part of my self-care routine. It doesn’t always have to be comfortable to be beneficial.  

Lesson 2: Practicing Vs. Training

Spending the bulk of my childhood as a semi-competitive athlete, fitness was for me largely about going hard or going home. 

The health stuff helped me reframe my relationship with physical activity for the better. Its been a slow process, but the shift in mindset has made me more resilient, much less injury-prone, and more able to let go of the competitive mindset and just have fun. Some of the main things I’ve prioritized include:   

  • Mobility Training. Mobility is the ability of our joints to move through full range of motion with control. It’s not as sexy as lifting heavy things or running fast, but for me, it’s helped re-lay the foundation for healthy movement.
  • Quality Over Quantity. The number of kilos on the bar doesn’t matter if it breaks you. By switching my focus to how well I move as opposed to how much I can push myself, I’ve been able to reduce the stress on my body from training, and therefore become more consistent with it.
  • Recovering Hard. Recovery is just as important as the training itself, perhaps more so if you have chronic pain. Breathwork, stretching, hot-cold contrast and sleep hygiene are things I’ve taken a deep dive into since the diagnosis (that I might not have otherwise).

Lesson 3: Let Food Be Thy Medicine

My initial foray into nutrition was with the intention of using food to perform well, nothing more. The health challenges brought about a shift in this focus. Food was no longer just something to fuel my performance. It became about supporting my wellbeing. 

Aside from the basics of eating plenty of veggies and drinking water, here are three of the most valuable things I discovered over the past few years when it comes to diet:

  • Mindful Eating. Arguably, how we eat is just as important as what we eat. I used to wolf my food, trying to guzzle as many calories as I could before the next training session. I now try to slow down and chew thoroughly, and I not only enjoy my meals more, but I’m able to digest them properly and potentially even absorb more of the beneficial nutrition.
  • Genetic Testing. The science of DNA testing is ever-improving, and I really think it’s the future of preventative medicine. Without getting bogged down in the details, getting mine tested highlighted a number of important factors (including that I had an MTHFR mutation that reduces my ability to absorb folate). 
  • Smart Supplementation. Real food comes first, but there’s a time and a place for supplements. In the search for answers on my health journey, blood tests revealed I’m prone to low vitamin D levels, poor B-12 absorption and the above-mentioned folate issues. By supplementing with those and a few other natural anti-inflammatory compounds, I’m able to fill in the gaps and support my health.

Over to You

It sounds cliché, but one thing I hope you can take away from my ramblings is that most challenges we come up against can be used as opportunities to grow.

Without the symptoms and the eventual diagnosis, who knows if I would have discovered all these weird ways to support my long-term health? 

Without the symptoms and the eventual diagnosis, who knows if I would have discovered all these weird ways to support my long-term health? 

Would I have taken that step back to take care of myself, mentally and physically, or would I have carried on pushing myself until the wheels fell off completely?