Friday, November 14, 2014

Getting Back My Health, Getting Back to Being 'Me'

Well hello! It's been a while! Since July, in fact, just after finishing Vineman 70.3. This blog is mostly about my adventures in training and racing, and, well, there's been none of that since Vineman so it makes sense that the blog went silent, right?

However, I also like this blog to be a window into my life and everything that's going on even if I'm not racing like a beast. Actually, I've sat down several times to post on here with good intention -- for example, I thought I'd make a blog comeback with a rad post on the Laguna Beach Aquathon that we did in September -- a 9-mile ocean swim and hike down the coast -- or when I was at Interbike, or when I went to Kona for the Ironman World Championships (reporting via Endurance Planet, check it out in the archives!). But those never happened (well, the events happened and were epic but not the blogs ;))

Cool stuff IS going on in life that's blog-worthy despite no racing. But here's the thing. I'm busier than ever, and a large part of my life is attached to the computer screen these days so when it comes time to wrap up work I need to step away. It's been an important part of my journey this year to find more life balance, and it's definitely been different than every other year since 2007 when I became a triathlete. It's weird and exciting at the same time. You're about to find out.... oh my, what a year it's been!

Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment, email me and/or inquire further about anything. I'm putting myself out there to help educate, increase awareness and hopefully help others find their path to optimal health!

Journey to Fixing My Health

Brief Background Of How It Went 'South'
Regaining complete health was priority numero uno of 2014. Last year I did a number on myself, and without a doubt the years prior played a role in my dwindling health too. Since 2007 when I started triathlon and graduated college (and even before that) it was just go go go, train train train, race race race, work work work, stress stress stress. I was averaging 10+ races a season and loving it, but neglecting proper rest, and not recognizing -- nor owning -- how high-strung I could get. It finally caught up. Plus, I'm not saying I'm old, but I am no longer a spring chicken and am getting older (30 in less than 6 months) -- that didn't help the matter either. I was no longer "invincible" and able to bounce back from smashing myself like I was at 22 (smashing carries many definitions, hehe).

So last year (2013) it started to get tough for me. I knew I wasn't right as early as June 2013, in fact, when I got bloodwork done and there were red flags. I kept going. It was especially apparent that I was totally blah by the end of the year at Vegas 70.3 Worlds and that stretch all the way until after our Kona trip. I look at Kona pics and I see me looking worn down and like I'd aged 10 years in just one year alone. (Oh and IM Tahoe sandwiched in there... In fact, I now see it as a blessing in disguise that Tahoe worked out the way it did.) After all that, last winter I finally gave myself the green light to rest extensively for a "true" offseason.

Without measuring and data and going off feel (I'll admit -- I was feeling rather good) I then made an attempt to get back to my old ways at the beginning of this year with the intentions of going back to racing as usual, starting with a few small races, mostly running events, and then Eagleman 70.3 on tap to really kick it off. Training and all that was going ok but it didn't last long. I held on for a gnarly training camp in April (and enjoyed it). But even before and after that camp, I felt deep down that any glimpse of health and being "Ms. Fit" was slipping away, and I could feel those same issues coming back. It's important to note: some of this was my fault, some was out of my control; I was trying to take care of myself (but still turning away to the pink elephant in the room).

It then crescendoed with giant blow up (in my opinion) on May 13, aka that silly fall off the mountain bike during a photo shoot that resulted in a wrist fracture -- a fall that shouldn't have happened, and clearly a sign that I was not completely recovered from that offseason alone, and not in a good place. (Thankfully dexa scans did confirm, however, that my bones were strong -- it was just the worst way to land in that fall). That was the last straw for me; I could see and feel myself on the path of destruction. It was time to freakin just stop and figure out my shit once and for all.

Ok, so I didn't quite stop just yet. I did Vineman as perhaps one last attempt to see if I could be "me" out there on the race course, and I even tried a different approach to training with the whole "minimalist" thing, but it just wasn't good racing and I wasn't feeling strong at all. Alright, time to let it go....

Road to Repair
It was actually a great feeling of relief to let go of the idea that I had to train and race -- as if I had let those things define who I was before, but not anymore. I am me for being me, regardless if I toe the line or wakeup early every Sunday to do the long ride. I refused to let my health status continue to spiral down in order to try and perform. Well, it was pretty clear I had hit that wall where I wasn't even able to perform even on pure adrenaline/cortisol anymore -- my body was shot and shutting down (hence Vineman).

Don't get me wrong, I was still very capable in other aspects of life -- work and whatnot -- but when you're an athlete you feel things in your body at another level. It's a crazy hyperawareness of little tiny things that make a big difference -- not so the case for the recreational exerciser/non-athlete in my opinion.

Recognizing Stress
Despite being capable and stoked on the work front, and feeling happy and perky when I needed to be, more and more I was suffering from stress overload and feeling not-as-happy -- things would trigger me and I'd irrationally stress out over dumb stuff. Often. Ok, so yea, I'm traditionally a Type A gal who tends to stress and want things "perfect," but that's no excuse -- the self-induced episodes of stressing out had to stop once and for all. It was just silly and literally ruining my body! And when I'm talking stress, I'm not talking about actual anxiety disorders or clinical issues, I'm simply talking about the same kind of stress many of you probably experience on a regular basis. But that is stress, folks, and it wreaks havoc. If you let it escalate, can manifest into this huge negative health outcome.

My Team & Health Testing
I knew that in order to really figure things out and change I had to get testing done and team up with the right specialists (not general primary care physicians who gave me stupid answers to the problems at hand) to help me. It was quite incredible how my little team of helpers came together. I found a great functional medicine doctor locally through a recommendation by Dr. Minkoff, who's on my podcast. Then also thanks to my podcast, Chris Kelly at Nourish Balance Thrive reached out to me. I swear, Chris was/is like my angel -- he contacted me just at the right time when I needed his help more than ever. Chris and Dr. Jamie Busch at NBT are the shiznit. I recommend everyone check them out. They're athletes who are functional health specialists -- a win-win combo for any athlete looking to optimize health.

The tests I got included:

-Blood work - everything you can imagine (see my list that you can use here)
-Saliva - 4 samples in one day to measure cortisol and hormones (better than blood alone)
-Organic acids urine test* - my new favorite test EVER; tests for metabolic functions inclduing gastrointestinal/gut health, cellular and mitochondrial health, neurotransmitters, amino acid balance, etc.
-Stool test* - to rule out any parasites, more on gut health, etc.

I know. A lot. but hey, if you're going to get tested you might as well do it all so there are NO question marks remaining. What if I had contracted a parasite? I didn't. But it was important to know because had I, it would be wreaking havoc and there would be a specific treatment for it. Folks, if you swim in open bodies of water or travel and eat random food, you just never know...

*See my actual test results and hear the analysis on this free webinar:

Results of Tests 
So anyway, what did I find out? In a nutshell:

The bad:

-My hormones were jacked up royally, but surprisingly better than when I tested in 2013 so at least I was doing something right and on the right track, sorta. But in my journey I was noticing female-specific issues that were not cool with me, so I knew hormonal stuff was at play. (In fact sex hormone, cycles, etc, are a big issue in female endurance athletes; just listen to my podcast with pro triathlete Angela Naeth on the matter. Many girls can ignore certain issues and you're not going to die, and you might even feel generally not that bad. But is it healthy? No.).

-Cortisol was good in morning but tanked by afternoon (confirmed via saliva) - hence why I was dying of fatigue every day by around 2-3pm.

-Speaking of hormones, pretty sure I was a picture-perfect example of the pregnenolone steal. (We talk about that in this podcast).

-My gut health was total crap - I had SIBO and candida (yeast overgrowth)! WHAT?! But actually, this made great sense and something I suspected even before testing.

-More issues came up in the Organic Acids tests (again, you can hear details on this webinar; pretty cool).

-Stool test was negative for parasites or other issues, but re-confirmed candida/yeast issue.

The good:

-It wasn't all bad. My bloodwork for other markers came back totally clear -- e.g. I was totally ok in areas of iron/ferritin levels, cholesterol, metabolic panel, liver enzymes, CBC, Vitamin D levels, hsCRP (no signs of high inflammation), and all that usual basic stuff.

Diagnosis & Why Those Results??
Honestly, it's complicated. There's a history there that must me taken into deep consideration, and in drawing conclusions you really have to paint a full picture of the person -- digging into a lot of nitty gritty stuff. Taking into account the full history is something the functional docs will do - not your typical physician who only spend a few seconds with you.

In my case, if I were to simplify and narrow it down, I think my team of docs and I all agree stress and certain aspects of lifestyle (years of mega endurance training especially) were huge factors in many of the issues plaguing me, including even the onset of yeast overgrowth! I'm talking all kinds of stress -- the stress of physical endurance training, mental stress, a life of constantly feeling the need to be on the go and as a result always in a "fight or flight" state, and so on...

Seriously, in your own journey to health and/or your own self-evals, don't discount the stress of training (and the usual psychological stress of "needing" to train that accompanies it). Even if you love your training and it makes you happy (like me!), it still is a stress on the body. Why do you think guys like Mark Sisson gave it up?

The Role of Diet, Food and Accidentally Too Low Carb
You can also argue that food and diet also led to certain issues with me like the candida and hormonal problems. I'll say, for the record, my bodyweight never got too low (i.e. never below 130lbs at 5'7) nor was I restrictive in overall calories in the least bit. In fact, the opposite is true. I was actually holding on to more body fat than normal for me and appearing as if I was losing lean muscle mass -- despite still working out, strength training, and all that...

Food-wise, I was eating the calories that's for sure and it goes without saying that I eat very healthfully, but I will admit: I was too low carb and perhaps did one to many training sessions on an empty stomach. I firmly believe that "training low" (i.e. empty stomach) must be used VERY carefully for women, and it most cases if done in excess is extremely dangerous.

In my case, my too low-carbness was partly an honest mistake of which I was not aware, and partly my fault. On one hand, I did want to be somewhat low carb for increased metabolic efficiency and, ironically, health reasons. But on the other hand I just wasn't paying close enough attention to my actual carb intake by the numbers, and in attempt to "eat clean" regularly I was inevitably cutting out quite a bit of carbs. The carbs I did have were mostly starchy root veggies/whole foods like sweet potatoes and whatnot but not really any grains, legumes, or things like that (like I once did eat regularly). I wasn't even eating oatmeal anymore. But again -- I want to make the point that I wasn't too low calorie (lots of high-fat in my diet), I was just too low carb, especially for the lifestyle I had with training. And, no, I wasn't counting grams/calories.

Trust me, please trust me, I am not anti-carb/anti-grain, I do not promote ketosis, and I don't condone restrictive diets. Personally I wasn't even restricting foods myself, except for avoiding gluten or glaringly "bad" foods like fast food/junkfood/excessive refined sugar/vegetable oils (but, hell, you'll even see me eat gelato or even gluten-filled pizza sometimes, just not regularly). Additionally, despite being "low carb" I was actually regularly eating things like Bonk Breakers, occasionally rice/Allen Lim rice cakes, gluten-free pizza, gluten-free crackers, those dessert indulgences with John, etc. Again -- I was never purposefully restricting myself, I just like to eat clean, and honestly I'm that girl who craaaaves things like veggies (brussels sprouts ftw!!!), avocados, hearty animal protein and whatnot. So that's what I end up eating a lot of!

After realizing, "Holy crap, I'm too low carb," (in fact I was even showing signs of being in ketosis as we pointed out on the webinar), I immediately made the change and introduced more carbs and grains more regularly into my diet. No big deal! I was fine with it. And in fact, it really helped quickly (but there were other variables that were helping me so I can't say carbs alone are the cure; it's complicated).

What About Alcohol & Sugar?
Anyway, I can't just vilify carbs or lack thereof. I know in 2013 (and maybe before), as well as early this year I was indulging much more in stuff with John than ever before in my life especially craft beer and (this may sound backwards) sugar-filled things -- but even "healthy" sugary things like raw vegan pies and things I baked or made for us. Just because I was low carb doesn't mean I denied sweets ;) Plus, that's what happens in a relationship, you eat and drink delicious things together, right? So I blame John ;) Kidding.

But, for real: All that yeasty glutinous beer and even the sugar (despite not being overly excessive) did not fare well with me nor my worsening issues. Not only did those things contribute to yeast overgrowth (the little yeast guys were just feeeeeding off the beer and multiplying in my gut!), but it surely was not helpful in maintaining a healthy body overall. Alcohol and sugar are drugs, and even in moderation if you're vulnerable it'll do more harm than good as I saw.

I suspected candida even before it was confirmed, and in fact had mostly given up beer slightly before my testing, but the damage was done. Since cutting it out, I do not miss it/its effects on me. Beer is fun, but the side effects -- yuck.

Candida Recovery
So then once I found out about the candida for sure, I was even more gung-ho on giving up not just beer but sugar and booze in general, so for me that meant wine (I don't drink hard alcohol ever) as well as my beloved dark chocolate and even "healthy" sugar like that from dates, fruit, etc. It honestly wasn't hard to let go of wine & treats knowing I needed to repair myself. I guess it's like when you get pregnant -- you just do what you have to do for good health.

I also followed somewhat of a anti-candida diet, but I loosely followed that, I'll admit. No crazy cleanse, no major restrictions. Mostly just giving up aforementioned alcohol and sugar (including most fruit), as well as trigger foods like beets, to which I've come to realize I am sensitive (see a list of candida trigger foods to avoid here). Instead of my dark chocolate and glass of wine at night, I replaced that with sparkling water mixed with Magnesium powder and a drop of stevia.... and occasionally when I wanted dessert I would (and still do) make a sugar-free "chocolate pudding" with cacao powder, cacao nibs, stevia, coconut, nut milk, sometimes avocado, and various other things.

Grains were totally IN during this process, as long as they were gluten free. In fact, I fell in love with buckwheat groats this year and eat them 24/7 -- heck, I am typing over a bowl of groats as we speak actually!

See a list of approved foods to prevent/kill candida here.

While I didn't "cleanse" per se, Chris at NBT had me take some antimicrobial supplements and oil of oregano to kill off the bad bacteria/yeast, as well as probiotics and a fermented foods to grow back the good bacteria. In fact, interesting I was taking a probiotic but had to switch because it turns out the one I was taking had a strain that was "bad" for me in terms of the overgrowth issue -- only found this out via the organic acids test.

If you suspect that you need to clean your gut do the test. But if don't want to do all the testing, I recommend the book "Clean Gut," which has a good protocol and supplement tips.

In addition to the items listed above to repair my gut, I had other stuff to repair too and Chris also put me on a better-quality CoQ10 (the one I was taking was not being absorbed), Basic B Complex, and Thorne AM/PM Multi. I was also taking other usuals like fish oil, Vitamins C & D, PharmaNAC, and natural herbal remedies unique to my needs that my other functional doc gave me (i.e. adaptogenic herbs). Additionally I was even doing things via nutrition and my sleep environment to promote hormonal balance and a smooth cycle -- crazy cool stuff! Feel free to inquire.

It was a lot of supplements for a while, but thankfully just temporary and then cutting back to just the standards that I'd take regularly anyway.

During that time, I was warned that for the sake of my liver it was even more important to lay off any excessive alcohol. Easy. In fact, I have ended that mega supplementing phase but have yet to go back to drinking much at all. Outside a couple "splurge" nights, I rarely have alcohol anymore.... I just love the way I feel without wine or beer. I do enjoy a good glass of wine, but keep it to a very minimum nowadays. Trust me, in my day I've had my share of booze so I can live without it now ;) However, if you ask me to go to a brewery or a winery or out with friends for happy hour -- I am IN! I still love doing all that!! I just don't drink like a sailor (or at all sometimes).

Did it Work? Am I Cleaned Up and Healthy? What's Next?
It took several dedicated months on this health plan to let the action take place within me. Along with the supplements and careful attention to a good diet, I was working on stress management -- recognizing my stress, dealing with what stresses me out, and/or preventing stress with more focus than I ever have in my entire life. I'm not gonna lie, this was tough at times, and much harder than simply taking supplements and cutting back on booze and sugar. When you are looking to reduce and manage stress, that requires a lot from one's self. Meanwhile, I was coping with "letting go" of my love for training and racing (knowing this was ultimately just temporary). But I was and still am exercising consistently just doing whatever, also focusing on balancing out many imbalances I've accumulated over the years (another long post that needs to be written).

But you know what? Once my gut and hormones started returning to a healthy state, my stress levels automatically started improving. (Totally a chicken and the egg situation on some level.) In addition, I could feel the benefits of a healthier gut and hormones getting better in the form of overall better moods, energy, work productivity, focus, happiness, complexion, etc, etc. Even little things like the acne I would get on my chin cleared up.

Speaking of my body -- I guess I never realized how bad my gut had gotten until I cleaned it up. All that bloating, gas, and occasional issues with going #2 that I used to have and thought was normal. It wasn't. Until I fixed my gut I had no idea how bad things were in me. I now see what I'm sensitive to in terms of food and drink, and what causes bloating.... I know I need to be careful still even with things like sugar. I think I'm still vulnerable and perhaps not totally 100% out of the woods yet.

Same goes for everything else... I am remarkably better, I can't even describe! But I know I'm not completely out of the woods yet, and still working on "me" all the time. But gosh where I'm at today vs. last year at this time? It's been an incredible journey and I've grown as a person/coach more than I can ever describe in words.

I'm not ready to get back to officially training for races yet -- well maybe that's not entirely true. It's complicated haha. Some days I am incredibly motivated to train for triathlon and go for it -- and shoot for that goal of a sub-5 half-Ironman that I've been so close to getting (on the other hand, I have zero desire currently to do a full Ironman lol). However, then other days all I want to do is strength train and/or yoga, but no s/b/r. Some days I just wanna ocean swim, surf, and SUP. Then other days I want to sign up for an open marathon and try that out (which is actually sounding like the most likely option right now if I were to pull the trigger on a race). I'm staying fit, so when I'm ready, the foundation is there.

But at the end of the day, my life is much more about my work and others rather than my own training/racing right now. I am love love loving my job(s) and my people in my network. Not to mention, I am on a quest to become a master at what I practice in my line of work -- I have some serious serious goals and am soooo motivated to do some BIG things. Meanwhile, personally sticking to a periodized training plan to train, meh. It's just not a personal priority right now, and there are so many hours in a day.... We'll see.

Thanks for visiting and reading!