It is my two year anniversary of being hive-free. Yes, a strange event to have an anniversary for, but if you’ve ever had a health issue that took months or longer to resolve, you can relate. I had hive flair-ups all over my body, every single day, for one year.
During this uncomfortable year, I felt tired and groggy constantly, even when I first awoke in the morning. Life was an uphill battle – just the little things took extreme amounts of will to accomplish. I remember looking at the clock at 9:30 am and thinking I am way too tired to make it through this day. Even though I was only thirty-eight, I felt very old, like the best part of life was behind me. Not a fun, or productive, way to live.
Today, while still aware of the underlying condition that caused the hives, I feel vibrant and alive. The here and now is fulfilling. Exhaustion doesn’t hit me until 10 p.m. when I happily crawl under the covers feeling that a rest has been well earned. I’m actually excited about life – I know that while I have already lead a full life with many awesome memories and experiences, the best is yet to come.
What I now know is that an autoimmune disease was part of the underlying cause of the chronic hives. But I believe that at the root of my problem was chronic inflammation – the inflammation was a precursor to the auto-immunity. Our bodies use inflammation as a mechanism of defense against unwanted intruders or pathogens, but if the wrong factors are present (like poor diet and excessive stress) and the inflammation train gets going, it can accelerate to destructive levels. Once this train is going out of control, it is not easy to calm it down. Inflammation is only meant to be turned on when the body is in real danger, not chronically.
I may have lived with red hives forever, if I had not done the elimination diet. For thirty-one days, I ate only organic bone broth soups with vegetables, cooked vegetables, simple 3-ingredient, blueberry smoothies, and an Indian dish called Kitcharee. On day seventeen of this month, the hives did not show up, and I have not seen them since. What a relief!
After the elimination diet, I slowly added foods in, one at a time and only one every three days – it can take three days for the body to adversely react to a food. My body was fine with all the foods I added – granted, I have stayed with a whole-food, gluten and dairy free diet this entire two years. As hard as this sometimes is, I feel so much better without the inflammation, I refuse to get that train going again.
A lot of us live with low levels of chronic inflammation. This presents as sluggishness, a little extra weight on the body, aches and pains, low libido, bloating, and a general lack of passion. It is interesting to consider ways to calm the inflammation, to care for ourselves in such a way that illnesses such as autoimmunity and other chronic yuckiness do not develop in the first place, or to keep the symptoms calm and dormant if they already have.
One simple practice is deep breathing. Christopher Bergland, author of The Athletes’ way: The Biology of Bliss, writes about deep breathing in his article, The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure. This article is about the Vagus Nerve, a very interesting subject. This nerve wanders from the base of the brain down through the body, touching several key organs along the way – including the heart. He writes, “A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.”
He also discusses how diaphragmatic breathing increases vagal tone.
I invite you pull up a cushion, silence the cellphone, and treat yourself to some deep breathing. Even five or ten minutes a day will give results. First simply observe the current rhythm of your breath without judgement. Due to the hectic pace of modern life, most of us function on a jagged breathing rhythm. After noticing this for a minute or two, begin guiding the inhales and the exhales to a smooth, even rhythm. Counting the length of the inhales and the exhales and nudging them to even is one method. Sometimes it is nice to have the exhales be slightly longer and to envision stress being expelled from the body with the breath out.
This simple exercise will tone the vagus nerve, signalling to the brain and heart that all is well. Practicing regularly has huge impacts on soothing inflammation and promoting well-being.