Dr. Michelle's Story
The Tipping Point
The psychology behind health is so interesting. What does it take for someone to decide it’s time to make a change? For many, including myself, it means getting to the lowest of lows before we have the courage to modify our lifestyle and make the tough decision to take control of our health. My journey towards better health began with me lying on the floor, in a cold sweat, with my whole body trembling. I was plagued by anxiety, depression, insomnia, severe fatigue, inability to exercise, and a feeling of total loss of control. At that point, I decided to take that first step towards true healing.
The Story is Everything
In Functional Medicine, the patient’s story is everything. We gather a thorough history about your heritage, parents' health, birth history, early feeding, antibiotic use and all the details of stressors, exposures, traumas; a complete health history. This way we can piece together your predisposing factors, triggers and mediators (the things that keep you sick, like a poor diet for example). In hindsight, by looking at our stories, many aspects of our current health become a lot more apparent.
My story begins in Cape Town, South Africa, where I grew up. I was born at term by normal delivery and was breastfed. I had colic as a baby and into my toddler years had continued gastrointestinal complaints and recurrent ear infections (I had many courses of antibiotics early on). I was a happy child and grew up being very active. I always had a love for learning and had an excellent memory and mental stamina.
At age 16, anxiety started to creep in. It wasn’t very obvious but the things I used to do with ease, like playing competitive sports, become a source of angst. I became more anxious about school work. I also started to notice I was fatiguing more easily with exercise, but continued to push myself, telling myself it was in my head. I compensated well and just got on with my fast-paced lifestyle.
At age 18 I started medical school at the University of Cape Town. The stress that comes with medical school, such as long days and nights and pressure to perform, was a big turning point in my health. My symptoms became more obvious, but I ignored them and attributed them to stress and being busy. I was studying full-time, seeing patients and continued to play field hockey 3-4 times a week and maintain a balanced social life. My diet began to decline; more processed foods, late night snacking, alcohol to relax, coffee to get going. I started to get heartburn, bloating and almost daily headaches. I had recurrent sinusitis and jumped between using antiinflammatories, steroid nasal sprays and antibiotics. I treated the reflux with acid blocking medications. As crazy as it sounds, I did not once think that of my lifestyle and stress levels as contributing to all of this.
After medical school, I did my internship/residency in Kwazulu Natal, in a semi-rural post. It was one of the most prevalent areas for HIV and TB, as well as trauma, in South Africa. Work was fast-paced with long hours. We were the work force, the 'slaves' to the system, faced with continuous life and death decisions. There was minimal sleep, no time to eat, no time to be sick, no time to pee. Taking a break meant being lazy and letting down the team. I am grateful for those years in so many ways, but they broke me, physically and mentally. At this stage, I was chronically tired, and extremely anxious. My mood began to decline, I felt numb. I lost touch with family. I had gastrointestinal discomfort daily and the allergies and sinus issues just got worse and I was still medicating and pushing through. I ended up having sinus surgery, which, of course, did not really help much.
After that, I was faced with another year of rural work, with even higher demands and responsibilities. I was stressed, sleep deprived, depressed, and desperate to make a change. This is when I decided to move across the Atlantic. Canada always appealed to me and I knew one or two others that had just made the move. I packed up everything into a couple of bags and some crates and started off in Lethbridge, Alberta.
3 months into my move, I started to get really sick. I was vomiting daily, for no apparent reason. My heartburn was worse. I was bloated. I had nasal congestion, headaches, and I couldn't think straight. I was building my practice and working long hours. I was anxious but apathetic, losing energy by the day. I kept pushing through, working, exercising, socializing, traveling. I was getting sick more often and taking longer to recover each time; this went on for years.
An inroad to healing: Functional Medicine
With my conventional medical background, I felt like I was going crazy. I felt that I fit into the “psychosomatic” box and knew for certain that Western medicine had nothing to offer me that would truly get me well. I started researching other avenues and I stumbled upon functional medicine. I watched an online summit about detoxification and was instantly hooked. Within a month, I had booked my first module at the Institute of Functional Medicine, to start my certification.
Each time I learned something through my studies, I tried to apply it. I discovered that I may be having food sensitivities that were triggering a lot of inflammation in my body and that my mood symptoms and sleep issues were related to my adrenal glands being strained. I tried many different things to try get myself on track, but the fatigue continued. I didn't feel like socializing, and I lost my sense of humour. My brain was foggy and I couldn't think straight. I did not speak to anyone about what was going on, for fear of being misunderstood.
Fast forward 6 months. I had come off a month of many nights of work where sleep was lacking. I was traveling more than ever for work and pleasure, eating poorly and exercising less. I was stressed out from trying to balance work and studying, while still trying to maintain balance. My routine was get up, study, work, play, work out, study, sleep repeat; until one day, I crashed. It was that dramatic. I was on the floor, in a cold sweat, my body trembling. I felt worse than I'd ever felt. I couldn't make it to work. That was the day I finally decided to take charge of my health. I became a patient at Lynne Murfin MD. It was a huge relief to finally get some expert guidance in my healing journey.
I was diagnosed with celiac disease, after having a previously false negative blood test a few months before. This, among other things, was inflaming my body. My kidneys were not functioning well. My adrenal glands were taking a huge strain and my cortisol had flat-lined. My hormones were completely out of balance and my neurotransmitters were not optimal. This would explain why I was so tired and wired, anxious and not coping well. I had a high body burden of heavy metals, which further aggravated the inflammatory process and was a result of poor antioxidant reserve, coupled with genetics and a leaky gut. After over a year of managing the above, I discovered that I have “Multi-susceptible” genetics, a chronic inflammatory response syndrome, as a result of a mold trigger. This was one of my key root causes, fueled by stress, poor lifestyle choices, medication use, and undiagnosed celiac disease.
This information was wonderful to have. I felt validated about how I was feeling. I was no longer feeling crazy or misunderstood. However, it was also completely overwhelming. I was in my thirties and my body was completely packing up. How did I do this to myself? How did I let myself get so sick before doing something about it?
My diagnosis began a time of frustration, isolation and deep soul searching. I felt like I could not be completely open about what I was going though, for fear that I would be judged, as I did not look unwell from the outside.
I cleaned up my diet, became aware about toxins in my environment and removed as many of them as I could. I focused on sleeping at least 8 hours per night. I toned down my exercise and only did gentle exercise when I had energy for it. I meditated and spent time self-reflecting. I was on supplements to support my digestion, support my mitochondria, and give me energy. I needed hormones to support the low levels that were showing on my tests. I got intravenous vitamins to boost my adrenals. I eventually got IV chelation, when my body was ready for it.
Within about 6 months of being on my healing program, I was having more days of feeling good than not. I had more energy, my mood was much better and my sense of humour came back! The fogginess I’d been feeling for so long was lifting; I could exercise again and I was socializing and reconnecting with friends.
A few years later, I am still very much on the journey of healing. I believe this is a lifelong journey with no set endpoint. To me, health is about feeling vital, having the energy to accomplish my goals, having an inner strength, and resiliency to cope with any situation. It is feeling a connection with the people around me and a feeling of purpose. I still work daily at trying to maintain balance in my life. I remind myself that each healthy choice I make is a win, even if I don’t get it 100% right.
I am grateful to be where I am today and believe that I have been guided in this direction. In no way has this been an easy journey, but it has most definitely been well worth it. My decline in health has truly put me in the shoes of a patient and inspired me to keep learning about how I can help others.