We have just spent another glorious week in Cornwall for the last week of the summer holidays. Days spent by the sea and early morning walks along the Camel Trail with my dog Luna have been such a joy. For those not familiar with it, the Camel Trail is an old disused railway line along the beautiful Camel Estuary, which is now a nature trail used for cycling and walking. To avoid a possible canine and cycle collision, I went out early each day and spent a blissful hour before breakfast walking with Luna when it was quiet.
In years gone past, I would have pushed myself to run along the same path but now, I have started allowing myself the pleasure of slowing down. Still moving and still very active, I have embraced the joy of walking with my dog, swimming and yoga. In other words, I have allowed myself to slow down on my journey towards finding a more peaceful way of supporting my body.
But this has been quite a recent change. 18 months ago, when my youngest daughter was about 5 months old, my health suddenly plummeted. The combination of months of sleep deprivation, the chaos of having two very young children and my internal drive to start working again after two weeks of having my second baby all took its toll on my health. There is only so long that you can keep going for like this and, as a result, after a bad bought of tonsillitis just before Christmas, I developed psoriasis, an autoimmune skin condition. At the time, this seemed to me that it came out of the blue but looking back now, my poor health was a ticking time bomb.
Functional Medicine (which addresses the root causes of poor health, rather than just dealing with the symptoms) holds the view that for an autoimmune condition to develop, three things need to be in place:
- A genetic predisposition (✓ there are lots of auto-immune conditions in my family)
- A trigger (✓ my throat infection is a classic trigger of the type of psoriasis I developed)
- Poor gut health, resulting in increased intestinal permeability (✓ lots of stress and sleep deprivation caused havoc with my gut health)
My immune system buckled under the strain of all the systemic inflammation and could only cope with so much, so it turned in on itself. Covered from the neck down in multiple itchy, scaly red patches, I covered up and grew increasingly despairing and frustrated with my body. For a while, I still pushed on and didn’t want to listen to what my body was trying to tell me. It was only when it spread to my face, that I really stopped to listen and what I heard was, ‘Slow down and stop pushing yourself’.
My diet was pretty good at the time, but I had become complacent, and it needed some tweaking post-baby. So, I went back to basics and planned my meals and made sure that I had everything I needed to hand, even when I was busy. And on the days that I felt too tired to cook, I always made sure that I had some batch-cooked meals in the freezer.
A healthy Mediterranean diet is a great place to start when it comes to supporting your health, but it will only take you so far if you are constantly pushing yourself down the road towards burn-out. So, what else have I done over the past year to slow down in the other areas of my life? This is still a work in progress and something that I need to monitor on a weekly, if not daily basis. But these are the four biggest changes I have made so far:
- Taking an extended break from alcohol (9 months so far and still going strong)
- Aiming to shut down my computer by 8.30pm every night and making getting to bed early to read my book a priority (not always easy, but transformative for health)
- Having an early morning stillness practice before my girls wake up and the house is quiet to do yoga, meditation and a develop my spiritual practice (this requires that I get up early, but has become a sacred time for me)
- Swapping high intensity exercise like running and spin classes for calmer activities, such as dog walking, yoga and swimming (this has taken a big mindset shift, but has been essential for healing my immune system)
Thankfully, my psoriasis has been well managed for the last year. It stayed with me for about 10 months. I saw many doctors who couldn’t help me other than to offer a huge variety of steroid creams and, while they helped in the acute phase at the beginning, I knew that this wasn’t a long-term solution. Supporting my gut health and my immune system was the key for calming my skin and so far, in keeping it well managed.
And what is my skin like now? I have one small and very stubborn patch of dry skin at the base of my spine. Initially I found this very frustrating, but now I view this as a daily external reminder of what can happen when I don’t slow down and a barometer of my internal health. A year on, I now see my psoriasis, rather than something to be hidden, as a catalyst in my life to embrace a different and slower way of living and I view it with the respect it deserves.
With the start of autumn fast approaching, I for one am ready to move into a quieter, more structured and cosier space than the busy, loud days of summer. So, why don’t you have a look at where in your life you need to slow down and start making some changes? Whether you’re struggling with a health condition or just looking to support your health long term, now is the time to embrace slower and quieter days ahead.