Prescriptions vs. Lifestyle for Health
A lot of people make their way to these pages looking for health information. Over the years I’ve become steadily more critical of the current way of doing medicine, and I keep hearing more and more stories of other people completely dissatisfied with their doctors, to the point of basically trying to treat themselves. A lot of this comes down to doctors’ lack of time, but it’s probably also related to the tendency to just keep treating symptoms or diseases with prescriptions, rather than looking at causes. Eventually it gets to the point where you’re wondering why you’ve even bothered to go to the doctor at all, and that’s not a good place to be, especially when there really is a serious disease involved.
Most of my personal experimenting has had to do with trying to improve the appearance of my skin, whether it’s eczema or acne. In all my trips to family doctors and dermatologists, I don’t recall hearing a whole lot or anything at all about diet, exercise or circulation. So for those of you who’ve found yourselves here because you’re similarly frustrated by treatment that really isn’t treating the cause of the problem and keeps adding more complications (check out some of the effects of long-term antibiotic and topical steroid use, or maybe you’re just sick of your clothes and pillowcases being bleached out by all the peroxide creams you’re putting on your skin for acne, or just plain sick of having to spend day after day treating your skin with creams, washes and pills), keeping in mind I haven’t spent many, many years obtaining a medical or nutrition degree or practicing medicine, but only a bit of frustrated reading and trial and error on myself over time (a decade or so), here’s what I’ve learned:
Allergies or Food Intolerance – If you’ve had acne or eczema for a long time (years, into adulthood) and no treatment seems to work, it might be a good idea to get yourself tested for food allergies (or other allergies). Wheat, milk, soy and other foods can have a serious effect on the body of someone who’s allergic or intolerant. Never mind the appearance of one’s skin, it can lead to feeling chronically tired and all sorts of other symptoms because the body’s constantly under attack. (Think about all the foods the average westerner eats that contain milk or wheat alone.)
Nutritional Deficiency – At the most basic level, various vitamin deficiencies can cause skin problems, or just plain unhealthy appearance. (And the condition of one’s skin is only the most obvious indicator of one’s health.) So make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need in your diet, and it’s better to get them from whole foods than a vitamin pill (but there’s nothing wrong with supplementing with a multivitamin, as long as overdoses are avoided – even vitamins can be toxic at some point). My general recommendation would be that your diet should consist mostly of fruits and vegetables, and meat, eggs and milk products (in that order). Grains are important for bulk and also probably helpful in preventing stomach upset (I sort of think of the stomach as a pretty acidic place and fruits, vegetables and animal products as great nutritionally, but not that great for providing a buffer against that wealth of acid – that’s what grains (and potatoes) are for), but I don’t eat a whole lot of them, since I don’t seem to react to wheat well, and it’s in most foods that could be described as convenient. (cookies, muffins and pastries at the coffee shop, pasta, pizza, most kinds of alcohol outside of wine might have it). That’s an actual shot of my fridge, and I’ll eat pretty much all of that produce within the week, by myself. I don’t know how I could do that if I ate a lot of convenience foods. Although, I’m not a very big person, so it makes it all the harder to get all the nutrients I need in an amount of food equal to my appetite and weight. I somewhat relate to that that multi-vitamin commercial with the woman running and simultaneously being given a steady stream of foods from every food group to eat. But it’s a lot easier if you cut out all the garbage and maybe the grains are fairly adjustable based on the energy requirements of each particular person.
There’s also a couple of other things I’m not so sure about, but might be worthy of note:
Antibiotics in food – Antibiotics are pretty ubiquitous in our diet now, not just in meat and milk and eggs (from feeding them to livestock to prevent sickness in crowded conditions), but also in plants and drinking water, because the meds stay in the environment after they’ve passed through people or animals. Antibiotics are increasingly being looked at for their impact on beneficial bacteria in the body. It’s useful (and possibly a bit disgusting, depending on your perspective) to think of the human body as like an ecosystem, its own biological environment, with competing organisms throughout. Antibiotics might kill bacteria that help ward off other types of bacteria or viruses or other types of organisms. Which leads me to:
Yeast – In alternative health there’s a lot of talk about overgrowth of yeast due to ingestion of antibiotics and our sugar rich diets helping yeast to thrive and causing a whole slew of symptoms (including acne and eczema). Bacteria would generally keep it in check, but if you’ve been taking antibiotics for months or years for acne, or just off and on for various conditions, there might be a bit of an imbalance. My doctor reassured me that as soon as you get off the antibiotics, those good bacteria will come back. But I’m not convinced. I recently read a book, The Truth About Food, which did some amateur experimenting with probiotics (those good bacteria that are all the rage, for example, in yogurts to improve digestion, but also useful for other things, like checking yeast growth, depending on the specific type of bacteria) and prebiotics (foods and food products that promote the expansion of already existing colonies of bacteria within the body). What they found was that probiotic foods and pills aren’t particularly useful at increasing the levels of the bacteria in the body, probably because most of the bacteria don’t survive the trip through the acidic stomach. Prebiotics, on the other hand, had a much greater impact. You can search prebiotic foods for a list, but basically, you need to eat a pretty healthy diet of fruits and vegetables and fiber to get a lot of prebiotic foods in, not chips and crackers and things that are highly processed. Basically, when my doctor told me that the bacteria would bounce back after antibiotic use ceased, I couldn’t help but think how the modern highly processed, sugar-filled (promotes yeast growth), nutrient poor diet delayed this process. Obviously, if you think yeast might be a problem for you, you also have to avoid foods that contain yeast, and for women, birth control pills might be causing problems too. But also,
Acidic and Alkaline Food – There is also some alternative health information out there that talks about maintaining a balance of acidic and alkaline foods in the diet for good health and yeast control.
Exercise and Circulation
So diet is important to maintain proper function throughout the body. But there’s one other problem. If a person’s circulation is poor, the blood is not able to, simply put, carry the good stuff to the body’s cells and the bad stuff away as well as it would if the circulation was better. Two points started me thinking in this direction. First, I always wondered why acne seems to occur on the face, neck, back and chest, areas above the heart. Second, at one point in my life I had really clear skin, bookended by periods of steady acne (and I’m not sure how important this section is for eczema, but it makes sense that it would also improve things, as long as sweat and heat isn’t causing irritation). So I wondered why. At first I thought it was diet, because where I was living there wasn’t a lot of processed foods and I was eating more produce, but I’d improved my diet and continued to have problems. At this point I already knew that eating well didn’t necessarily mean the body would get the full payoff unless circulation was good. I realized I’d been doing a lot of exercise and yoga during my clear skin period. And then I thought to myself: Could it be as simple as all those inversions, increased blood flow to the face during these sessions resulting in clear skin day to day? I Googled around a bit, and I’ve found some people claiming that yoga cured all their ills, even preventing wrinkles and grey hair. I don’t know about that, but I do wonder if just doing a few prolonged forward bend poses a few times a day might increase blood flow just enough to restore proper function and prevent acne. Cardiovascular exercise (as simple as walking or as vigorous as running for a few minutes) will also improve circulation and crank up the body’s function and speed up the release of “toxins” through sweat, likely leading to an improvement in skin’s appearance.
To sum up, if you’re at your wit’s end on how to get clear skin or get rid of eczema, improve your diet and look for food allergies or triggers (keeping a food diary recording food intake and physical reactions – complete with photos of skin’s changing appearance, if you’re really keen – will help figure out what might be the problem, or just asking your doctor to do allergy or intolerance testing) and improve circulation through cardio exercise and yoga or forward bends. If you want to isolate which behaviors are having the impact, make sure you don’t do it all at once. i.e. Do yoga, but don’t make an abnormal effort to eat healthy, or eat healthy, but don’t do yoga. Or only do cardio exercise and eat the same and forget yoga and forward bends. I would give everything at least a couple of weeks of trial before forming an opinion.
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