Living in my tipi in the early 1970’s, we might have said we were “tuning in to our bodies” when we tried to figure out if being a vegetarian was a good idea, or if a particular job was taking too great a toll on our health. Ten years ago we would take a morning temperature and pulse to assess thyroid function and readiness to exercise.
Current day “bio-hackers” have taken the art of learning the body’s language to an elite level. You can now easily obtain routine blood tests online to evaluate impacts of dietary changes, you can record your own heart rate variability to see if you had enough sleep to make today a good day to exercise (waking with lots of heart rate variability) or a bad day (steady pulse, without variability). In fact you can assess how well you slept by taking an overnight record of brain waves or respiration or oxygen levels. You can send a mouth swab to 23andMe and run your genetic results through various online resources to determine your best vitamin protocol, your methylation status, your detoxification tendencies, and much more. You can study things I don’t even know how to explain, and you can rub shoulders with the leaders if you decide to attend the Second Annual Bio-Hacking Conference in September, 2014.
I have taken my own bio-hacking journey this year, consulting with other physicians along the way. Some physicians inspired me to leave their advice behind and find a way more compatible with my health goals, and others had great insights from resources I hadn’t considered. At the risk of pulling an LBJ on you , I thought I’d share with you a bit of my experience.
Relevant family history is that my mother had high blood pressure, for which she took a no-longer used medication. (Interestingly, the medication was Reserpine, a rauwolfia-family anti-hypertensive, that was studied in 1973 – 6 years after her breast cancer diagnosis – and found to be suspicious for raising the risk of breast cancer. A good reminder that any medication is potentially hazardous until proven otherwise.)
The medical world therefore assumes that it is reasonable that I develop high blood pressure, which I did in my pregnancy (which is associated, by the way, with a lower risk of breast cancer), and once in the past. About 5 years ago I had some irregular heart beats, common in menopause but they persisted. A little more inspection revealed moderately high blood pressure (despite normal weight and vigorous exercise) and slightly low thyroid values. As a perfect example of how everything is connected, a small dose of thyroid hormone fixed the blood pressure and heart rhythm problems, and after a year or so I tapered off the thyroid hormone and everything seemed fine.
This year I once again had palpitations and high blood pressure, but this time with normal thyroid readings. So for a while I took the medication recommended by the cardiologist and hated it: made it hard to sleep and hard to exercise. (How can one drug wake you up at night but make you lethargic during the day? Brilliant planning on that one.)
I know that thyroid numbers can be deceiving, so I found that old thyroid prescription and took just a small dose every day. Within a week, everything was better: sleep, blood pressure, heart palpitations. I suspect that this will be a temporary prescription, but even if it’s not: I think replacing some degree of hormones with prescription hormones, as close to nature as possible, is a good idea and, relatively speaking, reduces risk of disease in people as they age. (More about that later, specifically with respect to women and bio-identical hormone replacement therapy!) Personally, I’d rather take a tiny amount of thyroid hormone than some pharmaceutically conceived medication that mechanically lowers blood pressure.
But wait, that’s not the end of the story! To follow up with something the cardiologist said, I checked my lab tests for inflammation, a test called the hs-CRP. If your number is below 1.0, you’re great; if it’s over 3.0 you likely have inflammation in your cardiovascular system, which is way more of a risk than having high cholesterol and in fact, lowering the hs-CRP might be one of the legitimate benefits of some statin prescriptions. If your number is over 5, it’s likely coming from some other source of inflammation: an injury, an illness or an auto-immune disease. My number came back close to 5 (it’s been below 0.5 in the past) and on re-check at 35! WTF is going on??
At that point I could have gone all 1970’s-hippy and tuned in to my body: actually, I feel fine, it’s probably a lab error. Not me however: I promptly consulted everyone I consider smart on this. (First I asked myself what I would ask my patient: are you eating anything inflammatory? But at that point I was almost completing a Whole30, 30 days without grains, legumes, dairy, sugar or alcohol. My diet was squeaky clean.) Saw my own doc for a thorough exam – check, everything fine. Called my friend Ann Hathaway, a functional medicine doc who reviewed my supplements with me and advised me to stop taking a digestive aid with Betaine HCl, informing me that people with blood type O rarely need supplemental acid – the one pearl she gleaned from the Blood Type Diet book, she says! And had me stop taking extra iodine, which can be inflammatory with people who have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis which I actually don’t, but it was worth a try. Called my daughter Anna Rose-McComb, a nutritional therapist, who couldn’t believe I was still taking the stomach acid she recommended 2 months ago: “That was just supposed to be for a few weeks!” I called my friend Patrick, another brilliant physician, but one without any ideas except lab error.
I would have called you, too, if I had your number.
I stopped those supplements, and I started physical therapy. My new therapist taped my knees so their alignment improved and the knees are no longer painful going up and down all the stairs I have at my house.
And, as many people suggested, I repeated the blood test. Back down to 0.3.
So what was happening? I don’t really know, but I learned a few things.
First, if you have an abnormal lab test, hang in there, keep doing what you believe to be right, and re-check. Secondly, supplements can be really helpful but it’s very important to distinguish between temporary and permanent supplements. Thirdly, even permanent supplements aren’t always permanent in one person’s situation. And I’ll keep going to this physical therapist, finding some gentle tweaking to re-align my knees. I’m just as eager to avoid surgery as I am to avoid unnecessary prescriptions.
And then there are the things I still can’t figure out. I have been a long-time minimal user of sunscreen. Blessed with few wrinkles, I can live with some of the freckling that is left behind after decades of summer tans. I grew up seeking sun and water every summer I could, and many happened at Southern California beaches and then Northern California lakes. About a month ago I found what I believed to be a basal cell carcinoma on my shoulder, which I actually thought was inevitable after years of summer sun and was relieved. Whew, it’s on my shoulder, who cares if they cut it off? And I learned basal cell carcinoma usually indicates a lower risk for Alzheimer’s Disease, always welcome news. Waiting for a dermatologist appointment (6 weeks out), that little critter is actually morphing. Now I’m not so sure: it looks more like a normal skin growth every day. Maybe the inflammation has just been working on healing the basal cell? Who knows – maybe something good is happening, and maybe it’s a true little blip on my generally good health. I also know that it’s important to know the difference between small stuff – this is definitely small stuff – and big stuff: good self care that minimizes inflammation is the big stuff.
Hey, if you go to that Bio-Hacking conference, I'd love to hear about it!