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Chronic Illness and What We Eat


We've all heard that diet and illness are connected. In fact, I worry that we connect the two too much. I've had patients try to avoid medication or surgery by saying that they'll just work on diet and exercise when they clearly needed intervention.

We've also become a society that tends to blame people for their illness. I've heard the sentiment expressed that an overweight person with Type 2 diabetes mellitus is responsible for their illness. It's worse with "invisible illnesses" like migraine and fibromyalgia. Because they don't have easily visible lab or XRay markers, they can have stigma associated with them. And, because some people are triggered by foods or activity, it becomes very easy to blame the illness itself on a poor diet or lack of exercise.

Which brings me to my own experience with diet and exercise. When I started the ketogenic diet 2 years ago, I had a full month without having to use any acute migraine medications. I thought I had found a cure! Well, not quite. Despite adhering strictly to the diet, the migraines came back, although I not quite as severe, and I felt better between attacks, and I lost 60 pounds.

Since then, I've gained back about 10 pounds and I've been a little looser about the ketogenic diet. I definitely eat a low-carb diet with lots more vegetables and far fewer sweets than I used to eat. But, I do miss my carbs!

I have noticed that some of my worst migraines, while they may have been triggered by weather, also seem to have been accompanied by eating lots of carbohydrates. Hmmmm. And, this week, I have been eating all the carbs. We're talking Mint M&Ms, mashed potatoes, and pound cake. And they were delicious. While I haven't had a migraine in a couple of days, I have had some serious muscle pain. I can't even let Patrick give me a decent hug. Not a migraine, but a serious fibromyalgia flare.

There's not a lot of good research about the role of diet in migraine and fibromyalgia, largely because it's hard to do good studies about such drastic changes like a ketogenic diet. Small studies do suggest that adding ketone supplements do improve chronic migraine.

My own experience, though, is that I need to be on a low-carbohydrate diet, at a minimum. Low carbohydrate intake is probably good for my fibromyalgia. and ketosis seems to help with migraine prevention.

I also haven't done a lot of exercise in the last few weeks because I've had such awful migraines and we've had terrible weather. Patrick and I finally took a decent walk yesterday, and that's only going to help the migraine and fibromyalgia.

It's important to avoid getting illness and diet/exercise correlated in my mind, though. No matter how "good" I eat, I still have chronic migraine. I may have fewer bad days, but they are still there. The same goes for exercise. I need to exercise for lots of reasons, but lack of exercise is not a moral failing. I can't change society's issues with false correlations, but I can make sure that I'm telling myself good stories (as Brene Brown would say).

If you have chronic illness, how do you manage diet and exercise? How do you keep from getting emotional mixed messages about illness and diet/exercise triggers? Remember, you are not your illness!

Catherine