Seven Lessons My Sciatica Taught Me about Gut Health

Seven Lessons Sciatica Taught Me about Gut Health

Excerpted from episode 32 of The Perfect Stool podcast, “What My Sciatica Has Taught Me about Gut Health.”

So by way of history, I’ve been going through a pretty awful bout of sciatica over the last 5 months, which had been, up until about a week ago, what felt like a slow and inexorable slide into disability. With each passing day, despite all my best efforts, I could see a little bit of loss of function over the previous day. And by the end of August, 2020, I was even finding it challenging to sit up straight, I couldn’t walk more than three steps without having to stop to stretch, so that my muscle spasms would let up, and my nights were spent writhing in pain until I could feed myself enough Ibuprofen, pharmaceuticals and melatonin to finally knock me out, only to wake up two hours later when my hip got sore from only sleeping on my right side. Then I’d have to spend an hour on the floor doing stretches to stop the muscle spasms and kill time, because there was no other comfortable position I could lie in. You’ll be glad to hear that things have finally started turning a corner, and I can now sit up easily and walk a bit but I’m still taking it easy as I heal. But during this time, I did a lot of thinking about gut health and how my journey with sciatica related to it. So here are some lessons I learned that I think may be useful to those of you who are struggling with a gut health, autoimmune or other mystery health issue.

  1. Don’t wait too long to see a professional.

When I first started having back pain, I assumed that if I just kept doing the right stretches and used good posture, that my back pain would eventually go away as it had before. But the reality was, I was two years into pretty consistent back pain. If I could say something to the Lindsey of December 2019, or even July 2019, I would have said: “Go see your doctor! Get a referral for physical therapy! Take care of this before it gets worse!” I had no idea how bad it could get.

Similarly, if you’re having gut health problems and you’ve been trying to take care of it on your own, or only seeing traditional MDs, while you’ve been doing that your problem may be going from what Dr. Daniel Kalish calls a stage 1 gut problem involving some loss of gut diversity, to a stage 2 gut problem with compromised organ function that could impact your hydrochloric acid, enzyme or bile production and consequent damage to your gut lining and gut immunity, to a stage 3 problem in which you’ve acquired or your system has allowed the overgrowth of a pathogen because of the weakness of compromised organ function and lowered gut immunity. Left even longer, this can lead to autoimmune disease, increasing food intolerances, and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, in which you quickly have what appears to be an allergic reaction to a whole slew of inputs, including many foods. The longer you wait, the harder, more expensive and the longer it will take for you to solve your problem, and honestly, the more you’ll suffer. Whatever concern I had in July or December of 2019 regarding spending the time or money to solve my problem, it pales in comparison to the amount of lost time, suffering that I could never have imagined, and money I have now spent on many modalities to try to solve my problem. Not to mention the opportunity cost of not spending time on my business while I’ve been trying to get well.

  1. Don’t reject traditional modalities if they can bring you relief while you search for the root cause.

With my sciatica, I held out hope that the right kind of physical therapy with consistent follow-through, eating a super low inflammatory diet, taking the right supplements, and staying active would help me recover. However, my decline just continued. I waited way too long to see a doctor, and when I heard that the next likely step would be a hydrocortisone injection, I purposely delayed following up in hopes that things would get better and I could avoid the shot. As a result, I probably spent an additional 5 weeks of sleepless nights writhing in pain and got much worse before I finally had my first injection, which I don’t regret at all, no matter the potential side effects. I also tried for so long to avoid taking NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain, but finally realized that I was suffering a lot unnecessarily, and am now up to the maximum dose of ibuprofen each day, while protecting my stomach with DGL and shilijat. I sometimes hear from clients that they have refused certain treatments from their doctors (especially around autoimmune disease and biologic drugs) that might bring them relief. While I’m a strong advocate of finding and addressing the root cause of any problem, if you’re really suffering or your health is in serious danger, it’s okay to try traditional treatments for a time while looking for the root cause.

  1. Don’t let the medical-industrial complex put you off from finding solutions.

One of the biggest roadblocks in getting to the root of my problem was my insurance wanting me to do at least a month of physical therapy before I got an MRI. But it was clear from almost the beginning of physical therapy that I was in too much pain to do most of the exercises I was being given, nothing was helping and I was going downhill. I finally resolved to just pay for the MRI myself because I felt it was important to have some insight into what was going on inside of me and they were clearly trying to make me jump through 1000 hoops to approve it. I didn’t want to have to pay for the test, but in the end, testing can give you real insight into root causes.

So if you’re hesitating to spend the money on gut testing that isn’t covered by your insurance and that your doctor doesn’t know about or won’t order, I’d urge you to reconsider. For gut health, there are two tests that I recommend to clients. They are the Organic Acids Test, which is $325, you can order it online yourself and it can enlighten you as to yeast and fungal overgrowths, bacterial overgrowth and dysbiosis, problems with carbohydrate, fatty acid and amino acid metabolism, detoxification issues, energy production issues and neurotransmitter problems. The other test I recommend, if problems are mostly confined to the gut, is a thorough gut health test like the Diagnostic Solutions GI Map or Doctor’s Data GI 360, which each run around $399, and you can order them yourself online. These tests will alert you to problems in your digestive system like a lack of hydrochloric acid, pancreatic enzymes or bile, indicating problems with fat metabolism, as well as test for specific pathogens, including pathogenic bacteria and parasites. It will also tell you how certain medications will work against those pathogens. It’s a rare insurance that would pay for these, although HSAs or FSAs might, but they’re worth their weight in gold for the information they will give you so that you’re not shooting in the dark. If that’s not financially possible, a less expensive option is doing a metagenomic sequencing of your gut through Sun Genomics. That’s only $147 if you go through my affiliate link, and if you look at the raw data, it will tell you everything that’s in your gut, if you know how to interpret that. So if you’re hesitating on testing, just think about how over time, you can waste a lot of money buying every supplement you hear someone recommending on a podcast or in a health summit, while building up a lovely supplement graveyard and getting no closer to a solution. Better to go around the medical-industrial complexes rules, order your own tests and get a functional medicine provider to help you understand the results.

  1. Listen to anyone’s and everyone’s advice – you never know where your solution may come from.

As things got worse and even the checkout clerks at the grocery store knew about my sciatica, I started getting advice from them and everyone else who heard my story. I also joined a Facebook group on sciatica and frequently popped in there to commiserate and find advice. Some of the advice didn’t work out, but some was useful. And some of the most useful stuff was about the mental game. I had been working myself into a giant pity party in which I was focusing so many hours a day on my pain and helplessness that my mind was feeding into my problem rather than helping solve it. Someone in my sciatica Facebook group said she would meditate and picture her nerves flowing freely through her spine. This image has helped me go to sleep so many nights, as I used my mind to help calm my muscle spasms. And it was a health summit on toxic mold where I heard about a special modality of physical therapy and a machine that helps reduce inflammation that may be one of the key elements of my healing, in addition to the injections. Even my plumber showed me a stretch no one else had shown me that helped him with his sciatica. So don’t reject advice because of the source – give everything a good listen and if you’re not ready to try it, put it in your back pocket for later.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

As I was falling into disability, I realized that the more I was up and around, trying to cook, clean and do the things of everyday life, the more it was hurting me. The moment I had to tell my family that I really needed them to step up and help make my food and do my dishes, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I never considered myself one of those self-sacrificial people who always did for others and never asked for anything herself, but this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But of course my husband stepped up and started filling in and got our boys to do more, and his kindness in this has really brought us closer. If you’re really suffering, let people help you. Don’t do things that will make you worse. It truly brings others joy to help, even if it forces us to humble ourselves, but there is growth in that humility. And also, don’t be afraid to reschedule or cancel things. People will understand. People have been very understanding with me when I’ve been honest with them. When you’re well again, you can pay it backward to those who helped you or forward to someone else who’s suffering.

  1. Don’t keep it all inside. 

Chronic pain and illness is not just physically debilitating, it’s mentally debilitating. And sometimes you can feel very alone in your pain and suffering. I had moments in the middle of the night where I had spent over an hour trying to get the agonizing muscle spasm in my glutes to let up through stretches, exercises and using a massage wand. One night, after an hour, I was still in agony, lying on the floor and sobbing because I felt so sorry for myself. That night, I finally woke my husband up and asked for help. He told me that from then on, he didn’t want me suffering alone, but that I should wake him up. After I stopped worrying about waking him and started relying on his help, my nighttime suffering quickly decreased and he was able to help me settle back down to sleep sooner, and also started asking if I needed anything when he woke up at his usual 5 a.m. That helped me go back to sleep for several more hours. Even if you’re single, there is probably someone in your life you can lean on more if you’re suffering. Someone who would be happy to help you research treatments or doctors, someone who you can share your fear or tears with, someone who will make you a meal if you’re not up to it. Or friends who’d be willing to contribute to help fund your care. There’s actually a charity called efundyourhealth that matches up to $250 for functional medicine care if you can raise the rest. New campaigns are currently on hold while they’re updating their web site, but they’re still soliciting donors, so hopefully they’ll be up and running again soon. But back to the original message, don’t suffer alone. 

  1. Find the gift in your pain and suffering.

When you’re deep in the midst of pain or suffering, it may be hard to find the positive, but doing so will leave you with a gift of wisdom that may help carry you through. For me, one of the biggest gifts will be the empathy I now have for people in chronic pain. I confess that before going through this, I assumed that anyone who had chronic back pain must have a terrible diet, or they didn’t exercise, use good posture, or try the right kind of physical therapy (speaking of which, if you’re dealing with chronic back pain, I’d highly recommend seeing a Mackenzie method practitioner). I looked down on people who got addicted to opiates because of their pain. After spending a desperate night in pain and like a crazy person rummaging through our medicine cabinet to find the two oxycodone’s left over from my husband’s dental surgery and washing one down without hesitation, I finally understood firsthand what drives people to desperation and addiction. I also know now how much a kind word helps. It may drive someone to tears, but it means so much to hear someone say “I’m so sorry about how much you’re suffering.” So if you’re the loved one of someone dealing with chronic pain or illness, you can’t ask how they’re doing or express your empathy enough. It’s like a balm on our wounds. So look for the good in your experience, the learning, the opportunity to grow as a person and then help others. It will make your situation just that much more bearable.

If you want more help with your gut, autoimmune or other health issues, you can set up a free, 30-minute Breakthrough Session with me (Lindsey) to share what you’ve been going through and decide whether my 5-appointment gut health coaching program or a longer program for autoimmunity or weight loss is a good fit for you. Individual 1-hour consultations may be scheduled directly here.