Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some Notes on Labwork -- One Vegan's Example

A recent discussion thread on Alicia Silverstone's "The Kind Life" website: "Where Do You Get Your Protein?" prompts me to share a bit of what I've learned about nutrition pertaining to healthcare in general. From some of the responses to this thread, it becomes abundantly clear how much misinformation is out there, and how much guesswork goes into some of our personal decisions about our health. In my young, carefree, invincible years I never tended to "consult a healthcare professional" before starting a new workout regime or dietary supplement as is normally suggested. My social calendar was too busy, and I was too poor for a doctor appointment that would only clear me to do yoga. Back then I mostly listened to my body. If it felt good I did it, if not, no.

These days I've learned the value of consultation with three experts: my own trusty body intuition, my invaluable Integrative Medicine M.D., Christine, who has been serving me well for over 6 years, and now more than ever, my own Primary Care Team -- the ones insurance pays for. There have been years when I haven't seen much value in the primary care docs, clueless as they have sometimes tended to be, but I am mindful that there are good doctors and bad doctors, and some of the bad doctors are still learning and can eventually become good doctors with a little guidance.

I have a long history of working with many specialists, which obviously contributes to my former distrust of most mainstream doctors. In the almost-16 years I have been diagnosed with MS, I have had six neurologists, only one of whom I would characterize as good, and three who I would characterize as bad, one of those being very bad. The others were nice people who basically let me tell them what I wanted, and then wrote the prescriptions.

For my MS, I do take a pharmaceutical injection every day, but not the interferons most neuros are pushing. The one I take acts as a "decoy", so that my system attacks the drug rather than my central nervous system, should an exacerbation occur. Through a self-conducted experiment (shh! don't tell my neuro!) when I recently stopped the injections for two months, I have found them to still have value for me. My vision had begun to worsen and my left arm had begun to get weaker. Back on the shots now, I am much better.

Besides the injections, I credit my vegan diet and supplements prescribed by Christine for keeping my MS in check. This doctor utilizes bioidentical hormones (the kind made from yams and soy, not the synthetic pharmaceuticals made from the urine of impregnated mares) to keep me at a hormonally very early pregnancy stage -- the time when most female MS patients are least bothered by MS symptoms. My hormones do not produce the compounds from metabolization which contribute to breast cancer, the way the pharmaceuticals do. In addition, I receive an infusion of glutathione every two months to regenerate brain tissue lost to the disease. Finally, Christine prescribes high levels of vitamin D to keep my MS activity at bay. It has been discovered that the worldwide demographics of MS show fewer cases in the tropic and sub-tropic regions. Many of us living outside of the tropic regions have vitamin D deficiency, and are thus susceptible to contracting MS. My doctor keeps me at a vitamin D3 level of 61, with normal being between 30 and 100. One of the many reasons I trust my Integrative Medicine doctor is that twice a year she looks at my blood levels to be sure that the nutrient levels are still being metabolized to reach the same numbers. In other words, to be sure that what goes in is what comes out. Many things can affect the way a nutrient is metabolized, and diet is one of them. I have had a few dosages tweaked since becoming vegan.

While Christine watches the levels of what she prescribes, recently a P.A. at my Primary Care office suggested a regular physical, since it had been a while. Their bloodwork confirmed the levels from Christine's office, but also found I actually have a lower blood count. At first I worried about having to take iron, which I can feel is toxic to my body, but, consulting with Christine, found that iron supplementation was not needed. Like many vegans, I don't get enough B12 -- darn depleted soil! I had been under the impression that, since I was taking a B supplement prescribed by Christine, I would be fine. Well, like all supplements, they are metabolized differently by each body. Dosages were altered, and Christine gave me a B12 injection to immediately raise my level. Now that she knows to look for this deficiency, she will be tracking it.

A personal friend, who is also a physician, posited that we cannot absorb an oral B12 supplement, the injection being superior. I asked Christine about this and she explained that the injection is the only way to know for sure that a certain amount of B12 is making it into the blood, but that doesn't mean an oral supplement is not being absorbed. The point is that each body absorbs differently, so blood tests are necessary to confirm the levels. Christine also confirms that many brands of B12 are not as well-absorbed as others. My B12 is available only by prescription.

The reason I am making this post today is to urge you to know your levels. I had been relying too much on "how I feel" which is a very valuable indicator, but not the only one. Looking back now, I realize I was ignoring more frequent episodes of light-headedness since I was feeling so much better in general as a vegan.  My bloodwork shows that my vegan diet has prodeced a B12 deficiency which is being corrected and carefully tracked. But here is some of what it has also produced:

  • Very strong bones, "not the bones of a 45 year old!" from one x-ray technician. Christine confirms this is from my not eating dairy, which depletes bones of calcium, and from a high consumption of dark green leafy veggies along with my high D3 level.
  • An exponential increase in my energy -- Christine believes this is because each of us is lactose intolerant to some degree. I must have been highly lactose intolerant since fatigue is one of the major symptoms of intolerance. I had previously attributed my fatigue to my MS.
  • An easy-to-maintain healthy body weight. No more counting calories! I stay within three pounds of my regular weight regardless of the specifics of my indulgences.
  • A peaceful, positive attitude most of the time. Antidepressants I had taken for years, for depression that resulted from some of my MS pharmaceutical treatments, are completely unnecessary now.
  • No more seasonal allergies -- I used to have about 4-5 sinus infections a year. I've only had one in my 18 months of being vegan!
  • For the first time since 1995 -- No clinical progression of my MS! That's right -- since 1995, each MRI showed MS progression as compared to the previous MRI. I had an MRI last month that showed NO Progression from the MRI taken two years prior!
Thanks for bearing with me in this tedious, personal post. I am only led to share my findings from my health saga in hopes that it will encourage all of you to arm yourself with information that will optimize your own health.


  1. Thank you for getting so personal! I struggle with vitamin D levels (my body doesn't absorb it, no matter how much my diet provides) but it took a health crisis to get my levels checked. And I had to BEG for the tests. My GP's first approach was a JACKPOT of pharmaceuticals to treat symptoms that ultimately were vitamin deficiency related. It's not my vegan diet, it's simply my body.

    Keep up the writing. You are an inspiration.

  2. Cheryl, what a valuable, valuable post this is! NO PROGRESSION? That is FANTASTIC!!!! Truly, I need to take a page from your poor diet is the subject of great amusement in the workplace (I eat better at home...) and I feel quite (sadly) confident my bones are those of a 65 year old. :(

    Thank you as always for the tremendous inspiration! LOVE YOU!

  3. Thanks, Colleen -- I wish the services of an Integrative Medicine practitioner or a Nutritionist could be part of most folks' insurance benefits, and then we could all approach our health in a mode of "prevention" instead of "covering up symptoms". For me, paying gobs of money out-of-pocket is worth it.

  4. Thanks Cheryl! and I highly doubt your bones are old. You are gorgeous and talented, and you inspire me daily. Miss you!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to post this. And, uh, where have I been and what did I miss....I love the haircut!

  6. Stephanie! So good to see you again! Thanks~

  7. Your great health is a true testament to how you live your life, especially your diet!!!! This is so fabulous, really.
    I'm curious, how often do you think you will need a B12 shot?
    This is the only thing that bothers me about being vegan.....I do worry about my B12. I take one every day, but now I'm worried that is not enough.

  8. Hey Emily -- I can request a shot whenever I want, but it is all out of pocket, so I guess I would do that only if I am feeling light-headed, which is not the case lately. The Dr. prescribes a sub-lingual (under the tongue) B12-- that one goes into the bloodstream instead of through the digestive tract. She will be checking the blood levels every couple of months or so, unless I feel I need it more often, and will make changes in dosages if she thinks I need them.

  9. Cheryl,
    Good to know. I take a sub-lingual B12 with Methylcobalamin. I've been told by others that it must have Methylcobalamin (not sure why). But, mine is not a prescription. I will be talking about all of this with my doctor at my August checkup. Good post as usual Cheryl!

  10. Emily -- That sounds like a good plan. I'm glad you have a doctor open to nutrition!