How I came to realize I may have a form of dysautonomia known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started experiencing symptoms of dysautonomia.

What is dysautonomia, you ask? It’s an “umbrella term used to describe several different medical conditions that cause a malfunction of the Autonomic Nervous System. The Autonomic Nervous System controls the ‘automatic’ functions of the body that we do not consciously think about, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, dilation and constriction of the pupils of the eye, kidney function, and temperature control. People living with various forms of dysautonomia have trouble regulating these systems…” Excerpt taken from dysautonomiainternational.org.

Throughout college I was a full time student, I worked part time, and still took part in activities I enjoyed like trying new restaurants and playing tennis. I did experience occasional anxiety but it didn’t severely affect my quality of life.

I graduated from college in December of 2011 and then started noticing changes in how I was physically feeling throughout 2012. I would have infrequent episodes of anxiety, racing heart, and difficulty sleeping. I just figured I needed to take better care of myself, clean up my diet, and take stress management more seriously. Enter The Paleo Diet and the reason I started this blog! :)

I significantly reduced my consumption of gluten, processed foods, and refined sugars. Did it help? Yes and no. I think everyone has different needs when it comes to nutrition. I personally had to add some carbs and starches back to my diet, like brown rice, quinoa, and potatoes. Eating well helped but unfortunately may not have been the answer to my unresolved problems.

While I was on The Paleo Diet throughout 2013, I continued to experience episodes of “feeling off” but they were still infrequent and I didn’t believe they would worsen or become chronic.

I did see a Cardiologist for the tachycardia (heart racing) I was experiencing, but my EKG and echocardiogram results were normal. They said it was most likely stress or anxiety.

Fast forward to 2014 when my symptoms became more persistent and couldn’t be ignored anymore. In April of 2014 I went on a trip to Arizona. I’d taken trips out of state before with no problem but this time it was different. I remember getting on the flight to leave for Arizona feeling tired, lightheaded, and like I was going to have a panic attack, but there was no emotional component behind it. I wasn’t afraid to be on the plane. These feelings seemed to come out of nowhere.

We got to Arizona and I thought I should focus on relaxing and just enjoy the fun company and beautiful scenery. A few days into the trip we decided to go to an outdoor mall. I was extremely excited because I love shopping and the mall had some stores that we don’t have in Milwaukee. So there I was, feeling in my element with a couple of new outfits in my possession. After walking around for a couple of hours, I started to feel really tired. Honestly, there isn’t an accurate word for this type of fatigue because “tired” just doesn’t describe it. A more accurate description would be the overwhelming need to promptly sit or lie down and cease all activity. Our shopping trip was almost over though so I tried to push through it. On our way back to the car, I started to feel really sick. By the time I was able to sit down my heart was racing, I felt hot, I was shaky, and I felt like I was going to faint. When we got back I lied down for awhile and the symptoms eventually passed. I decided it would be best to take it easy for the rest of the trip and ended up relucantly skipping another trip to the mall.

When we got back to Wisconsin, I was surprised by how wiped out I felt. I ended up taking a sick day the Monday upon my return to work in an attempt to restore my energy. When I went back to work on Tuesday, I knew something was wrong. Despite an entire day of resting the day before, I was still tired. I remember getting up from my desk in the early afternoon to stretch and take a walk to the restroom to “wake-up.”

By the time I got to the restroom my heart was racing and I felt like I was going to faint. I got light-headed and my vision started to “grey out.” When this happened, my sympathetic nervous system kicked in with a rush of adrenaline and I instantly went into panic attack mode. I made my way back to my desk, which thankfully wasn’t far from the restroom, and told my supervisor that I felt like I was going to faint. I sat down at my desk shaking from head to toe, hyperventilating, fearing the worst because I had no idea what was happening to my body. After several minutes of strange heart palpitations, vision grey outs, and feeling like I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs, she asked if I wanted her to call an ambulance. I said yes and off to the ER I went.

At the ER they ran all of the usual tests (thyroid function: normal, iron levels: normal, blood cell count: normal). They also did a chest X-Ray and everything looked normal. The only thing that didn’t seem to be normal was the heart monitor I was hooked up to. Whenever I went from lying to sitting up, my heart rate increased enough to set off the monitor alarm. It wasn’t a major cause for concern because my heart rhythmn was technically normal, it was just elevated to a peculiar level upon minimal exertion.

The ER nurse said it wasn’t dangerous but something they’d refer me to a Cardiologist for because it was a little unusual. When I asked what was causing it no one really knew. They seemed to shrug it off and say it may be anxiety and recommended I try an anti-anxiety medication if I felt these symptoms again.

So I did. Unfortunately I felt these symptoms almost every single day, so I took an anti-anxiety medication to cope. It didn’t fix the problem, but after eight difficult months my level of functioning had improved by about 65%. I had a bit more energy, I was sleeping a little better, and I felt much more optimistic and like myself.

By this time it was December of 2014 and the busy holiday season was upon us. I think even healthy, normal people are at risk for “burn-out” this time of year. I’m no exception and probably should have been more mindful of my seemingly limited energy supply. After several weeks of decorating, buying presents, baking, and traveling, I ended up majorly crashing on December 26th. This was my worst crash to date and I was in bed for several days.

This is when I stopped accepting that “anxiety” was the root of all of my problems. I became extremely frustrated and started keeping track of every symptom I experienced, including fluctuations in my heart rate and blood pressure.

I went to see my primary doctor and showed him my detailed journal. While the symptoms aren’t pleasant, I’ll list them because maybe someone may be experiencing the same thing and looking for answers.

(Note: These symptoms vary from day to day and fluctuate in intensity.)

-Fatigue that worsens after exercise, activity, or a busy day
-I can experience an energy crash for several days
-Sleep doesn’t seem to be restorative or refreshing
-I feel best when lying down, okay when sitting, and worst when standing or walking
-When I stand up, my heart rate consistently rises by a minimum of 30 beats per minute
-My blood pressure rises when I stand and walk
-When I stand and walk I often feel weak, tired, and short of breath
-I get a burning feeling in my arms and legs even though I’m not exercising them
-Symptoms are aggravated by heat and hot showers
-I sometimes have random adrenaline surges or “panic attack” symptoms in the middle of the night after waking (my highest recorded heart rate was 199 beats per minute lying down)
-Trembling or shaking even though I’m not cold
-Raising my arms high above my head causes my heart rate to increase

My primary doctor referred me to a Cardiologist who, after reviewing my symptom journal, suggested I may actually have a form of dysautonomia called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). Finally! Someone who didn’t think it was just anxiety!

Just to break it down, postural= posture, orthostatic= upright position, tachycardia= faster than normal heart rate at rest, syndrome= set of symptoms.

He prescribed me the beta blocker, Atenolol, to keep my heart rate and blood pressure down. I’ve been on the beta blocker for about 3 weeks and it has helped but not eliminated my symptoms (particularly the fatigue and un-refreshing sleep). There’s still work to be done with restoring my level of functioning and quality of life. I would love to get to the source of what’s causing the dysautonomia. That’s what I’ll write about in my upcoming blog posts! Also, if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading this long post! :)

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First attempt at gluten and grain free bread

I felt like today was a “milestone” in my gluten-free and paleo-inspired lifestyle. I attempted to make homemade bread from scratch. I’ve attempted some recipes in the past that ended up being complete failures (like making mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, for example) and I was hoping this wouldn’t be one of them. Thankfully, it turned out wonderful. Even better than I expected.

So I got the recipe from the website of my favorite food blogger, Danielle Walker. It can be found on: http://againstallgrain.com/2012/05/21/grain-free-white-bread-paleo-and-scd/

The ingredients are pretty simple (although expensive):
Smooth, raw cashew butter
Eggs
Honey
Apple cider vinegar
Almond milk
Coconut flour
Baking soda
Sea salt

One thing this recipe has you do is separate the egg yolks from the egg whites then beat the whites until “soft peaks form.” I will admit I’ve never done this before so was kind of amazed to see the egg whites literally turn into what looked like whipped cream.

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Then after I combined the rest of the ingredients together I promptly poured it into the bread pan as suggested and popped it in the oven.

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It took about 45-50 minutes for it to completely bake, but I was extremely happy with the result! It actually looked like a normal loaf of bread. I may be a little bread deprived because I haven’t had a normal slice of bread since 2012. This explains my excitement! ;)

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This is where it gets funny. When it cooled to the point where I could eat it, I realized I didn’t have jam or lunch meat or anything so I just ate it plain. It was good! It has a slightly sweet flavor due to the honey, which I kind of like. I plan on making french toast tomorrow with breakfast. The texture is a little moist and dense, which reminds me almost of coffee cake or something. I think it would be good toasted with jam. It might even be good as sandwich bread but I’d have to pick up the ingredients to see. It seems like it would almost be too “cake-y” to eat with deli meat and lettuce, but who knows, it’s worth a try.

Anyways, that’s my most recent baking adventure. Here are some recent pics of Butters who is now 1 year and 4 months old and a whopping 91 pounds! Can’t believe how big he’s gotten!

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Happy March!

Did you know there’s only 20 more days until the first day of spring?! This winter hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been trying to focus on enjoyable indoor activities to keep away the winter blues. If you want to improve your mood, I strongly believe distraction is one way to do so. Whenever I felt anxious or down about something in the past I’d divert my attention to something positive and productive. Sometimes this is in the form of reading, blogging, or, of course, cooking. :)

I haven’t shared any new recipes in awhile so here are some that I’ve tried lately:

Balanced Bite’s Smoky Mexican Tortilla-less Soup (which is so good!)

The full recipe is here: http://balancedbites.com/2013/02/easy-recipe-smoky-mexican-tortilla-less-soup.html

It has tons of veggies: onion, red bell pepper, carrots, tomatoes, celery, and poblano pepper. I also topped it with avocado.

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I was also on an italian kick for awhile. I made spaghetti with “zoodles” (zucchini noodles). Here’s the type of vegetable spiralizer I used: http://www.opensky.com/gourmet-kitchenworks-llc/product/spiral-cutter-fw?osky_origin=google&osky_source=pla&gclid=CK_FoM-I87wCFcURMwodgzYAKQ

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I also made “zoodles” topped with chicken marinated in lemon juice, garlic, pepper, and olive oil and homemade bruschetta. The bruschetta was pretty easy, it was just diced cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and chopped basil leaves.

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Has anyone else tried any good recipes lately? I’d love to hear!! :)

2014 Goals

I love the concept of New Year’s resolutions. What’s better than a fresh start? In 2013 my New Year’s resolution was to try the Paleo Diet for one month to see how I’d like it. It ended up becoming a lifestyle that has greatly benefitted me.

In 2014 I would like to focus more on my activity level. When I was in high school I loved sports. I played tennis and ran track and just enjoyed working out in general. The first couple of years I was in college I utilized the gym a lot and still continued to play the occasional game of tennis. Fast forward to today and the only form of exercise I get is walking my dog.

So here is my first goal:

Physical health

Do one of three low impact activities three times per week:

  • Yoga dvd
  • Youtube work out video
  • Hand weight exercises

I’m trying to make this first goal easy and achievable. These are all free, indoor activities so there should be no excuse for me not to do them. I already own a yoga dvd, there are hundreds of work out videos on Youtube, and I also have a set of hand weights. Also, three times per week? My schedule should be able to handle that.

In addition to raising my activity level I would also like to maintain my diet but focus on having a healthy digestive system. Our digestive systems play such a key role in overall health. To aid in my digestive health I would like to:

  • Take a probiotic supplement
  • Add bone broth to my diet (I’ll write a blog post on this later)
  • Consume fermented vegetables like sauerkraut
  • Try different varieties of fermented tea, known as kombucha
  • Add chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds to my diet because they support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the stomach

My second goal is to focus on:

Spiritual Health

I’ve decided that I would like to meditate more this year. My goal is to meditate at least once per week. I like to use meditation as a time to get centered, feel calm, and speak to God. I’m not currently part of an organized religion, but if I had to describe the “religion of Courtney” ;) it would be:

  • Remaining judgement-free and being kind to those around me while appreciating that everyone is on their own unique path and journey
  • Expressing gratitude for being here. In this infinite, amazing universe I’m here living and breathing, which is amazing in itself
  • Believing there is a being or force greater than myself that set life in motion
  • Trying to live in the present moment and enjoying things for what they are, not what they could be

So those are some of my goals for the new year! What are some of your goals for 2014? :)

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Let’s talk about cholesterol

You know what has always confused me? Cholesterol. Conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to have healthy cholesterol levels then we should avoid foods that are high in saturated fat, such as: bacon, eggs, and butter.

After a full year of eating a primarily Paleo diet and consuming a minimum of two eggs almost every single day, with coconut oil (which is loaded with saturated fat), and the occasional slice of bacon, I decided it was time to get my cholesterol levels checked. Now, I’m no expert on cholesterol but I know it takes time for unhealthy cholesterol levels to build in your system. I searched online to see how long it can take for an unhealthy diet to be reflected in a cholesterol test.

On Discovery Health’s website, it says “Your cholesterol levels are also clearly affected when excessive calories are consumed or your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol is increased…To ensure that your test results are consistent, therefore, you need to have the test performed after you’ve maintained your usual diet and weight for at least two weeks. In other words, you don’t want to have your cholesterol tested the day after Thanksgiving…” http://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/tests-treatment/cholesterol-tests7.htm

Usual diet maintained for a minimum of two weeks? Check. Not having the test done the day after Thanksgiving? Check. I also followed my doctor’s recommendation of fasting for 12 hours before the test to insure the most accurate results.

Mayo Clinic’s website says the guideline for total cholesterol is:

Desirable: Below 200 mg/dL

Borderline high: 200-239 mg/dL

High: 240 mg/dL and above

My total cholesterol was in the desirable range at 135.

Mayo Clinic’s website says the guideline for LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) is:

Desirable: Below 70 mg/dL

Near ideal: 100-129 mg/dL

High: 160-189 mg/dL

My LDL cholesterol was in the desirable range at 60.

Mayo Clinic’s website says the guidelines for HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) is:

Poor: Below 50 mg/dL for women

Better: 50-59 mg/dL for women

Best: 60 mg/dL and above for women

My HDL cholesterol was in the best range at 67. My triglycerides levels were also also in the desirable range at 41.

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/cholesterol-levels/ART-20048245

Want to know what else the test revealed? That my sodium level was low. I found this to be very interesting. The normal range for sodium mmoi/L is between 136-145. My sodium level was slightly low at 134. So I actually need to add sodium to my diet to get it back within the “normal” functioning range.

I talked to my doctor about the concerns I had with eating eggs and bacon and it raising my cholesterol levels and he basically said not to worry too much because the cholesterol found in food is completely different from the blood serum cholesterol that causes heart attacks. He also said a lot of the original studies done on the link between cholesterol in food and heart health are outdated and inconclusive.

So, if eating eggs and bacon doesn’t raise your cholesterol and cause a heart attack, then what does? I believe inflammation does. And what causes inflammation? That’s debatable, but I believe it’s: processed and packaged foods, refined white sugar, wheat products, and alcohol (to name a few).

I’m grateful that my cholesterol levels are all within an ideal range and that I confidently eat a breakfast that isn’t limited to eggs whites, for now anyway. Because cholesterol levels can change over time I’ll probably get them checked again in about 3 years. So we’ll see if they remain ideal until then!

If anyone has any thoughts or opinions on food, cholesterol, or cholesterol tests, please share!

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Ready for 2014!

It’s difficult to describe how grateful I am for the abundance of positive changes that took place in 2013. On December 31st, 2012, I was in a much different place than I am today.

I was living with Kevin in a small, one bedroom apartment on Milwaukee’s East Side feeling frustrated. I had been looking to start a career after attaining my Bachelor’s degree for a full year with no luck. I also didn’t have a car and relied solely on public transportation when Kevin was not able to give me a ride. And then there was the seemingly endless struggle with panic attacks and anxiety. I know there are thousands, if not millions, of people struggling with panic attacks and anxiety, and it can be down right debilitating if left untreated. This past year I finally found ways to manage it. I was once told by a doctor that some people are hard-wired for anxiety, and I truly believe that. If I consume a lot of sugar and caffeine, I’ll feel physically anxious, even if there’s nothing to feel anxious about.

In 2012 I heard about The Paleo Diet and how eliminating sources of excess carbohydrates and sugar can improve health, calm your hormones, and soothe your nervous system. On January 1st, 2013 I dove right in and it drastically improved how I feel emotionally, as well as physically. While I can’t say I’ve completely eliminated anxiety from my life, I’ve at least found ways to naturally manage it and gain significant amounts of relief.

Tomorrow will mark one year since I’ve had soda, bread, and fast food, such as McDonalds or Burger King. Aside from a grilled chicken salad from Culvers, a burrito bowl from Chipotle/Qdoba, and gluten-free pizza, I’ve remained fast food free. Do I miss soda, bread, and typical fast food? Sometimes, yes. But I feel my quality of life has improved since eliminating them.

I’m not Paleo 100% of the time because I do consume the occasional legume (beans, peanuts, edamame, etc…), but I try my best to eat as much whole, one ingredient, gluten-free foods as possible.

So that was one big change that started in January of 2013. In March, I was offered my first post-college job at a company I’ve really enjoyed working at. I see myself working at Pinstripe for a long time as I continue to learn about the human resources and recruiting industry. During that same month Kevin also started his new position as an Underwriter.

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Working at Pinstripe afforded me the opportunity to purchase a car! With the help of Kevin, Kevin’s parents, and my parents I was able to find this car within two weeks before my start date. :)

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In April, Kevin and I moved to Menomonee Falls, a suburb of Milwaukee. Our new place is a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment amidst plenty of trails and walking land, which has been perfect for our new puppy, Butters.

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Butters on his first day at home. :)

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Butters at approximately 8 months of age.

And then on our four year anniversary on August 18th in Chicago, I got engaged to my best friend! We’re planning our wedding for June of 2015, so 2014 will be a year full of fun events and planning! :)

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I’m absolutely thrilled for 2014. I have a few goals that I’ll touch-on in an upcoming post, but mostly I’d like to be more active in the new year, spend plenty of quality time with family and friends, plan our wedding, and expand my blog. But more on that later…

My wishes go out to everyone for a safe and healthy New Year and an abundance of joy in 2014!

Paleo Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

I can’t get enough of this recipe. There are some gluten-free muffin recipes that are noticeably gluten-free. The texture of the muffin will be too dense or too dry…but not these. I brought these into an office potluck and no one knew they were gluten free. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. So if you’re looking for a good muffin to have with coffee, or as a dessert, or just because you want to indulge in some pumpkin-y goodness, try these!

I found this recipe on Paleomg’s website: http://paleomg.com/pumpkin-chocolate-chip-muffins/

Paleo Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

Ingredients

  • ⅓ cup pumpkin puree (I used canned)
  • ⅓ cup maple syrup
  • ¼ cup coconut oil, melted
  • 3 eggs, whisked
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup coconut flour
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (or ¼ nutmeg, ¼ ground cloves, ⅛ powdered ginger)
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • ½ cup Enjoy Life Mini Chocolate Chips (try this brand if you want a soy-free option, otherwise any brand will work)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Mix together wet ingredients in a bowl: pumpkin puree, maple syrup, coconut oil, eggs, and vanilla extract
  3. In another bowl, whisk together coconut flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves, powdered ginger, baking soda, baking powder, and salt
  4. Pour dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix well
  5. Fold in chocolate chips
  6. Line a muffin tin with paper liners. Use an ice cream scoop to one scoop of batter per muffin
  7. Bake for 35-40 minutes

Tip: After the muffins have cooled I store them in a container and then keep them in the fridge. If they’re left at room temperature they tend to dry out a little after a day, but if they’re refrigerated they stay pretty moist.

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