Normal life situations can sometimes be the proverbial last straw to break your camel’s back when it comes to your health. Why is it that we have such a hard time seeing the problem coming? We hear people (or ourselves!) say, “It was a good day until I reached down to pick up my suitcase…”, or, “My headaches come randomly, and take away normal life so I can barely function sometimes”, or “When I get a cold it takes me by surprise at the worst possible times; it often turns into an infection that I have to get treated with antibiotics”. These seemingly innocuous events can be the last straw that tips the balance of your health into pain or sickness.
I blogged about this last straw effect a few years ago, but I have new insights now that I want to share with you so you can become better camel owners! I encourage you to start tracking to discover how your particular factors can compromise your health and well being. You are the best one for this job, to be the main detective and do the formal work that your doctor or healthcare worker like me cannot do, since not only are you the most motivated, but you can best perceive your body’s myriad signals and information 24/7 that no one else can! Click to download the diet, exercise, awareness chart.
I break the problem of why we don’t see it coming into three different categories. These last straw factors (listed below) can make us unhealthy indeed, but interestingly, are not usually the literal causes of a disease or health issue when the camel falls. Rather, these factors predispose us to poor health and disease; they take our defences down, make us vulnerable and less capable of adapting and being resilient. They are embodied in the dynamics of lifestyle, diet, and our physical and physiological functional realities.
- Subtlety Factor. An issue affecting our health is often understated and seemingly insignificant and irrelevant in and of itself. It may even be unobservable on its own or in a single occurrence. With time and persistence or in combination with other factors it may contribute to impacting our health negatively to a tipping point. Like the story with a frog in water becoming hotter, we don’t see the effect of the temperature going up gradually. Things like sitting 12 hours a day, sleep issues, diet habits, exposure to toxins/smoking, etc…
Example: Staying up late to get a big project done is fine in the beginning, especially if you use stimulants like tea or coffee to help! But three or four nights into the week, or as it becomes a habit to meet your deadlines, the fatigue sets in. The show must go on, since your job success has brought you more and more responsibility – perhaps you start using sleeping medications since you don’t sleep well now. Minor fatigue has now turned into exhaustion and a major sleep issue over months and years; mistakes are happening at work, and conflicts happening with colleagues, friends and loved ones, and you are getting sick a lot. The late nights are still happening, and you never feel rested when the alarm goes off. Although more than one factor is at play here, the effects of lack of sleep are gradual and cumulative, and can be a life habit and vicious cycle that is hard to break.
- Multi-issue factor. Usually several subtle problems contribute to a health problem. Each factor can interact or contribute and add its particular straw to the whole problem in a cumulative way, but since it doesn’t matter which straw overloads the camel, its capacity has been reached nonetheless!
Example: Irregularly and unpredictably a headache happens – one time it is the wine, the next the lack of sleep, another time it was hot and you got dehydrated, or sometimes it just seems to be during stressful periods, or even after a great workout, or sometimes just before your menstrual cycle… so understanding why a headache occurs is often confusing due to the complexity of variables. Maybe there is a hydration component, maybe there is a neck tension component that is either stress induced or indeed sometimes simply postural – a different straw each time may be associated with the problem, but not consistently. Maybe there are four contributing ideas, any one of them is not enough to tip the balance…you need a couple or few of them adding up.
- Time delay factor: This is different than the frog in hot water effect. This is where the cause-and-effect of a problem are not linked closely enough in time to see obviously. This could be due to cumulative subtle effects or a single non-subtle big effect – but there is a time delay before you can see it, and as such don’t make the link. Infections, toxicity and metabolic disturbances can work this way; they are not only subtle, but rather the issue is not cumulative per se. The symptoms show by a phenomenon that happens at a later time beyond the exposure or intial deficiency.
- Examples: Obvious disease examples include certain infections or consequences of infections, toxins, and the realm of caridovascular disease and cancer. Here there is a silence between first symptoms and an initial event or subtle long term events. Cause and effect seem unlinked, since depending on the particulars, first expression of the problem can be days, months or years apart from the beginning of the issue – these are known as silent killers. But often the process is not completely silent; usually the body has feedback along the way that things aren’t quite right, which can be confused and habituated to normal malaise and just tolerated with aging. For less life threatening examples, food sensitivities may present this way, since they may be silent with no apparent symtpoms. Some may register slight bloating or pain or bowel changes, but many would ignore these and take medications to compensate. Absorption problems can occur over a long time due to food sensitivities in the intestine or stomach issues, and can cause anemia and other problems over a long time. Similarly, dietary deficiencies may take a long time to show – for instance, a person newly on a vegan diet can feel good for several months feeling that they are fine. But the liver stores about a year’s worth of vitamin B12, and it can become depleted over time gradually if not supplied adequately in the diet, showing up a long time later as fatigue, anemia, or even worse, irreversible nerve damage.
You can better understand your particular last straw problem, be a better camel owner, and take specific actions or conduct semi-controlled experiments to improving your situation. Track things over time, like quality, quantity and timing of how your consume your food/beverages, medications, your bowel patterns, hours of sleep or rest, screen time; or subjective things pertaining to the realm of energy levels, mood, energy levels, social interactions, or when you perceive a sense of contentment; or physical details relating to the degree and type and timing of exercise and movement (or sedentariness) at work and play, your posture dynamics and strength, flexibility, coordination, and of course document your particular experience regarding the nature of pain and discomfort, since the quality, duration, degree and timing of pain is changing in relation to medications, movement, stress, etc.
I invite you to download our diet, exercise, awareness chart here to try to discover the patterns that could be contributing to your health problems. Even if you don’t connect the dots and see exact correlations to your problem, the very act of tracking is often enough to start people becoming more aware and intentional in making obvious positive changes in lifestyle, diet, and exercise. In the next blog I will talk about the dilemma of our awareness. We come to realize the cost we pay with our health sometimes – can we repay the health debt? A little tip in tracking — do it every day for at least one week, at the end of the day, almost ritualistically, like brushing your teeth. The process in the beginning is not so much about accuracy (ie don’t fill it in obsessively during the day), but rather about remembering and learning to notice what is happening and when (or notice that you are not noticing!). This retrospective approach fosters creating a mindfulness throughout the day that affects not only our perspections, but also the choices we make.
If you are motivated to make your turning point now, and if you would like help with the process of tracking and becoming more aware of your health, come and see us at the Acupuncture Turning Point. We work with you in more global ways than just with acupuncture, acknowledging we are just one spoke, with you at the hub of many people and professionals to help you on your way.