Is “Significant Benefit” Enough?

by moonwatcher on March 5, 2014

labyrinth rub by MTM

Thanks to my internet pal MS Nomad, I just learned that March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month A little while back she also posted a link  I shared on my blog’s facebook page to an article/video by Dr. Gregor about treating multiple sclerosis with diet. He gives an overview of Dr. Swank’s pioneering work, stressing how those diagnosed with MS who follow a diet very low in saturated fat can expect to live to a ripe old age. 

The most impressive results from Dr. Swank’s 50 year study spotlight those who started the diet when newly diagnosed. Indeed, this is also what all plant-based doctors who advocate using diet to manage or overcome Multiple Sclerosis emphasize. But what if, like me, someone comes to this diet years after diagnosis?

A lot of times people who cheer me on await the day when all my symptoms will be completely gone and my condition will be a thing of the past. Alongside the white house with the picket fence and the two kids, it’s a kind of American dream. And those of us who eat plant-based feed ourselves not only on fruits, vegetables, grains and beans, but on the stories of those who reversed their serious conditions completely. That’s what makes films like Forks Over Knives and the stories of Star McDougallers and Herbie of the Week so compelling. Each of us could be the next one.

But what if we don’t make the grade? What if we get better but not all the way better? What if some things remain serious issues, or something else crops up that we didn’t expect? Perhaps there’s a better way to see eating low fat, whole food and plant-based than as a cure-all that takes away all of our serious health conditions.

There’s one sentence in the article/video about MS and diet which addresses that circumstance: ” Even patients with initially advanced disease showed significant benefit.”

This is definitely the category I fall into. While I have always been a much healthier eater than most people, I didn’t find the low fat vegan approach until 12 years after I’d been diagnosed. So in honor of Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month, I’d like to spend some time today reflecting on what “significant benefit” has meant to me, and why it’s more than enough.

The year and a half or so before I adopted a low fat whole food plant-based diet my mother died of lung cancer and I flew with  my son from Spokane to California. By the time we arrived at the airport in Spokane with friends who had driven us there, it became apparent I needed a wheel chair to continue traveling. Once we got to California I spent most of the public appearances at the funeral and after in my Mom’s wheel chair. Once I got home I spent much of the time for weeks resting in bed so I could get strong enough to walk the third of a mile to the co-op. First around the block. Then half way. Then all the way. By September I was making it there again.

Around that same time, some young friends of mine escaped a fire that burned the old farm house they were renting to the ground. They had no place to go, and for months they lived with me. It was a loving time, but it was also full. They had two dogs and a 2 year old who was the apple of my eye. Once they were able to organize themselves to go east with plans for the mother to attend law school, I was tired out from all the stimulation, but also had become used to the family help and support I had received whenever I had needed to rest because of the stimulation.

I drastically underestimated the time it would take to bounce back. I figured a few weeks: it took months. I still remember the spot a few houses down the street near an old lilac hedge where I became so weak and exhausted I knew there was no way I’d make it around the block, let alone to the Co-op. I prayed I’d just make it back to the house.

For five months I could not walk to the co-op myself, let alone carry anything home. Other people had to shop for me, because most of the time I was too tired to even go if I got a ride. When I did feel up to  a ride over, I remember not being able to look over at the deli area (where my art show currently hangs) while checking out, because it was where I had sat so many times having good conversations after I had walked over to meet someone. I was too afraid I would burst out in tears just at the sight of it. When I finally did make it over on my own and sat in the deli area waiting for a friend who was going to meet me to help me shop, I did cry to be able to see the store from that perspective again, in spite of how long it had been since I’d made it there to sit down and gather strength to shop, with or without help.

I also remember one of my first round trips on foot during that time.  I was so thrilled I had made it all the way and would make it all the way back, that I bought a single sesame candy out of the bulk section, something I could carry in my pocket, just to say I was able to carry something home.

Eight years later,  I still get tired. But it’s after I have walked a mile or more with Romeo, then ended up at the co-op, and shopped to fill my backpack to the gills. Although all the checkers know to help me on with the back pack, it hardly occurs to me anymore to sit down and rest before heading home. In fact I had forgotten all about the places I’d done that until I started to write this post. At one point there was a sort of easy chair in the dead center of the store in the health and beauty section, where people could sit and read material about products. Years ago it was my first destination when I entered the store. I’d sit there and let my heart rate calm,  and wait for any dizziness or jello-y feelings in my legs to abate enough to go get a cart and push it around. Now when I’m tired, it doesn’t come with these more obvious warning signs, but I still have to pay attention to it.

A very recent experience with that need put it all into perspective for me. The night after my art opening, there was a reception at our independent bookseller for poet Robert Wrigley, who received the Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Award for his latest collection of poems, The Anatomy of Melancholy. He is an internationally renowned poet and all around great guy.  We are lucky he calls this area home. Since I really like Bob just on general principal, and The Anatomy of Melancholy is my favorite yet of all his books, I wanted to go and help celebrate, even though I was still pretty tuckered out from my own art opening the night before.

As I walked down to the bookstore with Romeo, I thought to myself that as soon as we got inside, I’d go to the back and nab a chair on an aisle in the small reading area so Romeo would have enough room to stretch out. I knew it was going to be a short reading, but it turned out it was going to be a REALLY short reading–just a few poems–and then lots of book signing and hobnobbing. At first there was a general air of confusion about that in the back of the long narrow store as people went to the back and saw the chairs weren’t set up.

Nevertheless, after the art opening and two walks that day, I knew I didn’t have it in my legs to stand on the mostly cement floor for the next half hour or more. Luckily for me, I spied an empty bean bag chair in the children’s section and sat down. After several minutes of making sure I was staying there for a while, Romeo quietly crept up onto it next to me, and settled in for a nap.

As the proprietor of the store passed by me, I asked her about the chairs. It turned out I was in the perfect spot. Bob would be reading from the lectern set up right across from the counter, and even if some people stood in front of me I’d have a good enough view. And I’d hear fine, which is really the point of listening to poetry.

Comfy in the bean chair with my legs able to take a break, I was content to watch the people milling around us. As more people gathered,  an attractive woman came forward with her hand outstretched. “Do you remember me?” she said, and when I looked in her bright and pretty face I did.  It was Darci,  the physical therapist who I had seen and worked with the first year of my diagnosis back in 1996.

We hugged. And she said, wow, you look great, you’re glowing. (Even sitting in the bean bag chair I guess.) So I told her about my art show. We visited a little and after the award ceremony and reading, we took up our conversation again. She asked me what I was doing to keep myself in such good shape. So I told her about my way of eating. She whipped out her iphone and wrote down the URL for this blog, which of course made me happy.

But something else in our conversation also stayed with me in the best kind of way. It has been 18 years since I worked with Darci. But she said that even then, I was very positive, that I didn’t come to her saying “I can’t do this” or “I can’t do that.” She said she remembered me coming in and showing her what I could do and asking for help with ways to keep doing it or make some other things easier to keep doing. “You were so positive,” she said.

So even then, as I was adjusting to the cause of my difficulties, and starting on a more limited diet as well, I was focusing on what I could do and what I could eat. I had gone to a homeopathic physician who had determined my allergy to wheat starch, egg whites, and a few other food sensitivities. But my guiding question to myself was “what can I eat?” not “why can’t I eat that anymore?”

So I guess that’s what you get the most of on this blog. The things I can do now that I couldn’t do before I started eating this way, and the wonderful things I can eat that keep the significant benefits coming.

Significant benefit means softening of symptoms and easier alleviation of others. It means renewed ability to bounce back, and in a much shorter time period. It means problems recede, become more subtle,  resolve more easily, are less acute, less frequent. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay attention when symptoms present just because they aren’t holding me hostage in the same acute way they once did, or I can now forget such things ever happened or that I’ve been given the diagnosis of MS.

I know most people who have serious or chronic illness wish for it to be all gone. Once in a while I feel the same way. But perhaps having been born with mild cerebral palsy sets me apart from people who believe in themselves as “normal.”

I’ve never had that belief. From the time I was small I knew that I was “different.” Being “different, for me, was “normal.” So those 2 notions have always had contradictory or paradoxical meanings in my life, and in some ironic way have freed me from a view of normal that can actually be oppressive.

I believe eating whole plant foods is the absolute best thing I can do to either prevent, soften or ameliorate just about anything coming down the pike to me from my family history. And that history has a doozy of a list of things I might have to live with–or die from. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. . .so just in case those things come along to join the MS, the CP and fibromyalgia, I might as well be armed with a non-toxic approach to lifestyle that’s going to promote healing from all of them.

It’s also important to me that I make sure I spend time doing the things I want to do that I haven’t done enough of, and not too much time doing the things I don’t really want to do that I’ve already done a lot of.  In the first year after my diagnosis I listed these two categories in a journal, and ever since I have tried to guide myself by them, and learn to listen to and trust the inner promptings that place one thing or another in either category. It’s served me very well, and helped me find my way back to doing my art more consistently and openly.

I believe eating whole plants gives me increased mental and emotional clarity that helps me to live by these insights. In the six years of experience I’ve had with it so far, this kind of slow motion miracle healing doesn’t move in a straight line. Instead it’s like walking a labyrinth. Progress is circular, or cyclical, or both, filled with curves and twists on the way to each new center. Sometimes I wonder where I’m going. But the center of calm, new balance always awaits, even if I can’t see how I’ll get there. One winter many years ago  I walked an indoor labyrinth with my walking stick, laid out on a church floor. The closer “in” I wound my way, the more convinced I became I might have chosen the wrong path and would find myself flung out on the perimeter to try again. Just as I was about to give in to the panic of this belief, I saw I was but one turn away from the center. There would be no going back.

Except that of course there is the going back.  After sitting in the center with the insight that I often despair right before a breakthrough, it was time to follow the maze of the labyrinth back out again, to integrate the insight and healing a circular journey to the center provides, to find a way to live with it in the world.  Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my reflection in the glass walls of the church wind its way close, then seemingly farther away, then even closer to itself. The “wrong way” was only an illusion.

Sticking with my slow miracle of eating whole plants mimics the wholeness of the labyrinth’s path. There are cycles. There are twists and turns. Over and over it returns me to myself and facilitates “significant benefit” on all levels and compassionate interconnectedness to all of life.

We are all works in progress. So I don’t mind being a late bloomer or a late starter, or someone whose disease had already “advanced.” The “significant benefit” may be in slow motion, or partial, but it’s also steady. And perpetual. Given this miracle, I’m hard pressed to say living the rest of my life in a state of perpetually dynamic significant benefit is a “lesser” gift.  Instead, I see it as living an open-ended best case scenario.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

 

 

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nicole o'Shea March 5, 2014 at 8:39 pm

Holy Wow, Maria. What a post!

Where to start?

Thank you for your insight and wisdom, your cheers and focus on the “cans” instead of the “can’ts”.

I feel like you have given us a much deeper, rawer sense of what things were like then, and why significant benefits are indeed very significant.

I also felt like I walked through the world and the times you inhabited, sort of like a movie of images as the current you narrates your wisdom. You are a brilliant writer.

Xoxo

Nicole

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2 moonwatcher March 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Thanks so much, Nicole, for this heartfelt comment, and for your kind words about my writing. I’m glad to know this was vivid enough for you to feel like you were walking through my worlds, and that it gives you a deeper sense of what significant benefit means to me. xo

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3 Lois Gowen March 10, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Thank-you so much for your article. I have fibromyalgia and arthritis. If I treat one, the other gets worse. As I am a pianist, decided to treat the arthritis (with curcumin). However, I am convinced that my vegan diet, of about 30 years, has kept both problems from being too severe. You put things in perspective for me. Do what gives you joy the best way you can. I can’t play the big Beethoven and Chopin works, but I can enjoy Bach, Scarlatti and the works written for the lighter pianos. You have a great attitude to life. Thanks for sharing it. Best to you, Lois Gowen

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4 moonwatcher March 10, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Welcome, Lois–I am honored by your comment. My mother was pianist–she had big hands that could reach a tenth, and I used to lie in bed at night listening to her play Rachmaninoff and Chopin and List. The piano was a huge part of my growing up I know a small bit of what you are talking about here. Thank you for sharing a little of your own experience here. I am so glad you can still play Bach, Scarlatti and other works written for lighter pianos–they are gorgeous in their own right. I am so happy I helped you to put things in perspective. I, too, believe your vegan diet has helped your conditions. So here’s to doing what gives us each joy in the best way we can. It’s a wonderful way to live!! I shall think of you, too, now when I hear the piano. :)

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5 Nancy March 6, 2014 at 10:27 am

Just beautifully written. I just slowed down and got quiet and took in your message. A blessing is a blessing. So true. Thank you.

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6 moonwatcher March 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

Welcome, Nancy, and you are so very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to read and then write these very kind words about a post that means a lot to me.

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7 veggiequest March 6, 2014 at 11:43 am

Maria, what a touching post. I’m so grateful that you took the time to share your story. As someone who came to this way of eating for health reasons as well (breast health, specifically), I can relate to the desire to have every symptom gone, and yesterday, if possible.

Yet your post was a reminder to slow down and recognize just how far I’ve come. Since sticking to a low fat, whole plant food diet this year, I can go to sleep on my side again. (Used to have so much pain that I couldn’t!) I can wear swimsuits without wincing. And I just don’t worry about my breast health as much. Of course, nothing is a sure thing, but still, what blessings have come from this healthy way of eating and living!

I’m so glad your symptoms have improved, even if they still make themselves known now and again. You’re an inspiration to us all!

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8 moonwatcher March 6, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Thanks so much, Lee! It means a lot to me to know this post speaks to others who are addressing serious health problems with this way of eating. It’s very important to slow and recognize how far we’ve come, so I was glad to read of your progress over the last year. Wonderful! True, nothing is a sure thing, but this way of eating arms us with the best foundation there is for the long haul, whatever it may bring. Yay!

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9 Veronica March 6, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Thank you for such an amazing, and personal, post. I find myself frustrated with the fact that I’m not “all better” now; that there are good and bad days, even though I just want good days… But the fact is, overall, it is always trending towards good. Slow motion. Focusing on the can-dos, instead of the can’t-anymores. Even the little things can be significant. Often times they are the most significant.
Something I’m noticing with me is that though I have a cold right now, I’m feeling *so* much better than I ever did sick before! I feel like i’m recovering faster, and that in itself is a testament to how eating this way helps all facets of healing.
Thanks for sharing. I’m so happy you’re slow miracle keeps on giving. xoxo

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10 moonwatcher March 6, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Thanks so much for this thoughtful response, Veronica. It’s really important to acknowledge, as you have here, that even though there are good days and bad days, that overall, you trend towards good. A wonderful way to put it. And yes, oftentimes little things ARE the most signficant. It’s great to hear that you and your body are handling the cold you have so much better that you ever did sick before. Here’s to the way of eating that keeps on giving, it hard times and easier ones, too! xo

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11 Sheryl March 6, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Thank you for sharing your insights! My sweet daughter in law was diagnosed with MS a year ago. I’ve not been able to understand how this effects her and your descriptions have so very much helped me understand what each day must be like for her. Thank you again.

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12 moonwatcher March 6, 2014 at 8:09 pm

You’re welcome, Sheryl. I’m glad my words were of help to you in understanding what your daughter in laws days might be like. Thank you for letting me know.

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13 Pam Woods March 6, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Maria, This is such a wonderful post. Really. This is so important for anyone with a chronic illness.

I started this way of eating a year ago, 10 years into my MS diagnosis. I am also seeing “significant benefit” and it is amazing.

I love how you suggest to focus on what we *can* eat. I’m slowly getting there, after grieving some of the favorite foods that I thought I could never give up. But they just don’t serve me anymore.

The labyrinth story is so interesting and true.

And I love that you met Darci and that she noticed how much better you’re doing. I’ve had a few people say to me, “You look so much better. We didn’t think that happened with MS.” I love seeing these significant benefits that others notice.

I’ve said it before, and will continue to say it. You inspire me, and I appreciate that you’re willing to share the intimate details of your life so that others with chronic illness can see that there is a different way. You’ve shown me that this is a long-term lifestyle, not just a quick fix diet. Thank you.

And, for me, the answer is a resounding “Yes” to the question in your title – Yes, Yes, Yes, significant benefit is indeed enough. It is more than I could have hoped for 10 years ago. And it is wonderful.

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14 moonwatcher March 7, 2014 at 8:39 am

Thanks, Pam, for this beautiful comment! If I do one thing successfully on this blog, I hope it’s to help people see this IS a long term lifestyle change that has to be lived as such. I just got a nice e-mail from another reader who mentioned that she’s seen friends with serious health conditions quit this way of eating after a month when all their symptoms did not completely disappear. There are a lot of misguided expectations out there. So I’m VERY happy to read I’ve helped you to know this, too, and that you have now experienced enough significant benefit to support it. One of the lovely side benefits of eating this way is that we start to look so much more vibrant and generally terrific that we have to get used to people telling us this all the time, especially someone we haven’t seen in a long time! I’m glad, too, you enjoy the emphasis on what we CAN eat–I hope to write more about this in upcoming posts, too. So happy for your resounding YES–it makes the music of this healing process even more sweet!

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15 Donna McFarland March 7, 2014 at 2:21 am

This is absolutely superb Maria…THANK YOU!! xoxoxo

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16 moonwatcher March 7, 2014 at 8:41 am

You are welcome, Donna. And thank YOU, as a veteran of the long haul. I still hope to share some of that here one of these days. xo

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17 Silvia March 7, 2014 at 7:49 am

Dear Maria, somehow you directly spoke to me.
I had breast cancer nearly 20 years ago and other than that no ‘significant’ diagnosis. But somehow I never was healthy or had energy etc. And changing my diet was no miracle cure. But I feel really better.
Still there are many people around me with definitely more energy etc. and they eat a standard western diet. As it was from childhood up I am the ‘weak’ one.
But I feel better and I try to learn from you and look at the small things that have changed and are changing for the better.
Love this post!
Greetings from Silvia in Germany

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18 moonwatcher March 7, 2014 at 8:47 am

Dear Silvia, thank you so much for your heartfelt comment and for sharing some of your own serious situation here. It makes me very happy that this post spoke to you, because it means these insights can apply to other conditions than mine, which is always my hope. It’s essential to remember that “the little things make a big difference”–because they do–and also to remember to say “it’s better than it was”–because it IS better than it was, yes? So glad you are a student on this same path with me. We’re all learning together.

ps: Its so wonderful you are a breast cancer survivor of 20 years and more!! That shows a kind of long haul strength that the seemingly stronger people around you might be inspired by. I know I am :)

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19 Francine Kaiona March 9, 2014 at 1:34 pm

You live your positiveness with great clarity and from a strong spiritual core. You inspire me. I’m grateful for you sharing your story. I too will start to look for “significant benefits” playing out in my life.
Namaste, Francine

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20 moonwatcher March 9, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Welcome, Francine. Thank you very much for this lovely affirmation of how I try to live. I really appreciate it, and wish you the gift of recognizing “significant benefit” playing out in its own special way in your life, too.

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21 Carol March 9, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Your post is wonderfully uplifting. As a 14-year breast cancer survivor and dealing with weight issues, I am very encouraged by your post. While everyone I know who migrates to this way of eating looses weight, I don’t. AT ALL. Been at this 7+ years now. Will never be a Star McDougaller, but your testimony helps me feel that it’s all worth it. Thank you!!!

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22 moonwatcher March 9, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Welcome, Carol, and thank you so much! It’s wonderful you’ve survived breast cancer and this way of eating has helped you keep well. That’s far more important than being an ideal weight. I am so happy my post helped you feel your efforts are all worth it.

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23 Rachel March 10, 2014 at 1:24 am

Dear Maria, yet again your beautiful tale of discovery and acceptance helps me on my journey. Allowing me to relax judgement and accept my limitations while still choosing to push the boundaries a little. Thank you

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24 Alyce Barry March 10, 2014 at 4:30 am

What a beautifully written post. I’ve eaten a WFPB diet for just 9 months and have wondered about the issue you raise – how much benefit is enough to be worth it, since this diet does seem to require more frequent grocery shopping and cooking and therefore also more dish washing, plus the often negative reactions of friends and family members. My partner has Parkinson’s, diagnosed 6 years ago before we were together and I’ve wondered what kind of impact the diet might have. So far we’re both very impressed at how much lighter we feel, I think of it as a spring in my step that wasn’t there before. I’m finding it harder to sit for long periods (as I used to, at the computer — I’m a writer — and watching films) which I attribute to both the added energy and the bulkier food I’m digesting. If you’ve read “The China Study” you may remember that Dr. Campbell suspects that Parkinson’s may be an auto-immune disorder like MS, I wonder if you know any more about that. Thanks again for this wonderful article.

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25 moonwatcher March 10, 2014 at 8:41 am

Welcome, Alyce, and thank you for your kind words about my writing–and from another writer!! I am glad the issue I raise is relevant to you and your partner. I appreciate what you shared here about it. I have read The China Study–it was a pivotal read for me in helping to stay with and refine what I was doing in the first couple of years of it. But alas, I know nothing much about Parkinson’s and don’t know anyone who has it. I’d speculate though, that at least indirectly, the health WFPB eating brings to the circulatory system could only be beneficial, at least from that vantage point. In my own experience nerve related improvements when they occur are slow and incremental. I hope you find someone who might be able to give you accurate information on the correlation between this way of eating and progression of Parkinson’s. All the best to both of you. Glad to know you’re on the WFPB way, even if it is inconvenient at times.

ps: Perhaps it’s worth a letter to Dr. Campbell himself. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, yes?

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26 Deborah March 11, 2014 at 11:56 pm

Oh Maria, thank you.
I was just in a ‘ this isn’t fair state’ about a health complication…I was whining to my son,”But it’s not fair to get this now, not after I embraced a wfpb lifestyle. ..”
So here I am after digesting your words of wisdom and reflection, back in a place of acceptance and gratitude.
Love you xo

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27 moonwatcher March 12, 2014 at 9:19 am

Hi Deborah, I’m so glad what I wrote helped you over a hump in adjusting to a seemingly unfair health complication. Thank you for sharing this with me, and my readers. We all need help through such places at times. Grateful my word were of service to you.

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28 Veronique June 3, 2014 at 6:54 am

Thank you so much Maria for this well written and realistic yet uplifting post. Like you I am finding The Starch Solution 12 years into MS. The last two years have been tough ones and walking has been difficult and painful. Reading about your journey gives me hope. Today I cycled for 30 minutes for the first time in 3 years and that is a huge step forward. Yes, it would be a miracle (and fun) if I were totally cured and winning the olympics. But since I have never been much of an athlete, I’ll settle for being able to go shopping for fun and taking a walk on the beach or in the woods.
I started doing 80 10 10 because that was easy to implement while reading The Starch Solution and doing some research. The vegan and low fat aspects were the easiest for me to do, now how to incorporate the starches and create my own plant based, whole foods diet. One month in and I am cycling. So far not a bad result. I still limp like a duck with a wooden legg but then it’s only been one month!
Thank you for strengthening my resolve and confirming that I have made the right choice and that it is never too late!

Big Hugs,

Veronique, The Netherlands

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29 moonwatcher June 3, 2014 at 7:17 am

Welcome, Veronique! Thank you for this lovely comment and for sharing some of your own journey in it. To give others hope you haven’t been doing this as long as I have, and to hear how they are improving, even in a relatively short time, is music to my ears, and one of the most important reasons I write this blog. You are already finding your groove with this–and as time goes along, you will be able to hear what your body is telling you and refine accordingly. It’s WONDERFUL that you can take a bike ride again after 3 years of being unable to, just a month in. Some things take longer than others to improve, and may mimic the ups and downs you already experienced before trying this, but in a less extreme manner, and with much more capacity to bounce back. I am so happy for you!! I was thinking of writing another post about the long view, and your comment is encouragement to begin drafting that. So thank YOU! :) Indeed, it is never too late. Big hugs back. “_

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