Stress: A Medical Mystery Tour

If only I had a snazzy van like this one to take me from doctor appointment to doctor appointment!

On Sunday night, after an emotionally challenging experience that I’ll describe in another post sometime soon, I poured myself a glass of whiskey.

Then I got a headache, because lately, every time I drink, I get a headache.

I’ve also been dizzy a lot lately. Once, a few weeks ago, my vision became blurred, and I almost passed out; I rushed to the ER. It was “nothing.”

My neurologist ordered an MRI, and blood work, and some other tests.

All: Nothing.

Did I mention my acid reflux has been acting up, after years in remission?

The gastroenterologist ordered a sonogram (nothing) and an endoscopy: something. Lots of irritation in my stomach. Biopsy results should shed some light on why that is. 

I went back to the neurologist. “Last time, I only mentioned the dizziness,” I told her. “I forgot to mention I’ve been getting these headaches…” (Not just when I drink, which by the way, is only a few times a week — and even less these days since I know booze is bad for my stomach…)

“You’re going to think I’m kooky,” she said, “but…” And she proceeded to say that there’s something wrong with how my automatic nervous system is functioning — specifically, with how my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are communicating with one another, which is affecting blood flow and other things that can explain the headaches and dizzy feeling. And — this is where it gets kooky — she said that in 90 percent of the cases she’s treated, what helps her patients is… (drumroll please) giving up dairy.


I’m a big believer in nutrition as cure (and toxin), but I hardly consume any dairy. Still, it doesn’t hurt to give it up completely for a few weeks and see what happens. 

Did I mention a trip to the ENT in the midst of all this, too? Ears look fine. Oh and he prescribed “vestibular therapy” (man I feel old), where they did further testing, and proclaimed that the crystals in my inner ears were precisely where they should be (*humblebrag*). In other words: the dizziness is still a mystery.

So, giving up dairy it is. For now. 

When I got home from the neurologist, I Googled “dairy” and “sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.” I didn’t get a full explanation of what’s going on with me, or why, but I did see that what my doctor apparently thinks I have is called autonomic neuropathy or dysautonomia. I haven’t fully gone down the rabbit hole of internet research on this condition but I’ll tell you what I think after hearing my doctor’s initial explanation and glancing at a few websites: 

My problem is stress. 

Which, as every test came back negative in the past few weeks, is increasingly what my gut told me was going on. 

A quick science lesson, if you aren’t up on your nervous systems: Our sympathetic nervous system controls our fight-or-flight response. Our parasympathetic nervous system governs passive (but no less essential) processes like rest, digestion, healing and growth. To thrive, we need the two systems to be in balance. 

And basically, my sympathetic nervous system is stuck on overdrive. 

I’m hardly alone. In a restorative yoga teacher training I took a few years back, I learned that many people live in a heightened state of fight-or-flight. We even carry our stress into sleep. Think about how many people you know who battle insomnia of some kind, or who grind their teeth while they snooze (guilty). Restorative yoga is a specific type of yoga that involves lying in passive poses, often using props for support; its power is that it triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our systems to be deeply restored.

I know all this, and yet… and yet.

It’s been months since I went to a yoga class, and my fitful attempts at cultivating a meditation practice have been… fitful. 

It’s time to put my health back on the front burner. (Gee, I guess I’m preoccupied with “burner” metaphors this week…) 

I am a big believer that until you take care of yourself, you’re no good for anyone else. And I pride myself in having the self-awareness and self-preservation instincts necessary to indulge in a little self care when necessary. I’m not that cliched modern woman who takes care of everyone except herself. But… but.

But here I find myself. I can quote anti-stress wisdom like the best of them, but there is no question I am stressed out. And there is no question that I need to find a better way to manage this stress, for my mental and physical well being.

So for the next few weeks (at least), I’m making relaxation my priority. Today, I’m going to community acupuncture at a yoga studio in my neighborhood. Next week, when I’m home visiting my parents for Christmas, I’ve found some yoga classes in their area that I plan to take. This morning, I went to the gym, and got myself a green juice on the way home; I plan to go back at least twice more this week. 

We’ll see how it goes. 

Maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe a second visit to the ENT, with further testing, will show there’s something going on with my ear that’s causing the dizziness, and maybe the biopsy will show there’s a reason other than stress that my stomach is on fire. Maybe the headaches are tied to seasonal allergies. 

But my gut tells me otherwise.

How has stress affected your health? What have you done to fight back? 

Photo by D. Bjorn


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