Reflecting on two years smoke-free

I first began smoking out of curiosity.

When I was growing up my grandma was in poor health but when I reached my mid-teens she became housebound. She developed emphysema, then COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), and then one day I walked into her bedroom and her medical notes were pasted to the wall where they read ‘lung failure’.

About ten years ago she was admitted to hospital on Christmas Eve and we were told to say our goodbyes. We had a priest come and bless her. I was awake for more than 24 hours and finally went home on Christmas Day, completely exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. After that I thought she would never smoke again. She lived for another five years after this and continued to smoke through many, many more similar hospital admissions.

I don’t know why she continued to smoke – they say it wouldn’t have cured the damage she had already done but to me that’s like saying you’ve got one broken leg so why not have two? They are probably right that her condition wouldn’t have improved – but it could have stabilised and been managed at emphysema instead of lung failure. Instead she continued to decline and struggle to breathe for the remaining five years of her life, and yes, it was horrific to watch.

So I was curious – what could possibly make someone want to continue smoking when it was making you so ill? I can only imagine that not being able to breathe is terrifying, but not being able to breathe for years? Unimaginable.

When I tried my first cigarettes I was totally unimpressed. I thought it was pretty disgusting and nothing to be addicted to. I didn’t get it at all. Later I tried again with menthols and found something I could smoke. So I smoked menthols for a few years, putting up with the headaches, sickness, nausea, feeling out of breath, shaky, and general feeling of unwell-ness that came with being a smoker. Then I met my partner and he didn’t like me smoking, so I quit. After that I only smoked on and off – when I stressed, upset or abroad where cigarettes were very cheap compared to the now skyrocketing prices of the UK due to laws designed to deter smokers (they work). But I didn’t really quit altogether per say, I always liked to know it was there – if I wanted it, but mostly I didn’t bother. I guess it just kind of tapered off until recently I was wondering how long it had been since I had smoked and realised that it was coming up to two years.

I only really gained an understanding when after many, many years of being eating disordered I desperately wanted to quit and to change but found myself unable no matter how I came at the problem. Finally, I understood how you could continue to smoke whilst being unable to breathe – and then I gained a greater sense of compassion, empathy and understanding – a sort of closeness to her, if you like.

Do I miss it? Yes and no. Some days I really crave it, whilst others I can’t imagine ever craving a cigarette ever again. Mostly when I walk behind smokers and breathe in that second-hand smoke – and it’s not cheating – I feel nostalgia for memories of people and a time now long gone.

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How Vitamin D changed my life

Disclaimer: Unlike iron deficiency anaemia, I was never diagnosed with Vitamin D deficiency but instead was prescribed vitamin D by my GP for a different reason, which so happened to heal my fatigue. I wanted to share my experience in the hopes that it might help others struggling with fatigue. If you think you might be deficient in vitamin D you should consult with your doctor.

In autumn 2015 I was prescribed calcium by my doctor to help protect my bones from osteoporosis. Unfortunately for me I made the mistake of not mentioning to my GP during consultation that I struggle to swallow almost any kind of tablet and that large tablets would be an impossibility for me – so when I opened my prescription and saw the bullet-size pills, I filed the tablets in a draw and ignored them for a few months.

As winter came round I got ill with a severe chest infection which required three separate rounds of antibiotics – the last ones strong antibiotics – and steroids to clear. By the time I recovered I had lost 10lbs and was feeling pretty run down. So I wasn’t too surprised that I felt exhausted. Over several weeks though my exhaustion did not improve with any amount of rest. Sleeping 12-14 hours a day had become the norm, along with struggling to wake up myself up – I started semi-waking, falling asleep, semi-waking, and then falling asleep again over and over before finally properly waking. I would lay for hours needing to go to the bathroom falling in and out of sleep because I couldn’t summon the energy to move.

I knew something wasn’t right. By this point I had already begun taking my iron deficiency more seriously and felt that there must be something else wrong to make me feel this tired. It also felt different from the kind of tiredness I get when I’m low on iron – when I’m low on iron I feel breathless, like my chest is being squeezed tight and all my muscles ache constantly – the general feeling is that you can’t get enough air, or enough blood pumping around your limbs, even though your heart is beating like crazy and you’re having palpitations.

This was more like a zombie, comatose feeling where I could barely rouse myself, I never felt truly awake, it was just like living in a permanent fog. I remember lying in my bed at this point feeling like it was an effort to hold my phone and even dropped it on a couple of occasions because it was ‘too heavy’.It’s hard to explain our put into words, but the two feel qualitatively different.

Since I was feeling pretty run down at this time I decided I would start taking better care of myself in general – including finding a more accessible form of the calcium I had been prescribed. As I was then living quite a distance from my GP I did some research online as to what other forms of calcium and vitamin D I could ask for that might be easier for me to take. Unfortunately my research came up with no suitable options available on prescription so instead I began looking at over the counter options I could potentially purchase myself. Luckily I found several options available at Boots.

I can’t remember how I dragged myself to the city centre and back, but somehow or another I did, and within a few days of taking my new calcium tablets, the foggy exhaustion which left me struggling to wake up – and stay awake – began to lift. Puzzled at why calcium would have that affect, having never heard of any link between calcium and fatigue, I did some research into what my doctor had prescribed which turned out to be calcium and vitamin D, and it was at this point that I found out about the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency. The constant fatigue, low immune system, muscle weakness, fogginess now made a lot more sense.

I spoke with my GP and asked if the dose and type of tablets I had gotten over the counter would be a suitable replacement for the prescription she had given me and she confirmed that they were and how many of them I should take to make up an equivalent dose. She also confirmed for me that there were no easier to take tablets available on the NHS and we therefore agreed that if I struggled to take the originals, the best thing to do would be for me to continue purchasing them on my own. We also discussed about the vitamin D and she agreed that if I found it helpful I should continue taking it.

I also did more research and found out that due to our location, around 98% of people living in my area of the country were vitamin D deficient in the winter since we are far too north on the earth’s latitude to produce any. I imagine the sheer cold even in summer leads to a majority of people covering up even in summer – I know I tried to put away my winter coat in late June, almost July and found myself regretting it. Also, contrary to my previous belief, milk in my country is not fortified with vitamin D. I had seen milk listed as being a source of vitamin D so often that I didn’t think I needed to worry about it at all.

From then on I made sure to take my calcium and vitamin D everyday, and my fatigue cleared and I began to feel more normal. I felt that I had found a piece of the puzzle in why my health was so poor. But after a while on the vitamin D I began to suffer from insomnia, at which point some further research revealed that I needed to take it in the morning rather than in the evening. Occasionally when I have been taking my vitamin D very frequently I will still get the insomnia but now I recognise it I taper down the vitamin D for a short while before continuing as normal. Such is life, we learn along the journey. Other than this minor hitch I haven’t had any other side-effects from taking the vitamin D, unless you count more energy and feeling more refreshed!

Looking back I also realise now I had some of the other symptoms of having low vitamin D levels that I had raised with my doctor, like bone pain in my legs which was unexplained. Although I’m fair skinned (Type I) I still had several risk factors – I was a student so I spent the majority of my time indoors; if I went abroad I wore factor 30 or 50 as I due to my skin type I am at high-risk for skin cancer; I had been living in the far north of the UK for several years now. We lived so far north that as a community we would joke we didn’t know what that weird shape was in the sky whenever the sun came out for it’s annual one-day visit.

The combination of iron and vitamin D has been a life-changer in terms of my fatigue, tiredness, breathlessness, aches, pains and bone pain. I only wish I had known about both sooner so that I hadn’t spent so much time exhausted and wondering how on earth I was going to make it through another day.

Since I found out about vitamin D the Scottish government has agreed with the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition (SACN) to advise Scots to take a vitamin D supplement at least during the autumn and winter months, if not all year round. After feeling like a bit of a mad woman for talking about this with family and friends it’s good to know I’m not wrong! Hopefully this will also mean greater awareness for GPs when they have patients presenting with fatigue and aches and pains.

Do you take vitamin D? Or do you recognise that constant feeling of fatigue, aches and pains that doesn’t go away with rest? Share with me in the comments below.

References

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-36856176