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Learning to Love My Bugs

(Photo: Adrianna Dufay/TueNight)

If you asked me which era of the great sweep of human history I would prefer to live in, I would have a two-word answer: Anti. Biotics.

You can keep your Renaissance, your Industrial Revolution, your Paleolithic Eden. You can also keep your streptococcal pneumonia, your abscessed incisors and your untreatable UTIs.

Give me the modern age. The one with penicillin, toothpaste and Pinterest. I wouldn’t have had a prayer of inventing a steam-powered loom or stalking a saber tooth back in the day anyway. I would have expired horribly at the age of three after having stepped on the shaman’s pointy poop-stirring stick — I KNOW IT.

Despite my conviction, though, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the other side of the story. The anti anti-biotic side, if you will. In fact, I’ve come to love my germs.

Our story begins six years ago with an unremarkable sinus infection. The holidays were coming, the days were full and my nasal cavities were jammed up with that sticky sweet mucus that we all know no amount of Airborne and green tea is going to fix. Off to the doctor’s office!

The doc looked up my nose, made a “bleccchhh” noise and wrote me a prescription for antibiotics. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized it wasn’t the usual, run-of-the-mill amoxicillin. It was one of those antibiotics with a name. And a patent. It was newer, better, stronger, faster. I was thrilled.

Twenty-four hours later, I felt like a new woman. Forty-eight hours later, my world came crashing down.

I was prepping for our annual cookie decorating party, and I grabbed a sponge to wipe up the gobs of royal icing I was splattering all over my cabinets. I wrung out the sponge in my right hand…and nearly passed out in pain. Each of my knuckles felt as though it had been replaced by a rusty coil of barbed wire.

My mind raced over the previous day — what had been different? What unusual thing might I have done or eaten that could cause this? The only thing I could think of was the antibiotic.

I Googled the name of the drug, along with “joint pain.”

I described my symptoms, and the doctor widened his eyes, called in the nurse and asked for a blood draw kit. And then he drew my blood himself.

Page after page after page came up. There were thousands of people, all of whom had taken the same medication and all of whom were suffering from painful hips, swollen knuckles and inflamed knees. But there were no answers here. Only anguished questions.

I stopped taking the drug immediately, but the damage was done.

The pangs spread from my knuckles to my wrists, up to my elbows, and from there to joints I didn’t even know I had. It scurried rat-like from place to place, sometimes in my neck, sometimes in my knee, but, strangely, always in my left index finger, in the very first little joint. The same one you use to cootchie-coo a baby’s chin or crook a sexy c’mere to your beloved.

Then came the fevers, every afternoon at about 3 p.m. Nothing conflagrational, just a little spark at 99.5 degrees. Maybe 100.3. Enough to wear me out and make me feel flu-ish and crabby.

My next visit to the doctor was alarming. I described my symptoms, and the doctor widened his eyes, called in the nurse and asked for a blood draw kit. And then he drew my blood himself. 

Have you ever had a doctor draw your blood? Me neither. Generally, they call in the nurse or send you off to the sad, crowded lab on Chestnut Street. When he unwrapped the needle with his own hands, I went from crabby to scared.

Of course, I brought up the antibiotics. As you know, doctors love it when you tell them about your google searches. He nodded blankly and took vials and vials of blood.

We did tests for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lyme disease and a variety of other autoimmune and infectious diseases. The tests came up negative, except for a crazy high sedimentation rate. A high sed rate doesn’t determine a diagnosis, but it does reveal the presence of inflammation, either from cancer or infection or an autoimmune disorder.

And so, my next stop was a rheumatologist who noted my warm joints and mild fever and sent me to a cardiologist. After ruling out rheumatic fever, it was back to the rheumatologist, who took more blood and reconfirmed that this was not the dreaded rheumatoid arthritis. And then he promptly lost interest in my case. He half-heartedly diagnosed osteoarthritis, which is not a systemic disease but simply a case of wear-and-tear with no treatment other than pain management, assistive devices (read: “canes and scooters”) and, eventually, when the things get too awful, joint replacement.

I became despondent.

During all of these visits I was also seeing an acupuncturist who was helping with some of the pain. At each, visit she advised me to try dietary changes. Specifically, she told me that I needed to stop eating gluten.

Give me the modern age. The one with penicillin, toothpaste and Pinterest. 

I’m Italian. We mold gluten into interesting shapes and eat giant bowls of it. We pour tomato sauce and heavy cream over gluten and sigh with pleasure. We have entire cabinets in our kitchens devoted to gluten. There was no freaking way that I was going to stop eating wonderful gluten.

And besides. That was stupid. Why would pasta make my joints hurt?

Things came to a head about six months later. I woke up one morning feeling as though someone had hit every joint in my body with a tire iron. Even the little spaces between my vertebrae were inflamed.

I went to my acupuncturist in tears. She covered me in needles, burned moxa all over me and told me in no uncertain terms that I was starting an elimination diet the minute I walked out of the office. No dairy. No soy. No beef, corn or citrus.

And NO. FREAKING. GLUTEN.

Five days later, I was all better. It wasn’t the dairy. Or the soy. It was the freaking gluten.

So that was it. I became one of those people. “No toast please, just a slice of tomato with my eggs.” “Can I have that reuben without bread please?” “Would the chef mind substituting the orzo for rice?”

But it worked. And as the years went by, it got easier as more folks started swearing off gluten. And especially when Trader Joe’s added gluten-free pancakes, waffles and, finally, amazing quinoa pasta to its shelves.

But the question remained, why did this happen?

The answer, as you probably suspect, was almost certainly that antibiotic. Not only did it kill off the bugs in my aching sinuses, it also napalmed my digestive tract and swept me clean. It massacred my microbiome.

My autocorrect doesn’t recognize the word, microbiome. Neither does my doctor.

But you should know that the cells of your microbiome — the collection of germs that inhabit everything from your eyelash follicles to your large intestine — actually outnumber the human cells that form your body by a factor of 10. They digest our food, ease our inflammation and protect us from the environment. When we’re born, we are as sterile as an autoclave. But our mother’s first kiss infects us with her beautiful germs, and from there we each grow our own distinct bouquet of microbes, bugs and pathogens — which we can’t live without.

When I took that antibiotic, I most likely killed the germs that help me to digest gluten. After that, bits of gluten protein were most likely passing through my weakened intestinal wall in a process called, evocatively, “leaky gut syndrome.” The bits were floating in my bloodstream and lodging in my joints, causing inflammation and pain.

So now I feed my germs. I stuff them full of probiotics, prebiotics, fruits, veggies and fiber to make them big and strong. I stay away from antibiotics except when absolutely necessary, and on the rare occasions when I’ve required them, I’ve specified very clearly that I won’t take anything in the fluoroquinolone family.

It’s working. After six years, I can eat a piece of pizza without pain. I can slurp ramen and schmear a bagel. And (oh may God bless you, beautiful, beautiful germs) I can even occasionally devour an enormous plate of homemade pasta.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love my antibiotics. I’ll take a little gluten-intolerance over a flesh-eating bacteria any day of the week. But I have finally learned to respect and even love my germs.

Filed under: Health

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Annette Earling

Annette Earling is a graphic designer, benignly neglectful mom, occasional essayist and cursing PTA president who is deep, deep in the thick of it. You can find her on Twitter at @acearling.

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