But 50-year-old Lisa, who is now happy, healthy and enjoying a physically active, outdoor lifestyle in her own patch of woodland in Devon, UK, is living proof that fibromyalgia is not a hopeless condition. When she's not teaching or creating artwork, Lisa spends her time foraging, planting trees, chopping wood and building walls, and can even "walk up a steep hill and not feel weak, in pain or out of breath."
So what's the secret to the dramatic turnaround in Lisa's health and life? "My simple answer: positive mental attitude," says Lisa, "and true love."
A friend in need
Lisa's recovery was far from simple, though. She'd tried numerous treatments over the years, both conventional and alternative—from antidepressants to acupuncture—but they failed to stop her illness from taking over her life and eventually costing her her job and her marriage.
The turning point came when she reconnected with an old school friend, Marc, on Facebook. "We conversed via email, and I quickly realized that I was in love with him," said Lisa. The feeling was mutual.
When they met in person for the first time in 20 years, Marc was shocked by Lisa's appearance. "I was 42 years old but looked like I was in my 60s," said Lisa. "I was so haggard." But Marc's response was to dedicate himself to helping Lisa get better.
"He'd been a big believer in alternative medicine since the age of 14, when he taught himself yoga to correct his own scoliosis [curvature of the spine]", said Lisa. "He tirelessly researched my condition and came up with new solutions to help my pain and fatigue. It wasn't about fire-fighting the symptoms but treating me as a whole entity."
The Bowen technique was the first new therapy Marc suggested to Lisa. Developed in the 1950s and '60s by the late Australian sports massage therapist Tom Bowen, the Bowen technique is a form of physical manipulation that involves gentle rolling motions along the muscles, tendons and fascia (the fibrous tissue that connects everything in the body), which, combined with occasional pauses in the treatment, is thought to encourage the body's natural healing processes.
Lisa tracked down a local Bowen practitioner and found the therapy "a revelation." "On my second appointment, I was astounded by how my body reacted. My stiff and painful joints felt like they were literally dripping off the table, they were so relaxed. I was jubilant!"
Lisa continued to see the practitioner as often as her finances would allow—she wasn't working at this point—and was thrilled to have regained some fluidity to her movements after years of being "locked in a body that was full of pain and stiffness." This gave Lisa hope, and she fully committed to the rest of Marc's suggestions.
Next on the list was getting rid of the potentially harmful chemicals Lisa was exposing herself to on a daily basis. "Out went my beloved makeup, face creams, body lotions, shampoos and cleaning products and in came an all-natural and organic range of products," said Lisa.
Lisa also started doing Qigong—a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves coordinated body posture and movement, breathing, and meditation—by which time she had moved to Cornwall to be near Marc. "Marc started teaching me Qigong to help get my energy flowing and further unlock my muscles," said Lisa. "It was difficult and painful, as I had trouble standing for more than a couple of minutes, but with his persistence and by building up the exercises over a period of months, I was able to push through any discomfort and see the benefits, both physically and mentally."
But the most dramatic change in Lisa's health came when she changed her diet. Marc told Lisa that she had all the symptoms of an overgrowth of Candida albicans, a yeast commonly found in the gut that can cause infections and a range of symptoms. After doing her own research on the subject, Lisa decided to give an anti-Candida diet a try, a low-sugar diet that eliminates not just added sugar, but also most starchy vegetables and fruit as well as caffeine and anything with a high glycemic load.
Lisa was already following a vegan diet low in added sugar, so it wasn't too difficult to adapt. But she found it hard to give up root vegetables, which she loved, and find sugar-free snacks when she was on the go. "Being strict and forward planning were key to my success," said Lisa. "And quinoa. Marc introduced me to it, and it's become a staple in my diet."
Lisa also took a probiotic supplement called ThreeLac, a blend of three digestion-supporting bacteria often recommended for people following an anti-Candida diet.
The first two months of the diet were "sheer hell" for Lisa. "I felt like I had the flu, was covered in zits and had bad breath," she said. "I don't know how Marc could come near me!" But Marc reassured Lisa that her body was just detoxing and encouraged her to stick with the diet.
Lisa did, and two months to the day after starting the diet, woke up and noticed something different: her pain was gone. "I hadn't been pain-free in eight years," said Lisa. "I cried my eyes out."
Lisa was happy but angry at the same time. "I couldn't believe that I had seen all these specialists about my condition and not one of them had mentioned diet. Diet is key!"
Determined to stay well, Lisa rigidly stuck to the diet for a full two years, after which she was able to gradually introduce some of the foods she used to enjoy, like root vegetables, without experiencing a relapse.
Into the woods
The final piece of the puzzle was buying an area of woodland in Devon and setting up a home and completely new lifestyle there with Marc. Lisa swapped her house for a yurt and her hours of TV-watching for days outdoors among the trees, plants, insects and animals of the forest.
"It's such a healing place," said Lisa. "The more time I spend here, the stronger I get."
Lisa and Marc start each day with two hours of Qigong practice, followed by meditation and speaking positive mantras out loud, such as, "I am fit. I am healthy. I am strong," to "reprogram the brain." "If you say something enough, the body will follow," said Lisa.
Lisa also started seeing a kinesiologist nearby, who addressed her underactive thyroid, which she'd been taking medication for since her late 30s (see box, page 69). "With his help I was able to come off the medication completely, and my energy was so much better," said Lisa.
Eventually, Lisa felt well enough to start working again, but decided to try substitute teaching to avoid the stress of a full-time job and enable her to focus on her dream of becoming a working artist, illustrating children's books and creating bespoke greeting cards and artwork.
This way of life has worked wonderfully for Lisa, and she says she's now fully recovered from her fibromyalgia—by tackling it with a truly holistic approach—and is entirely medication-free. Only once she'd addressed every aspect of her life—her body, mind, emotions, diet, environment, lifestyle and career—could she get well, and stay well.
"Living this simple lifestyle close to nature is at the core of why I am able to stay healthy on all levels," said Lisa. "I still have the occasional bad day, but I now believe that my wellbeing is firmly in my own hands, and I am determined to continue going from strength to strength."
• Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder thought to affect 2-8 percent of the population.1
• More women than men are affected.2
• Common symptoms include widespread pain, fatigue, memory problems, sleep disturbances and depression.
• Several different drugs are used to treat fibromyalgia, such as antidepressants, antiepileptics and painkillers,
but they come with the risk of side-effects and are not particularly effective.2
Fibromyalgia and underactive thyroid
As well as fibromyalgia, Lisa suffered from hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid), a condition that shares a number of symptoms with fibromyalgia, including fatigue, exhaustion, brain fog, depression and muscle and joint pain. Some experts argue that an underactive thyroid is actually an underlying cause of fibromyalgia.1
However, Lisa was taking the thyroid hormone replacement drug levothyroxine for years and saw no improvements. What did eventually lead to an improvement in her symptoms and thyroid levels, she said, was seeing a kinesiologist, who used muscle testing to prescribe a personalized treatment plan. "My kinesiologist, Sergie, was fantastic," said Lisa. "He prescribed several high-strength supplements including chromium, vitamins B12 and B5, selenium, magnesium and N-acetyl cysteine. I noticed results almost straight away."
Over a period of six months, Lisa was able to gradually reduce her levothyroxine dose with Sergie's help. Last year, she came off the drug completely, and a follow-up blood test revealed her thyroid levels were within the normal range. Lisa says she's now able to maintain her thyroid levels by taking the supplements Sergie recommends and with daily massage and 'tapping' on certain acupuncture points, although it's still "a work in progress."
Fibromyalgia: diet and lifestyle links
Increasing evidence shows that diet and lifestyle changes, including mind-body techniques, can be effective for fibromyalgia:
• Physical activity, even just a couple of gentle walks a week, or a few short bursts of housework or gardening daily, has been found to reduce pain and improve physical function in fibromyalgia sufferers.1
• Yoga reduced fibromyalgia pain by an average of 24 percent, fatigue by 30 percent and depression by 42 percent in one study.2
• Tai chi and qigong, two mind-body techniques that combine movement, breathing and meditation, both appear to be effective for alleviating fibromyalgia symptoms.3
• A vegan diet was found to significantly improve overall health and reduce pain and stiffness in a small study, although it may be the weight loss rather than the vegan diet per se that was responsible for the beneficial effect.4
• Cutting out potentially harmful food additives, such as the artificial sweetener aspartame and the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), may be beneficial for fibromyalgia sufferers.5
Useful contacts and resources
Lisa Dionne Pugh: www.c3designs.co.uk
Healthserg Kinesiology: www.healthserg.co.uk
Anti-Candida diet: www.thecandidadiet.com