This was meant to be part of my lessons from 2023, but the post got long, and this bit got very niche, so I decided to break it off.

So, here are some insights into mine and Millie’s health issues (and progress) over the last 12 months…

About the microbiome

If you haven’t read Food for Life, by Professor Tim Spector*, or seen The Twin Study on Netflix, I’d highly recommend both for a deep dive. They’re easy to digest and include the latest science on the microbiome and how it affects our minds and bodies.

But if you want the TL;DR…

Our microbiome is the name for the bacteria that lives in our gut. We also have a skin microbiome.

When these microbiomes are out of balance, it can cause all sorts of health issues from allergies to eczema to depression. It can also exacerbate existing health conditions like fibromyalgia and ADHD.

In theory, improving gut health reduces the severity of allergies, eczema, mental health conditions, fatigue, chronic pain, pre-diabetes…you get the idea.

Since Millie’s allergies kicked in back in 2019, I’ve been obsessed with nutrition, and, by association, the microbiome.

Put on top of that a desperate desire to improve my own health issues, and it creates a cocktail for…a slight obsession, shall we say?

Improving the microbiome requires a combination of cutting back on ultra-processed foods, eating more fibre, and finding the right cocktail for your body.

It’s all very well and good someone saying that you should eat more dairy to improve your gut health, for example, but that’s useless if you’re allergic to it.

(But improving gut health can improve lactose intolerance. More on that in a bit.)

Everyone’s microbiome is different

The first half of 2023, I ate really well. I cooked meals from scratch, getting in my 30 plant-based foods a week.

(Side note: the five-a-day that the UK government recommends is both too low and doesn’t include nuts and seeds. Aiming for 30 a week, and including seasoning your food with herbs and spicers, makes it a lot easier. Coffee also counts if it’s in a cafetière, by the way. You’re welcome.)

Over the summer, my diet slipped. I ate more processed foods, or not at all.

And, by September, I started to feel the effects.

I felt like I was constantly fighting off a cold (and not in the usual fibro/CFS way). I told myself I just had to make it to the end of October.

Just keep going until then.

via GIPHY

But that was a BIG mistake.

That allowed my body to run on adrenaline.

And on 1 November, that adrenaline ran out.

I got the flu.

For three weeks.

(I’d had the flu jab as well :/ )

After that, I had horrific insomnia for another 2-3 weeks.

Then a throat infection.

Then I constantly had a frog in my throat.

(Is that a Britishism? I don’t know how else to explain it. Fellow Brits please help!)

Then a fatigue flare up.

And now, my chronic pain and asthma are pissed off. (That’s likely because of the excessive cold/humidity we’ve got in the UK right now.)

Unfortunately, my microbiome is more fragile than many people’s. So if I let my good habits slide, I feel it a lot faster than many.

This is for a bunch of reasons, one of them being how long I ran on a stress response for. We’re talking 18+ months.

I’ve also always had an overreactive nervous system, for reasons I understand but don’t wish to share. (The Body Keeps the Score* and How to do the Work* offer insights into this, if you’re curious.)

So when I neglect the coping mechanisms that helps me calm my overactive nervous system and mind, like a bad case of mould in a house with too much damp and no dehumidifier, it creeps back.

So now I’m easing myself back in to things, reminding myself of the importance of rest, and that things like exercise and meditation aren’t indulgent self care. They’re tools that allow me to function to my highest ability.

Everyone’s microbiome is different. Therefore what helps everyone will be different.

We only learn those rhythms through trial, error, and listening to our minds and bodies.

When I eat more fermented foods, take a probiotic, and actually look after myself, I can be around trees without sneezing nonstop, and I can get away with eating more dairy before my lactose intolerance calms down. (And I have more of the bacteria that can digest dairy in my system.)

However, due to the frailty of my microbiome, and how I haven’t kept it up consistently enough to fully repair the damage, it doesn’t take much for it to go backwards. (Like, a couple of months of bad habits can undo a couple of months of hard work.)

As for Millie’s allergies…

As many of you may know, Millie has the typical itchy skin of a westie. It’s gotten worse as she’s gotten older, although many people wouldn’t notice because, unlike a lot of westies who suffer, to an untrained eye she looks fine.

I’ve spent the last four months working through Vince the Vet’s Itchy Dog course. It’s already made a HUGE difference to her quality of life.

Even though Millie has been raw fed for most of her life, she’s allergic to a lot of vegetables – which are still present in many raw foods because they’re good for dogs. When they’re not allergic to said veg.

Millie’s allergic to carrots, cabbage, and apples. And probably a lot of other fruits/veg.

Since she’s also reacted to a recent yak chew she had, I think she’s allergic to dairy as well.

Many of these also feed the bad bacteria, yeast, and fungus that her damaged skin microbiome is prone to.

The body converts starch into sugar, which is why diabetics also have to be careful of starch in their foods. We were giving her things like carrots, unaware that it risked making her skin much worse.

So, since September, we’ve been cutting back on her fruit and veg intake, trialling different proteins.

She still gets her fibre from broccoli – which she loves (no, really) – then we’ve been tracking her symptoms to see what changes, all while getting advice from Vince.

She’s now settled on a turkey and broccoli diet. At least five different people have commented to us how much better her skin, fur, and even face looks. She has less gunk around her eyes, she’s not itching as much, and her super gooey ear infection from the summer is a thing of the past.

This has taken a lot of work and a lot of trial and error.

We tried her on anallergenic food, which is designed for dogs like her, but it was so high in carbs that I was having to clean her ears daily to prevent it from getting so bad she couldn’t stand us to touch it.

Vince’s support has already made a huge difference.

(NB: Not an affiliate of Vince’s. Just found his advice spot on so far.)

What’s next?

Her skin has flared up a little again, and I have my theories as to why.

Owners and their pets have similar microbiomes because we spend so much time together, and Millie literally sits with me while I work, so it makes sense we have similar triggers.

Next step will be to reduce her steroids. Hopefully completely, if not to the smallest dose possible.

She definitely has hay fever on top of all of this, but our hope is that we can calm her symptoms down enough that she won’t react as strongly to the weeds and grass in the same way I can now tolerate trees.

Itchy skin on humans and dogs is as much about the microbiome as food intolerances and allergies. It can also be a sign of a deficiency, such as in omega 3.

Millie’s body is so used to being on high alert that we have to first calm it down, then rebuild it, to get her on the right tracks.

Kind of like with mine.

Like owner, like dog…

We’ve both got a long way to go, but we’ve made solid progress. Now we just need to stick to it.

The only way is up (or forwards), right?

Millie and me having a bench sit on one of our walks

*Affiliate link.