Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

How Skepticism has improved my health and my life

I've thought about writing this post for a while, but I keep bailing on it because I thought no one wants to hear about my health problems. And you may not. But this is a happy story, at least to me so I thought I would write it. A recent post by Tom Foss is what made me reconsider.

For as long as I can remember I've had stomach problems. Without getting too graphic, this is an intense pain in my gut, that stays there until I make two trips to the bathroom, with each trip lasting 10-25 minutes. Its gross, its embarrassing, and its a pain in the ass (lol a pun!).

There was a time, when I was very young and my parents were away for work and me and my sister were being taken care of by my grandfather, who was Danish and spoke no english. My stomach acted up, it hurt so bad and I couldn't make him understand me. I called 911 and got myself into a hospital where, no surprise here, they found nothing wrong.

Later that same week (this was 5th or 6th grade), a girl at school (Wow I still remember her name, Alex) was mentioning to someone else that her housekeeper was having stomach aches and then her teeth started falling out. I made a phone call to a dentist out of the yellow pages as soon as I got home that day.

These exact pains continues through high school, college, grad school, even now I get them. They happen when I am home alone, they happen when I go to parties, they have happened when I am stuck in the world most disgusting bar. It's truly inconvenient and as I said, often very embarrassing. One of the first dates with my current wife was accompanied by one of these attacks. It's good thing she is awesome.

My father also suffered from the same thing. He told me on many occasions that he can not eat garlic or onion because it gave him stomach aches. In time, I thought that not only do I have the same pains, but its likely that it was due to the same thing garlic and onions. So while I absolutely love garlic on and in my food, onions too, I avoided them. My sister has it too.

When I still got stomach aches, I would think "hmm, I must have had garlic by accident", or "hmm there must be something else that also causes the pain". I noticed I would get the pain often when in social situations (yeah that was really great). I was always nervous when in a situation where I don't know anyone (I now over compensate for that by being very loquacious), and it was these very times when my stomach would erupt in a frenzy of pain and cramps, with the end result with me claiming the bathroom as my temporary home no matter where I was.

There are drugs for the pain. The oldest and previously most common for it was a drug called Donnatal. It's a combination of a barbiturate (phenobarbital) and the herb belladonna (deadly nightshade). Yeah, thats a pretty ironic thing in retrospect. I thought it worked.

In time, I got sick and tired of it. I went to the doctor who diagnosed it as IBS. There are some recent treatments for it, like a drug called Protonex. I have no idea if it works. I was on it for a while, but since the pain doesn't come regularly, it felt like I was taking a pill for no reason. I was told to move to a high fiber diet. That too may work for all I know, but I already eat pretty decently. Then my wife noticed that I would be keeled over when I ate meat.

Hey! Perhaps I can't eat meat for some reason. So I swore it off for almost a year. No meat, steak of course being one of my favorite things to prepare and eat. But the pain returned.

Only in the last couple of years did I get into this skepticism stuff. I finally decided to point my skeptical beam at my own belly. I noticed that I had pain when I didn't eat garlic. I noticed that I had no pain when I ate cloves of garlic. I noticed that I had pain sometimes when I ate meat, and sometimes I didn't.

I also noticed that when I took a Donnatal, my stomach would feel better after two trips to the bathroom. I noticed that two trips to the bathroom would relieve the pain without the drugs.

Basically I noticed I had fallen into the same traps as people who think homeopathy works. I had decided something was the cause (garlic, meat), then ignored the times when I had pain without those foods, and only noticed the times that I did have pain when I ate those things. I thought I had a treatment (Donnatal), I ignored the fact that the fix happened in the bathroom whether I took the drug or not, but I would ascribe the relief to the drug, and not to the toilet.

Here is what is clear now: It doesn't matter what I eat. The pain comes and goes and there may be no trigger at all. If I am going through a time when I get pain, I can eat rice and it will still hurt (in fact, the other night I had 'harmless' crepes and I found myself keeled over). Also, Donnatal is likely to be placebo.

It's a great feeling to gain this knowledge. It's awesome to know that I don't have to deprive myself of foods that I love. It's freeing to know that I don't have to worry about taking a drug with me wherever I need to go, or stressing out if I forget it. IBS is not well understood, but skepticism let me gain control over it.

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