This past year has been a journey of connection for me – just as every cell in the body is separate and simultaneously part of a whole, so too are we as human beings individuals that are intimately interconnected. It’s what I come back to when I feel lost, and I believe it’s what underlies healing: the realization that everything we do (eat, breathe, say, etc.) and experience affects the whole, then harnessing this knowledge for growth in any area.
If an illness may be a way for your body to communicate with you, I feel my body used a chronic skin disorder to remind me of my connectedness with the world around me, among other tidbits of wisdom. And changing my environment by coming to the Andes facilitated changing my way of interacting with my environment – this may underlie why some Peruvian doctors recommend that patients from the coast or rainforest spend time healing in the Andes. Curiously, when my sister and her boyfriend came to visit this past year, they also noticed their eczema clear up in the Andes and reappear in Lima. Let me explain my theory further by describing 5 more ways the Andes became my eczema cure.
Opportunities for physical contact stem from an Andean population in which babies are often cared for by different people, constantly in close contact with another. So no one bats an eye when a mom and her adult daughter hold hands, and family members and friends link arms. A stronger sense of community coupled with the warmth of South Americans gives rise to more hugs for no reason, back rubs for tears, dancing in the streets, piling on top of each other in taxis, and lending a hand to each other in combis.
I don’t know much about the theory behind the healing power of touch, but I do know that these daily tangible moments make me feel more like a part of a whole when I’m in Peru. Something as simple as the kiss-on-the-cheek customary greeting is a reminder of that. Could each moment of physical contact allow the “whole” to supply the “part” with enough of something to decrease stress and the associated visible inflammation of a skin disorder? Energy? Oxytocin? Care? Acknowledgement? Support? Strength? Calmness?
The Less-Stressed Me
After a string of doctors telling me that there was nothing more I could do and that many people live their whole lives with rashes like mine, I finally found an integrative and functional medicine MD in Vancouver who included the reduction of stress and anxiety in her treatment plan in order to decrease inflammation (skin, gut, and overall). This theory was also elucidated in When the Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Maté where he describes the link between stress and chronic disease, explaining: “When emotions are repressed, this inhibition disarms the body’s defences against illness.”
I’ve always felt that I’m more relaxed when I’m in Huancayo where I enjoy a much slower pace of life, I literally “rest and digest” more often, I experience less financial stress because the little I earn goes much further, and I interact more as people are more involved in each other’s lives. The upside of others asking and telling you anything and everything is that I have more opportunities to express and release anger and grief, I develop gratitude from hearing about and empathizing with others’ hardships, and I build hope from hearing about how others healed from alternative medicine.
Huancayo sits at an elevation of approximately 3,300m, around 1.5 times the altitude of Whistler’s summit. Although the general consensus is that high altitude makes eczema worse (your skin gets drier and your organs have to work harder, which takes energy away from digestion and healing), my skin continues to defy the odds here. I have a few ideas on why this might be:
- I’ve never experienced altitude sickness, so my body may not be working as hard so as to negatively affect my healing.
- Thinner air potentially means less respiratory allergens.
- The colder climate counteracts the heat and inflammation of rashes, just like how cold showers provide relief from allergy symptoms, which I first read about in Leo Galland’s The Allergy Solution.
- I absorb and synthesize way more vitamin D (inversely associated with chronic and autoimmune illnesses) because I’m not only closer to the sun where there is thinner air, but I’m also closer to the equator where there is less of a solar zenith angle throughout the year. This means, I get more of the sun’s rays more directly and intensely, travelling less distance from the sun. No wonder the most important god the Incans worshipped was Inti, the sun god.
There is often a strong connection between chronic inflammation and digestive function, which is why alternative approaches to skin issues involve healing from the inside out, such as fixing a “leaky gut” and/or identifying food intolerances. The Ayurvedic lifestyle and diet changes I started in Vancouver gave me a first glimpse of hope, but it wasn’t until the Andes that I started seeing leaps of recovery. Local farmers bring their fresh produce daily to sell at the Huancayo market, so I have the privilege of eating and enjoying a much closer connection with fresh, organic food.
Huancayo is found in the Mantaro Valley surrounded by farms of potatoes, corn, artichokes, mountain black cherries, cactus pears, and many other fruits and vegetables. I’ve also taken to consuming grass-fed and raw dairy products for their probiotic benefits, including yogurt, cheese, and butter. In fact, the lady I buy Brown Swiss raw cow milk from lives only an hour away.
Other local “superfoods” include:
- Quinoa, which is traditionally pressure-cooked in the Andes, lending support to Dr. Steven Gundry’s theory that decreasing lectins is important (see Plant Paradox).
- Chicha de jora (fermented ancient Incan corn beer) for its probiotics
- Graviola for its supposed anti-cancer properties
- Mondongo soup typically served Sunday mornings or as a hangover remedy, traditionally cooked as a bone broth that simmers all night
- Different types of homemade bread local to different towns in the valley made with the simplest ingredients, unadulterated with bleach, preservatives, and other shelf life-enhancing ingredients.
Resting in the Unknowing
I often struggle with the question “Why Peru?” (branching out into “Why does your skin get better in Peru?” and more broadly, “Why do you like living in Peru?”), never seeming to find the right words, observing my own explanations change or feel incomplete. It is the fundamental question that is the impetus for this series of articles and even this blog. This oft-uncomfortable state of not knowing seems to be the birthplace of faith.
The very idea of coming back to Huancayo to see if my skin could clear up completely was faith, however fragile and secular, in action – faith in alternative ways of healing, faith in my own body’s capabilities, faith that I have what I need to get through this. Faith means being able to completely trust or have confidence in something without all the evidence or answers that I observed myself get caught up in as I researched the heck out of everything in Vancouver. And so I am continually learning that instead of having faith that the rashes were the new me, I could have faith that the rashes were just another veil covering the real me.
It’s been over a year of back and forth between Peru and Vancouver, 2 years since the first major outbreak, and 5 years since I started seeing pockets of eczema pop up again in adulthood. I can finally say that I’m better – back to my normal weight, eating without restrictions, and eczema-free.