Healing Tools: How To Track Trends in Your Healing Path (Guest Post by Susan Vennerholm)


I’m taking a break from blogging this summer as I focus on my move, but in the meantime I have some great guest posts on various topics lined up from the autoimmune community. This post is by Susan Vennerholm, who blogs at Backcountry Paleo.

If you’ve started the AIP or any elimination type diet, you’ve likely heard that using a journal or chart to track your symptoms and food intake is a good idea. I’m here to tell you why it’s a GREAT idea!

When I started the AIP nearly two years ago, I heard the same advice. But it seemed a handwritten journal would be hard to look back through for key information. So, being a lover of Excel, I created a spreadsheet. Part of my motivation was really bad brain fog – I knew a chart with categories would remind me to track the right stuff, instead of scribbling things down randomly by hand and likely forgetting a lot. Looking back, I had no idea how wise that was!

When I started AIP, I had a lot going on with my health. I sat down and thought of all the factors I suspected had to do with my state of bad health, and gave each one a column. I began with: What I ate for every meal and snack, immediate reactions to foods, whether I took my meds and supplements, suspect foods, delayed reactions or symptoms, hours of sleep, insomnia, my mood, elimination habits, water consumption, brain fog, energy level, exercise level, and day of menstrual cycle. I also added columns for the date, day of AIP, and notes.

The list of categories above may seem like a lot (ha, that was two years ago… you should see my chart now!), but trust me, this chart turned out to be gold in my quest for healing!

From the get-go, one thing the chart did was remind me to take my thyroid and supplements. I was so brain fogged I could barely find my own nose, much less remember my thrice-daily supplement regimen. I can’t count the number of times those first few months that my chart reminded me to take care of my body! Bonus: Seeing the “AIP day #” increase every day really motivated me to be strong and stay on the AIP wagon!

Big Discoveries

As time went by, I added more topics to the chart in an effort to find connections between my diet, lifestyle, and health. Among many, here are two key issues I figured out by using my chart:

1. Salicylate sensitivity. Shortly after I started AIP, the soles of my feet became hot and itchy, yet only at night. By tracking the itchy feet in comparison to my diet, I determined it was a delayed reaction to salicylate-heavy foods. I had started eating a lot of avocado, coconut and salmon – all high in salicylates. So I learned about maintaining a salicylate intake that is tolerable for my body. No more itchy feet! And thankfully, over time my tolerance level increased and I can eat more of those foods. I do love my salmon!

2. Caffeine and depression. This was a big one for me, and every single minute I’ve put into that chart over two years would have been worth this one discovery. I’d suffered for years from chronic, debilitating depression, and when I went off grains on AIP, it quickly went away almost completely. But in the year following, I had some disturbing episodes with unusual, quick, crushing depressive spells. It took a couple months of experimenting to figure out, but my chart helped me determine I have a unique sensitivity to caffeine. I had recently reintroduced green tea and chocolate, and by comparing my caffeine intake to the timing of my depressive symptoms, I figured it out. I cut out the caffeine and the episodes stopped. (FYI, there seems to be only a little research regarding this. A typical short-term response to caffeine is a lift in depression, but chronic use can mess with cytokines that affect brain function, leading to depression).

I’ve also used separate Excel charts for two other helpful topics:

Lab Results: Entering lab results in an Excel chart is about as enjoyable as dropping a rock on your foot, but I’ve been doing it since 2007, and it’s been really helpful to look at trends in my labs over time. I’ve referred to it many times to connect my lab results with symptoms. My doctors get so geeked when I show this chart to them!

Amino Acid Therapy: I use amino acid therapy to help keep my brain neurotransmitters dialed in. This chart has helped me see where I need to tweak my dosing for optimum results.

A Tool for Healing

Anyone who has an autoimmune condition knows that over time, things shift. A new symptom crops up. An old one returns. Medications change, foods get added, and backtracks happen. You find yourself thinking, “Did I react to broccoli last month, or was it kale?” or, “I got really bloated last week… what did I eat that day?” or, “When did this rash start?”

If you have a journal or chart, you can look back and figure it out. Going into AIP, it’s easy to think the important things will stick out and you’ll remember them. Guess again! Whether or not you have “Hashi brain,” you have a long journey ahead of you. Get your pen and paper out, or start typing. Today! What if you’re 6 months into AIP and have no chart or journal? Start today; three months from now you’ll be glad you did.

We have so much to keep track of on a daily basis; supplement schedules, food prep, caring for family, work, friendships, self-care, house chores, exercise, sleep, the list goes on – using a chart allows us to unload all that stuff we might want to remember, and access it when it matters down the line, whether that’s next week or in three months. (Seriously. I figured out a big issue by looking back three months!).

You may like the idea of a hand-written journal-style tracking method. Plenty of people use them. Have at it! I prefer using spreadsheets because they make it easy to:

  • Keep verbage to a minimum – easier to find key words.
  • Search the document for keywords, and review the information.
  • Search a keyword, highlight those cells with a background color, then find patterns that clarify issues. This has been hugely helpful to me.
  • Cut and paste easily.
  • Hide columns that become irrelevant in the present, and unhide to view at a later date if needed.
  • Add columns as new issues or ideas become relevant.
  • Color code topics of current interest.
  • Impress your doctors and friend with your schmarts.

I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of tracking your healing process with a chart or journal. Over time, the benefits can be huge, and the five minutes a day you take to enter information will pay off a hundredfold in the future. Over time, your use of it may change. When I started AIP, I entered every morsel of food that passed my lips; nowadays, I don’t enter much about food, but focus on how I’m responding to exercise in relation to diet and sleep. It’s been really fascinating over time to sit back and look at the trends and patterns in my health and recovery. It’s all at my fingertips with my spreadsheet!

If you don’t know how to use Excel or another spreadsheet program, fear not. Making a basic spreadsheet is easy, and you don’t need to understand all the high-end functions of the software. Look for a free class at your local library, sign out a how-to book, or look for a free, basic video tutorial online. Good luck, happy charting, and most of all, may your healing journey go well!

You can find the link to Susan’s spreadsheet template here!

About Susan Vennerholm

Susan Vennerholm is the blogger behind Backcountry Paleo, where she shares AIP-specific recipes and autoimmune-friendly tips for backcountry enthusiasts. She also geeks out on the medical side of autoimmunity, and loves to write about it. Susan wholeheartedly believes that self-education and networking in the AI community are two of our strongest tools in living successfully with autoimmunity. As a way to pay forward the support she received during her recovery, she blogs so that others will have more resources for their healing journey. A certified yoga teacher, code wrangler, and freelance writer, Susan loves climbing mountains, watching Orca whales, trail running, volunteering for dog rescue, and a good fantasy novel. You can connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.


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