Managing Chronic Health Conditions in Lab
By Dora Farkas on June 18th, 2012
I’m currently a masters degree student and plan to start a PhD next year. What I want most of all is an academic scientific career. However I have a health issue that is very annoying. I suffer from a lot of intense stomach aches, usually so bad that I have to lie down for the rest of the day. They usually occur late in the day and last through the evening and night – causing a lot of bad sleep. I have a very nice doctor, but there’s not much hope of finding a diagnosis or cure.
I’ve decided not to consider myself sick in any way. I don’t think about the pain unless I have to lie down, and I work as much as possible. My supervisor already knows and our deal is that if I’m unable to finish an experiment, he gets someone to take over. Other than that, we take each day as it comes and I reduce my workload if necessary. But I’m concerned about talking to the administration about this. I want to work at this university later and I don’t want anyone to know that I have this health issue. I don’t want people to think about my health or be concerned that I can’t finish a project. I know eventually I will have to talk to the administration and other people about this, but how to I make them understand I have “bad periods”, but that I’m fully capable of working “120 %” ?
-AS, grad student
My heart goes out to you and everyone else who suffers from a chronic health condition. You might be surprised to find out how many people work full-time with chronic illnesses, such as arthritis, eye-pain, migraines, and stomach related conditions such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and worse, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Several members from my family suffer from chronic stomach-related conditions, (acid reflux, IBS) so I will share what I know, but of course this is not medical advice so please consult with your doctor about any changes to your diet and lifestyle .
Whenever you have such intense stomach pain, the first step should be a medical evaluation for any serious conditions such as ulcers or IBD. Your doctor would know what tests to run and how to evaluate the results. The problem is that many people have intense stomach pains, but their doctors cannot find anything wrong with them.
Stomach pain that occurs late at night could be acid-related, since stomach acid production increases late in the day. Antacids sometimes make the condition worse because they decrease stomach acid, leading the stomach to produce even more acid, which can cause reflux when you lie down.
Based on my family’s experience, the best way to treat stomach pains is through diet and lifestyle changes. Foods that are very fatty are difficult to digest, especially late in the day, and can cause stomach pains. In today’s world we tend to eat very heavy dinners, but that is one of the worst things you can do for your health, because your metabolism slows down in the evening. So in addition to overloading to stomach with heavy foods leading to pain, you might also put on extra pounds.
Eating light foods (low in fat) throughout the day might ease some of the pain you are feeling. Another recommendation is to eat many small meals rather than a few big ones. Eating breakfast is very important especially if you have a sensitive stomach.
People with sensitive stomachs typically eat 5 meals (breakfast, midmorning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, small dinner) so their stomach does not get overloaded with a lot of food at once. Coffee can also contribute to stomach pain, so you can try to decrease your consumption. I know cutting down on coffee is difficult, but it has helped others with stomach pain. I have listed a few books that have great ideas for modifying your diet so you can ease your discomfort.
Many people’s digestive systems are also sensitive to stress and working long hours can definitely cause an upset. I know it is difficult to cut down on work hours when you are a graduate student, but you can try to increase the number of hours you sleep by cutting down on TV and non-work related computer use such as web-surfing, Facebook etc. Sensitive stomachs tend to flare up with sleep deprivation, so anything you can do to increase your sleep by even just 30 minutes can be very beneficial. You might find that cutting down on “technology” before bed-time will actually improve your sleep quality. If you have trouble sleeping, try some yoga or meditation at bedtime. There are many CDs/DVDs on the market (see a few below). Some doctors also suggest raising the top of your bed so the acid is less likely to come up your esophagus.
Remember that taking care of your health must be your number one priority, regardless of your work. Your health condition is your personal issue, and there is no reason that your employer needs to know about it unless it affects your productivity. If your condition flares up and you need to take sick leave, you must tell your boss that you are sick, but they do not need to know any details.
I hope some of these suggestions have been helpful. If you find some ways to improve your condition, please write us back, because I know many other students suffer from similar conditions and they would benefit from your insights. Good luck!
Books to help you ease stomach pain:
Eating for IBS: 175 Delicious, Nutritious, Low-Fat, Low-Residue Recipes to Stabilize the Touchiest Tummy by Heather Van Vorous (has delicious recipes)
Dropping Acid: The Reflux Diet Cookbook & Cure by dr. Jamie Koufman (has lists of foods that can cause stomach pains, and those that can help your stomach)
CDs to help you sleep:
Guided Relaxation; For the Body and Mind by Heidi Minnick (The reader has a very soothing voice, and can be downloaded directly from Amazon)
Your Present: A Half-Hour of Peace by Susie Mantell (this is an award-winning CD, and you are almost guaranteed to fall asleep while listening to it).
A great book about the importance of relaxation and its effect on your health:
The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson
Disclaimer: The advice in this column is not meant to be medical advice. Please consult a health care professional before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle. Additionally, we derive no benefit from sales of the materials above–other than knowing we’ve passed along valuable information!
Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to DearDora@benchfly.com and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!
Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks! In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:
- Music in the Lab: MyTunes, iTunes, or No Tunes?
- Cell Culture Derailing Your Vacation Plans?
- Is a Publication Gap on Our CV a Job Killer?
- How to Leave a Postdoc Quickly with Your Reputation Intact
- How to Establish and Enforce the Chain of Command in Lab
- Walking the Thin Line Between a Great Result and a Lie
- Dear Boss: I Want to Graduate. Let’s Talk.
- My Boss’ Spouse: A Spy or Civilian in Lab?
- Bullying in the Lab: Are PIs Guilty
- What Came First: The Grad Student or the PI?
- Problems Communicating Science to Family? It’s Not Them, It’s You
Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!