Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

We’re Just Big Slime Buckets — Part 1

That’s what I was most of my life. How I changed that and why you should appreciate your sliminess.

Rich Sobel
Nov 7, 2019 · 7 min read

I have been fighting a life-long battle with mucus. Not a major war like people with cystic fibrosis or other true disease conditions, but definitely what seems to me to have been a never-ending series of skirmishes.

My first major battle happened when I was about 9 or 10 years old. Our family had gone on holiday to Upstate New York (at the time we lived on Long Island, NY) and went on a tour of Howe Caverns. As we descended I found it harder and harder to breathe, started wheezing and by the end of the tour, my Dad was carrying me because I wasn’t able to walk it was so hard to breathe.

That was my first asthma attack.

Asthma and hay fever became my constant companions as a child. I never knew when I was going to have another attack and although they weren’t life threatening, they severely limited me in what kinds of physical activities I could participate in. And I always carried my inhaler with me or had one stashed in my desk at school and my teachers knew about it.

I got tested by an allergist; this took many weeks as they would put lots of little tiny injections of substances under the skin of my arms, maybe 15 or so each week, then we’d sit in the office and wait and see which ones swelled up and indicated an allergic reaction.

That resulted in a list of foods and pollens that I was allergic to and should avoid if at all possible. Which I mostly did. One of the foods I was allergic to was lobster! Can you imagine that, being allergic to lobster?! I loved lobster. So I had it once a year for my birthday dinner.

Fast forward a bit. I’m in my teens now and in the spring, summer and fall, I was sniffly almost all the time. I carried tissues and started using over the counter drugs. 12 hour Contac was my life saver. One pill lasted the whole day. And nasal decongestant spray. But I could do stuff with my friends and not worry too much about having to stop because of an attack.

As I grew up, the asthma attacks became less frequent and less severe, especially as I could just take a few hits from my inhaler and within a couple of minutes I was back to normal. Well almost. There always seemed to be kind of a slight separation from everything due to a feeling of nervous energy. Drug side effects. And I never went anywhere without a small bottle of nasal spray in my pocket to stop what seemed like a constant background of runny and stuffed nose. The nasal spray also gave me similar side effects to the inhaler.

Fast forward another few years. It’s 1973, I’m a young adult and I’ve moved to Syracuse, NY where I attended and graduated from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry with a degree in Forest Botany and Pathology.

I‘m also in a band that travels to play various out of town gigs. One day, I’m sitting in the van as we’re driving to or from a gig, I can’t remember which, and I’ve just sprayed the decongestant up my nose and I think, ENOUGH! No more nasal spray. Ever. I’ve had it with this feeling. I’ll just carry lots of handkerchiefs and stop with all the drugs.

Sometimes life just hits you like that, you know?

Within a few weeks, my constant runny nose has stopped. I mean, stopped. Oh, I was still stuffed up most of the time but having a runny nose came in episodes, not a constant condition anymore.

Whoa! How could that be? At the time I didn’t know and I didn’t really care. All I knew was that I didn’t need to carry or use that spray anymore. And I never did, again. Just blew my nose when necessary and laundered a fair amount of hankies. But that side effect “aura” of nervous energy was gone.

But still, there was the asthma. And I never went anywhere without my handkerchiefs. Still don’t.

Fast forward a few more years. I’m into Hatha Yoga in a big way and I hear from my teacher about a technique where you use a stiffened cord to clean your nasal passages. It’s called Sutra Neti. So I have my teacher get me the cord and I learn how to use it. Here’s a video showing how it’s done. (Warning, viewing this may make you queazy if you’re squeamish about body stuff) The first 45 seconds are all you need to view to see what I was doing.

It took me about a week or so to actually get the cord all the way through and use it for cleaning. And lo and behold, after a few weeks of doing this on a daily basis as part of my morning routine, I can breathe normally. Just like everyone else. Amazing!

I don’t know if you can truly imagine what it felt like for me to actually be able to breathe both in AND out of my nose. It was liberating.

Eventually, I stopped the Sutra Neti practice. It had shown me that I could breathe like everyone else and I found that I actually no longer needed to do it. It’s like my nose and nasal passages had needed some kind of clearing and now they could work just like they were supposed to. And yeah, I still got a stuffy and runny nose occasionally but they came and went.

Ok, fast forward a few more years. I’m still in Syracuse and now I’m married. I’m taking classical guitar lessons and I practice every morning for a couple of hours on the guitar and also on the mandolin. Scales, exercises, arpeggios, pieces. And I have one of those metal collapsible music stands. I start practicing right after breakfast and as soon as I start, my nose starts to run.

Like clockwork. Start playing scales and the nose starts dripping. I literally “fill up” 2 or 3 hankies and just drape them over the music stand to dry while I practice. And I realize that I’ve always been a bit runny after breakfast for several years now. The guitar practicing just seemed to amplify it (pun intended) 😉

I wonder if breakfast has anything to do with it? I was eating oatmeal for breakfast every day. Oats were not on my list of allergens from all those tests way back when. But what if….?

So as an experiment, I stop eating oatmeal for breakfast. Hey, I’m a scientist, I do experiments all the time. Yup, you guessed it. I’m allergic to oats! Stopped eating oatmeal and several weeks later no more wet hankies draped all over my music stand.

And I later discovered that I was also allergic to barley. Drat, I really liked the taste of fresh cooked barley. And now I start label checking and discover that barley malt is in so many things! Not to mention beer! Arrgh, it’s in beer, what am I going to do? I really like having the occasional lager, especially with pizza!

To be fair, I had also noticed that whenever I drank beer or wine, I got stuffed up. More so with beer. Now I had an explanation as to why. And so I decided this; sometimes the pleasure is worth the consequences. So I drink beer and wine occasionally. And I suffer the stuffy nose.

But what about the asthma? I kinda left that story hanging, didn’t I?

Ok, I’m still in Syracuse, still carry around an inhaler in my pack and still need it from time to time. But I can bike for hours without needing it, hike and even go running/jogging for quite a distance and don’t need it as a result of doing the activity like I did when I was a kid. But I still have minor attacks with wheezing. Just not nearly as often as when I was a youngster.

Fast forward a bunch more years, I’ve got a kid, I’m divorced, I’ve obtained my PhD in cell and molecular biology and biochemistry and I’ve taken on a Postdoctoral fellowship with a laboratory at the University of British Columbia. I’m thrilled as I had developed a strong desire to see BC and now not only was I going to get to see it, I was going to live there for a few years!

That was November 1995. By mid 1996 I realize, I haven’t used my inhaler for over 6 months! Holy crap, what’s going on here?! And I’ve been out hiking (one of the reasons I so wanted to come to BC was because of my love of the outdoors and hiking) and biking and no asthma attacks, not even episodes of wheezing or shortness of breath. Is this a miracle?

Well, yes, it is. And I truly don’t have an explanation. It’s now 23 years since I arrived in BC for that fellowship and lots of water has passed under my bridge. I’m a Canadian citizen and I don’t have asthma. Lots of other medical difficulties but not that one.

Why did I tell you all this?

Simple. I had decided to write an article about some of the new biological information that has been discovered about mucus and as I thought about it I realized that mucus was something that I had a very personal relationship with all my life and maybe that would resonate with some of my readers.

So I decided to make this a 2 part series. In the next piece, we’ll learn all about mucus, I’ll tell you about the new biological discoveries and you’ll see how they explain some of what I was experiencing in my lifelong “battles with the slime”.

Until next time,

Rich

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Rich Sobel

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Rich writes about fascinating creatures and biological issues that affect our everyday lives. Get his free ebook at www.biology4everyone.com.

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