Just five years ago, San Diego-based Aurora Gonzalez Colello—now 40—was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis); 10 lesions were discovered on her brain, through an MRI, after excruciating pain caused vision loss in one eye. She was told by her doctor not to exercise (heating up the body during exercise has been known to trigger MS symptoms like vision loss, fatigue, numbness, dizziness, memory problems, and balance problems) and to accept the fact that she had a progressive incurable disease and might never gain her full vision back.
This year, on Saturday, September 7—along with 5, 499 other athletes—she’ll swim almost a mile in the Pacific Ocean, bike almost 25 miles along
the Pacific Coast Highway in California, and run more than 6 miles along the sands of Zuma Beach—one of the largest beaches in Los Angeles County. Despite her doctor’s warnings about exercise and accepting her “fate”, Aurora is planning on finishing strong in the 27th annual Nautica Malibu Triathlon presented by Equinox.
“This is a race that I’ve been wanting to do. It’s a great race; it’s a beautiful place to race. I’ve been training hard for it,” says Aurora, who has taken not one of the 21 triathlons she’s already participated in for granted. “I started off with a sprint distance triathlon in a bay and gradually worked my way up to this point, with ocean swims.” Last year, she did a half IronMan (1.2 mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1 mile run).
But ask this mom of four kids (ages 12, 10, 7, and 5)—all of whom are home-schooled by her—how she finds the time to train for an event like this, and she says: “If you want something bad enough, you’ll let go of the stuff that’s not important and fit it in.”
How she transformed her body—and took charge of her disease
Before she was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) in 2008, at the age of 35, Aurora never worried much about her body—or her health. “I was thin. I ate whatever I wanted (and didn’t really eat well) and never really needed to work out,” she says. “I thought: ‘I’m skinny so I’m healthy’. I couldn’t run a mile without stopping.”
And then everything changed. Aurora started getting a pain in the back of her right eye that became excruciating. Then she lost her vision in that same eye.
After her diagnosis, she panicked. “I was scared,” she says. “I was in this constant paranoia about my health—and about what was going to happen to me and my body.”
Having been told she has a progressive incurable disease—and might never get her vision back—Aurora sent an e-mail to everyone she knew, asking their advice, experts they knew of who treated MS, and anyone they knew of with the disease. “I got a list of 15 to 20 names of people who I could talk to,” she explains. “One of those people was going to a holistic center. Another recommended an Ayurvedic neurologist. I went to see both.” That decision to break out of her box with regard to what could help her is what changed the course of Aurora’s illness—and her health—for the better.
“I had a lot of blood tests—and they came back saying I was deficient in just about every vitamin and mineral, including vitamin D and all the B vitamins,” says Aurora, who explains that’s what prompted her to radically change her diet and her lifestyle.
Exercise: While her conventional doctor told to be careful with exercise, Aurora researched the benefits of exercise and found that it could help MS patients. (One study, in particular, found that highly fit MS patients perform significantly better on tests of cognitive function
than those less fit peers. The study, published in the journal Brain Research, found that highly fit MS patients actually had fewer brain lesions—which could account for the cognitive differences.
“The truth is I started training for a triathlon because my doctors told me I couldn’t,” she says. “I was very scared when I started training, but I started slow.” She also overhauled her diet with the help of the holistic medical center—and her Ayurvedic neurologist.
Diet:“My Ayurvedic neurologist taught me about herbs and eating to
prevent inflammation,” says Aurora. “Now I’m on an anti-inflammatory diet—no boxed or processed foods, only natural whole foods. It’s a Paleo way of eating.”
“I used to be addicted to sugar,” she says. “I used to need my coffee with tons of sugar—and candy bars every day at 3 p.m. But the first thing I noticed when I changed my diet is that I wasn’t craving sugar any more.” (Sugar has been shown to create inflammation in the body.)
Lifestyle: “I have to get enough sleep,” says Aurora. “Sleep is huge for me. My neurologist told me I need to be in bed by 10 every night and get 11 or 12 hours of sleep. When I start slacking off on sleep, on my diet, on my supplements, the symptoms start: my arms get numb, I get shooting pain along the side of my face. As a result, I don’t slack off any more. I can’t.”
“It’s been 5 years now,” says Aurora. “All my lesions, every single one of them, are gone right now—and I know exactly what I need to do to keep the disease at bay. But the lesions and symptoms will come back if I start slacking off.”
“I didn’t know what healthy was until I experienced true health,” says Aurora, who founded a blog healthyinheels.net about living a healthy lifestyle. “I just wish more women would be open to this fact—so much of it is fitness and diet and how you’re living; just make these changes and you’ll see big benefits.”
“I’m an athlete now but I’d never thought I’d be this person,” says Aurora. “My husband even told me, ‘I can’t believe this is you.’”
Aurora’s Healthy Living Tips:
• Re-think your mindset. “When I was first diagnosed, I was crying and so upset after hearing about the course of the disease and all the symptoms I’d be experiencing,” says Aurora. “But what I quickly came to realize is that having an illness is so much about your mindset. All the experts tell you what to expect; they put you in a box with symptoms. But each disease is unique to each individual; you don’t have to experience those symptoms.”
• Be open to things. “Whether you’re diagnosed with a disease or not, live a preventive life,” says Aurora. “Be open to things that may seem weird or out of the box like Ayurveda and natural or holistic or integrative medicine. These may be the things that can really help you; they’re about finding the root cause of your problem. They look at the whole person.”
• Don’t be intimated by fitness. “Don’t ever say, “I could never run or do a race.’ Anyone can do it. Anyone can improve their fitness level,” says Aurora, who adds: “Work toward something. So many of us don’t ever give ourselves a chance to be what we want in the future. We limit ourselves. Don’t ever limit yourself.”
The quote I live my life by: “Life your life today like no one else so you’re not regretting it later on; don’t follow what everyone else is doing.”