Beginning My Health Quest: Opening Pandora’s Box (and finding a can of worms in a rabbit hole)

By | February 22, 2014

Once I was old enough to develop critical thought, I had always been interested in health and human performance. I love to analyze and practice. I didn’t get a lot out of early practice, such as elementary school basketball camps that propelled me towards averaging 0.2 points per game in a typical five minutes of playing time, but as I started to mature and grow into my body, it paid off much better. I did score 20 points in a C-league intramural game at Buena Vista University, after all! In all seriousness, though, where it mostly paid off early in my life was in learning and honing my golf swing, my jazz band abilities, and my studies. Yep, that was the seriousness.

Nutritionally speaking, though, I didn’t know much more than some of the conventional “wisdoms” that those around me knew. The first thing I really did, and without any real research behind it, was stop drinking soda in exchange for more water or Gatorade. My how far things have come…at any rate, I did notice how I felt a little better and didn’t have that energy crash soon after. But aside from that, I just tried to limit my candy bar intake and eat “real” food like pasta, chicken-patty sandwiches, and whatever mystery dish they served in the cafeteria (the servery or “scurvery” as we called it at BV). All I really knew, or thought I knew, was that as long as I was skinny, I could eat whatever and as much as I wanted, and if I did start gaining weight, which never happened even when I tried, I could run off a few calories or maybe cut back on the quantity of food.

I dealt with a variety of small health issues, even early in life, but they cumulatively snuck up on me until crescendoing into something I could no longer ignore around my late twenties. As a kid it took me about five years to figure out that every time I ate ice cream I would wind up in the bathroom quite frequently later that night. I thought it was lactose intolerance, or possibly an intolerance to carrageenan, an algae extract used as a thickening agent, that my mom thought of a few years ago during a vacation in the Wisconsin Dells, so I stopped eating ice cream.

I started getting low back pain around age fifteen and eventually got an acute back injury my junior year in football that led to an MRI, a diagnosis of bulging discs in my lumbar region, and a spot on the sidelines as a player/manager for two years. I tried to play basketball again during my junior year, but a run-in with the wall after saving the ball from going out of bounce caused another spasm, an ER trip, a warning that I’d probably wind up with back arthritis in my 30’s, and another lost sporting career opportunity (remember my younger years’ basketball prowess?). I ended up getting a series of epidural steroid shots in my spine, which did help for about five years or so. I’d later play some basketball off and on like the aforementioned intramural leagues, but now at age 31, it’s been about seven years since I last played a game. I stay fit in the gym and playing golf now (probably also awful for my back).

Late in my college years I started getting more pain in my neck and between my shoulder blades. It was annoying, but I didn’t think too much of it. When I graduated and started working full time at a desk, though, it got much worse. At that point I started buying a lot of stuff from infomercials, familiar products such as belts, straps, chair add-ons, heating pads, ice packs, etc. Some of them were decent for minor symptom relief, along with anti-inflammatories, but nothing more. At this point I started getting a little restless.

A few years into my real world experience, my aches started making it hard to concentrate. I would take frequent breaks and not get much done during some of those days. I knew many people suffered from occasional aches and pains, but it just seemed wrong that someone as young as I should have back pain that interfered with their ability to sit still and work on a computer or get a haircut. Yeah, that’s right; I sometimes had to ask the barber to give me a break so I could stand up for a minute or two and relive the pain a little. I tried chiropractic care with hit and miss success, though I do actually still go to one to this day that does seem to help some as part of a systems approach, not a magic itself bullet for sure. It got to the point where I had so much restriction in my neck that rolling my head forward to check my aim while peeing in the toilet wasn’t always feasible. Neither was turning my head to check traffic while changing lanes on the interstate (in hindsight, I probably could have used that driving example instead of the bathroom variety…oh well, I’ll leave that in here in case you all find it humorous). I started to be concerned that something was quite wrong. My entire backside from my ankle to the base of my skull felt like one, long steel cable with absolutely no capacity to stretch. I had wondered if there were any diseases that caused someone to have muscles too short for their height as if my 6’3″ skeletal frame just outgrew the surrounding muscle tissue somehow. That never really seemed too plausible.

I tried going to a few doctors, aside from the chiropractor, to see if they could figure anything out with my physical stiffness and soreness. I got prescriptions for strong anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxers. The former did nothing at all, and the latter did okay, but I felt like I was floating on a cloud in a foggy haze all day. It was a decent break in the monotony of pain, but I was worthless while awake. Then they sent my to physical therapy where I got a little help via enhanced core strength, but I still couldn’t move my neck worth a damn. Another follow-up with the doc gave me two more messages. The first was that he didn’t think I was recovering at night, not sleeping well or healing enough. He was right on the sleep, but the not healing part was a new idea to me. Then he also said, though he wouldn’t officially diagnose me as such since it was a bit of a scarlet letter, that I probably had fibromyalgia. I wouldn’t have thought much of that had the chiropractor not told me the same thing a year ago. But wasn’t fibromyalgia just something menopausal women got? I was confused and frustrated more than ever.

One thing that I started to latch on to, though, was that idea that I wasn’t recovering well at night. “Okay, we may have something here,” I thought to myself. I wore myself down during the day, with the stress of work, sitting in a chair, and running and lifting weights at night, but I wasn’t recovering at night thus leaving me feel no better or worse each successive day. Well how the hell do I recover? Wasn’t that something your body just did…on it’s own? After all, if I sprained my ankle, it healed in a week or two. And if I got a cold or a sinus infection, I got better…eventually…sometimes in two to four weeks or more. Hm…my friends around me seemed to get over those things a little faster. What on earth was making me worse at that than they were? Did they ask their bodies to start healing before bed right after praying the lord their soul to keep? That would have been an easy answer. My body wasn’t healing because I just forgot to ask it to! Not so much.

The first thing I came up with was that I knew some athletes carried those meathead-looking protein shakers with them to drink powdered stuff after they lifted heavy things in gyms. I then remembered a friend of mine talking about his new powder stuff he used, and he called it a “post-workout recovery drink.” RECOVERY! You said the magic word! Queue the Peewee’s Playhouse music! Maybe I needed some recover powder. But man, I really didn’t want to be one of “those guys.” But you know what? It was time to suck it up and become a meathead, at least in appearance, if it made me feel better. So I went to WalMart – of course, the cheapest route to start – and bought some whey protein powder. And it turned out that between that and my recent emphasis on core exercising from my physical therapist, my strength started to improve, and it looked like I was finally gaining weight, muscle even, when I looked in the mirror. My goal back then was always to get to 200 pounds, but I never really checked it at all until that Christmas vacation when my cousin said he thought I was getting bigger and asked me to go weigh myself on the scale in my mom’s bathroom. Holy crap! I was 212 pounds (with my clothes and shoes on)! I had gone from 190 pounds (with my clothes and shoes on) to 212 in a couple short months! And along the way I was, in fact, feeling a little better with my energy and back pain. I thought I had found the ticket for the rest of my life; just add water! To the protein powder, that is, and then shake and drink.

While I still probably felt better at this point than before, the feeling started to plateau a little and maybe even go in reverse. And then I started having more gut problems, which weren’t only related to ice cream because I hadn’t eaten it in years. The symptoms weren’t fun, but you can probably guess some of them without my being too graphic. Something wasn’t working, and I had to figure it out. I started watching some food documentaries like Food Matters and Forks Over Knives, and I got into more vegetables and then organic as well. It made sense that perhaps I needed more vitamins and minerals, which the veggies would provide, and fewer toxins, which organic produce would accomplish. I noticed slight improvements maybe in energy levels, but that was about it. Yet I knew I was doing something good by eating more greens, so I kept doing it regardless.

I needed to dig deeper. I started reading anything I could get my hands on about food and health. I found stuff of some interest, but it was usually just small things like this vegetable providing lots of that nutrient, so I’d buy more and eat a few, yet no major breakthroughs occurred. I got into some “superfoods” like goji berries and chia seeds, but they just weren’t game-changers. Meanwhile my gut kept getting worse and my muscle aches and stiffness did too. I bought a juicer and started juicing lots of vegetables, and that helped some, but still not amazing. My search continued.

Then one day my brother told me to listen to one of Joe Rogan’s podcasts with a guy named Dave Asprey. He told me that Dave had a lot of crazy, cool nutrition and health ideas that were a little different from most of the stuff we had heard before, things beyond just eating more vegetables. It’s hard to explain the feeling I got listening to that podcast; everything just seemed to make sense. It wasn’t what I was used to hearing, but what I was used to hearing was just rote memory stuff from USDA food pyramids and the like, so I can’t say that any of that “made sense,” it was just accepted, common knowledge. Maybe it was time to challenge the status quo.

There were three things that really stood out about the discussion with Dave Asprey: grass-fed meats, eating more fats, and the concept of a low-inflammation diet. I never thought about what my meat was eating before it was slaughtered or why that mattered, but it made sense; if I ate crappy, I got unhealthy, so if the cow ate crappy, she was probably unhealthy too, and I was eating her…uh…meat. I can get on board with that. But eat more fat? That’s good for you? The idea on the surface didn’t make sense, but it did when they started explaining why, and they weren’t talking about trans fats and vegetable oils here, they were talking “healthier” fats like coconut oil and butter, butter from grass-fed cows, to be specific. Fat provided more energy per calorie and actually trained your body to burn fat for fuel; it was the sugars and carbs that were the driving force being humans storing fat. Well of course! Again, fat wasn’t one of my problems, but energy was. And then the concept of a low-inflammation diet. Certain foods were either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory to your body, not necessarily like a swollen ankle type of inflammatory but a low-grade inflammation in cells and organs that created sickness and disease. Now that’s interesting…

I don’t think they explicitly said that this low-inflammation diet would help for any sort of pain or stiffness in muscles, or maybe they did mention it offhand, but I thought to myself that if a diet could lower inflammation, maybe it could reduce the stiffness in my neck and back and make me feel better. Either way, I had taken so many notes from the podcast, and it seemed to make so much sense for other reasons, that it was worth a try. The next day I headed off to Whole Foods and bought a bunch of grass-fed beef, sweet potatoes, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter.

Now I wouldn’t believe it if you told me, but I’m telling you, so I do believe it, and I hope you believe me too. The stiffness in my neck was nearly gone over the weekend. I could roll my neck in any direction and turn it as far as I wanted to side-to-side without restriction and just a little remaining soreness. I literally hadn’t felt my neck turn like that in years, not even one random, good day. I was stunned. And it could have been the emotional high I was riding on, but I felt much more clear-headed (I’d later learn this had more to do with the coconut oil than my emotional high). So I had regained my range of motion, I was thinking clearer, and I had more energy to do whatever I was doing…now that’s a breakthrough!

Now I really started bearing down on my research. I had found what seemed to me the equivalent of a secret passageway – the coolest thing I knew of when I was a kid after watching Goonies and that episode of Webster where he gets locked in a secret room behind that bookcase or whatever – and I ran into it with that old childlike vigor. I started realizing that it may have also been as much about what I didn’t eat as what I did eat; while I was eating the beef, potatoes, and butter, I was not eating bread and pasta. I had remembered them talking about gluten on the podcast, and my cousin had recently stopped eating it as she learned she had an intolerance or allergy to it, though I didn’t know what it was, really, outside of the fact that it was in dough. So I researched that too. Sure enough, I found much research about Celiac disease and gluten intolerance, which could cause lots of problems including digestive issues, headaches, brain fog, and achy joints and muscles! Was it possible that I had Celiac disease or at least a gluten intolerance? The easiest way to find out was to go on a totally gluten-free diet and monitor the results, so that’s what I did.

I would learn it was tough to avoid all gluten as gluten was in almost everything, at least of the processed and/or packaged food varieties, but if it helped, it would be worth it. I did this for about two weeks, and I continued to be free of a lot of neck stiffness. My gut also started to improve. Again, without getting too graphic, things started happening easier, and I felt less discomfort after eating meals. But I’m never the type to make assumptions without data; I had to know conclusively what was going on with my health and why changing my diet in this way had such a profound effect on how I felt, so I went back to the doctor to discuss it. I told him what I had done and how I felt better doing it. He told me the possibility of Celiac Disease made sense and that it was a good catch on my part (which was a nice ego boost to boot!). He said we could do some blood tests to check for gluten antibodies but that I’d have to go back to eating gluten for two weeks first (bummer). I was hesitant to go back on what was helping me, but it may help me solidify my thoughts and lifestyle changes, so I did. And it was all in the name of science, too!

It was weird to think of eating bread again because I had come to look at it as a poison. But Thanksgiving was coming up again soon, so at least it would take off a little pressure of avoiding certain foods during the holidays. So a few nights later, I did it…I ate Jimmy John’s. The sandwiches were still delicious, but within minutes I was bloated. And then I had gas. And then my gut hurt. I wanted to call it a closed case, but I had blood work to prove. I ate crappy and felt crappy for two weeks. My stiff neck returned in full force. The tests did show a small elevation on one of the antibodies, but it wasn’t enough to be conclusive, so I was sent to a GI doctor for further evaluation, and they told me I needed to do a scope exam, one in which they sent a tube with a camera down my throat and into my intestines. I would also have to go back on the gluten diet again before the exam – I had gone back off gluten again since my blood test results – and I would have to do it for about five weeks. Yuck! But again, all in the name of science.

My scope was done on January 2nd of 2013, and I decided that day, regardless of the results, that I would go gluten-free again indefinitely just because I felt better. The results, however, did not show any intestinal damage indicating Celiac disease, which was actually a small discouragement because it didn’t confirm as much as I had hoped. What they did find was a hiatal hernia and evidence of acid reflux (which I knew I had been dealing with too). But the gluten still could have been a problem given the symptom reduction, and they said I was probably intolerant to it which can still cause my GI distress and muscle aches. That was enough for me to stay off gluten, but I figured I needed to dig further for the whole story.

Returning to gluten-free this time was easier mentally but not physically. I’m guessing the constant swinging in my diet was confusing my body, and as I would learn later, my gut bacteria population had probably shifted out of whack even worse than it may have been before. The transition this time was about three weeks, which also included various brands of probiotics in a trial-and-error attempt to find what would get me back into shape. I went through about a two-week period where I literally had gut pain after almost every meal, and some of the episodes were worse than I ever experienced before. During the worst of them I’d sit on the floor in pain for an hour or two unable to do much of anything. I started to get worried that something else was going on and had lots of doubts until it finally started to clear. To this day I can only assume, but I think the probiotics were what finally got me over the hump. I needed their help to effectively digest my food again. It may have resolved itself with the diet alone, but now I’ll never know.

So I was on my way again, gluten-free and feeling good with my gut, but I started losing so much weight. The gluten-free quest made me lose sight of some of what Dave Asprey taught me about eating more fats, and I was absorbed in books like Wheat Belly by Dr. Davis and other gluten-free literature, eating mostly salads with chicken and lots of vegetables. I hadn’t been able to stomach butter during my transition period, so I had cut that out along with almost all the fats, partly because the GI recommendations for my acid reflux told me to stay away from fat. I had fallen from 210 pounds down to 185! And I was hungry all the time, painfully hungry. Chicken and kale weren’t cutting it for me.

I started to introduce more fats slowly so as not to irritate my acid reflux which had also been worse than I’d like. I ate greek yogurt for part of my breakfast. I drank a little coconut milk here and there. I added an avocado to my salads. And, although not fat, I put in more sweet potatoes and rice to try to quell the hunger and gain back some weight. Slowly but surely, it started working, and I got my steady weight back to about 200-205. I was still eating about six times a day, but I could get full after a meal again. I decided that now having mastered the gluten-free thing, I could go more for Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Diet (which also is 100% gluten-free, by the way) and try to squeeze even more life out of this deal. I eventually got to where I was eating about 5,000 calories a day, with lots of fats, and feeling quite good, but it sure was a pain to be so focussed on food, especially having to eat that often. I was carrying all kinds of stuff with me everywhere I went, to work, on vacations, always making sure I had backup plans to keep good stuff going in my belly. Life was difficult, but I felt better.

As I kept up on my journey, I learned about more diets and more concepts. I learned about the harmful effects of sugar, especially processed, table sugar as opposed to just fruits or other carbohydrates, and basically eliminated that entirely. I found out that too much sugar caused almost as much gut problems for me as the gluten did! Another big win. I dabbled in the pH diet, the idea that you should eat things that alkalize your body instead of acidifying it. You can read about that all over the web too. I got mild benefits there, but it wasn’t terribly enlightening, just reemphasizing the need to eat lots of vegetables, but it also avoided meat like the plague, which I didn’t think was necessary as long as it was grass-fed meat I used.

I started reading a lot of Marks’ Daily Apple, the leader in “primal” eating, quite close to paleo but maybe a little more intense (Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Diet, by the way, is dubbed “upgraded paleo”). Mark’s philosophy was a lot about the total lifestyle, though, barefooting, primal exercise, low stress, getting out in nature, etc. I started taking a lot more queues there too.

The deeper I got, the more I learned, and I kept checking off little wins and incremental improvements in my health and wellbeing. I then got a more in-depth blood panel done by InsideTracker, which gave me a wide view of my nutritional and hormonal biomarkers, how close I was to optimal or below/above target ranges, and what I could do to further optimize and perform and feel better. The biggest thing I learned there was how low my Vitamin D was, so I made it a point to get outside more (careful exposure times without sunscreen) and start supplementing with Vitamin D, which got me in much better shape there. By the way, if anyone out there is interested in getting a fuller view of their nutritional and hormonal stats, I thought this was quite invaluable and easy to do; highly recommended. I got there after researching several of these types of services, and the results made me glad I chose to go the route I did.

I got more into mobility work and at-home physical therapy with MobilityWOD, which did some great things for my pain and injury resistance. I listened to every Bulletproof podcast and read every blog post. I still get a lot of things from Dave Asprey’s product site Upgraded Self, things like MCT oil, protein powders (yeah, still work when they’re good quality and void of sugars and other junk), and chocolate.  I started doing more yoga and/or integrating some yoga concepts with my gym work. I got into more of the stress reduction and brain improvements concepts after realizing their connection to the physical ailments, stuff like meditation and heart rate variability training. I started improving sleep by making my bedroom darker, avoiding bright lights and technology more at night, and keeping the room temperature down. And most recently I’ve really started learning more from Jack Kruse’s site about things like EMF, light therapy, magnetism, circadian biology, cold thermogenesis, and the importance and power of good water. This recent dive down the rabbit hole within the hole within the hole…you get the point, the stuff with Jack Kruse’s philosophies based on quantum physics, has perhaps been the most enlightening and game-changing experience yet for my health. The benefits I’ve gotten with cold thermogenesis at improving my energy systems and hormones has begun the newest leg of my quest, making me hopeful as ever.

I still have some lingering issues. I still have some aches and pains I’m trying to resolve, same old stuff with my back, but I’m excited about the prospects at the moment. I have some issues with stress and getting worn out while at work, but that is coming along now too. All in all, though, it’s been amazing to think of where I came from and how much better I feel, how much more empowered I feel. And now as I keep progressing to fix some of these last things that still pain me a little day-to-day, I’m trying to simplify. All that I’ve learned diving down the rabbit hole has come in handy somewhere along the line, but I’m beginning to find how the pieces of the puzzle fit together and what pieces are the most important for me. I eat three meals a day now, with maybe one snack in there, and I don’t struggle keeping on weight, being hungry, or having energy. It’s less stressful to manage food and know what I want to eat and how to obtain it. Getting to the mastery phase of anything is an amazing feeling, and I’m oh so close to that now, at least as it pertains to my own body and mind.

And it all started with a podcast and a weekend of grass-fed beef, butter, and sweet potatoes. Think about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *