I flew to Phoenix to spend Christmas with my son and to visit several friends who live in the area. Due to the nature of the season, I think, I found myself telling this “story” more than once, and it occurs to me that it’s appropriate to wind up my consideration of the year just past with a final telling.
Camelback Mountain—and Phoenix—seen from the Desert Botanical Garden.
This title, by the way, has to do with health. I place my relationship with loved ones first on my list of priorities, but in the category of living well and comfortably—and I grew up in a household dominated by catastrophic illness (my mother), so I know a little about that—there have been three health-related events that affected me in a deep, life-living way.
Throwing Out the Drugs
I worked for more than a decade in a high-stress job at a corporation. Toward the end of my tenure there, I developed and was diagnosed with GERD. For all the television commercials about “acid reflux” that might make this condition seem common and almost routine, GERD is a serious health issue—I actually thought I was having a heart attack the first time. Treatment involved sleeping with my head elevated and a prescription for Prevacid. (And giving up coffee—the horror!) This got the situation under control, but it was a condition I thought about all the time. There were a lot of foods I couldn’t eat, and I still had several miserable episodes per year. As time passed, Prevacid became an over-the-counter drug (as did Prilosec and Nexium, the other major GERD pharmaceuticals), which meant my insurance quit paying for it. I had to take two pills per day to keep it under control, and thus had a $70/month habit.
One day I was discussing this with my massage therapist (she and I share an interest in naturopathy and holistic medicine) and she facepalmed. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this!” she said. “You should try probiotics. Just try them. They might work.”
And they did. Probiotics cost me about $15/month, and I was able to resume eating many of the foods I’d had to forgo in the past. I still had episodes, though not as frequently, and I still slept elevated. But I was off drugs. Probiotics changed my life. Now, unlike many Americans, I do not take any daily maintenance-type drugs.
Getting Good Sleep
Several years later, I visited my physician. My ankles had begun to swell at the end of the day, sometimes uncomfortably. (Ankle swelling can be caused by a lot of things, so don’t take my diagnosis as yours.)
My physician asked an odd question: “Do you snore?”
“Like a freight train,” I said. “And don’t tell me it has to do with my weight, because even when I was young and thin I snored, to the extent that no one wanted room with me on school trips. I know I’m getting old but—”
“You’re not old.” She laughed.
“Then tell me why I feel like I am 90 years old when I get up in the morning,” I said. “I used to be a morning person. I used to spring out of bed ready to go. Now I am exhausted when I get up. My best hours of the day are 11am to 3pm. I hate it.”
“We’ll test to be sure, but I think you have sleep apnea,” she said.
The sleep study was absolutely the most miserable night of my life, but in a sense, it was a huge success. Everyone has sleep apnea: it is normal for you to stop breathing 1 to 5 times per hour, but anything over 5 should be treated. Thirty times per hour is considered severe sleep apnea. But I stopped breathing 85 times per hour! No wonder I had no energy. No wonder I was tired all the time.
I was promptly fitted with a CPAP machine and literally overnight, my life changed. Most noticeably, I began to have dreams! (I never reached REM sleep before.) And I was rested and energetic—OMG!
Two other things happened. First, my acid reflux diminished significantly. I quit thinking about it (which did mean I had a couple episodes), and I began to sleep on just one pillow, like a normal person. Second, my sacroiliac dysfunction—which had been making me miserable for twenty years—also diminished significantly. I quit thinking about it too. Honestly, the value of a good night’s sleep cannot be overstated. If you snore or otherwise suspect you may have sleep apnea, get tested. It will add years to your life.
And one other interesting side note: I have for years kept track of the titles and how many books I read each year. (I love to read. And I’m an editor.) Most of my personal reading happens at bedtime—and suddenly I was reading for 30 minues, 45 minutes, an hour—instead of the miserly 15 minutes I had before. My book count has doubled. I love my Magic Sleep Machine!
Say Good-Bye to Sugar, Sugar
I still struggled with weight, though. In the spring of 2014, a long-time friend of mine recommended I read Why We Get Fat by science journalist Gary Taubes. Taubes isn’t selling a diet or diet foods—he’s only selling books. In Why We Get Fat,
Taubes argues that certain kinds of carbohydrates—not fats and not simply excess calories—have led to our current obesity epidemic. … Taubes reveals the bad nutritional science of the last century—none more damaging than the “calories-in, calories-out” model of why we get fat—and the good science that has been ignored, especially regarding insulin’s regulation of our fat tissue. He also answers key questions: Why are some people thin and others fat? What roles do exercise and genetics play in our weight? What foods should we eat or avoid?
The book made a pretty compelling case. In the third week of May, I cut my carbohydrate consumption dramatically. I gave up sugar and bread and processed foods cold turkey.
And I began to feel grrrrrrrrrreat!
My acid reflux is a thing of the past. I no longer give it any consideration; nothing I eat affects my esophagus. Gone also is my sacroiliac dysfunction—along with a lot of little aches and pains. I am never hungry—because this is not a diet. It’s a changed way of eating. I don’t have cravings.
Have I lost a dramatic amount of weight? Not yet. But I do lose weight every week, steadily, week after week. I’m confident that this will continue. From a health standpoint, I feel better every day.
If you are curious—and aren’t ready to read a book yet—watch the documentary called Fed Up. (Scroll down for the trailer.) Gary Taubes is one of the people featured in the film.
This blog is about la dolce vita—which, for me, includes travel. So don’t be alarmed: there is a travel connection to this story—and not just because I was on holiday when I thought of it as a three-part story. If you read the posts about my trips, you’ll note that I often ended up sick—with pneumonia—in a foreign country. Why? Because the airlines recycle the cabin air and people often travel in spite of being “just a little” unwell. And I—having grown up with a father who chain-smoked—am more susceptible than many to respiratory illness. I took 18 round-trip flights in 7 years from 2006 to 2012 and I got sick—often very sick—every time.
When I was researching a way to boost my immunity—perhaps I could ward off those circulating germs on the plane—I learned that all immunity starts in the gut. Improve your digestive health and your overall health will improve. Similarly, good sleep will improve your health across the board. And whether you want to lose weight or not, have a look at giving up sugar. You can thank me later. 🙂
Have a happy, healthy new year!