I recently hit a wall with chronic gastrointestinal issues. As someone who works in yoga and fitness, I recognized that my quality of life could be better. I just didn’t know how.
If you suffer from any such issues — for me, gastritis, heartburn, getting "hangry" in the middle of the day — you know how frustrating it is. Brain fog is constant; motivation is sapped when your intestines are churning. I would power through my day, using intense morning workouts for an energizing boost but ending my day exhausted.
Three weeks ago I stumbled into a talk with Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint. The same day a friend of mine recommended Bulletproof Radio, Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey’s podcast. I was familiar with both men. Given that I was vegetarian and they were espousing the benefits of variations of the Paleo diet, I never paid them any mind. Yet I caught them both discussing their own chronic GI problems and the methods they used in overcoming them.
These two authors, however, mentioned that their energy supplies came naturally when switching to a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet. Specific to my interest, it wasn’t so much about what they put in—though yes, after twenty years of vegetarianism, I have returned to eating meat. It was about what they took out. So I started experimenting:
1. I stopped eating grains.
During one grocery shopping trip, I became amazed at how much grain I was putting into my body on a daily basis. Add to this the high level of carbohydrates in vegetables; I realized I was keeping myself in a constant state of inflammation.
It’s important to note that everyone's microbiome is different; we all process nutrients in a way that reflects genetics and personal history. Within eight days I dropped 8 pounds of what I’m guessing was inflammation. More importantly, my energy levels soared, the stomach churning and its attendant misery gone.
Yet a few other things have occurred, which I didn’t expect. First off, I have two regions of perpetual distress: my left knee (I had meniscus surgery last year, and an early onset of arthritis lingers) and my right shoulder, the result of a fractured collarbone. As stated, I practice and teach a few high-intensity workouts each week, always leaving sore. During my first week of this new diet, not only did I increase my weight load and performance, the post-workout pain was negligible.
2. I realized I was eating too much sugar.
Our bodies convert grain into sugars. I was eating a heavy-carb load, with many of my calories derived from vegetables and a few pieces of fruit every day: one or two bananas, a handful of blueberries and strawberries, an apple, the occasional pineapple. This sugar-heavy regimen was keeping my body in constant fight-flight-freeze mode. Of course I was always on edge.
In the three weeks since dropping grains, my parasympathetic nervous system has been a friend instead of a persistent threat lurking in the shadows of my subconscious.
Even more amazingly, my anxiety disappeared. Over two years ago I published an article on this site on managing anxiety. All of that information for dealing with panic holds up. The connection I hadn’t made was the origins of my anxiety. While few things are rarely the result of just one factor, diet seems to have played a role.
3. I increased my healthy fat intake.
I’m not envisioning a life without grains. Mark Sisson’s 80/20 rule seems feasible: eat a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet 80 percent of the time. I’m giving myself a month off completely and then adding in different grains on occasion to see how my system reacts. By reducing my carb intake and massively increasing fats — a few spoonfuls of coconut butter can do wonders — I'm now burning the proper nutrients in my workouts, sans the brain fog.
Food is an important, primal aspect of our identity. For me, much of who I am was tied up in how I ate for two decades. I don’t regret any of it, though healing a chronic problem through unexpected means taught me an important lesson that I offer in my yoga classes regularly: don’t ever expect anything. If you become so rigid, one day you’ll break.