Eventually, my quest to feel normal again led me to a functional medicine doctor. She reviewed my detailed history questionnaire, asked pointed questions, and listened carefully. The news wasn’t good. But she had ideas about how to turn things around.
My mitochondria were in trouble and carbohydrates were playing havoc with my blood sugar. The long and short of it—I was headed for neurologic distress (think Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s) and diabetes.
Mitochondria are small organelles located in most human cells. They are our source of energy, and serve to regulate cellular metabolism.
The role of mitochondria is poetically described in Power Up Your Brain: “Mitochondria are the conductors of the genetic orchestra that regulates how every cell ages, divides, and dies. They wave the baton that helps dictate which genes are switched on and which are switched off in every one of our cells. And they provide the fuel for establishing new neural networks.”
When we have too few mitochondria, or when they are not functioning properly, the whole body suffers. Symptoms include muscle weakness, muscle pain, exercise intolerance, vision and/or hearing problems, gastrointestinal disorders, diarrhea or constipation, diabetes, neurological problems, seizures, migraines, strokes, thyroid problems, and dementia.
To help my ailing mitochondria
My doctor recommended supplements high in antioxidants (glutathione, CoQ10) and grain-free eating as described in Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter. He’s a neurologist who has seen the devastation that carbohydrates cause in the brain, and is empowering people to make constructive changes in what they eat.
The book description elaborates: “…even healthy [carbohydrates] like whole grains can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, and much more. Dr. Perlmutter explains what happens when the brain encounters common ingredients in your daily bread and fruit bowls, why your brain thrives on fat and cholesterol, and how you can spur the growth of new brain cells at any age.”
Eliminating all sugars and starches sounded drastic but I was past the point of prevarication. Something had to change. I dived in.
What I ate
I ate lots of non-starchy vegetables; moderate amounts of good protein from meat, poultry, fish, and eggs; and plenty of good fats such as grass-fed butter and ghee, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado.
I avoided high-carbohydrate foods including starchy vegetables such as potatoes; legumes except chickpeas; root vegetables such as carrots, beets, and parsnips most of the time; sugar from all sources including honey and fruit, except for about half a cup of berries a day. A small amount of maple syrup seemed my best choice of sweetener.
To my surprise, I didn’t miss carbohydrates. Undoubtedly that’s because the fat and protein levelled out the blood sugar peaks and valleys that used to cause me to desperately need food.
As long as I can remember, I experienced hunger as an urgent need for food. When preparing a meal, I used to chuck food down as I was cooking because my hunger had become desperate. This was true even in my twenties, long before I gained weight.
This changed after a couple months of eating low-carbohydrate with lots of good fat. One day it struck me that I wasn’t gobbling my lunch. As I thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t been eating while cooking, either. And that I’d actually postponed making lunch for an hour after the first hunger pangs because I had a project to finish. Wow! This is what hunger is like for normal people. I had no idea!
And what happened?
The first photo was taken at a family wedding three months after a thyroidectomy threw my endocrine system into total chaos. In two months, I had gained five inches around my waist along with twenty pounds of fat. For the next ten years, the weight and inches hardly budged.
About a year after changing my eating, my weight was down sixty pounds and measurements were eight inches less on each of my bust, waist, and hips. I have remained at this weight for two years with no drama. The second photo is from a couple months ago.
Such a significant weight loss should have meant I was out of the woods, wouldn’t you think? Well…
It was a surprise and disappointment to realize that losing weight did not solve all my health issues. I thought it was going to. After all, if overweight causes high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and increased blood sugar, then it seems logical to expect these levels to return to normal when the weight does.
Apparently not. After a year of maintaining a normal weight, my blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood sugar were all higher than they had been.
I went for a round of heart tests to see if any clues would turn up on ultrasound pictures of my heart and carotid arteries, electrocardiogram readings, or a stress graph from walking on a treadmill.
I wore a heart monitor with electrodes for 24 hours, and a portable blood pressure monitor for 12. Between times I used a home monitor several times a day.
For one thing, statins impair the mitochondria. Since mine were already struggling, it made no sense to beat them down any further. Other side effects are diabetes and Parkinson’s, both of which were on my horizon if I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing. For all that risk, the efficacy of statins is also in question.
There had to be another way, and I pursued it with my functional medicine doctor despite skepticism and disapproval from the others.
Without a doubt, the four months of these investigations was the most stressful medical experience I’d had.
I was greatly challenged to be clear about what was right for me. I was feeling very vulnerable. Thank goodness I had some resources to call on.