Off all meds

For years I took drugs for high blood pressure, and for almost as long for allergy symptoms. This post is just to mention that going low-carb has gotten me off all of them.

I got off the allergy meds first. I got on them gradually. For years I said I didn’t have allergies. Then for years after that I said, “Well, for a couple of weeks in the spring and a couple of weeks in the fall, I get a little snuffly.” Then I started being snuffly all spring and all fall. At some point I started taking antihistamines (Claritin seemed to provide the most symptom relief with the least amount of drowsiness), and then at some point I started taking Nasacort as well, to manage congestion that otherwise made it impossible to breathe through my nose.

I initially went low-carb specifically to get off the allergy meds. Without the Nasacort I often had to breathe through my mouth—unpleasant, but also a genuine safety hazard while eating.

It worked, and it worked very quickly—in about three days I was off the allergy meds.

Getting off the blood pressure meds (lisinopril) took a while longer, although I saw improvement almost as quickly. Just a few weeks after going low-carb, prompted by some postural hypotension, I cut the dose I was taking first by half, and then by half again.

I remained on that one-quarter dose for about a year. But two months ago the postural hypotension returned. So, in consultation with my doctor, went ahead and stopped taking the bp meds altogether.

I’m especially glad to be off the Nasacort, which although supposedly a topical steroid is known to have systemic effects in at least some people. Claritin is probably not associated with Alzheimer’s (because it is non-drowsy), but people haven’t been taking it long enough to be sure. I’m sure glad I took the lisinopril—I don’t want to think about the shape my heart and kidneys would be in now if I’d had uncontrolled high blood pressure for the past 25 years—but I’m glad to be off it now.

I no longer have to deal with the common side effects (or worry about the rare side effects). I no longer need to make the monthly trip to the pharmacy. It’s going to make things like traveling easier—not to have to carefully pack up the necessary doses for each day of travel, not to have to worry about getting separated from my meds.

It’s a really nice feeling.

 

Low-carb double-gratitude 2017-04-24

Since going low-carb a year ago, omelettes have been a breakfast mainstay. To provide some variety (besides mixing up the fillings—a lot of onion, peppers of various colors and hotnesses, sometimes a little smoked meat), I’ve taken to adding various spices: most often paprika, turmeric, and black pepper.

Yesterday the turmeric wasn’t in its spot in the spice rack, but I saw a spice jar out on the counter and had already added some to my omelette before realized that it was not turmeric, but rather nutmeg.

So, my gratitude for yesterday was that an omelette with nutmeg turns out to be delicious. (Who would have thought?)

My gratitude for today is that, having gotten my carb consumption back down after letting it creep up while we had visitors and then again after Jackie’s big walk, I’ve once again got my allergy symptoms under control, and have my weight (which had crept up as well) back down to exactly where I want it.

Past mid-winter

Some time in October every year I quit being able to get enough sun to make my own vitamin D. Eventually it gets too chilly to go out with enough skin exposed, and even if it stays warm late into the fall, eventually the implacable reality of the earth’s axial tilt means there simply aren’t enough minutes of the day when the appropriate frequencies of UV light shine down where I live.

As a practical matter, this period runs about six months. By early March there’s probably enough UV available, but it’s usually early April before the stars align such that we can take full advantage. We need days when it gets warm fairly early, because the UV is only available for a few hours right around solar noon. (Warmth at 3:00 PM is great, but doesn’t help with the UV until later in the year when the sun is even higher.) We need to get at least two or three of those days each week. (Just two days would probably be enough, if one never had schedule conflicts that kept one out of the sun around solar noon.)

My experience has been this all works out to mean that I need to rely on supplements for my vitamin D needs for right around 180 days per year. With that in mind, I’ve taken to buying two 90-pill bottles of vitamin D each fall.

When I notice—as I say, usually sometime in October—that it has been several days since I managed to get enough sun, I start taking the pills.

Just a few days ago, I finished my first bottle and opened my second.

That means I’ve made it halfway through! Another 85 or 87 days and I’ll be done with the pills and able to make my own vitamin D!

The last few years I was taking 1000 IU pills. This year I upped it to 2000 IU each day. (Not quite as big a change it sounds—I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals, often supplemented with vitamin D, but since I went low-carb I’m eating a lot less of those.)

It’s still a somewhat higher dose, which I think may be helping. So far this year I’ve only had a couple of days when I found myself glum for no good reason, a bit better than average, I think.

Steven always warns me against imagining that spring starts before April. But soon—less than 90 days now—I’ll once again be able to make my own vitamin D.

Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)

On finishing the two-week test, and gently adding carbs back in

The two-week test of eating very low carb went pretty well. Except for a day and a half at the beginning, I felt fine right on through, and I did a pretty good job of actually following the diet. I also saw pretty good improvement in the things I’d hoped a low-carb diet might improve.

So now (starting yesterday), I’m trying to add carbs back in—slowly, just one thing at a time, with an eye toward learning how much and which kinds of carbs I can eat without finding myself right back where I was.

I do know a couple of things already. The biggest is that I’m pretty much over sugar.

I always ate huge amounts of sugar as a child, and continued to consume sugar in vast quantities as an adult. It was only in 2003 when I finally cut most soda pop out of my diet, and I still got plenty of sugar—children’s breakfast cereals, sweet pastries and deserts, sugar in my coffee, high fructose corn syrup in my tomato soup, and even small quantities of soda pop as a mixer for my cocktails.

That’s done. I feel a lot better with almost no sugar in things, and things with sugar in them taste too sweet now. I don’t want to give up chocolate, but the chocolates I’ve been eating have only 7 g of sugar per square, and there are darker chocolates with even less that I’ll probably want to switch to. (And I have no problem making one square a serving.)

We’re making plans to donate the remaining unopened packages of children’s breakfast cereals, peanut butter with sugar in it, and so on to the food bank. (I feel a little bad about giving food I consider unhealthy to poor people. On the other hand, I think poor people should be able to eat what they want, rather than what affluent people think would be better for them. In the end, I come down on the side of figuring it’s better to donate this stuff than to trash it.)

Other carbs are more complex. (Genuinely no pun intended.) I really miss breakfast cereal in the morning, and there are plenty that are low in sugar. I miss toast. I miss sandwiches. I miss rice, and chapatis, and potatoes with my meat dishes.

Jackie and I bake our own sourdough bread, and can make it full of whole grains with no added sugar. That’ll be the last thing I delete from my diet, if it turns out I can’t handle even a little milled grain in my diet.

Oh, and I miss beer. But I miss good beer, and have little interest in “low-carb” beer.

In fact, I have little interest in “low-carb” anything. I’ve become a whole-foods kinda guy these past 10 years. I quit eating anything with artificial sweeteners a long time ago, and don’t expect to eat any going forward. So-called “natural” sweeteners are either just another way to eat sugar (various syrups or fruit juices) or else they’re unnatural as far as I’m concerned, even if extracted from a natural source.

The only exceptions I expect to make are for special cases: non-food items like toothpaste, cough drops, etc.

I’ve been very pleased with my success in giving up my cocktails with sugary mixers—I’ve switched to drinking my whiskey neat or on the rocks. That’s had the side effect of tempting me to the more expensive whiskeys in our liquor cabinet, but that’s not been a problem so far. In fact, just the small amounts of soda pop I drank as mixers probably added a few dollars a month to our grocery bill. Saving that money will not completely offset the cost the more expensive whiskeys, but will subsidize it some.

To touch on the things I was specifically hoping a low-carb diet would help:

  • Allergy symptoms: Seemed to help a lot, but hard to be sure because the allergen load is so variable and idiosyncratic. Adding carbs back in seemed like it might be bringing my congestion right back, but hard to be sure for the same reasons. I’ll continue to monitor, but I’m prepared to go back to very low carb, if that’s what it takes to stay off the allergy meds.
  • Blood pressure: It was not immediate, but around the middle of the second week my blood pressure had gotten a good bit lower. I have cut my lisinopril dose in half (informally, by cutting the tablets in half), and will continue monitoring to see if it stays down while I’m adjusting my carbs. If it settles in this range, I’ll talk to my doctor about changing my prescription.
  • Blood sugar: The Savoy Rec Center, where I teach tai chi, has a free health screening once a month where they’ll check your blood pressure, but also your blood sugar! It’s not a fasting number, so not really comparable with the number from my physical, but it came up 111 which I gather is perfectly fine for someone who has eaten and is not yet just about to eat again.
  • Weight: Over the two weeks, I lost 6.8 pounds, taking my weight from 160.2 to 153.4. I’m assuming that about 5 of those pounds were glycogen and associated water, and will not be surprised to see a large fraction of them come back on as I allow myself to consume more carbs. Still, taking those numbers at face value, I’ve reduced my BMI from 24.7 (near the top of the healthy range) down to 23.7 (much closer to the midpoint of the healthy range). Purely for aesthetic reasons I would be pleased to have less of a spare tire, but frankly I’m looking pretty good already.

I have to call this a tentative success. If I can add in just those few carbs I mentioned—occasional instances of cereal and bread at breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a starch course with dinner, a piece of dark chocolate now and then—I’ll upgrade it to an unqualified success.

Oh, and beer. For complete success, I’ll have to be able to drink a beer now and then.

Low-carb, one week on

I’m halfway through my two-week test, and thought I’d provide a quick progress report.

It has been both easy and hard to eat this way. Easy, in that I’ve certainly never been hungry. Hard, in that I’ve already gotten very bored with the things I can eat. (This is only because I’m a picky eater; there’s not much that I like. Especially, there are very few vegetables that I like. Eating a lot of eggs and meat, together with a lot of the exact same vegetables every day, has gotten quite tedious.)

I felt subpar on day two and the first half of day three: logy and tired. Several people suggested that the problem was probably not eating enough calories, so I tried boosting the size of my meals. Whether it was that, or just making it through the transition, I got over it easily enough.

I’ve done pretty well at sticking to the diet, with one exception: Easter brunch. I did fine for the salad course and the main course, but when they brought carrot cake for dessert, I was unable to resist. (Surely the carrots counteract the sugar, right?)

It tasted good, but very quickly I felt terrible. As I described in email to a friend, I assume what happened is this:

The sugar hit my blood stream, and all my carb-depleted muscle and liver cells said, “Oooh! Sugar! We gots to get ourselves some of this!”

But at the same time, my pancreas said, “Hmm. There’s sugar in the blood. I’ll release some insulin.”

But, because there was only one small serving of cake’s worth of sugar, in no time it was all gone. But the insulin was still there.

So my blood sugar plummeted.

And then my liver said, “But, but, I just got this teeny little bit of glucose! I haven’t even turned it into glycogen yet!” and then said, “Oh, all right. Here’s enough sugar to get your blood levels back to normal.”

I probably exacerbated the whole thing by going for a run—I thought of it as penance for failing in my commitment to be low-carb for two weeks. The run no doubt put additional pressure on my blood sugar levels.

Anyway, for a couple of hours there after lunch, I felt sick to my stomach, shaky, jittery, and had an inappropriately high heart rate. Some of that might have been psychosomatic, but it was all very unpleasant.

After my run I had a V8 juice, which may have helped. A tiny bit of sugar.

Except for that piece of carrot cake, my only deviations have been:

  • Occasional small servings of cured meat (bacon, ham, sausage), which are generally low carb, but which are off the list for the two-week test because so many are cured with sugar or otherwise include carbs. I’m trying to pick ones that don’t have sugar, but am generally trusting that my servings are small enough that it doesn’t matter much.
  • Some small servings of peanut butter, which is also off the list for reasons I don’t understand. It’s natural peanut butter with no added sugar, but of course peanuts do have some amount of carbs. Again, I’m keeping my servings small.

In my post saying I was trying the low-carb thing I had a list of specific issues I was hoping low-carb eating might improve: allergy symptoms, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and weight. Taking those in reverse order . . . .

Weight

I can certainly see why low-carb diets are popular for weight loss: I lost several pounds almost immediately.

From what I’ve read, I gather this is largely water weight. Supposedly there are several grams of water bound up in the storage of each gram of glycogen. As the glycogen goes, the water is freed up, producing near-instant weight loss.

That all happened in the first two days. In the next five my weight has continued to trend down, but only very slightly. I assume this is mostly fat. If the second week is like the first, I’ll probably have lost about two-thirds of a pound of fat during the course of the test.

The dramatic weight loss is kind of interesting. Because I was already near my lowest adult weight, this big drop punched me down to a series of new all-time lows. I don’t have good data, but as best I can recall I am now at my lowest weight since I was a freshman in college and lost a bunch of weight when I had mononucleosis.

I assume those water pounds will pop right back on the instant I eat enough carbs to replenish my glycogen stores. That’ll be okay.

Blood sugar

I don’t have (and am not inclined to buy) equipment to check my blood sugar, so I don’t know if my fasting glucose levels are down or not. Empirically, I can report that my energy levels are now very stable, which suggests to me that my glucose levels (whatever they are) are pretty flat.

I do see the appeal to this. It’s convenient to never feel like I have to eat right now. It’s convenient to not feel tired and sleepy after every large meal.

The originator of the two-week test that I’m following, Phil Maffatone, is all about burning fat to power endurance exercise—ultra-marathons and the like.

A body well-adapted to using glycogen for endurance exercise can store maybe 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles and liver combined, providing around 2000 calories. By itself, that’s not even enough to run a marathon, let alone a longer endurance event.

Even a very lean person, on the other hand, probably has at least 10% body fat. That would imply that a 70 kilogram athlete would have around 7 kilos of fat, providing a staggering 63,000 calories. Even allowing for the significant fraction of irreducible fat (cushioning for your eyeballs, etc.) that’s still enough to power literally hundreds of miles of walking or running.

The idea that I’ll be able to do my long runs and very long walks without needing to make special provisions for food is especially appealing.

My glucose levels during the test are in any case only of academic interest. After the test I’ll reintroduce carbs and see how much and what kinds I can eat while preserving the stable energy levels. What I care about is what my glucose levels will be then.

Blood pressure

My blood pressure hasn’t shown much of a trend. So far it’s a little erratic, but has not been down enough to suggest that a different dose of lisinopril is in order. I’ll continue to monitor it.

Allergy symptoms

My allergy symptoms are the thing I’m most interested in improving, and here the results have been at least mildly interesting. I quit taking the Claritin just two days into the test, and then quit taking the Nasacort two days after that. I’m a little sniffly, but I’m not sneezing much, nor am I suffering from the nasal congestion that I needed to take the Nasacort for.

Of course this is not necessarily due to the diet. My allergy symptoms have always been seasonal (even as the “seasons” have grown to cover most of the year); maybe this is just one of the seasons when I’d have been okay anyway. Still, I’d be surprised if that were true. Tree-pollen season has always been a problem for me, and looking out my window, I can see several different kinds of trees with the discreet flowers characteristic of wind-pollination.

Only time will tell, but I’m glad to have at least a few days off the drugs in any case.

I’ll post another update in a week or two, unless the results seem boring.

Experimenting with low-carb

I’ve resisted low-carb eating for a long time, even as the evidence has increased that high-carb diets are terrible for us.

Via Christopher McDougal’s book Natural Born Heroes, I discovered Phil Maffetone and his two-week test, which caught my eye.

I’m generally very healthy and feel great, but I do have a few health issues—and there seems to be at least some evidence that a low-carb diet might help all of them. The point of the two-week test is to test exactly that: If you go very low-carb, does it make things better? If not, then you’re done—excess carbs are probably not your problem. If it does make things better, then you follow up the two-week test by gradually experimenting with adding carbs from various sources in various amounts, and figure out how much (and which kinds) of carbs you can consume without problem.

The things I’m hoping a low-carb diet might help are these:

  1. Allergies. Over the last twenty years I’ve gone from claiming that I don’t have allergies, to admitting that I get sniffles for a couple of weeks in the spring and the fall, to needing to take both Claritin and Nasacort daily. There’s some reason to believe that a low-carb diet might reduce inflammation. If true, that might ease my allergy symptoms (besides improving my general health), and might mean that I could eliminate those drugs, or perhaps just reduce them from constant to occasional.
  2. High blood pressure. My blood pressure is well-controlled with lisinopril, and I’ve been able to cut the dose since I’ve lost some weight these past 5 years, but it’s another drug that I take daily. It seems very likely that a low-carb diet will reduce my blood pressure, very possibly eliminating the need for this drug as well.
  3. High blood sugar. Back in 2003, I got a high blood glucose reading, and a stern talking-to about pre-diabetes. I responded by sharply reducing my consumption of soft drinks. That brought my blood glucose down to 91 in just six months. The past two years, though, my glucose has been ever-so-slightly high again. It’s not at a scary level, but I don’t like it even a little bit high. Undoubtedly, a low-carb diet will improve this.
  4. Weight loss. My weight is in the normal range, and has been since 2014. Further weight loss probably has no health benefit. Still, purely for aesthetic reasons, I’d be pleased to lose another few pounds. A low-carb diet will probably produce this result as well.

The main purpose of this post has simply been to get my thinking in order regarding what I’m hoping to accomplish. I have little doubt that a low-carb diet will produce the latter two improvements, but those issues could be dealt with easily enough through less drastic means. I have much less confidence about the former two, but improving those things would be a big deal for me—big enough to undertake the two-week test (at least), and maybe to change the way I eat going forward.