For as long as I can remember, I have been addicted to anything that is sweet. My parents tried to raise their children on healthy foods, but I always seemed to find a way to get around it. Secret trips on my bicycle to the general store, eating snacks at friends’ houses after school, and splurging at the school cafeteria were just a few ways that I fed my need for sugar. I fondly remember the intensity of the sweet taste on my young taste buds. It was indeed satisfying.
In terms of my overall health, it never seemed to suffer. My love of sports and weight training always kept me lean. I can remember downing cans of “Jolt” cola and candy bars before track meets in high school. If anything, it felt like the sugars gave me a performance boost. My pancreas could easily crank out the insulin to keep my blood sugar within normal limits. Life was good.
In my twenties and my thirties, things only slightly changed. I kept up with weekly weight training routines and worked full time as a physical therapist in busy outpatient settings. My activities burned tons of calories, which afforded me the opportunity to get quick energy from the sugars that I had grown up craving. If I had fifteen minutes in between patients, I would often inhale a Frapuccino or a twenty-ounce Mountain Dew. This would give me a euphoric lift, but I was starting to notice small changes. By my mid-thirties I started to encounter the “food coma” that everybody was talking about. One hour after my massive sugar binges, I began to feel that I needed to take a nap. I powered through it. No worries, right?
For some reason my overall health during these years still seemed to be okay. My blood work with the yearly physicals looked normal. I did have some minor annoyances that I reported to my doctor. Recurrent athlete’s foot, slight problems focusing, and increased stiffness in my joints when I woke up in the morning were all dismissed by me as part of the aging process.
Fast forward to 2016. I am now forty-four years old. I am afraid that my chickens have come home to roost.
Within the last few years, my exercise and work activity no longer seemed to effectively counteract my sugar intake. I have still kept a healthy weight and decent fitness, but I was beginning to feel chronically listless and foggy. My sleep was not as sound as it used to be, and every morning I would feel diffusely stiff in my spine and in my joints.
They say that every addict has to hit rock bottom before making changes. This occurred for me last month. I went to a casual dinner party and filled myself up with everything that you could imagine I shouldn’t have. And to top it off for dessert: sheet cake! Who doesn’t love sheet cake?
About thirty minutes after dinner I had the distinct pleasure of “falling asleep” on the host’s couch and loudly snoring in front of fifteen people. I was shaken awake by my better half to a room full of laughing guests. I slept that night for eleven hours and awoke the next morning to extreme stiffness in my joints and the feeling of a hang over. Mind you that I had not drunk any alcohol the night before.
I was officially a sugar addict, and it was time to quit.
I read as much as I could about the subject matter. There is a huge amount of research that has come out in the last few years on how sugar affects the body. It is startling. Sugar has an inflammatory effect on just about every organ system. I read one particular article written by a cardiologist who refuses to do bypass surgery anymore, because his patients refuse to heed his call. Sugar actually inflames the lumen of the arteries and makes it more likely for plaques to form. All of these years we were told by the medical establishment that fats and cholesterols were solely to blame. It is now my firm opinion that all medical professionals should have at least some training in nutrition.
What other manifestations do processed sugars have on our organ systems? Take your pick. Skin irritation and rashes, a lackluster immune system, digestive afflictions in the colon and intestines, and changes in mental alertness and attention are just a few problems worth mentioning. The one symptom that surprised me the most was joint pain. Here I am, a physical therapist treating patients day in and day out with joint pain, and I have never even considered that diet may be having some causality!
I recently read that processed sugars can be as addicting as opiates. I initially thought that concept to be absurd. But when I think about the euphoria and satisfaction that sugars have always given me, I am now a believer.
Three weeks ago I started phasing out processed sugars. For the first week I eliminated all sugary drinks. No sodas, no mocha lattes, no sports drinks. Week number two I eliminated desserts. Last week I started looking at the food labels of everything that I was thinking about eating. Anything that had more than a few grams of sugar has been eliminated.
The last week has been tough. Now that I am putting only a few grams of sugar in my body per day, I have been experiencing some withdrawal. I have felt cranky and anxious. One thing that I have noticed is that just about everything has added sugar in it. Yesterday, during a break from seeing patients, I went to the drugstore looking to get something to drink. I walked up and down the refrigeration aisle and looked at many of the nutritional labels of the drinks. It is ridiculous. The only thing that I could find that is acceptable is water and sparkling water.
Now that I have committed to this process of detoxification, I wish that I had done it years ago. Here is a brief list of some changes that I have noticed.
1. The last four mornings upon awakening I have neither been stiff in my spine nor in my peripheral joints. I am now going to ask patients about processed sugar intake with my evaluations. Who would have thought that this could be causing orthopedic symptoms?
2. This is a bit gross, but I used to have a film on my tongue that I would scrape off with a toothbrush in the mornings. This film is almost entirely gone.
3. I am more alert during the day, and I no longer feel that I need to nap at about 2 PM.
4. I still have cravings, but they are less intense. There is actually “junk food” out there that has close to zero grams of sugar. If I really need a junk food fix I will have something like “Cheetos” or pork rinds. They are both very low in sugar. I have found that salty foods like olives and pickles tend to partially kill my cravings. I have not eliminated carbohydrates. One step at a time.
I will likely continue to write about this as the weeks go on to document other changes that I find. This documentation of my progress will hopefully keep me motivated!
Image credits: Top © violetdragonfly/MorgueFile; 2nd © DodgertonSkillhause/MorgueFile; 3rd © arker/MorgueFile.