Understanding is the Beginning to Better Health
Fasting, writing, curiosity and a desire to help people has brought me to where I am today – at a healthy weight, on a reduced dose of insulin and with a new appreciation for how my past impacts my current health.
I turn 61 in September, and it seems appropriate to look back on my life for lessons learned and learn how I got to be who I am. It was only after my retirement from journalism in 2014 that I realized I had one more big story to write – my own. At first I thought “Who would want to read about me?” I grew up in a normal family, right? And by normal, I mean there was alcoholism, shame, mental illness, emotional abuse, estrangement and a large dollop of denial that there was anything wrong with us.
At age 45, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The diagnosis was a complete shock since I’d always considered myself fit and healthy. The doctor said my pancreas was old and tired and unable to produce enough insulin. I maxed out on all the oral medications with minimal benefit available before asking to go onto insulin. Over a year or so I put on 30 pounds, and my self-esteem plummeted. My body seemed to have its own agenda. I became afraid of food. I felt so alone. Neither of my siblings or parents had diabetes.
“It’s just you,” my mother said, tone-deaf to my need for love and comfort. Instead, the comment made me feel further alienated.
Depression, which had dogged me as a teenager, returned in my early 50s. Pressures of the newspaper industry changed the job, and I was being asked to do more writing that was less to do with breaking news and more to do with enticing advertisers. Or, at least, not pissing off existing advertisers.
I was also losing hope that I’d ever publish anything worth reading. I’ve always wanted to write a book. My attempts at novels filled up drawers in my home office. I loved the rush of the first-draft writing, but didn’t have the skills to rewrite. My mom, an avid reader, read every manuscript. I’d hear if she liked something through the neighbourhood grapevine. My mom didn’t believe in praising her children directly, nor did she tell us she loved us. If we cried or were angry, we were sent to our rooms because these were emotions that made both her and my dad uncomfortable.
No wonder I learned to keep everything inside. No wonder I got depressed. And maybe it explains why I got diabetes.
Searching For A New Beginning
When I quit work, I bought an RV and spent six months driving around the southern U.S. with my two dogs. My depression lifted as I headed south. I was where I wanted to be – surrounded by strangers and away from all the stressors in my life.
I could only get so far away from things, because I had to call my mother. “Where are you? What are you writing?” she’d ask every time.
I often did not know where I was, physically or spiritually, and I had lost interest in writing. I gave up on many of my hopes and dreams.
I returned home in the spring, hoping things would have magically improved while I was away. They did not. While I was not in touch with my siblings, the family discord still managed to put a rift between my mom and me.
My mom passed away on Valentine’s Day in February 2016. I came to realize how much effort I’d put into trying to make her happy though all sorts of unhealthy ways – avoiding conflict, swallowing my anger, learning not to cry and withdrawing even more from the world.
I used part of my inheritance to buy a DEXCOM G5 glucose meter, thinking Mom would want me to be healthy. (Even in death, I’m trying to please her.) The system is composed of a button-like sensor and receiver that’s stuck to my belly. Glucose readings show up on my phone, each dot on the screen representing five-minute incremental readings.
One Step at a Time Things Will Change
And then I found Jason Fung’s system for intermittent and extended fasting. It appeals to me because Fung’s reasoning that diabetes is a nutritional disease makes a lot of sense. I started my first fast in late December 2017, a 48-hour stint without food. It was so hard that I decided to follow it up with a seven-day fast, thinking that once I’d done a marathon-length version, those shorter fasts will seem easy by comparison. It worked. Over my first three months, I lost 25 pounds. The following months saw more weight loss and none of the creep-back of poundage I’d seen with other diets.
The DEXCOM astonishes me with its capacity to shed light on my body’s hidden stress, the stuff I shove down so deep I’m not even aware of its existence – until an alarm on my phone goes off. Whenever I get to the tub or have a shower, my glucose spikes. I have no memory of anything bad happening to me in a bathtub. My lack of conscious memory doesn’t mean nothing happened. Clearly, my body is responding to something. Perhaps I was left unattended in a tub and got a mouthful of water. That would be enough to make an infant think its life is in peril.
A family friend brought up the subject of my birth family, and my glucose spiked. When I attended a writing workshop to look at how to construct my memoir, my glucose spiked.
Gabor Maté, Bessel Van der Kolk, Peter Levine and other researchers believe hidden stress can lead to disease. It’s easy to see that chronically high glucose may have links to emotional neglect or a mother’s inability to gaze lovingly at her child. I may well have diabetes because of my upbringing, but I’m not writing my memoir to assign blame to my other or anyone else in my family.
I’m writing my story to ask questions no one might have thought of before and, of course, to help people. I’m wondering if my discovery that glucose reflects hidden stress can help those people on the brink of serious illness.
Viagra was developed as a heart medication, but it had a side-effect that was hard to ignore. Wouldn’t it be cool if wearable glucose monitors could open the window on hidden stress, and help save lives? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could stop diseases at their inception, without the need for expensive and debilitating pharmaceutical drugs? Wouldn’t it be cool if our bodies could tell us about stress we hide deep inside?
I think so.
Update: In early 2020, I enrolled in an online course on repairing the nervous system, Smart Body, Smart Mind, run by Irene Lyon of Vancouver. My new pastime of hiking had been hampered by spiking glucose, and I suspected the cause lay with unresolved trauma. I learned to stay present while hiking, and not let thoughts drift to conflicts in the past. (Little did I know that body movement can trigger old memories!). Within a startlingly short period of time, the glucose peaks subsided and I was enjoying being present with nature, and not distracted by unpleasant memories of the past. I recently returned to a hill I’d climbed in March, when the exertion had caused my DEXCOM meter to shoot through the roof. This last climb saw my glucose stay flat, and even drop a little near the summit. I was so happy! (This photo with my dog Gemma is from that moment).
I’ve hiked 700 kms since March 2020, and plan to continue through the West Coast rainy season. My story of healing continues, and I can’t wait to see how it will end.
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By Jason Fung, MD
Jason Fung, M.D., is a Toronto-based nephrologist (kidney specialist) and a world leading expert in intermittent fasting and low-carb diets.