Top Ten Reasons I Will Never (Not) Be Paleo

10.  I feel incredible.  I’m confident that 90% of people would feel 100 times, if not more, better consuming a “paleo”-type diet. I don’t like confining myself to the “gluten-free” or “paleo” movements, but I am both gluten-free and “paleo.” The longer I go without eating processed foods or sugared-alternatives, the more I can feel how food actually affects my body. Whenever I “cheat,” and eat a high glycemic-index meal, I crash and feel like crap for the next day. I don’t like feeling like crap. So I keep eating paleo.

9.  Freedom from food. Sugar is addictive. Bread is addictive. Prior to going gluten free, I noticed NOTHING I ate didn’t have some kind of wheat (or at least food starch) in it. In fact, most times, something starchy was the center of the meal. That’s the American way, right? “Here, honey have a roll.” My sugar addiction began when I was young, craving sweets and cakes, anything I could get my hands on. I’m sure I had it worse than some, but maybe not. As I became older, my sugar addiction spiraled out of control, and I had no idea it was even happening. I had learned in school to stay away from candy, but that grains and bread were the bottom of the food pyramid. I was SUPPOSED to be eating >300 carbs per day! When I moved out on my own, I couldn’t keep chips, candy, sugar, ice cream, or even alchol (it’s just another source of sugar for me) in my house for fear I would overeat… and that’s when I started thinking maybe it was the sugar.

Like most “dieting” women I know, I counted calories and fat (like I was instructed to by the bread-on-the-bottom-food-pyramid-nutritionists) like a mad woman. I took my weight 3 times a day. I obsessed over my clothes-size, how I felt in them, and was self-consious to eat in front of people. I would restrict my eating to point of refractory bingeing. Even if I only skipped lunch, I was trying to devour everything in site come dinner. This was before I found gluten free / paleo.

On gluten free / paleo, I no longer obsess over the calories and sugar I am putting into my body. I have complete freedom from the obsession of food. I eat when I am hungry. I don’t eat when I am not. I don’t worry about the nutritional content of what I’m eating most of the time, because my diet is inherently filled with nutrient-dense foods. Simple as that.

8. No more naps. Mid-afternoon crashes are the worst. On paleo, I don’t get them any more. I remember as a highschooler, coming home and sleeping for 2-3 hours every day. I was so fatigued. I have had a nap twice in the past year. Adding it up, that’s more than 730 hours of gained productivity, which is desperately needed as a hard-working graduate student.

7.  “I’m regular.” I don’t want to delve into the realm of too much information, but prior to Paleo I was incredibly irregular. Irregular cycles, irregular digestion, irregular sleeping habits, irregular moods. More than that, I had never been regular. Many of my earliest memories of childhood were surrounded by GI problems, mood problems, and sleeping problems… but how was I supposed to know they weren’t normal? No one ever really told me how often I was supposed to be going to the bathroom. Anyway, you name it, on a low-fat, high-fiber diet, mine wasn’t normal. By body’s internal clock was just all warped. On paleo, I’m like a machine. Everything is all “regular,” a feeling I haven’t had in my entire life until now.

p.s. – I hardly ever eat fiber.

6. Better cholesterol. I get made a lot of fun of where I work because I love to eat pork rinds. Lots of them. I will eat a bag for lunch without blinking. They are such a common and frequent part of my diet, that it seldom occurs to me that it’s weird, until someone comments that I am so unhealthy for eating them (ironically, I am the skinniest person at my work).  I eat a very high cholesterol diet. I eat red meat once or every other day. I eat about 3 eggs a day. I eat pork rinds to my hearts content (insert pun), and snack on nuts. Sounds like I should have the worlds worst heart, right? Wrong.

I began having my cholesterol monitored after a blood test revealed high LDL and low HDL cholesterol, and high triglycerides.  This was a bit scary for me, having a family history of heart disease.  My abnormal cholesterol test came at 20, while I was doing a low fat, grain-based diet, and running a mile a day.

Since going “paleo,” my LDL is normal and my triglycerides are down. I still haven’t been able to raise my HDL, despite maintaining very frequent cardio exercise (>5/miles of running per day), but I think this may just be true genetics at play.

5. I’m thinner and more tone.  I have never not felt fat. Even when I was thin and severely calorie-restricting, I always felt fat on a grain-based diet. In addition, as I entered late adolescence/early adulthood, I actually started becoming fat, peaking at 150 (quite large for my small 5’3 frame) while in college. I became fat because I was eating the recommended diet of low-fat, whole grain. In addition to becoming fat, I also became sick. On paleo I maintain a healthy and fit 115 no matter how much I exercise or how many bags of pork rinds I eat.

4. I’m happy. All the time. This seems like a weird statement, but, I’m always happy. Literally. I remember struggling with depression as young as Kindergarten. My grandmother told me in my teenage years, when I battled daily with manic depression and fatigue, “sometimes as a child you just looked so sad.” It broke my heart to realize that my family had noticed my sadness at such a young age. On a low-fat, whole-grain diet I cried, screamed, had emotional outbursts, resented, and surfed the lowest-of-lows and highest-of-highs. On paleo, I’m simply happy. That’s it.

3. No more pain. As a young girl, I remember my mother struggling with chronic headaches and backpain. I never knew her agony until I was about 17 years old, when I began having chronic headaches and migranes with auras.  I had also had joint pain (primarily knee and back) for most of my life (the doctor’s decided I had “growing pains,” which is code for, “it’s all in your head.”) I dealt with the chronic headache and low-grade aches and pains by taking 800mg of ibuprofen every day. For years. After going gluten free, my chronic pains and headaches subsided, but the auras persisted. When I went fully paleo, the frequency of auras (without pain) reduced from once or twice a day to once every two months or so. They still happen randomly every once in a while, but not nearly with the frequency they used to, and their usually triggered by taking a hot shower. I now take Advil once a month for cramps, but some months I don’t need it at all.

2. Paleo (nearly) cured my narcolepsy. I first became gluten free about a year after I was diagnosed with narcolepsy, and became full paleo about a year after that. Before deciding to become gluten free, I realized I was getting tired after eating, and if I went all day without eating, I was less tired. I went searching and found a truly incredible blog called The Zombie Research Institute. A woman whose brain clearly worked like mine did, who cured her narcolepsy with gluten free? It sounded ridiculous, but I was desperate for anything to work. I tried it. Very strict. And it worked. Gluten free combated narcoleptic attacks and hypnogogic hallucinations, but I feel my most awake and alert by excluding all refined sugars and grains and adhering to a paleo diet.

1. Paleo saved my lifeThis might seem like an inflammatory statement (another pun), but it’s not a joke. I believe going gluten free (and later paleo) literally saved my life.  Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and young-adult years I was only sick and sad. There were many many days where I was quite sure that I wouldn’t make it past 40. I had physically struggled for so long, that I didn’t want to make it past 40. I couldn’t bear the thought of living another 20 years in tiredness and pain.  Now, I am exited to age in health and grace; and, actually look forward to tomorrow.

In addition to posting these reasons that I “do paleo,” the new fat-diet of the day, quite proudly, I would also like to take a moment to respond directly to some of the “points” raised in the original post “Top 10 Reasons I’m Not Paleo” by Cheeseslave.

1. To first answer Cheeseslave’s question:

But honestly, if you’ve been eating paleo for any length of time, don’t you miss grilled cheese sandwiches? Quesadillas? Pizza?

 

Sure. Yes. I miss pizza, pudding, ice cream, M&M’s, and especially peanut butter. I miss sugar the way a 3-pack-a-day smoker misses a cigarette. There is a twinge of pain everytime I see someone eating a doughnut in part because I hate wheat, but also in part because I WANT THAT DAMN DOUGHNUT.

That said, I miss the narcolepsy less than I miss the doughnut.

2. In response to:

Is the modern epidemic of “gluten intolerance” really caused by eating wheat? Or is it possible that something else is causing gluten intolerance?

There is a theory that antibiotic drugs cause an imbalance of gut flora and cause prevent the digestive tract from secreting enzymes that enable us to break down complex proteins such as gluten. Sounds a lot more plausible than the idea that wheat suddenly started causing gluten intolerance out of nowhere.

In the first place, the alternative theory isn’t bad. I agree that something other than gluten could be causing gluten intolerance. Genetics, a changing gut microbiome, antibiotics, sugar, birth control. Alternative theories are fine and dandy, but gluten is a very good candidate, as the protein has been demonstrated to be inflammatory and barrier-compromising to the intestinal tract all on it’s own. It also stimulates antigen presenting cells to be “preactivated” among “normal” healthy individuals without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Here’s another one demonstrating positive benefits of gluten-removal from IBS patients who did not have clinical celiac diseaseBut a different cause for gluten intolerance, doesn’t justify continuing to eat it. It would still be a gluten intolerance; wheat’s fault, or not. 

In the second place, gluten isn’t the only thing found in wheat. Wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) is a lectin found in wheat and has been demonstrated to have antinutritive effects irrespective of gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Concentrations of WGA are higher in the seed and young shoots of wheat, to protect it from predation from fungus, insects, and animals. In fungus and insects WGA binds to the chitin. Chitin is found in the cell wall and intestinal system of fungi and insects, respectively.  In animals and in humans, it binds strongly to sialic acid on intestinal cells, where it is internalized, and can also agglutinate bacteria and red blood cells. Because it is stable at low pH (i.e. poorly digested) and resistant to gut proteases, it is gaining widespread attention and research to be utilized as a carrier for drug delivery.  Once inside epithelial cells of the digestive tract, it accumulates in lysosomes and resists degradation. It alters intestinal permeability, allowing for the passage of small molecules across the intestinal barrier. In addition, in sufficient concentrations, it stimulates proinflammatory cytokine release as well as affecting the activation of immune cells in the gut, and can cause pancreatic hypertrophy.  It should be mentioned here that lectins are not only found in wheat (but wheat has among the highest lectin concentrations and is the most prevalent plant lectin), and their entrance into the blood stream and implications on systemic health has yet to be widely investigated. For another good review, go here.  How is that for “antimicrobial” theory?

I struggle with anger towards my mom for not figuring out that I was tired after I ate.  Because of food, I was sick and sad for most of my life. If only my mother had known or realized that food could affect how you feel SO MUCH, I know she would have changed my diet at a young age and not let me have dessert at all (or, made a nice paleo alternative).

In contrast, I know I will be the most-hated parent on the block when my child realizes that Oreos exist. But, to me, if I were to allow my child to indulge in sugar, I might as well put vodka in their bottle, and a joint in their hand. Sugar is a drug. It works the same on the brain. And I’m sure little Johnny will sneak away to Billy’s house to eat ice cream on the weekends. But I refuse to allow my children to become addicted to sugar and food in the same way that I was. And they sure as heck won’t be sad, sick, or worse for the pie that I put on their plate. 

 

 

New Neurons in Your Narco Brain

 

When I first was diagnosed with narcolepsy, I was devastated. I had put together the story that was being told about my brain: probably autoimmune, neurodegenerative, and sorry but you will be this way for the rest of your life.  The assumption that there is a neurodegenerative loss of hypocretin/orexin-secreting cells of the hypothalamus in narcoleptic brains is probably not totally inaccurate.  Throughout the course of my research, however, I became convinced that an underlying food intolerance could mediate the autoimmune process;  if I cut out the food I was intolerant to, I could turn off that process and cool my brain down. And it worked. A month after going gluten free, my symptoms of narcolepsy disappeared.

Even though I was excited to not be tired anymore, I was concerned about this supposed neurodegeneration that was happening in my brain. Even as a scientist, I was taught all throughout school that once you lost a neuron, that was it. Game over. No new neurons for you. However, at the time, there were a few studies coming out demonstrating how aerobic exercise could promote neurogenesis.  So — I started running. As I run, I like to image the little dendrites of the hypocretin-secreting neurons I do have left reaching out and making new connections, restoring my narco brain to something not handicapped by some mysterious autoimmune process.

The plan was (and still is) simple: 1) stop all future neurodegeneration by turning off the autoimmune and inflammatory processes (this was made possible by going gluten free), and 2) promote new neuronal growth by exercising every day.

All of that was fine and dandy, but as a rational person, I needed some proof. What if the current view was right? There was always a crippling fear in the back of my mind that I was wrong. That somehow, someway, the narcolepsy was going to win.

I lived with this fear, until I read this paper: Adult Neurogenesis in the Hypothalamus. And there it was. I could stop the inflammation with a gluten free diet, and make new neurons in areas that I thought may have been completely ablated. The realization that we all in fact have the potential to make these new neurons is nothing but relief.

It means, without a doubt, that once you turn off the inflammation, you can turn your brain back on. 

Narcolepsy gene in a celiac patient.

As many of you know, autoimmune diseases are generally complex diseases, where people on a certain genetic background (i.e. those whore are “predisposed”) come into contact with environmental triggers and eventually develop autoimmune disease.

Particularly important for autoimmune diseases, the genetic predisposition seems to lie within a region of our genes called Human Leukocyte Antigen or HLA for short. Narcolepsy has one of the highest genetic (HLA) associations, with more than 90% of individuals with narcolepsy possessing the MHC clas II gene HLA DQB1*0602.  

Celiac disease is also shown to be associated with certain HLA genes, in particular with MHC class II HLA-DQ2.  In this recent study, a patient with confirmed celiac disease was demonstrated to have the narcolepsy gene DQB1*0602.