I have adverse reactions to changes in my dietary patterns…to put it mildly. Lethargy, outwardly apparent sleepiness, severe gastrointestinal distress, edema, and circulation issues. I’ve just kind of accepted that my irregular consumption of unhealthy foods will ultimately result in as long as a few days of adverse consequences. My family has even came up with a moniker for this condition: the diabetes legs. It’s a topic of comedic relief in both my familial and working environments, and likewise, a subject of quite a bit of my pondering and research. I have always viewed it as both a blessing and a curse; knowing how I’ll feel after consumption of even the smallest bowl of ice cream or a handful of chips keeps me from imbibing from “sometimes treats” for months at a time. While I have bullheadedly believed for nearly two decades that I could control all aspects of my health, through (what some would characterize as extreme) lifestyle dietary and physical activity habits, my beliefs are evolving.
The impetus for these changes are currently cumbersomely fat-fingering this blog post. Now over 3 days after the culmination of a Super Bowl LII feast, in which I partook in some truly fantastic BBQ prepared by my stepfather and my mother’s homemade ice cream, it still looks like I’m wearing Mickey Mouse hands and the poor circulation in my extremities is more concerning than my “I can control everything” ego is comfortable admitting. There are a number of digestive concerns that could potentially cause such symptoms, everything from fun conditions like celiac disease to protein-losing enteropathy, but the most common cause is blood glucose dysregulation. The big “D” word: Diabetes. More specifically to my current state, diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage that is associated with diabetes mellitus. I’ve suspected for many years that this may be an issue. In fact, my fascination with researching and experimenting with different, and often extreme, dietary and physical activity behaviors was in large part motivated by a deeply-embedded fear that my body may have issues with the preservation of blood glucose homeostasis.
In my childhood, I could eat an entire pizza, wash it down with nearly a gallon of milk, and polish off a hand of bananas for desert (for the potassium, of course) with nary a hint of discomfort. That digestive efficiency resulted in near morbid levels of obesity in my early teens. In my late teens, due to a number of different factors, which included seeing members of my family struggle with health complications associated with diabetes, I became obsessed with my health and changed my eating habits literally overnight. I recall eating the same meal, every meal, for several months: baked chicken breast, kidney beans, and hot sauce. I even snuck Tupperware containers full of my concoction into restaurants on several occasions so I could enjoy a meal with my friends. Why I chose that particularly odd combination, I am not quite sure now, but I am certain that the concentration of alpha-galactosides (a type of fermented sugar found in high levels in legumes that often causes excess bloating and gas) would turn this 30-something’s insides out, just as the slightest hint of lactose or more than a single serving of fruit in one sitting does. Through my own (ongoing) personal experimentation, I have found that focusing on whole, nutrient-dense foods (to the point of almost totally excluding anything processed from my diet), limiting simple carbohydrates, and intermittent fasting works best for me—my body, my life, and my goals. Amusingly, but blatantly obvious, my body’s tolerance for dietary variance has greatly diminished since I began devoting my life to health, and it’s becoming harder to turn a blind eye towards the drastic swings in energy and the bloating and circulation concerns that arise when I introduce significant amounts of simple carbohydrates or anything out of the (my) ordinary into my diet.
The research involving blood glucose regulation and several of the concepts I have integrated into my own lifestyle, specifically intermittent fasting, is quite vast, but there is debate about how generalizable it is. In animal studies, intermittent fasting has been shown to actually cure diabetes. Similar human clinical trials have not resulted in findings as dramatically positive, but they are definitely promising. And clinical trials involving ketogenic diets, which are often closely associated with intermittent fasting, have shown near identical results. But, on the flip side, long-term carbohydrate restriction is associated with reduction in the production of specific thyroid hormones (T3) that influence proper metabolism (resulting in the symptom of otherwise unexplainable feelings of coldness, which yes, I have kind of noticed), which may have the unwanted (and unhealthy) secondary effect of poor circulation. The animal studies regarding the benefits of fasting and ketogenesis are fascinating and the mechanisms make sense, but humans are so distinct and the research is relatively new. Like anything else in nutritional science, we simply don’t know and every extreme behavioral change has its positive and negative consequences. You really need to find out what works for you specifically. After two decades of personal trial and error, I am still searching for my body’s magic recipe.
As I have often pondered, there is the legitimate concern that my extremely regimented dietary habits are part of my progressively increasing dietary intolerance. This is one of those times when it is truly valuable to work in an environment surrounded by brilliant people, as one of my colleagues brought to my attention some associated research that I was not previously aware of. Although I do not follow a totally scripted diet or purposely go ketogenic, the very nature of my dietary habits, with the primary focus of eliminating highly processed foods, means my carbohydrate intake is inherently low by most conventional standards, and therefore I may often totally inadvertently end up there. The goal of my dietary habits is not ketosis—I have never actually had my ketone levels monitored—but that perfect balance of metabolic efficiency where I can maintain my baseline level of fitness, energy, and overall health, while also staying lean. When one is in ketosis, research has shown that an instant spike in blood glucose and the coinciding rush of insulin (as I experienced when downing chips and cookies at the Super Bowl celebration) can create a violent seesaw response that can result in drastic immunological consequences. Blood literally thickens, free radicals flood your system causing all kinds of acute stress, you increase your chances for contracting a whole host of illnesses, and the effects can last beyond a single day. As abnormal and uncomfortable as my swollen appendages and tingling hands look and feel, the research confirms that what I am experiencing is not atypical. What may be beneficial to one’s metabolic efficiency and improve energy and vitality on a day-to-day basis, as I have noticed that lower carbohydrate intake does for me, may result in adaptations that lower the tolerance for those human moments of gustatory indulgence. Sometimes the realities of how amazing and adaptable the human body is is hard to swallow.
With all my theories firmly in place, now starts the data collection. I have begun monitoring my blood sugar levels over the last few days, looking for trends and large swings based upon the timing and macronutrient content of my meals. The initial numbers are exactly what I expected: on the (very) low range of average and extremely consistent. On the first day, my blood glucose levels varied a mere 12 mg/DL between waking (fasted state) and shortly following a relatively high carbohydrate meal including ½ cup (dry) of oat groats, and then shortly after my final meal of the day and before bed. Not much more variation has been seen since. Of course, the really interesting data will come from the next time I temporarily lose my sanity to the siren song of “sometimes treats” (my daughter’s upcoming 6th birthday ice cream sundae party should be fun). I will be getting my Hemoglobin A1c (an evaluation of your blood glucose level variation over a 2-3 month period) tested and also begin monitoring blood ketone levels before sitting down with my notebook of data with our company physician (and personal friend) for a chat about my health. At the behest of my boss, I also received my first AromaTouch Technique® 50 feet from my desk by the trainer of trainers (thanks JoJo)—all resources at my disposal as an employee of the world’s best health and wellness company.
Every setback is an opportunity to learn, even if that setback is (at the moment) unexplainable edema and poor circulation so persistent and uncomfortable that you (and your poor wife) can’t sleep. Based upon a few days of data, it’s quite unlikely that I am diabetic, but some form of peripheral neuropathy is definitely possible and side effects of unintentional long-term carbohydrate restriction is highly probable. As further dietary experimentation takes place, it may also be time to add a neurologist to my list of friends in the medical community. Furthermore, it is an ironic evolutionary cruelty that I may be actually training my body to be wholly intolerant of processed foods. It’s a cool party story for sure, but I need to seriously evaluate my thoughts on orthorexia and moderation in general. Moving forward I will be making a concerted effort to include days of higher carbohydrate intake at least twice weekly into my dietary regimen (oat groats and a banana are on the menu for today’s first meal) and monitoring how they influence my blood glucose levels. Throw in a few more cheat days, and I will continue my attempts to moderate total intake on those days when the aroma of perfectly smoked brisket and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies overpowers the logical parts of my brain.
Learn from my mistakes. As Oscar Wilde says: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Do your research, but let your own experience be your guide and don’t be too headstrong to use the medical resources that you have at your disposal. In the overtly sarcastic voice of my lovely wife: “Doctor, you are a health scientist, not a physician.” Take advantage of every opportunity to listen to your body, get to know how it distinctly responds to dietary (and other lifestyle behavior) input, and let how you feel drive your own plans for optimal health and wellness. Oh, and schedule your annual physical and an AromaTouch Technique with your local trainer.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.