In my last post, I gave you the broad strokes of how I had big successes, but then big struggles, along my journey as a paleo aficionado. Today I’d like to share a little bit about how I started to identify the wrench in the gears—the thing that got me stuck along my health journey despite all my best efforts.
Here we go.
The mathematician and biohacker in me is a fan of data. That means any time I can track data, I will. This is the only reason I own and continue to use a scale each morning.
But I don’t use a typical scale. Why? Well, for one, it isn’t an accurate measurement for what is happening within the body. A typical scale can tell you how much you weigh, but not how much of your weight is attributed to fat versus muscle. And that distinction makes a big difference in giving an accurate picture of overall health.
That’s why I use a Withings Scale. It digs deep and offers a complete analysis of BMI, body fat, muscle, bone mass, and water retention. It stores each weigh-in and transfers the data via bluetooth to the Withings App. I have been recording that data every day since June 3, 2011.
Like I mentioned in my last post, at first, things went great for me when I went paleo. But at some point, there was a big turn.
I may not have been able to pinpoint the exact moment in time when things changed for me, but I can get close.
I was at my absolute best in 2012. I had been 80/20 when I first “went paleo,” and in 2012 I committed to the paleo lifestyle 100%. At that time, I was certain that I couldn’t lose the last 10+lbs because I had kept dairy in my diet and indulged in the occasional non-paleo cheat meal. I was certain that since my workouts weren’t regimented, I wasn’t building enough muscle and getting enough of a metabolic boost to burn the necessary calories for weight loss. I was certain that since I was getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night, it didn’t matter that I was going to bed between midnight and 3am each night (Jeff and I affectionately referred to this period of our lives as living on vampire hours.) I was certain that even though I had read that intermittent fasting wasn’t great for women, since I felt good not eating breakfast and working out in a fasted state, that I must not fall into the particular group of women who were affected by this.
I was dangerously wrong about so many of these things.
I felt so good in 2012. Three months after setting the goal to be 130lbs on my 30th birthday, on August 20th, 2012, I was beyond excited to meet that goal. I had worked extremely hard. I gave up all fruit, chocolate, and anything sweet in general while sticking to what now would be described as Whole 30-compliant (aka a very strict paleo diet). The super restrictive diet was something I had yet to try in conjunction with my intense workouts—and it worked.
With my goal having been met, in August 2012, I was finally ready to put a collection of my recipes together and share them all in one location (i.e. publish my first cookbook). I had collected the recipes I had been developing over the last few years, waded through photos of the recipes I had taken, and made a list of 25 recipes that needed new photos. I went to five different grocery stores in one day, collecting ingredients for the 25 recipes that needed to be reshot. In two days I cooked and Jeff shot the remaining 25 recipes that needed photos for the book.
I edited all the photos of the food, Jeff worked on the layout, and Dave (our friend and business partner) worked on the design elements. Jeff shot the cover of the book at our alma mater, on the Elmhurst College football field. We did every single thing necessary to produce the cookbook ourselves, and we did it all in the 30 days which we had set aside to work solely on the book. Prior to setting this self-imposed deadline, we had planned a trip to Miami, FL to celebrate Jeff’s 30th birthday. While we were there, Jeff was working on development of the new design for PaleoPorn.com, so the launch of the new site would coincide with the publishing of the new book. Sadly, he had to work through his birthday, but on September 5th, 2012 as we were flying back to Chicago from Miami, my first paleo cookbook, Pigskin Paleo, was live and available on Amazon! Plus, PaleoPorn.com had a completely new look and feel.
Seven months later, with another one-month break from client work, we did it again. We chose a new topic, I did research and recipe testing, and on May 5th, 2013, we published my second paleo cookbook, Los Paleo.
Things seemed to be going great.
I felt so fantastic in my new body that my new personal goal was to get back into the pageant scene. I was a competitive baton twirler for 15 years when I was younger and during that time I periodically competed in Miss America pageants as well. As a kid, I competed in the Miss Jr. America pageants and I always had my sights set on winning that Miss America crown. Feeling comfortable in my own skin, for maybe the first time ever, I wanted to conquer the Mrs. America pageant.
I entered as a contestant in the Mrs. Illinois pageant and on May 20th, 2013 I competed as Mrs. Elmhurst. It felt great to be back on stage again! Competing in that competition filled a need I was seeking for a long time. It didn’t matter whether I won or not; it felt really good to be back on stage.
Around this same time, Jeff and I decided we wanted to up our game with Paleo Porn, so Jeff started filming videos of me cooking paleo recipes. We had grandiose visions of building a self-produced show, beyond just cooking, called Paleo Porn TV. The first step in this process was to finally renovate our hideous kitchen! We started construction on that project in February of 2014.
To save money, we completed the construction ourselves. I designed the new layout of our kitchen using the IKEA kitchen building app. We purchased everything when they were having their annual kitchen sale and immediately got to work. We completely gutted the kitchen and replaced parts of the drywall and all of the flooring. The construction was happening while we were still living in the house, and during the month of construction, there was a layer of dust on everything. Jeff and I didn’t feel all that well, and this was when we decided to invest in a Berkey water filter, so we knew at least we had clean water. It was difficult to cook when the stove was sitting in the middle of an empty kitchen, unplugged, but we made due as best we could.
Why is this story relevant?
It was around this time that my weight started creeping up.
It was slow at first, so I really didn’t think much of it, but month after month it just continued rising at a steady pace and there was nothing I could do to stop it! I didn’t know what was going on. I felt like my body had always been this unknown thing that just decided to do whatever the hell it wanted at any given moment regardless of the decisions and directions I would guide it in. But this was serious, and I had no idea what was happening.
My diet never changed yet my weight kept going up.
When the weight just wouldn’t stop rising, I finally decided to see my doctor. The date was October 1st, 2014. It had been over three years since I had gone to see her last. It had taken me a couple months to come around to the idea that I really needed to make an appointment. I was trying to decide between the options I had available to me, including working with Dr. Cate Shanahan through the 1:1 Primal Advantage program or running all the tests myself through WellnessFX. I finally decided I should start by talking to my doctor first and having her run the tests I had read about in Perfecting Paleo and The 4-Hour Body, assuming the cost would get covered by my insurance instead of having to pay for everything out of pocket. But I was in for a very unpleasant surprise.
I left my doctor’s office completely deflated and beyond angry. My doctor had never heard of paleo and denied me access to run the tests I wanted to take.
She said running the tests I was asking for would be detrimental to my health. She only OK’d me the ability to run a basic thyroid panel and, of course, that came back with perfect results, since a basic thyroid panel doesn’t reveal anything on the level of detail I was looking for. She implied my complaints were not a big deal. Her advice? Keep doing the same old thing, despite my creeping weight gain.
I came home and immediately was on the search for a local paleo MD. Three days from my failed doctor’s appointment, I found someone in Chicago, Dr. Matthew Griffin, who like Jeff was also Primal Blueprint Certified. Things were looking up! I met with Dr. Griffin four days after my discouraging doctor appointment and he explained to me why my previous doctor was so paranoid about running tests. He also made a suggestion to focus on increasing my fat and trying to get into ketosis.
I spent the next several months focussed on being extremely low-carb paleo. I was testing my blood glucose every day. I purchased urine and blood ketone monitors and I went in 110%. I read Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore and Keto Adapted by Maria Emmerich to see if there was something more I was missing. I was having Bulletproof coffee in the mornings every day and I added a lot more fat to my diet. But my weight just kept going up. I was never able to maintain ketosis and I only really met the blood requirements on one single day after I gorged on a raw butter pie. It was beyond stressful that all my actions were not producing any positive results.
I felt like a failure in every possible way.
Around this same time, with more and more paleo cookbooks being brought to market, I felt like the two books I had created weren’t able to stand up against any of them. I felt depressed and ashamed of the books Jeff and I had produced in our month-long projects, having devoted so much energy to producing them. I was already feeling sluggish and depressed because my body wasn’t working as expected. But comparing myself to the new paleo cookbook authors was the frosting on the paleo cupcake.
Prepare for the Super Bowl 🏈with Pigskin Paleo, our game day Paleo cookbook! The second edition is bigger & badder than ever and available on all platforms. :) http://paleoporn.net/pigskin #paleo #primal #glutenfree #grainfree #sugarfree #dairyfree #jerf #justeatrealfood #soyfree #nightshadefree #cookbook #NFL #football #gameday #superbowl #recipes #PigskinPaleo #porkyporkpork #PaleoPorn
So Jeff and I decided to go back to the drawing board and publish a second edition of Pigskin Paleo. This time it would be more on par with the level of cookbooks that were being published. We put our heart and soul into the reboot over the course of 7 months, while my weight just kept increasing and my depression kept getting worse. The worst part was we still had no answers as to why. It was devastating for me. I was unable to make progress on anything. My energy was falling faster each day, making it harder and harder not only to concentrate, but to get anything done. Doing the laundry was an accomplishment. Preparing a single meal was an accomplishment. Around this time I spent a lot of time reading fiction and I stopped working out because it wasn’t helping me lose weight and was only making me more tired.
The recommendation from Dr. Griffin to go keto wasn’t working. My weight kept going up.
And in March I missed my period so I nervously bought my first pregnancy test. If I was gaining weight because I was pregnant, at least that would be an explanation. A baby is not something either of us wanted, but if that test came back positive, I would have been so excited—at least I would have had a reason to explain what the hell was going on! The test came back negative and the mystery continued.
Two days later, Jeff was scheduled for surgery because he had broken his hand. He rarely sees the doctor and had never undergone surgery. But pins were necessary and I was a nervous wreck.
The stress I was under was obvious looking back now, but at the time all I could think was: WTF is wrong with me?!
In April of 2015 I started working with Spencer Harstead, a Functional Diagnostic Nutritionist. With Spencer’s help I finally planned to run some tests. A month later I broke my finger on my right hand while playing football.
All I could think was: my body is completely failing me. I had never broken any part of my body before.
In the summer of 2015 we watched Dave Asprey’s Moldy documentary when it first came out and it brought up an entirely new possibility we hadn’t originally thought about.
Could mold be the answer? It sparked the thought that the kitchen remodel may have released mold or lead into our home environment. This is when we looked back at our Withings scale data and noticed that the uptick in my weight coincided precisely with the kitchen remodel. In retrospect, neither of us felt well during the time when we remodeled our kitchen. We never put up a plastic divider between the doorways of the kitchen, so we had been living with a layer of dust on everything in the house while we were working.
So in September 2015, I hired a mold company to come out and evaluate our home with an air test. Everything was normal—except the levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium. Those were extremely elevated. Since I’m allergic to Penicillin we thought this might have been our first indication of some kind of trigger that may have sent me down this path. We were given the recommendation to purchase a True HEPA air filter and we asked if removing the carpeting in the house would be productive. We planned to remove all the carpet and replace them with sustainable hardwood floors (from Cali Bamboo) and then flush the air ducts in the house. I also wanted to get a doctor’s opinion based on these results, but the doctor who specialized in mold in our area who I reached out to never got back to me. And I had less than zero energy available to search for someone else.
A little over a month later we bought a used IQAir True HEPA system locally off of Wallapop. We bought new filters from the store and immediately started running it 24/7. IQAir is one of the most effective home units on the market and within two months the filter needed replacing. Just so you can understand what is normal, it typically takes a year before the filters need replacing. The new filters we installed were black from constant use after two months and Jeff and I felt the difference! This was an exciting moment because we finally felt like we found some relief from something we had done.
It seemed like with the mold spores under control, at least one health aggravator had been lifted.
At this time we had already been working on our documentary, Minimalism, for over a year. When we came back from a couple road trips premiering the doc at film festivals, I was finally able to run some tests with Spencer starting with the Intestinal Permeability Test. His initial recommendations based off of just the surveys I had filled out included the following lifestyle changes:
- Aim for an earlier bedtime of 10-11pm
- Add meditation to my daily practice
- Add bone broth regularly (8oz/day)
- Increase starchy vegetables (2-3 servings/day)
- Cook all cruciferous vegetables
- Add sea vegetables to my diet
- Increase fermented food and drinks
- Remove all dairy
- Continue to exercise, walk, and play
I also started a supplement protocol under Spencer’s supervision, but had a bad reaction to one of them, so I stopped soon after I started.
In December of 2015 I took the MRT blood test and the Adrenal Stress Profile with Spencer. This is where things started to change.
This is where, finally, I found the primary clue to what had been holding me back.
With the results back for each of these tests, as of January 2016, I finally had a name for what I was going through:
I was diagnosed with Adrenal Exhaustion (aka adrenal fatigue).
I couldn’t believe it. Finally, a name for what was going on with my brain and body.
With a name for what I had been dealing with, it was now just as important to understand what was causing it and how to fix it.
If eating paleo wasn’t the total solution, and improving my in-home air condition wasn’t either, then what was?
In my next post, I’ll talk about my struggles with adrenal exhaustion and how I began to heal from this (seemingly) mysterious condition.