The toughest time

TW; This post focuses on mental illness. It is personal but I’ve wanted to write it forever.

My brain makes me feel sad, apathetic, and numb when there is no external cause for those feelings. Then, at other times, I’m jubilant and racing with energy. Often been called moody and those difficult-to-control moods negatively affect my life.

It’s something I can’t quite explain though I’ve tried many times. I’ve tried to explain the way my brain works to myself, to friends and family, to doctors, to counselors, and it feels like I’ve never been able to get it right. The closest I’ve come to explaining myself is when I say I have depression and anxiety. But even then I’m not sure that captures it. My symptoms don’t present as typical depression symptoms like crying or feeling worthless. I’ve been tested for mood disorders but came up clean. Maybe cyclothymic disorder or maybe I’m just melodramatic and whiney (at least that’s what the unwanted negative voice in my head sometimes says).

So far I haven’t taken this laying down even though I’ve had plenty of days when I don’t want to get out of bed. This sickness is something that’s part of me and I try to deal with it head on. And I’m learning to have more patience wit myself and others.

The message to reach out for help has come across loud and clear. End the stigma and everyone has mental health, and all that. But there hasn’t been much education or discussion about what the receivers or listeners can do to help. I’ve reached out countless times only to be told everyone has ups and downs, that lots are fighting battles behind closed doors, it’s normal to feel anxious, etc. Conflicting messages around mental health are confusing at the best of times. When I’m in a dark place they’re too much to handle. All I can think is if everyone feels like I do then the world is seriously screwed up. We shouldn’t be indignant or competitive. Shouldn’t we be searching for answers to why we’re all fighting with our own minds?

There are theories about modern society and stress affecting mental health. There’s also a growing concern that sugar negatively impacts our brains. I believe that!

My reality is that I look like a ‘normal’ well-functioning adult. I have a full-time office job, I’m a mother and a partner, I have interests, and I feel OK half the time. But the rest of the time knocks me down and leaves me feeling helpless and weak. My mind relapses to unwanted negativity and feeling inadequate. I grab supports like my CBT training, family, movement, and slowly try to haul myself out of the hole. Even when I’m feeling good, I know there’s a part of me that’s uneasy with expectation that I’ll trip or fall down again. It truly feels like I’m taking one step forward and two back with everything.

It’s a recognition that that there are a million ideas running around my head but I feel paralyzed to act on them. Or I’m discouraged by the false starts and lack of confidence. I swing from wanting to take over the world to hardly having the confidence to function. I have missed opportunities because my brain tells me I’m not good enough. I’ve not applied for jobs (even ones I’ve been sought out for), cancelled interviews, and given up on endless good ideas. My depression and anxiety rob me of confidence and energy, and trying to help myself with all sorts of interventions is so tiring. My mental health is my main hobby.

This is a post about how a difficult time in your life can be called the toughest time – not because of how hard it is but because of how tough you are. Or how tough you have to be. This may seem idealist or trite but I’m going to put it out there anyway because I think it’s true: we are all more capable and have more endurance than we think. Find the strength to change the narrative in your head and spin your situation into a positive light. It’s easier said than done but so worth it. And each time your flip your perspective is practice for the next time. So each time gets a tiny bit easier, faster, you retain that muscle memory, and that’s how habits are formed.

It all starts with recognition of a negative thought process or bad feeling. Identifying it is the key to turning it around. I have found mindfulness meditation and CBT beneficial but, like most good things, they took time to develop and grow to something intuitive and useful for me. I’m still learning and adjusting.

Following a ketogenic lifestyle has also helped tremendously. There are clear links between keto, fasting, and improved cognitive function. I also struggle with disordered eating so keto has been a powerful tool to help with that, too.

After the struggle and work, it’s far too easy for me to get complacent when things are okay, or give up when they’re bad. Rerouting thought pathways can work wonders but it’s a constant battle. I know when I let my guard down during a good streak, or find myself suffering in a dark time, I need to put in the work. You too may need to work harder or differently to not fall into that hole, or to pull yourself out. It’s in the dark times that I need to stay the course with my ketogenic lifestyle, self care, and health practices. When it feels easy to give up is exactly when I (and you) need to keep going.

If you’re struggling, I encourage you to check out a group that’s helped me: Sick Not Weak or find your own support to get through the toughest times.

Judgement and criticism

I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing judgement, criticism, negative comments, and odd looks when some find out about my ketogenic lifestyle. Some people think it’s okay to care and comment on others’ diets. It likely stems from the same place judgement grows for other alternative lifestyles. Add to the situation that keto has been a hot topic in the media lately and is growing traction. More and more people out there know a little bit about keto and unfortunately that little bit can be negative or just wrong.

You could start by not explaining yourself at all. You don’t owe anyone an explanation of how you live or what you eat. If you’re in a situation where you feel the need to divulge some reason or info you could simply say you’re cutting out sugar, or cutting back carbs in your diet. Give limited information without adding any of your own commentary. I bet if you follow a ketogenic lifestyle for a while you will stop caring what others think. Thankfully, this is where I am for the most part and have my good results to rely on when others judge.

For those I’m closer with and feel would be open to some respectful discussion, I have gone into more details about my diet, why I decided to try it, and why I’m sticking with it. I talk about my unhealthy relationship with food including binging and hiding food, which was essentially an eating disorder. I had an addition with food and even found benefit in attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings. I’ve used the comparison that you wouldn’t say to someone with an addition to alcohol, “oh, just have a sip” or “one drink won’t kill you.” Same should go for someone in my situation but yet I have heard “just have a taste” or “treats like a cupcake or cookie are what [insert holiday or celebration] are all about!” Sometimes people honestly don’t realize how hurtful or triggering their comments can be to someone dealing with such issues.

Finally, if you get the nerve to just be brutally honest, you can give as good as you get. I don’t suggest being snarky but hold your ground. If someone says, “oh, I could never give up bread because it’s so good” tell them that no doubt, traditional bread, pasta, beer, etc. are delicious but your health is more important than a sub-set of delicious foods. There are plenty other delicious foods which you’ve found to not aggravate your inflammation, obesity, diabetes, depression, hormones, etc. If someone says flat out that keto is unhealthy then you could argue with them but I doubt it will be useful. Engaging with someone who who already has their mind made up or isn’t open to learning something is a waste of time. I’ve found it best to say something like, “we’ll have to agree to disagree,” and know they are as entitled to their opinion and behavior as you are to yours.

Now, I totally understand this judgement goes both ways. Search about keto online and there are countless articles, blogs, videos, etc. telling everyone that this is the the way to go. Do I personally think a low carb, high fat diet would help many, many people? Yes. But I’m not going to pew pew anyone for how they chose to live their life. I’m here if anyone wants resources, to chat, to learn about my experience, etc. But I’m not badgering anyone to adopt keto. It’s not ‘my way or the highway’!

We need more acceptance in this world. I don’t comment much in online forums, but I recently felt compelled to make a comment when I disagreed with something – from the great Dr. Berg no less. On a recent Instagram story, Dr. Berg recounted seeing a family in a restaurant when a mother gave a young child juice in a bottle. He urged people to not do this, and (this is what made me concerned) to step in and say something to any mother who gives their child high-sugar food so they could be educated about sugar’s negative effects. I commented and said something along the lines of: please do not encourage shaming mothers because everyone has bad days and moments. That juice might have been the only thing holding everything together that day. I’m a mom and know that sometimes the day, my kid’s behavior, or my sanity can be hanging by one small thread. And it’s not just mothers who have responsibility for nutrition and education in a family so don’t pick on us.

I hope Dr. Berg keeps his up with his teachings and more people do jump on the low sugar train. But please don’t publicly shame someone or get on your high horse to criticize if you see something you don’t agree with. Kids are given sugar everywhere including in schools. I argue that we’re all trying to do what’s best for ourselves and our families. It would be amazing to see advocates like Dr. Berg lobby government and industry to change their ways instead of shaming or attacking individuals just trying to live their lives. I’m hugely supportive of not giving kids sugar. But there are times I let my own children have a juicebox or even candy depending on the context because parents need to pick their battles carefully. Or they have rice or such if we’re dining with friends from a different cultural background and higher carb offerings are on the table. I hope public figures in the keto world understand this and use their publicity and knowledge to help us navigate our sugar-laden society better and advocate for bigger changes. Let’s not sink to the level of those who criticize us for following a ketogenic lifestyle. We can act better and smarter. Everyone: please be tolerant of others, lead by example, and petition for change in systems and regulations instead of wasting energy in comments sections or gossiping.

Biohacking: what it is and the keto connection

Many of us practice some sort of biohacking or citizen science but don’t necessarily call it that. Feel a cold coming on so take extra vitamins or an herbal tea? Feel tired so up your hydration and/or caffeine? Those small self-directed additions to your routine are biohacking. It’s figuring out unconventional but natural ways to optimize health, energy, nutrition, fitness, and overall life.

On trend

Often biohacking is now talked about on a larger scale as many labs and researchers are working on realizing new limits of human potential. With social media and other internet resources these individuals can easily share their experiments and findings. It’s easier than ever to communicate results and even start a movement or community. Search for biohacking on reddit and you’ll get pages of forums with individuals all over the world sharing resources and their own experiences.

This recent article by Popular Mechanics magazine showcases several types of biohacking including using cryotherapy and sensory deprivation tanks, as well as nutritional “hacks”. The piece specifically mentions the keto diet, and how it’s being studied for positive effects and protection of the brain. Though the author (who experimented biohacks on herself) also talks about having a hard induction period transitioning to ketosis and that she didn’t stay with keto very long. I want to mention that this piece also discusses intermittent fasting which I’ll get into below in this post.

Search the term biohacking online and the top articles will likely include reference to the keto diet. Using ketones for fuel is a type of biohacking to tap into continuous energy and amazing cognitive benefits.

Bulletproof

A champion for biohacking, Dave Asprey created the Bulletproof company which is arguably responsible for the bulletproof or boosted coffee trend. It’s also a staple for many following a ketogenic diet. The practice generally involves consuming coffee blended with fat. The Bulletproof method involves the company’s own coffee beans, their Brain Octane product (a MCT oil based product), and grass-fed butter. There are skeptics online, and not much academic scientific info available, but the first-hand accounts of doing this are astounding. Personally, I have a boosted coffee most weekday mornings. I put MCT oil, butter or heavy cream, and collagen powder in my mixture. It satisfies me for quite a while and I think it does help with my thinking abilities. I notice negative differences on days when I don’t have this mixture, and I look forward to having it.

Intermittent fasting

The other big biohacking link to the ketogenic lifestyle is intermittent fasting or IF. Many keto folks purposely fast during their day and eat only during a certain ‘eating window’. A popular convention is the 16-8 one whereby a person won’t eat for 16hrs (inclusive of sleeping time) and then have an 8hr window for any food they consume for the day. The main argument for IF is to control insulin levels in the body. So many still consume some things (like water, plain tea) while you fast as long they don’t trigger an insulin response. The academic science AND personal accounts of the benefits of IF are abundant. In my opinion, one of the best description led of IF, its recent rise to fame, and benefits is this Harvard Health Blog post from earlier this year. And I recommend searching YouTube for keto-guru Dr. Berg’s IF videos because he presents a wealth of info succinctly in an easy-to-follow manner.

Like most other aspects of a ketogenic lifestyle, intermittent fasting goes against conventional health advice. Aren’t we supposed to eat ‘a balanced diet’ and have three meals with snacks in between? I don’t believe so anymore!

Personally, I try to do IF most days but have mixed results. I find my success depends on what I’m doing (and likely thoughts I’m having), and what I ate before fasting. I’m feeling better and better each day, but am still working through decades of food issues and metabolic damage (separate blog post on that to come!). Getting better or more sustainable at IF is one of my goals this year.

Do you biohack?

So do you do any sort of biohacking to optimize health or performance? I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at first when starting a ketogenic lifestyle. But I’m fascinated with the topic now!

Questioning conventional healthcare: advocating for yourself and doing your own research

I saw a post on keto-advocate Dr. Ken Berry’s Instagram page recently that rang true with me. It was a quote from Dr. Marcia Angell: “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. “

This quote is from Dr. Angell’s review ‘Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption‘ which is about big pharma and unethical trends in the medical community in America. It’s a fascinating but terrifying read. Where I live in Canada, we like to think things are in a better state of affairs but I can attest to the presence of lazy doctors (and/or they’re overworked and burned out) and a system of apathy. Conventional medicine looks to treat a symptom. From my own journey to help health issues, and through my own research related to keto and nutrition, I’m realizing that functional medicine with a holistic approach is my preference.

I have found more benefits being my own advocate and researching issues and solutions than talking to doctors or nutritionists. The book Undoctored by William Davis is a good read if you’re interested in all this. But even here I urge caution as this doctor is also selling a product. You need to trust your gut and go with the information that will serve you. Leave behind anything that doesn’t sit well with you.

When I first started a ketogenic lifestyle I came across more nutritional and health information than ever before. It’s amazing how much information is out there if we just want to look for it. And it takes so little effort now to look. Information is at our fingertips in the blink of an eye. All you have to do is go forward with an open mind, yet keep vigilant regarding the quality of the info and credibility of the source. Keep your wits about you and you’ll have a wealth of information in no time. And soon, in the not too distant future, there will be no stigma for Googling symptoms or seeking healthcare info online. In fact, Google has set up its own healthcare division with plans to utilize artificial intelligence to help individuals prevent, detect, and treat health issues.

Technology should be working for us and making our lives better. With a smart phone you can be a citizen scientist, journalist, photographer, writer, travel advisor, etc. So many people are already acclimated to looking for answers online. Need directions? Or product recommendations? Or parenting advice? Google it. There are videos, blogs, forums, reviews, pins, tweets, you name it. The internet has made all our experiences accessible and anyone can share their story or expertise. Plus you can access online teaching, courses, academic writing, library catalogs, and legit sources more readily than ever before.

It used to be that health advice came from controlled clinical trial or study results. These were written in an inaccessible way or with a narrow scope. Results were only available to those privileged ‘in the know’ medical professionals. Which in turn didn’t allow for much analysis or commentary.

But now, the internet provides an abundance of first-hand real-world experiences. We are telling our own stories. And although these accounts are not controlled studies with sound scientific methods they do offer us unprecedented access into others’ experiences with products, techniques, diets, programs, etc. A Reddit discussion becomes a case study, or an article’s comments section offers debate of different perspectives or experiences.

The internet is flooded with citizen science health and nutrition information. Trust me, I know a lot of it is bunk and you’ve got to weed through the garbage to find relevant and credible info. But I do believe group-sourcing and doing your own research is extremely useful. You need to be your own advocate and educate yourself. Doctors and other medical professionals are not all-knowing beings. They are human and fallible just like the rest of us. Our systems are broken so they’re overworked, and there’s too much influence from businesses and those with unethical agendas. Think for yourself and question what you’re told. It might save your life.

Previewing Canada’s new food guide

The other day I saw a news article about the ‘new’ Canada’s Food Guide and it definitely piqued my interest. I’m a public policy nerd and a nutrition nerd so this topic is right up my ally. The Guide is currently in draft form and is expected to be finalized later this year. The document is produced by the Federal Government’s Health Canada organization, was first adopted in the 1940s, and was last updated in 2007. It has long come under fire for being unbalanced and promoting unhealthy food and dubious links to various industries. The guide has actually been criticized for enabling obesity by a federal government senate report because it encouraged consumption of high-sugar foods such as fruit juices. The updates to the Guide are supposed to reflect a more “evidence-based approach” rooted in nutritional and medical science. Additionally, the government consulted with over 26,000 Canadians including small focus groups and larger briefing sessions with health and industry organizations. Until we see the full guide, and its companion site and documents, it will be tough to fully understand its recommendations and whether they align with my personal ‘keto’ lifestyle.

What to expect
But what do we know so far? What can we expect from the new Canada’s Food Guide with respect to government guidance for healthy eating?

First, it seems there has been more input and consideration of more groups of citizens than ever before. Health Canada is trying to address past criticism and include a diverse range of Canadians in their consultations and recommendations. This includes many different ethnic backgrounds, geographic and market availability, and socioeconomic groups.
It’s also of interest to note that Health Canada agreed not to meet in private with food industry or business reps when consulting with this guide re-vamp. This is a huge step in the right direction in my opinion. Public policy has shifted to engagement or consultation models in recent years, as well as needing to be transparent in development and operation. The government has not made an exception to these new principles when preparing the new food guide.

Second, there’s more to the food guide than just making recommendations for what foods to consume and what to avoid. The guide and it’s accompanying website and literature provide resources for meal planning, shopping for food, reading food labels, tips for eating at restaurants, etc. These are all valuable tools and good skills for everyone to develop regardless of whether or not you agree with the guide’s food nutritional recommendations. The guide will also touch on making good food choices for non-nutritional benefits such as reducing food waste, accessibility, and how food choices impact the environment. These are also important things to consider.

Finally, there’s the ‘meat’ (so to speak) of the guide which outlines nutritional guidelines, and speaks to which foods you should and should not consume. The guide starts with three guiding principles, of which the top two are about guiding what to eat: 1) Foods and beverages to encourage; 2) Foods and beverages to limit or avoid; 3) Knowledge and skills (such as planning, cooking, and preparation).

Nutritional recommendations
So far, the buzz about the new guide seems to circle around changes in recommendations for meat and dairy products. Specifically, shade is thrown on red meat which has the beef industry worried. Plant-based protein, and fruits and vegetables in general, are the shining stars of the guide. Non-saturated fats will be championed, including promoting consumption of avocados, nuts, and seeds, instead of saturated fats as found in butter, cheese, whole milk dairy products, meat, and coconut oil. An opinion piece by a group of physicians and dietitians was published by the Calgary Herald which essentially summed up conventional widespread health and nutrition expectations that eating less animal products and more plant products will be good for everyone’s health. An piece via CBC News presented the counter argument continuing with the old guide’s failings of promoting a low-fat, high carbohydrate foods will not help anyone.

My preliminary opinions
All I can say at this point in time is that I’m inclined to think the new guide doesn’t go far enough to provide recommendations to help Canadians stay healthy, and prevent or deal with metabolic diseases. I’m all for recommendations to eat less processed foods and cook at home with responsibly-sourced and sustainable food. And the consultations, and choice to try to avoid industry and political influence, are noble efforts in the right direction. As an individual, you can chose whether you wish to eat according to the food guide but it’s important to consider the guide’s impact as a piece of policy throughout the country. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions will take their cue from the guide and only offer what it recommends to the most vulnerable in our society. Government recommendations impact industry, products we can buy, and our society itself. These guidelines will be part of the foundation information taught to future generations of children, and those training in medicine and nutrition. And as we’ve seen, science and evidence is developing rapidly regarding nutrition but the wheels of government tend to move slowly. Nutrition is like a moving target but since we’re unlikely to get a new food and nutrition guide anytime soon I hope they hit closer to the that target this time around.