A Holistic, Paleo Approach to Recovery From Digestive Illness
Part 2: Lifestyle
“As great as Paleo is, I didn’t see MAJOR improvement in my health and digestion until I got the stress and negative people and bullshit out of my life.”
I made that comment in passing to someone on Facebook regarding the Paleo Diet and my own healing journey. I was kind of surprised to see that quote making its way around Facebook for the rest of the day and into the next. Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way…
I learned something very profound about recovery from chronic digestive illness over the six or seven years I struggled with it. Lifestyle is as important as diet.
I see lifestyle as the great under-explored “missing link” in the treatment of and recovery from digestive illness and virtually every other reversible chronic condition. Further, I believe the Paleo concept applies just as well to lifestyle as it does to food.
The modern world is very complex. We’re constantly at odds with our genes – genes that thrive on simplicity, instant gratification and the meeting of basic needs like food, safety, companionship and shelter – when we attempt to live in a world that is highly complex and technical and rewards higher-order thinking, delayed gratification and encompasses myriad “superficial” cues and highly advanced social behaviors and hierarchies.
As much as our food has changed in the last 20,000 years – and changed exponentially in the last 50-100 years – our lifestyles have changed just as much, just as rapidly and just as profoundly.
I Used to be a “Modern” Man…
Before I get too far into my possibly hippie, New Agey or airy fairy ideas about healing and lifestyle, I need to qualify them with a very important fact. I was once a successful scientist in the biotech field. I have a B.S. in Chemistry Cum Laude from The University of Connecticut and I was once a complete technophile, geek and absolutely enamored with all things modern, advanced and of the intellect and science.
Not only was I considering going to medical school at one time, I was (still am in many ways) a big fan of Ayn Rand. I believed that the intellect was man’s highest state and had no need for “nonsense” like feelings, spirituality, recreation or any other silliness. I was a scientist, the body was a machine with pathways we could manipulate with our incredible scientific intelligence and chemistry and that was that.
I’m making sure I state my old beliefs clearly so you know where I came from. I came from the modern world and was entirely consumed by it. I had to learn – through very hard and painful first-hand experience – how destructive unchecked stress and modern technology can be to the mind, body and spirit. Beyond that, I had to learn how easily the modern, stress-ruled world discards and abandons people like me who drive themselves to exhaustion in selfless support of that system once they inevitably break down from stress and fatigue and fall into chronic illness.
If I had read an article like this one 12 years ago, I would have scoffed, had another cup of coffee and gotten back to crunching my pharmacology data in Excel. This is why I make sure you know where I once was and how I once thought – when you’re in it you can’t see it – I needed to have my life and health completely collapse to learn the truth and I believe my current thinking is that much more valid due to having arrived at it through experience and from the opposite end of the belief spectrum.
Modern life is utterly incompatible with human health on many levels. I believe that we’ve reached a point where we – as the human species – must evolve beyond the reductionist, over-intellectualized and “mechanical” models of medicine, psychology, work, life, nutrition, etc. and move to a higher state of understanding that embraces deeper, less tangible and higher levels of consciousness.
Just as we now realize that there’s more to medical treatment than “managing” symptoms with drugs that interrupt the disease pathway in the body and leave the cause of the problem completely unresolved, we need to realize that simply removing a dietary factor like gluten, grain, dairy, GMOs or sugar is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to true health and healing.
Lifestyle is HUGE – and HUGELY Underrated
I don’t know if it’s just our culture or what, but there’s this huge fixation on “diet” and food and, in my opinion, a massive under-appreciation of lifestyle and more nebulous and difficult to define topics. For example, if you’re not sleeping well because your job is massively stressful and unsuited to who you are at a very deep level, “health” is going to be hard to achieve with diet – no matter how great the diet or perfect the implementation. If you’re ignoring the larger scheme of things and your energy is constantly “leaking” due to a stressful life situation, healing will be difficult or impossible to achieve fully.
My own journey to health was halted for several years – despite a strictly Paleo diet – because I was still working in the same negative environment, interacting with the same types of negative people and thinking the same toxic thoughts. It wasn’t until I got crystal clear on my vision for my life and stripped away years of marketing messages, social conditioning and other modern, superficial nonsense that I was able to situate myself in a way that would support healing.
Back in 2006, I was doing relatively well on a diet most would consider either extremely healthy or highly Spartan and restrictive depending on their philosophical orientation. I was living on organic whole chickens, clean bacon, eggs, organic vegetables, grassfed beef, fruit and goat yogurt and my own homemade kefir from raw grassfed cow milk. I was also using all the usual recommended supplements like Vitamin D, fish oil, coconut oil, etc.
I was “hanging in” back in 2006, but I wasn’t fully healthy and – worse – I wasn’t really improving in a linear way. Healing from a digestive illness is slow going for the most part, but this wasn’t slow – it was stuck.
So, what was the issue? Was I just not Paleo enough? Did I need some “magic” supplement or probiotic that cost $300 a bottle?
No. The major issue was lifestyle.
In virtually every area of self-improvement and healing, it’s very human to want to change “just a little” and get big results. The truth of the matter is usually that you need to change A LOT to break free of illness or whatever else is dragging you down.
Is “Paleo” closer to our true nature?
If the path to happiness, health and success is finding our “True Nature” as human beings and individuals, I’d argue that a Paleo lifestyle is a lot closer to that than eating a breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s while driving 90 miles an hour down the highway to a job you hate – while talking on a cell phone and posting a Facebook status about the jerk in the left lane who was only going the speed limit.
I’d like to propose that most of us are actually more stressed and more out of touch with just how stressed we are – and how that stress is making us sick – than we really realize. The more I’ve slowed my life down, connected to my deeper nature and learned to listen to my body, the more I can feel the effects of stress and modern living on my mind and body. I’ve also gained a lot of insight and awareness into the stress others carry and engage in – even when they themselves would likely say their lives aren’t very stressful. Most of us – myself included at one time – have a “learned numbness” to the stress in our lives and of our modern culture.
For example, if I don’t shut the computer down 4-5 hours before bedtime, I sleep very poorly and wake up exhausted. I never used to notice this until my life slowed down enough that I wasn’t on the computer until 10 or 11pm. Once I got out of that habit, the effects of returning to it were immediately apparent.
Another example that was very surprising to me came last year when my girlfriend Michelle and I went to a wedding in Pennsylvania. We went by train (NEVER again, as far as I’m concerned…) and we ended up in Penn Station in New York City. All the noise and activity was profoundly tiring, stressful and anxiety provoking to me.
Now, modern medicine would likely diagnose me with Agoraphobia and Generalized Anxiety Disorder and hand me a prescription for Xanax to “fix” my broken brain that can’t handle something as “benign” as a massive, manmade enclosed space full of stressed out people rushing everywhere and noise and electrical pollution and stimulation. To that, I would say that that environment is entirely unnatural and entirely foreign to our nature as humans – it’s normal and healthy to feel stressed and uncomfortable in a setting like that.
As an aside, I also noticed that virtually ALL the “food” available to people in the train stations and cities were grain-based, highly processed convenience foods designed for a quick energy hit. That, and there were tons of coffee and caffeine products everywhere. There was absolutely no place and no time for anything slow, relaxed or Paleo anywhere…
A picture I snapped at Penn Station in New York City on a trip to Pennsylvania for a wedding. This was an exhausting, high stress and energetically overwhelming environment to me…
Contrast the Penn Station pic above with this one of me training in the backyard of our small beach cottage in Old Saybrook, CT. Slow, quiet, low-tech and happy…
There’s an “Energy” to Everything
Below is a picture of me from sometime in 2006. I was working for a failing company that was full of difficult, negative and, in some cases, nasty people. The labs weren’t properly ventilated with fume hoods so, even though I was out of the lab and sitting at a desk, I was still exposed to a lot of environmental pollution. (Incidentally, one of this company’s “Core Values” was “Safety.” They even had an abstract “Safety” image on the wall in the lunch room with the other “Core Value” images. Except that they never added adequate ventilation to the labs despite a number of complaints from the chemists who had to work in them day in and day out. So much for the “Core Values” of a corporation…)
The point is, I was spending 40-plus hours a week in a highly negative environment. It was a place where virtually everyone was miserable and stressed, underpaid and abused by the company in one way or another. Looking back, I also remember that most everyone had one or more health problems. It was working at this company that I developed Ulcerative Colitis and fell into chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety and an apathy about life that took me YEARS to overcome.
Looking back from a wiser and more spiritual perspective, I realize that I was immersed in a massively negative energy and environment. It might sound all metaphysical and abstract, but I truly believe that the miserable environment I was in led to ill health on a physical, emotional and spiritual level for me.
(The full story of this period of my life – as well as my long climb out of stress and illness to a life I actually wanted to live – is in my blog post “My Personal Journey to Paleo.”)
If You’re in a Negative Environment or Have Negative Relationships – GET OUT
I believe there are some very deep “Alarm Systems” inside of us that are there to warn us of danger and compel us to action that leads us away from that danger. And, very often it’s exactly these early warnings from deep inside that we ignore or rationalize. Further, most modern institutions promote, condone and reward ignoring these very same alarms.
Even worse, many of our natural, innate warning signs are considered “mental illness” and labeled as such by modern psychology. Was the fact that I was depressed and anxious in the corporate environment I described above a sign of mental illness or was it a very natural human reaction to a toxic and negative environment that was – on many levels – a threat to my health and survival?
One of the most important learnings for me in the past 10 years – and of my life in general – is the understanding that feelings are important and exist to keep us on track and moving toward life and survival and away from things that threaten life and survival. You can learn a lot about life, relationships, people, jobs and – most importantly yourself – by learning to simply listen to your feelings and the other signals your body sends and truly hear what they’re trying to tell you.
I’d propose that if, for example, a person makes you incredibly anxious, you might want to ask yourself “why” as opposed to just popping a Xanax because you think you have an “Anxiety Disorder.” Or if, for example, you eat a pound of pasta for lunch and then have terrible heartburn and want to fall asleep at 2pm, it might be that your body is telling you something about the suitability of your last meal to your physiology as opposed to an indication that you have “Acid Reflux Disease” and “Recurrent Hypersomnia.”
Fast Forward to 2012…
Today, I’m far removed from the nightmare I was caught in back in those earlier years. The fact that I’m happy, healthy, thriving, doing work I love and have a great woman like Michelle in my life is proof enough to me that a Paleo approach to diet and lifestyle is the way to health.
Me and my friend Carrie – wearing, what else, a Strong is the New Skinny shirt – at CrossFit Relentless in West Hartford, CT. I’m happy, healthy, tan and surrounded by great people now…Me training with UFC star Jason Lambert at an MMA seminar last year.
The Paradox of the Internet Age Caveman
I’ll start by saying I LOVE what has happened in the world in the last ten years. The internet and social media revolutions have made so much possible that was never possible before. As just a simple example from my own life, the internet made it possible for me to not only make a living writing about things that I’m passionate about, but also to connect and network with others who are passionate about the same things. The opportunities and connectivity – and the possibilities for the future – offered by the internet are absolutely inspiring to me and I’m happy to be alive during this incredible time in history.
On the other side of things, we have more choices, more distractions, more interruptions and more information than at any other time in history and these things are far, far beyond anything our primitive physiology can handle. I believe that all this “noise” has driven our baseline stress and stress hormone levels much higher than they were ten or twenty years ago and this has been a major factor in the proliferation of chronic, inflammatory and digestive illness and disturbance not to mention mental Illnesses like depression and anxiety.
So, the paradox is really that we have not only unlimited opportunity to simplify and streamline our lives and pursue our passions in a lucrative way using the incredible leverage of technology, we also have an unprecedented pressure to fall into a “black hole” of constant motion, stimulation, choices, information and stress that can literally destroy us mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
What I’m proposing for us – those who value our health and realize that Paleo and Primitive principles are the ultimate gage for evaluating the value or danger of nutrition or lifestyle factors – is to use the leverage technology gives us and minimize or eliminate the negative effects of that very same technology.
You MUST Design Your Life on EVERY Level
When it comes to finding true health, I think there’s a need for most individuals to institute drastic and sweeping change in their lives. Not everyone has the stomach for this (no pun intended). Change is difficult and uncomfortable and there are peer group, familial, social and societal challenges that come up when someone is implementing changes in his or her life that are outside the norms of the culture they belong to.
I wrote (ranted?) about this topic in a popular blog post in 2011 called “I’ll Never Be Good Enough.” That post has resonated with many people because of the extreme resistance they’ve felt when making positive, Paleo diet and lifestyle changes from family and peers.
Your Peer Group Influences You More Than You Think
In self-help there’s a statistic that you’ll always make an income within plus or minus 10% of your closest friends. I’ll actually expand on this idea and say that your health, your happiness, your athletic performance and virtually any other metric you want to examine will be pretty damn close to that of those closest to you.
Think long and hard about the people you choose to spend the majority of your time with. If they aren’t living lives similar to the life you want for yourself, you have some difficult choices to make…
Everything is Changing … FAST
The other night on the news – one of the rare occasions I happened to have the news on – there was a story about the US Postal Service being in deep financial trouble. This is just one more example of an old, established, trusted institution becoming a casualty of the Internet Age, the New Economy and the flat, connected world that’s here to stay. While I’m not sure we really need a Postal Service anymore – I can damage and lose my own mail much more efficiently and with lower overhead and I have UPS and email. But the rapid loss of such “apple pie” institutions can be stressful for us as a culture and can create a lot of uncertainty.
Even if you aren’t particularly worried about what’s going on in the world or the economy or whatever, the fact that the people around you are freaking out will have an effect on you – consciously or unconsciously.
You can learn a lot from cats…
Something interesting that happened when I moved back to our summer home in Old Saybrook is that my cats started to thrive. And I mean THRIVE. When I lived in my old house, there was too much traffic on the road to let the cats outside. (Come to think of it, the constant stream of traffic past the house probably wasn’t too healthy for ME either from a stress perspective.)
Once I moved to the beach cottage in Old Saybrook I was able to let the cats out because we live in a very quiet, slow neighborhood, on a dead end road. So, the cats went from being inside all the time to having a big yard and entire neighborhood to explore, their own kitty door to come and go as they please and all the birds and rodents they could ever care to hunt – and hunt they do…
I’ll never forget the summer day that Michelle and I watched one of the cats, Thila, drag a small bird under the back deck still flapping and squawking – and proceed to eat the entire thing – feathers, bones and all.
I also have a pair of cats, Homer and Marge. Marge was a severely anxious and shy cat who literally lived in the basement of my old house. You never saw her other than when she snuck upstairs for a drink of water and darted back to the basement in terror. Since she’s been in her new environment she’s social and affectionate and much calmer. Her eyes have a completely different look to them. She’s still a little skittish, but nothing like she was.
My cat, Tiger, the first summer I was back here in Old Saybrook.
As an aside, I found Tiger, above, in the parking lot of the CrossFit Affiliate I used to own that was a few hundred feet from the town transfer station. He was a stray who had obviously had a home at one time or another. Tiger is in one of the cats’ favorite spots on top of the trellis in our yard. I don’t think you could get a more “natural” environment for modern, domesticated cats…
Every single one of my animals is happier, healthier and more active since they’ve had a quieter, lower-tech and natural environment to explore. (BTW, we’ve since removed the birdfeeder so fewer birds are attracted into the “lions’” den…)
My cat Thila. Spring through Fall she brings a few small animals a week home to show me – and the ones I see are likely the ones she hasn’t eaten…
The Taming of The Human Animal
In Ori Hoffmekler’s “The Warrior Diet,” Ori draws parallels between the breaking and domesticating of animals to the breaking and domesticating of man. In this early part of the 21st Century, it’s still common for us to be “caged” in cubicles, fed grains (Don’t offices ALWAYS have donuts and grain-based garbage around?) and not allowed to “hunt” in a natural way (as in, sit at your desk and be docile). My experience with corporations is also that there’s always the threat of “intellectual violence” against those who don’t go along with the system or are too individualistic. Certainly floggings and beatings on a physical level are highly illegal, but I’ve witnessed more “intellectual floggings” in a corporate environment than I care to think about. It’s all about taming the human animal in a socially acceptable and “modern” way.
And, again, the “experts” tell us that to be healthy we need more technology in the form of pills, “super-foods” and advanced mechanical devices for exercise to be “healthy.” The modern world is full of opportunities – and in some cases the compulsion by force – for us to lose our connection to our truest and deepest nature as highly evolved and intelligent beings – predators and hunters – who need to run, fight, play and feel the earth under our feet and connect to a greater spirituality and energy than ourselves.
Some Practical Advice
With all the above laid out, here are some practical ways I believe you can start to de-stress and “Paleofy” your life and create a better environment for the recovery of your health on every level.
Control your training volume and intensity
Training volume and intensity is a major factor in stress related illness. Many people train too often and too intensely to recover health and stimulate healing from a digestive illness. I certainly did for years before I knew better. Don’t let your ego drive your training and learn to listen to your body. Keep workouts brief and intense and periodize or cycle that intensity. Most people would do a lot better on a lot less training than their ego would be comfortable with.
Control your overall stress levels
Here again is the stress issue. If you have a digestive illness you must control your stress – “control” as in get rid of as much as possible. End negative relationships, leave negative, unfulfilling or oppressive employment, pursue your passions and rest as much as possible. Don’t psyche yourself out thinking that you don’t have a choice in how you live. We all have choices. Many people confuse having hard choices with having no choices. Leaving my big house, corporate career, negative relationships and a load of negative beliefs behind was very, very hard, but I had a choice. I spent years thinking I had no choice but that wasn’t the case – I was just refusing to make the hard choices that would lead to what I really wanted.
Find a “Mind Quieting Practice” like Yoga, Qi Gong or Meditation
I can’t say enough for what yoga has done for me. I started yoga back in 2007 and got serious about it in 2010. Interestingly, 2010 is also when I started to connect with who I truly am and what I truly wanted for myself. From there, rapid and sweeping change began. I’ll never know how much of a role yoga played in that period of my life, but I suspect it was a big one. For me, yoga is the best fit because the movement helps me stay focused and keep returning to my focus on the breath. I have a hard time with traditional meditation because my mind is just too busy when I’m that still. By the way, I’ve done almost all my yoga learning from DVDs and only this past year started attending yoga classes here and there. You can get a lot of mileage out of a few good yoga DVDs. I recommend “Yoga for Dummies” with Sara Ivanhoe and also Sara’s excellent DVD “Yoga on the Edge.”
Use “Guided” Meditations
Like I said above, meditation in its “pure” form is something I’ve always struggled with – preferring more “active” forms of meditation like yoga. I’ve also had great luck with the guided meditations by a guy who calls himself “Hypnotica” and works with musician Denver Clay. This stuff isn’t for everyone – Hypnotica has a distinctly “male” vibe and some of his work is targeted to men only – but I think a lot of his work is suitable for everyone and highly valuable. Try his “Yoga Nidra” meditation for a highly relaxing, hour long meditation and his “Attractor Factor” for a short meditation to help you focus on your goals and energetic healing. Either of those mediations are suitable for men or women. There are plenty of guided meditations out there on CD or iTunes. I think good ones can be a bit elusive at times, but there are plenty out there for you to try and experiment with.
Fix Your Sleep
Don’t wake up to an alarm. If you MUST use an alarm, there are “Zen” alarm clocks advertised in many health and yoga magazines that chime softly and slowly at first and become more intense over the course of several minutes. This is likely preferable to being jolted awake by an electrical buzzer. Also, try to figure out what kinds of foods, eating times and before-bed routines work best for you and give you the most restful, deep and uninterrupted sleep.
My goal in this article was to introduce you to some concepts you might not have otherwise been exposed to. I had to take a very eclectic approach to my healing and recovery from digestive illness and it took me a long time and a lot of experimentation to learn that dietary changes needed to be integrated with major lifestyle changes. Your lifestyle has played as much (or more) of a role in making you sick as your diet and diet alone can’t heal chronic digestive illness in most cases. This is far from an exhaustive examination of lifestyle factors required for healing, but hopefully it’s pointed you in the right direction for further research and experimentation.
- The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss
- Linchpin by Seth Godin
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
- Why You’re Dumb, Sick and Broke by Randy Gage
- Undoing Perpetual Stress by Richard O’Connor
- Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske
- Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
- Adrenal Fatigue by James L. Wilson
- Eastern Body, Western Mind by Anodea Judith
- The Warrior Diet by Ori Hofmekler (Note: Hofmekler is definitely not a Paleo proponent. I recommend his book because his ideas about fasting and human history have a lot of value and are very interesting. My current diet follows a “Warrior Diet pattern”, but uses only Paleo foods.)