Toward the end of 2013, I was doing terribly. I spent the night in the emergency room due to an extreme experience with then-undiagnosed PVCs (which ended up being entirely benign). I started using a CPAP, and though I slept better than I had in my entire adult life, I dealt with a range of odd side effects caused by the fact that I was no longer thrashing around as I struggled to breath while asleep. Lots of joint pain, trouble training my body to a new sleep position, etc.
Then my left leg swelled up and I was off to the emergency room again with concerns of a clot. I was tested in every way, and they found nothing. It reminded me of that scene in The Meaning of Life (“Get the EEG, the BP monitor, and the AVV.” “And get the machine that goes ‘ping!’.” “And get the most expensive machine – in case the Administrator comes.”). My leg kept swelling daily, and I started having severe pain in my left ankle.
Have I mentioned weight gain? I packed on almost 15 to 20 pounds in a three month period while all the rest was going on, in spite of having a relatively stable weight the previous 12 years after all my reconstructive foot surgeries. What about arthritis? I was suddenly having trouble, and significant pain, with the fingers in my right hand, and my left hand was gradually becoming more tender.
In mid-March I finally started to figure things out, though none of the many doctors I had seen offered more than another test and another prescription (or, in one case, a walking boot for 6 weeks). I don’t mean to diss any specific doctor. This was a complex situation. As far as I could tell, I was having a severe reaction to omeprazole, which I had started taking in September of 2013 based on the recommendation of my gastroenterologist. The timing fit, and if it was causing inflammation, it could connect the dots to many of my problems.
If I was swelling in my gut, and I was now lying perfectly still at night on my left side due to the CPAP, perhaps that was why my left leg kept swelling. I had watched that leg for a couple months, and become convinced the swelling was starting at the top and working its way down to the ankle. When I had finally shifted my sleep position to my back, I was sometimes experiencing swelling in both ankles.
The weight gain, the feeling like I was TIGHT in my abdomen, the sense that I couldn’t take a deep breath due to pressure on my diaphragm, the inflammation leading to arthritic symptoms… perhaps it was all connected.
I took action. I dropped the medication, significantly simplified my diet, and started exercising as best I could, given I can’t run or jump due to my many foot surgeries.
First, the diet. Tricia and I had a sort of running joke. She’d say something like, “But you can eat such-and-such. It is allowed on the South beach diet.” And I’d say, “But not on Jay’s beach.” I did adopt for a time a diet that resembles south beach, or paleo, or whatever, but I kept it super simple, and ultimately fairly satisfying to me. I limited my consumption to 5 categories:
1) Water (and lots of it)
2) Dairy (full fat, no reduced fat anything)
3) Meat (I love healthy meats, but that wasn’t the point… meat of most any type was allowed)
4) Non-starchy vegetables
5) Liquor (and occasional red wine)
I tried to totally avoid ANY added sweetener of ANY kind to ANYTHING. I avoided foods with super-complex ingredients as much as possible. I generally avoided substitute pretend food items (no pancakes made out of bacon, no kale made to taste like a cinnamon bun)… I wanted to take the food on its own terms. I ate no fruit, no sweet potato, not carrot, no corn, no bread, no pasta, no chips (can I tell you how hard that was here in Texas?), no desserts, no soda, no smoothies… you get the idea.
The exceptions. I drank coffee (lots of cream, no sweetener), ate the super-dark chocolate on occasion (the entire bar had to have 12 grams of sugar or less… think 88% cacao and up), and ate whatever I was served in small portions if I was a guest and served the food. I am truly opposed to being an ungracious guest except out of dire medical necessity.
I held this diet for two months, and then began softening it a bit. I’ve softened it by simply taking an occasional break from it, not by modifying it. By “taking a break”, I mean for a single meal (like the fried oysters I ate this weekend), or a single dessert. In a sense, doing something like this cold-turkey is easier than allowing exceptions, so I’m trying to toughen up my will power to allow for those exceptions.
That’s the diet… I call it the Jay Beach diet. When I give the list to someone, they often raise their eyebrows at #5 (liquor), and I joke that liquor may not be on the south beach, but it is on Jay’s beach. I don’t drink beer, and I rarely drink wine, but I’ve found liquor (served neat, e.g. straight from the bottle to a glass with nothing added) is both enjoyable, and helps suppress any cravings for sweets I might have. In the end, I don’t consume much liquor, and the amount I consume is far less caloric than the food items I’m craving. Honestly, if I let myself go I can eat half a carton of ice cream, which, if we are talking Blue Bell (and we are), is 136 grams of sugar, and 1440 calories in total. Suddenly that 96 calories in a serving of whiskey seems pretty modest.
About those cravings. The first two weeks were TOUGH. My body used hunger pangs to try to force me to eat sweetened food. Continuously. I could eat four pounds of meat and vegetables, and my body would signal that I was about to starve. It still happens occasionally, but has largely stopped. My pallet changed during this time, too. Green beans steamed with butter taste sweet to me now. Very sweet.
One last point on the diet. Contrary to my Blue Bell example above, I don’t pay attention to calories. I don’t even track how much food I’m consuming, let alone the calories in the food. I just stick to my list.
Now exercise. This one is really easy. I started swimming. For a couple months I would swim as many laps as possible in a 30 minute period, three times a week, then I shifted to swimming a mile as fast as possible. My first swim was 34 25m laps in 30 minutes. This past Monday I swam 64 laps (a mile) in 36 minutes, so there has been a ton of improvement. I also do a lot of pushups, mainly from my knees since it hurts my post-surgery toes to do a full pushup. I use one of the ab roller wheels several times a week. I do an exercise I call “doing pull-up.” Maybe one day I’ll do pull-ups… okay, I actually broke in to the multiples a few weeks ago. And I walk up the 122 steps to my office when at work.
I listen to music while swimming, which is a huge help, and I have a gadget to count the laps. I also have a daughter who swims with me and pushes the pace, which is a huge blessing.
That’s about it for the exercise.
I dropped the over-the-counter medicine omeprazole, changed my diet, and started exercising. The results? In a word, it was transformative.
First, though, here’s what it wasn’t. It didn’t turn my body into some ridiculous 20-something lean, mean fighting machine. I’m 43. That ship has sailed, and I have no regrets, and am not looking for eternal youth. It also didn’t heal my every hurt, increase my IQ by 20 points, or cause me to love my children better.
The first surprise, though, was how much muscle mass I put on in a very short time. Again, I’m not a 23 year old body builder. I didn’t put on 30 pounds of muscle. But with relatively little exercise, I did see significant gains in muscle mass across my entire upper body. It turns out when you consume a ton of protein as a major component of your diet, start swimming, and sleep well (thank you, CPAP), your body responds. Pretty cool.
The swelling in my legs went away. Just gone, after months of struggling with it and seeing several doctors. My aches and pains of sleeping with the CPAP gradually lessened and went away as well. The tightness in my abdomen faded away. And the arthritis was greatly reduced. I regained full motion in all but one finger.
My energy level started to increase, and my waist dropped 2 inches in under 3 months, almost down to where it was coming out of college. And I shed all the weight I had gained, in spite of gaining muscle mass. My acid reflux (the reason I had started taking omeprazole) didn’t go away, but it was so reduced I can now manage it with Tums and an occasional ranitidine.
In short, I’m experiencing less pain and discomfort than any other time in recent years, and have more vitality. I’m a fan of the transformation. Your mileage may vary.