Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 11 of My Sugar-Free Life

Today is Day 11 of my Sugar-Free Life.  I have been amazed that the past week and a half of sugar detox have not been nearly as bad as I thought they would be.  For a full week, I did have a rash of tiny bumps on my back and a few itchy patches on my arms, but all traces of the rash were completely gone by Day 7.  I got through the physical part of detox without much distress, and I was thrilled.  I think it helped that years ago I removed many hidden sugars from my diet, and now I just had to eliminate the Big Stuff (like bowls of ice cream).  What has amazed me the most from a physical standpoint is that I do not feel nearly as hungry as I used to.  My family can attest that I used to be ravenous every day, and my eating schedule was very regular.  My body operated like a clock.  I needed to eat every 2-3 hours, without fail.  Over the past week or so, however, I haven't had that biologically-driven "I need to eat now!" feeling.  It is amazing.  I now know that I am hungry when my stomach growls, which is exactly the sign that our bodies give us when it is time to eat.

Having come through the physical side of sugar detox relatively intact, I did notice that on Days 7 and 8, I felt a little emotional detoxing taking place.  Feeling down is natural for human beings, but it is an unusual feeling for me because when you are sugar-sensitive and eating sugar on a daily basis, you are keeping your body feeling good. You literally are consuming sugar which causes your body to produce neurotransmitters like serotonin to elevate your mood.  Sugar creates a subtle "high", kind of like how running or intense exercise creates a "runner's high".  Sugar masked the feelings underneath. Naturally, when you remove a mask, you experience more emotional ups and downs. Sugar isn't there to prop you up or to mask the feelings.  I was aware that this emotional downtime might emerge as a part of my detox, but I am proud that I got through it in healthy ways through use of exercise, an infra-red sauna, and talking it out.  When I keep in mind that emotions are fleeting, it is easier to not turn to sugar for comfort because I know that those "down" feelings are only temporary and my body will right itself in no time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sugar Indulgence & Sugar Detox

I am back from an amazing summer vacation and I am now completely focused on giving up sugar.  Interestingly, in the time between my last blog and this one, I decided to do an experiment.  I knew that I wanted to give up sugar 100% cold turkey when I returned from vacation so I opted to allow myself to eat as much sugar as I wanted over a two-week period. Let me tell you, I ate TONS of sugar.  I completely indulged in candy bars, ice cream, doughnuts, creme brulee, the list goes on and on.  It was no holds barred.  Seriously.  Yes, I did gain a few pounds, and I knew that I probably would.  But, what I value even more from the experience is that it was the first time in my adult life that I can recall ever letting myself have whatever sugar I wanted without judging myself.  In the past, I have always said, "Oh, you shouldn't be eating that" and immediately felt guilt after I put any sugary treat in my mouth.  This time, I said, "Eat up!  Enjoy every minute of this sugar and eat as much as you want!"  I felt unleashed.  I felt unrestricted.  I didn't feel guilty afterwards for one second because I knew that my over-sugared tirade was limited to a two-week period.  It was an incredibly freeing experience.  And, you know what else?  I discovered that about 90% of the sugar I ate did not taste as good as I thought it would.  I learned that very few foods really satisfied my palate.  This was an eye-opening truth for me.  I realized that most of the sugar that I eat does not really live up to my expectations (and, believe me, when it comes to sugared goods, my expectations are quite low!).  The creme brulee was incredible, but it was the only dessert that was totally mouth-watering.  The rest were just average.  This revelation was incredibly important to me because it allowed me to "test" how much I really wanted and needed sugar in my life.  From a psychological standpoint, I don't think I "need" or "want" it as much as I have previously thought. However, I am in the process of detoxing from sugar, so I wasn't sure how my body would react from a biological standpoint.

Just as I promised myself, first day I was home from my trip I began my sugar-free life.  Today is Day 3 of absolutely no sugar, and I am actually doing okay.  I have experienced a few "symptoms" of sugar withdrawal, but they have been maneagable and expected.  The past few days, I have had a small bumpy rash on the back of my neck and my right arm.  I have also had pain on the ball of my left foot.  My foot pain certainly could be due to the fact that I did a lot of hiking on my vacation, but I thought it was interesting that the pain appeared the moment I got home and not while I was away.  I pulled out one of my books on Reflexology to gain some insight.  Reflexology is a therapeutic method of relieving pain by stimulating certain pressure points on the feet.  Different parts of the feet are connected to different organs in the body, and interestingly the parts of my foot that hurt me correlated to my liver and my lymphatic system.  I chuckled to myself, because, of course, those would be the organs involved!  The liver is our body's largest "detox" organ that processes everything we eat before we eliminate it.  The lymphatic system delivers fluids and transports white blood cells (which fight infection and foreign substances) throughout our bodies.  Sugar is considered a foreign substance by our bodies that needs to be heavily processed by the liver before it is eliminated.  (This is why alcoholics often get cirrhosis of the liver - remember, alcohol is sugar and the liver can become over-taxed when it has to process too much sugar.) 

To support myself during this week of Sugar Detox, I have taken my regular vitamins, drank at least 64 ounces of water per day, consumed lots of fruits and vegetables (which contain lots of fiber to help remove the sugar and toxins from my body), eaten a good amount of protein, and tried to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.  I have also added two specific supplements that are widely know to support the body during Sugar Detox:  L-Glutamine, which is an amino acid that helps to burn fatty acids and balance blood sugar levels, and Chromium Picolinate, which works to assist our cells in taking in glucose and releasing energy.  I have been taking the suggested dose of each supplement once a day. (L-Glutamine is taken on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, and Chromium Picolinate is taken with a meal).  I haven't had any sugar cravings yet this week.  To help with the detox, I have also been eating more fruit than usual.  Fruit contains a natural sugar called fructose which has a negligible effect on blood sugar and can help to ease the transition from my prior sugar-filled life.  However, I will gradually reduce the amount of fruit I am eating as the days go by, and add in more vegetables, protein, whole grains, nuts and seeds instead.  Wish me luck as I continue this Sugar Detox adventure....

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Preparing to be Sugar-Free

Today is the start of my journey of giving up eating sugar.  Hopefully, for a very long while, if not forever, I am going to remove sugar from my diet. Giving up sugar is something that used to be unfathomable to me.  A totally and completely ridiculous idea and utterly impossible to imagine.  Who would have thought I would actually set out to do it?

I definitely consider myself to be "sugar-sensitive" or a "sugar-addict".  My drug of choice throughout my life has been sugar.  Not all foods, just sugar.  Simply put, when I eat sugar, I want more sugar.  I have no "off" button for my sugar appetite.  This has been true for my entire life.  As I think back over the years, I remember going trick-or-treating on Halloween with my sister ever year, filling our pillowcases or plastic orange jack-o-lanterns with candy.  My sister would get home, sort her candy, and eat it sporadically piece by piece over the next three months.  I would get home, sort my candy, and eat it all within a week. If there was any candy in the candy jar at home, it was never sufficient for me to have just 1 or 2 Hershey's Kisses.  I needed to eat a handful, opening one right after the other.  To this day, if I have sweets in the house, in a matter of days, they are gone. Just to be clear, I am not a binge eater.  Binge eating is not my affliction as I am not someone who is driven to eat ALL food.  My affliction is only caused by sugar.

I have managed to keep my weight relatively stable throughout my life, given 10-15 pounds here and there, due to consistent exercise.  I am pretty disciplined about working out 30-45 minutes 5 days a week, although some days and weeks are better than others.  I am not a hard-core workout junkie, but I work out hard enough and frequently enough to counter some of that sugar.  I also have been careful to remove from my diet foods with hidden sugars like certain brands of yogurt, spagetti sauce, soup, and also "white" bread, rice, crackers, and so on.  I never wanted to waste my calories on hidden sugars or white flour, as I wanted to  allocate my calories to sweet foods I really enjoyed like ice cream (my favorite!), pizza, M&Ms, and candy.  Since I wanted to leave room in my diet to eat "sweet things" every day, I certainly wasn't going to blow my "sweet" calorie allotment on boring white rice or white bread!

I first realized I am sugar-sensitive when a number of years ago, I read an amazing book by Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons called "Potatoes Not Prozac".  Dr. DeMaisons explains that some people have a biochemistry that predisposes them to reach for sugar when their energy is low, they are stressed or depressed, or they are unhappy.  It is much like the same biochemistry that causes alcoholics to reach for alcohol in times of stress.  In fact, alcohol breaks down in the body into simple sugar, so alcoholics and sugar-addicts are very similar on a biochemical level.  We crave sugar because sugar is one way to increase our "feel-good chemicals" and neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and beta-endorphins. For people who may have naturally low levels of these neurotransmitters, our bodies send a signal that we want sugar. The problem is that when people who are sugar-sensitive eat some sugar, we want more sugar.  Then, a few hours later, when our body has processed that sugar and our blood sugar has dropped, we want more sugar.  It is a never-ending cycle - and it is not fun.

Most people are not sugar-sensitive. This means that when people like my sister eat a piece of Halloween candy, they fully enjoy the candy they have eaten and they are satisfied.  They don't need any more.  One piece will do.  They have had enough.  However, when sugar-sensitive people eat sugar, our bodies scream for more sugar, and as a result, we have a hard time not eating the entire bag of candy in one sitting.

As someone who truly enjoys sweet foods and at times physically feel my body NEEDS sugar, it is hard to face the fact that I am sugar-sensitive, because the only treatment for this malady is to conmpletely remove the sugar from one's diet.  I have been aware for the past 10 years or so that I have needed to eliminate sugar and I have had my head in the sand for many of those years. The last thing I want to do is give up sugar completely.  I wish that I could just "reduce" my sugar consumption and just eat a little here or there, but, it doesn't work that way.  Sugar-sensitive people can't just have "a little" sugar, or eat it "now and then".  Just like an alcoholic, even the smallest amount of the offending substance can compel us to want more.  This is not a character flaw - it is simply a biochemical difference from other people.  It is not to be judged.  It's just the way it is.  It's a bummer, but it is my reality.

Knowing all of this, I set an intention to not eat sugar starting shortly after my 40th birthday. Because sugar is a drug (and, believe it or not, it is likely it would NOT be approved by the FDA if it were released today due to it's dramatic physical and emotional effect on our bodies), sometimes, our bodies go through a type of "withdrawal" when we stop eating sugar all of a sudden.  It is not as dramatic as an alcoholic going through detox, certainly, but you still can suffer from headaches, irritability, crankiness, skin eruptions, fatigue, anger, and depression.  As a result, most people, including myself, recommend easing sugar consumption down over a few weeks before stopping altogether.  This allows the body to adapt a bit as you start to wean off sugar.  So, as I am going on vacation next week, and it was my birthday this week, I have given myself 2 weeks to engage in sugar consumption before going completely 100% cold turkey.  While it is a little scary, I know I am on the right track of this very new, exciting, daunting, and exhilerating challenge to myself to dramatically improve my health and my mental well-being.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stay Focused on Today

Stay present.  Live in the present.  Focus on this moment.  Just for today....

We are always encouraged to value the moment we are presently experiencing.  We are cautioned to not live in the past or think too far ahead to the future.  Why is that?  Certainly we want to understand our past to learn how we got to where we are now, and surely we should plan for the future so we are ready for when it arrives.  Of course, to some degree, it is healthy and responsible to reflect on our past, and plan for the future.  But, when we find that we spend more of the time thinking about the past or worrying about the future than we are soaking in today, we are missing out on our own lives.  We aren't truly living in the now. 

So, what does that mean?  I remember being amazed the first time I heard that "the present is really all that you have".  Sometimes we forget that the "present" is what becomes yesterday's "past", and tomorrow's present is our "future".   In other words, we can't make any decision that will affect our past or our future that we haven't actually made "today".  It's an obvious concept, yet, it struck me as profound.  In a way, it is freeing to know that if we just stay focused on today, and spend our energy on what we think and do in this exact moment, we are actually creating the past as we would like for it to be, and we can consciously be thinking about how our decisions today will affect us tomorrow and in the future.

How does this concept apply to healthy living and self-care?  We can realize this one critical point:  All that we need to do is just concentrate our energy on making healthy decisions for ourselves today around our food, our drink, our family, our sleep, our relaxation, our work, our play, and our laughter, etc.  We can identify and prioritize the baby steps that we plan to take today.  We don't need to live in the past, worried about the cookies we snarfed down a few days ago, or punish ourselves for not taking better care of ourselves over the past winter.  We don't need to worry about the future and whether we are going to be able to control our sweet tooth before a big presentation or visit with the in-laws.  We just need to focus on this very day and make the best choices we can in this exact moment.  We can let go of the rest.  Isn't that amazing?  Doesn't that feel freeing? 

One of my favorite quotes that Oprah often says is that "When we know better, we do better".  If we now know that we only have to stay present in our lives and make small steps TODAY towards living a healthier life, our goals for healthy living become much less overwhelming and more maneagable.  We only have to think about today.  We can handle today.  We can handle this hour.  We can handle this minute.  We can handle this decision.  We can handle the present.