If you have not yet noticed, I have a huge interest in how diets affect our health. I use the term “diet” to mean a set of principles by which we follow in our daily eating habits, and not the traditional meaning of food restriction. During and after my overcoming anorexia, I found it fascinating how our bodies adjust to extreme circumstances, the metabolic and hormonal effects of these states, and the immense capability of our bodies to recover if we manipulate nutrition accordingly.
To gain weight after anorexia, I followed a very healthy diet – I refused to just eat ice creams, cookies, and cakes to put the weight back on. I was determined to heal my body from the inside out with good nutrition. And I succeeded.
About two years ago, I went for a screening at the local chemist in order to submit the results to my medical aid and improve my points status. To my amazement, my cholesterol was significantly high! being a medical student, I started researching the possible reasons for this strange result, considering my diet and activity levels at the time. Among other reasons, it may have been secondary to the detrimental effects of anorexia on my hormone levels – the cholesterol being produced was not being used as it should have been for the backbone of oestrogen and progesterone. But more interestingly, I discovered that the more important value to look at was the triglycerides (and the triglyceride:HDL ratio) as opposed to the touted “bad cholesterol” LDL. Luckily, my TG’s were low and my ratio was less than 2. But I still felt a bit of health hacking would be fun! So, after doing some research, I introduced coconut oil into my diet – yep, you guessed it, my cholesterol came down! The benefits of coconut oil will soon be in a blog post because I love it that much!
About a year ago, I found Ben Greenfield, a well-renowned trainer in the States who advocates for low-carb high-fat diets to enhance performance. I definitely suggest listening to some of his podcasts. I have never really been a fan of carbs and, after anorexia, my body just can’t handle gluten. So for the past year, more intensely the past few months, I have been following a low-carb diet – not only has my performance in the gym improved, but my cholesterol numbers are surprising. My triclycerides are incredibly low, my LDL is low, and my HDL (the “good cholesterol”) is almost twice the recommended range! So, the traditional dogma I have been taught at medical school about advising low fat diets for high cholesterol? Questionable.
The second interesting thing that I have been exploring is my thyroid function. A couple years ago, my doctor diagnosed me as hypothyroid – a diagnosis that all my medical school friends laughed at since I looked the opposite! Nevertheless, she prescribed medication. I refused to take it. I refused to accept taking medication when the underlying cause had not been addressed. Most people with hypothyroidism suffer from Hashimoto’s which is an autoimmune condition – I did not have the antibodies so it wasn’t that. After some research I decided to cut out gluten completely since it has been shown to cross react with the thyroid, even though I wasn’t eating many carbs at this stage anyway. Unfortunately I didn’t keep up with the tests so I do not know the effect that that change had.
Recently however, I retested my thyroid function at the same time as my cholesterol. Again, my thyroid stimulating hormone (the signal form the hypothalamus on the brain) was elevated but my T4 (the hormone from the thyroid itself) was low-normal. These two hormones should move in sync with each other as more TSH produces more T4 – in my case, my hypothalamus is working overtime to try and get the thyroid to respond. T4 is then converted to T3 which is the active form regulating fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism. Again, refusing to succumb to medication, I did some more research. Ben Greenfield writes that this is often an effect of low-carb high-fat diets as carbohydrates are required to convert T4 to T3. As he strongly believes that high-fat diet benefits exceed the negative effects, he suggests overcoming the thyroid issue through adequate carbohydrate consumption around training and supplementation, namely with iodine, selenium, and zinc which have been shown to improve thyroid function. Thus, I have just started on Thyrosol by Metagenics (science-based nutraceuticals) – in a few months I will redo my tests and see if it helped! Watch this space for the health hack results!
So there you have it. A little update on how I have hacked my health a bit, and will continue to do so! In the next few blog posts, I will introduce you to some of the highlights behind this post: (1) coconut oil and (2) how to analyse and manipulate your lipid levels.
Hope you are enjoying learning about the science behind health and are inspired to continue to maximise your potential. Any comments would be greatly appreciated!