Sunday, October 19, 2014

10-Day Plan Part 2: Psyllium Husk Survivor

I prefer not to view this as a failure.

So I never made it through the entirety of Dr. Robynne Chutkan’s 10-Day Plan for Gutbliss.  The idea was to follow a strict diet that would help “ban bloat, flush toxins, and dump [my] digestive baggage.”  I shut it down after six days.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s the third straight “___-day plan” that I’ve abandoned since starting this blog.  I recognize that this speaks rather poorly of my track record.

Visual representation of my track record.

However, I do want to clarify that I didn’t give up because I had a moment of weakness, or because the diet was too strict, or because I missed gluten and soy like old friends.  All of those things are true, but they weren’t what made me quit.

I quit the 10-Day Plan because that plan is wack.

My eating habits in general are fairly healthy.  The thing that trips me up is my deep-seated and all-encompassing love for sugar.  Despite my daily intentions to the contrary, sugar always manages to find its way into my mouth.  And never a single bite of sugar, either--more like ten bites (or more).  That’s enough to seriously muck up my BMI, and it certainly bloats my stomach.  So stripping all the SAD GAS (soy, artificial sweeteners, dairy, gluten, alcohol, and sugar) from my diet didn’t leave me starving.  I’m all about leafy greens and free-range chicken, and I expected that cutting sugar would make me feel like a million bucks.  Instead I felt like a nickel that got run over by a train.

I blame the psyllium husk.

Visual representation of my relationship to psyllium husk.

I still have nothing nice to say about psyllium husk.  It tastes like garbage and it made my stomach swell up until even my sweatpants were tight.  It was a really bleak six days that I spent waddling around, clutching my abdomen, and making evil eyes at my leafy greens.  Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.

The scene: It was a gray October afternoon.  I was at my niece’s Disney princess birthday party dressed like Cinderella (before the ball), with my stomach playing the role of the pumpkin.  There was a chill in the air and a gaggle of shrieking children jumping in a bounce house.  I shivered and sipped my water and searched the premises for a nut or a leaf or a whole grain.  Then my sister handed me a Samuel Adams Octoberfest.

And I drank it.

Visual representation of my experience at childrens parties.

It tasted like relief.  After six days of feeling terrible, it was so refreshing to just admit that the plan wasn’t working for me, and simply abandon it.  It was refreshing to eat a handful of popcorn without feeling guilty about it.  And it was particularly refreshing to screw the cap tight on the jar of psyllium husk and lock it away forever.  

I did not feel immediately better; I had a pretty bad stomachache that night.  But eventually my body readjusted to digesting sugar and gluten, and I started to feel more like myself.  After a few days, I could even wear my skinny jeans again.

If I had stuck with the plan, maybe I would have made it to gutbliss, just like Dr. Chutkan promised.  But ultimately the draw of a seasonal beer, whose benefits were proven and immediate, was more compelling than an eventual state of digestive nirvana that I didn’t really believe in anymore.  I did re-learn the importance of listening to my body, and I was reminded that I don’t need to aim quite so high when making healthy changes in my life.  And that’s the purpose of this blog, to learn from my mistakes and to make gentle adjustments toward a goal of overall wellness.

Thankfully, that’s a concept I can commit to for longer than ten days.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

10-Day Plan Part 1: Psyllium Husk Blues

Dr. Chutkan (Fig. 1)

I’ve written briefly about Dr. Robynne Chutkan before, but recently I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for her work.  Dr. Chutkan treats diseases of the gut, and she speaks about the topic with unflinching frankness.  I love her straightforwardness, as well as her ability to explain complex medical science in laywomen’s terms.  (I’m less enthusiastic about her obsession with poop, because I’m kind of puritanical that way.  But she’s a gastroenterologist, so I guess it comes with the territory.)

Dr. Chutkan’s book, Gutbliss, is the first I’ve read that focuses entirely on bloat.  In fact, her whole practice is focused entirely on bloat, and she treats women almost exclusively (her office is called the Digestive Center for Women).  She’s a staunch supporter of the idea of food as medicine, and she’s far more invested in prescribing diet and lifestyle changes than pills.  Gutbliss addresses about a billion things that can go wrong in a person’s gut and cause bloating, and the book ends with a 10-Day Plan to “Ban Bloat, Flush Toxins, and Dump Your Digestive Baggage.”

My digestive baggage is designer.

I’m not just a fan of Dr. Chutkan’s because she’s brilliant and has amazing hair (See Fig. 1).  I’m a fan because bloating is a longtime nemesis of mine, and her book has helped me fight it.  Reading it helped me figure out what trigger foods  to avoid, and what habits to eschew, to keep my stomach from swelling up like a balloon.

Lately, avoiding trigger foods has not been enough.  My gut has been anything but blissful—it’s been achy and sore and if it expands any further somebody is going to throw me a surprise shower.  So I decided that enough was enough, and I was ready to tackle the 10-Day Plan.

The major tenet of the 10-Day Plan is to avoid certain foods altogether (for ten days—hence the clever name).  Once they’re out of your system and your gut has recalibrated, they can be reintroduced on a limited basis.  Dr. Chutkan uses a helpful acronym to help us remember the foods: SAD GAS.  In longhand, that’s soy, artificial sweeteners, dairy, gluten, alcohol, and sugar.  Essentially, all the fun stuff.  But she promises that ten days of eliminating these foods, plus taking some proactive steps as well, will send you on your way to gutbliss.

This little guy just hates bloating.

It’s Day 3 and my gut is still unhappy.  I blame the psyllium husk.

Dr. Chutkan loves the stuff, and she brings it up it in just about every chapter.  She’s a huge promoter of psyllium husk, but she fails to mention the fact that it tastes like dog shit.  It’s heinous.  In its powdered form, psyllium husk is a grainy, gritty addition to a glass of water that never quite mixes into the liquid.  A bubbly brown film sits on the surface, made of sticky balls of psyllium husk that explode powder into your mouth when you slurp them.  But exploding powder balls are nothing compared to what happened when I let the glass sit out too long—the powder formed a thick paste as it congealed with the water, and the end result was a tall glass of sludge.

Pictured: psyllium husk powder.

It is so, so rank, is what I’m saying.

My feelings toward psyllium husk are not warmed by the fact that in such a high dosage, it actually increases bloating before it decreases it.  (The 10-Day Plan calls for two tablespoons a day; the directions on the side of the jar suggest a teaspoon.)  Since I started this plan in the hopes of “Ban[ning] Bloat,” I don’t actually have a ton of free space in my jeans to hold any extra, even on a preliminary basis.

This guy gets it.

The 10-Day Plan has plenty of other rules as well.  I’m supposed to eat lots of raw food.  Limit meat to once per day.  Eat the majority of my food early in the day, and stop eating after sundown.  Eat leafy greens and pineapple and papaya.  Limit caffeine.  Avoid processed food.  And I’m supposed to exercise for 30 minutes every day, which I have not even been pretending to do. 

Dr. Chutkan is clear about her position on exercise.  She’s for it, and I should be doing it.  But the first two days of the Plan, I just felt too puffy and bloated to put on a pair of yoga pants, and today I’ve been really lightheaded and woozy all day.  If this is about listening to my body, I’m listening.  My body is telling me it refuses to go to the gym and I am respecting its position.

I’ve still got another seven days ahead of me.  There’s plenty of time for me to bounce back from my slow start and feel light and jazzy and free.  There’s even time for me to dust off my running shoes.  I’ll keep you posted.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Stretching: The Truth

I’ve always been a stretcher.

Although the tail is new.

But I’ve never liked it.  I think it’s boring, and it makes antsy.  So sometimes I skip stretching and head straight into my run (a run being my workout of choice), but I do it feeling guilty.  I worry that my haste is going to cost me a pulled muscle.

My stretching habit dates way back, all the way to the extended public humiliation that was middle school gym class.  Every class I’d join the gaggle of gangly 12-year-olds doing lunges and toe touches under the watchful eye of Mr. H., my gym teacher and the meanest old man alive.  He barked that stretching was necessary to a healthy physical education, and we believed him.

Later, in high school, I joined the field hockey team, and my stretching became more rigorous and nuanced.  Varsity players lead the warmups.  They were girls of 17 or 18 who seemed sophisticated and worldly to a freshman like me, and I desperately wanted to be like them.  As we stretched, they would call out the names of each muscle group we were working.  “Quad stretch!  Hamstring stretch!” they’d yell, and we’d shift as a unit in the wet autumn grass.  It was important to stretch your quads and your hamstrings and all the rest of it, this much we knew.  If you didn’t stretch, you risked injury, and an injury would send you to the bench.  Then you would never make the varsity team.

Pic of me playing field hockey.

So, stretching is how I was raised.  It’s as ingrained to me as Look both ways before you cross or Never talk to strangers or Don’t pick your nose.  Which is why I was shocked to find out about the controversy.

What controversy?

The thing is that stretching as I know it is a bit of a racket.  Common sense dictates that we stretch to prevent injury and soreness, but actually there is no scientific evidence that it protects against either one.  In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that stretching before running can have detrimental effects—at least when it’s done the way I remember on the field hockey field.

The type of stretching I grew up doing is known as static stretching, which is the process of elongating a muscle and holding it in place.  This type of stretching is intended to increase the muscle’s range of motion, but for an activity like running, a wide range of motion is not actually necessary.  In fact, static stretching can be dangerous if it’s taken too far.  Stretching tears muscle tissue at a microscopic level, and when the muscle heals it becomes a tiny bit longer and more pliant.  A muscle’s natural resistance helps it protect itself, and when that resistance is compromised, it may be slower to stabilize after an unexpected movement, such as tripping over a rock.  This delay can lead to injury.

Studies suggest that static stretching before running can impede progress in other ways as well. This New York Times blog cites an analysis of over 100 experiments assessing static stretching’s effectiveness as a warmup.  The findings would baffle my old gym teacher, Mr. H.  Static stretching actually reduces muscle strength by over 5%, and the longer you hold a stretch, the weaker the muscle becomes.  In short, static stretching before exercise is not a good idea.

Who wants to tell her?

There is another type of stretch that experts recommend for warming up, and its called dynamic stretching.  Dynamic stretching is the act of putting a muscle through a repeated, controlled motion, moving it a bit further with every repetition.  This type of stretching gets your heart rate up and your blood rate flowing in preparation for a workout.  It also improves your muscles range of motion without straining them the way static stretches do.  Additionally, endless pre-workout stretching sessions are out like your dads old leisure suit.  Ten to 15 minutes is enough time to get dynamically warmed up before a run.  You can find a great list of pre-run dynamic stretches here.

If you need a wider range of motion than this, you are maybe not doing "running" the right way. (Photo: (c) Ro.)

You don’t have to disregard static stretching altogether.  Many experts recommend bringing it back at the end of a workout, doing toe touches and knee bends like youre 12 years old in a mid-nineties gym class. But thats actually a point of contention, and it assumes that you didnt just kill it so hard on the elliptical that youre ready to collapse.  If youre the type of person who hates to stretch after a good run or a solid workout (is there any other type of person?), you can certainly find plenty of information back up your decision.  But a lot of people do like to end with static stretches, because it feels good to do them.  

And feeling good is really the whole point.

A smile is a stretch of its own.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sleep Debt and a Payment Plan

Full disclosure: the purpose of this post is petty one-upmanship.

Recently I met a man for margaritas.  He was someone I’d been dating, and we had scheduled the meeting so that we could break up.  We both knew the breakup was inevitable, and as such it seemed reasonable to involve cocktails in the transaction.  A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, et cetera.

I’ve prepared a list of your shortcomings that I’d like to read aloud.

Given that I knew what was coming, I really wasn’t looking to draw out the process.  Nevertheless, I slept until almost noon that day and woke up groggy and rumpled, squinting in the midday sun.  I relayed this anecdote to Mister-Right-Now and mentioned that I’d worked several late nights that week and then attended the fabulous (if misleadingly titled) show Sleep No More on Friday night.  I was exhausted, and my body was making up for lost time by repaying my “sleep debt” on Saturday morning.  He patiently mansplained to me that “that isn’t how it works,” so after we parted ways, I went home and looked it up.

In short: yes it is, jackass.

And saying it louder doesn’t make you right.

However, the details are more complicated.

Sleep debt” is difference between the amount of sleep you should be getting and the amount you actually get.  The average adult requires between seven and nine hours per night, but it’s an individualized need, governed by two internal processes.  One is called sleep/wake homeostasis, your optimal internal balance of time spent sleeping versus time spent awake.  The other is known as your circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle of your internal clock.  It’s this clock that helps regulate your daily habits.  If you’ve ever had a full night’s sleep and then found yourself crashing after lunch, you can thank your circadian rhythm.  Circadian rhythm can be affected by elements such as sunlight or temperature.  It’s also the reason you experience jet lag when you fly across time zones.

Cicadian rhythm, though, is something totally different. Via here.

You don’t need a science degree or a wellness blog to tell you that losing sleep has mental and physical consequences.  It can make you drowsy the next day (duh) as well as inattentive and irritable.  Sleep debt increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lowers your body’s ability to repair muscle, process glucose, or maintain your immune system.  It’s also been linked to inflammation (which can have extensive consequences to your health, including heart disease).

The problem is, missing out on sleep during the workweek is hella common.  People have packed schedules and busy lives; this is what the 21st century is about.  But the more sleep debt you accumulate, the less likely you are to recognize it as debt.  Grogginess and caffeine dependency can become normalized as elements of your daily routine, masking a larger issue.  Eventually, you could find yourself at risk for the more serious, long-term effects of sleep debt, like diabetes, stroke, obesity, and the aforementioned heart disease.

Although its totally possible that you have good reason to be awake. Via here.

So what happens when you try to pay up?  One study found that repaying a six-night sleep debt over the course of three days helped to level out daytime sleepiness and inflammation, but participants’ attention levels did not return to baseline at the end of the study.  This is bad news for fans of all-nighters, because when attention levels are off, performance and productivity can falter.  In a different experiment, researchers found that participants who slept one long night were able to offset the effects of a sleepless week—but only for about six hours.  After that, performance worsened the longer the person was awake, and their risk of making errors increased.  Ultimately, while sleeping in for a weekend can help undo the effects of a week of late nights [jackass], it’s not going to be enough if you have a chronic issue.

Incidentally, modern-day habits are not reflective of the sleep habits of our forbearers--and that might be part of the problem.  Since the invention of the lightbulb, the average person sleeps a whopping 500 hours less per year.  In addition, the modern concept of a single, uninterrupted night of sleep was not always the priority.  In a recent New York Times piece, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann cites the work of historian Roger Ekirch, explaining that in days of yore, people fell asleep for their “first sleep” shortly after nightfall.  “Then they awoke, somnolent but not asleep, often around midnight, when for a few hours they talked, read, prayed, had sex, brewed beer or burgled.  Then they went back to sleep for a shorter period.”  This passage speaks to the way that modern civilization has affected human departure from our own circadian rhythms.  It also shows that our forefathers had rather bizarre means of keeping themselves entertained.

“Let’s see, the beer is brewed, the prayers are said, the wife is satisfied... I guess its time to rob somebody.”

Ultimately, while sleep debt can be repaid, it won’t happen overnight.  Just like your student loans, it’s a debt you’re likely to carry with you for quite some time.  Chronic sleep debt is paid off in installments, and the only way to do it is to listen to your body and let your own internal clock take charge.   Go to bed when you’re sleepy and get up when you’re ready, and little by little your body will show you exactly how much sleep you need.  You’ll be sharper, less stressed, and faster to metabolize.  Your body and brain will thank you.

And you’ll wake up ready for anything.  Jackass. Via here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Checking In and Prattling On (Then Passing Out)

I woke up like this.

Except I wasn’t quite as happy about it.

I really did; today was the first spring day New York had seen all YEAR, and I spent it on my sofa rocking sweatpants and bedhead.  I’ve got some kind of war of the worlds going on in my throat, and it’s making me want to stay horizontal at all times.  I was invited out to go thrifting, even, and I had to turn down the offer to stay home and drink tea with honey and eat Mallomars.

No, Mallomars.

Anyway, I’m writing this to check in on the Ides of March, because I remember that I said I would be in touch regarding my 31-day challenge progress.  Fifteen days ago, I pledged to complete one 7-minute workout per day for the month of March. My thoughts about this at the halfway point are part grumpy and part thoughtful.

The grumpy part of me (refereeing throat-based battles) goes like this: If I ever do a 30-day challenge again, I am going to keep it private.  It takes less than a week for me hate the whole concept, but then I have to keep at it because I promised the Internet.  But Im resentful, and I’m grumbling through each seven minutes of jumping jacks and leg lifts and squats.  In fact, those seven minutes are something I dread all day.  Those seven minutes are almost always the last thing I do before bed, because I have put them off for just that long.

This is not how I do jumping jacks.

The thoughtful part of me goes like this: I might be doing it wrong.

The thing is, I probably am doing it wrong.  My intent in embarking on this challenge was to kick off each morning with a 7-minute workout before facing the day.  What’s happened instead is that I’ve woken up every morning and turned off the alarm.  In theory, I have a lot of time built into my mornings, so that I can start my day focused on a fairly wide range of goals.  But instead of achieving anything, I hit my alarm every time it goes off, and then I usually roll out of bed late.

This extended snooze is one of those things (like Mallomars) that feels good in the instant that it’s happening but feels crummy overall.  I do give myself a lot of pep talks at night about how I won’t oversleep and how I’ll wake up and be productive, but I rarely take my own advice.  It just so happens that this week I read a really great article on Elephant Journal entitled “Are We Cheating Ourselves Each Morning?” As a ritualistic morning cheater, I was intrigued.

By James L. Stanfield. Absolutely nobody is cheating this guy out of sleep.

The article, by Julie van Amerongen, starts by outlining what we’re putting our brains through when we settle back in for those extra minutes of slumber.  Instead of picking up where we left off in our sleep cycle, we start the whole thing over again.  So if you subscribe to a standard 9-minute snooze, you’re jarring your body out of a brand new cycle, much deeper than the R.E.M. you were enjoying before the alarm went off.  (I set my alarms in a series of 30 minutes, but I almost never get through that much time without a nose bite.)  That may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that the effects of this fragmented sleep can impair our cognitive functioning over the course of the day.  That disconnect between the sleep you should be getting and the sleep you’re really getting is called social jetlag, and it can lead to increased use of caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, and Mallomars.

All that is important, but it strays a bit from van Amerongen’s main point, which is that your morning is for you.  You would never oversleep for a meeting or an appointment (scheduled on someone else’s time, unless you’re the kind of big shot who runs meetings).  So why would you sabotage your own time?  I’m using the second person here, but as the old adage goes, when I point one finger there are three pointing back at me.

Probably at my fly-ass shirt ruffle.

This is an admission: I’m a sleep abuser.  The older I get (and I am now old enough to forget my age a lot of the time), the more I feel I really need my sleep.  That said, I also maintain that I am a morning person, the type who enjoys extended coffee breaks and early writing sessions to kick off the day.  Ideally.  Thats my ideal morning, but how can it be that I dont create an ideal morning, every morning?  If I dont make this time for myself, this time that comes free with actual scientific benefits, who is?  Its a change Ive really got care enough to make.  So while I probably cannot immediately retrain myself to soldier through all 1.5 hours of my morning alarms, I can certainly commit to an extra seven minutes.  So that is my new goal from now until April: one 7-minute workout every day.  Every morning.

And then after that, no more public goals, ever.