This week marks my second attempt to quit sugar. Sugar. That appealing, seductive, addictive vice that comes in the tempting guises of pretty coloured cupcakes, tasty Thai dishes, and blocks of smooth, velvety chocolate that leaves you wanting more. No more. I have a compelling reason for breaking my ties with sugar. I have an autoimmune disease, and as is largely documented, sugar equals inflammation equals so many health issues that can be avoided or at the very least, alleviated with abstinence. Forget the countless mentions on the internet, in health magazines and pop science sections of the weekend lift-outs, I’m going on my own experiential evidence to back my reason for quitting, again.
When I was first diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), I went into a state of denial, sadness, anger, a little bit of whoa is me, but then I got a grip and started doing some research. One common factor in all my reading was that lifestyle, namely diet, stress and exercise seem to have an influence. Aside from that, there is a lot of conflicting advice- you can eliminate dairy, legumes, grains, gluten, nightshades, acidic foods, meat- you name it, there is a claim of its connection somewhere, so filtering through all that information and finding what worked for me was quite a challenge, but one that seemed to me a better alternative than the drugs with some nasty side effects which ironically also include the very symptoms that inflammation causes.
Stress? Yes I had loads of it in my life then and for much of my life prior to diagnosis. Stress was one thing I had to avoid – easier said than done! I am still working on stress management and though I know the benefits of meditation, I struggle with making it a daily practice.
Exercise and yoga? I was doing plenty of that, so a big tick on heading in the right direction there. Right now though, there is little of either, but something else to add to the lifestyle changes I would like to make, with quitting sugar being the beginning.
Diet? I was already a pescatarian, and I briefly tried but failed to eliminate nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, chilli to name a few). I didn’t forego dairy, but I reduced it. Post-diagnosis, my first major dietary change was gluten, probably influenced by the plethora of claims of gluten being the cause of all evil and the rising popularity of the paleo diet. I can tell you, it is a lot easier to avoid sugar than gluten. I briefly had an overlap of avoiding sugar and gluten. Add that to explaining to people what pescatarian meant, and I was that awkward person that nobody wants to cater for or go out for a shared meal with.
Owing to the right brained engineer in me, I logged my experimentation in a pretty anal journal in Excel of all places, with food eaten, mood that day, event that was different to normal, exercise, medication taken, whether I had meditated, and pain level on a scale of 1 to 10. Most of the early days, my pain level was at 11, but I’d set the scale to 10, so I left it there. After months of doing this, and graphing pain v time (yes, I’m a nerd), I began to see the correlation between stress and pain due to inflammation, with usually about a week’s delay between a stressful event and the onset of more than ordinary pain levels. Obviously giving pain a score was pretty subjective, but considering 10 was the debilitating state where movement was hindered and 1 was a little niggling pain or awareness of my joints in movement, it was possible to work out a general pattern in changes from 1 to 10. My experiment failed in finding a correlation between diet and symptoms, but my approach was fairly haphazard as I wasn’t consistent with what I was eating or not eating, except for the elimination of gluten. However, I had a scientific breakthrough (humour me) which coincided with the lead up to Christmas, when people were gifting chocolates and sweets at work, and I went on a two-week bender. I felt the aftershock of the sugar hit on my system. Nothing else had changed in my lifestyle but the sugar binge. I decided then that it was worthy of further investigation, and thus began my sugar-free experiment.
Using the knowledge I had garnered by my extensive research, most notably with the aid of Sarah Wilson’s website “I quit sugar” as well as her book of the same name, I began to eliminate fructose from my diet. Fructose is found in that white, coarse granular substance we normally refer to as sugar which also goes by the name sucrose. Sucrose is equal parts glucose and fructose. It is fructose that is the issue. And yes, fructose is also in fruit, but I didn’t go as far as eliminating fruit from my diet, just avoided fruit juices and dried fruits that pack a bigger punch of fructose in even small portions compared to eating a whole, fresh piece of fruit. I won’t go too deeply into the science of it all (mainly because I can’t), but in short, glucose is the building block of life and is essential for energy. Every cell in our body utilises glucose, whereas fructose is metabolised only by the liver, as part of its duty of processing toxins in our body. The liver converts fructose into fat and that is the end of the journey from cupcake to love handle. That isn’t where fructose’s impact on health ends though. Fructose causes a spike in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and that plays havoc with the body’s immune system (enter RA, crohns disease, alopecia, lupus to name a few). With that knowledge, I felt I was doing what was right for my health.
The first thing I noticed in eliminating sugar was weight loss. I became leaner, budging the fat that even regular spin classes and long distance cycling couldn’t shift. I also noticed a massive easing of pain and reduced swelling in my once stumpy knuckles, wrists and knees as well as plenty of other joints that had been bugging me. After a couple of months, I made the decision to quit the drugs I was on (prednisolone and methotrexate), and in defiance of my rheumatologist’s advice, I continued in this manner with other complementary lifestyle elements such as acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, exercise, yoga and just trying to breath and be mindful. It worked!
So why did I stop? Well, I was always surrounded by the temptation of prettily presented treats at cafes, morning teas at work and other social events that seemed to require the ritual of scoffing huge amounts of the nasty, but oh so tasty stuff. I resisted up until becoming pregnant, about 8 months into my sugar free life. In my pregnant state, and perhaps partly using it as a get out of jail card, I thought hey, I gotta just go with what my body tells me it wants, and right now after I finish this boiled egg with sauerkraut and dry biscuits, my body needs a cupcake .With pink frosting. Oh, and I’ll have the blue frosting too, seeing as I’m having a boy (notice the subtle shift from want to need there?). I should also add, most of the literature I came across stated that RA typically goes into remission during pregnancy, so I thought I’d enjoy it while I could. First trimester down, and all was good. Bring on more sugar! Well, into my second trimester, all the pain free existence I’d had till then came to a screeching halt. From my second trimester till now, in the week that my baby will be turning 1, my RA has been active. About a month after giving birth, I went on prednisolone which was safe for breastfeeding. That helped for a while, but then I moved on to sulfasalazine which almost killed me (I had a hypersensitive reaction to it). Now I am on methotrexate again and have been since my baby was 6 months old. It saddens me that being on methotrexate meant an end to breastfeeding, but that was why I held out with alternatives to it for that long. While in pain. A lot of pain.
So, health and wellbeing is my main motivation for kicking the habit. I think that is motivation enough, but I have the added bonus of a return to fighting form and clearer skin and thoughts to look forward to as well. This is the week where I am taking back control of my health and starting the journey of deflammation (yes, I made up the word). Considering I have all the proof I need in my own experiences, I owe myself nothing less than being done with sugar once and for all. I’ve had enough. I quit, sugar.
Prompt from Writing 101 Day 19. Today’s Prompt: Today is a free writing day. Write at least four-hundred words, and once you start typing, don’t stop. *No self-editing, no trash-talking, and no second guessing: just go. Bonus points if you tackle an idea you’ve been playing with but think is too silly to post about.
*my interpretation of no editing, censoring etc. was in the initial writing, to just get the words down on the page. It helped me write something and pretty soon I had about 913 words down that formed the basis of this edited piece you see here. I realise some people have interpreted the prompt to mean publishing an unedited version.