Pancreatitis, Thanks for the Gut Shot
“Illness is the best advocate for health” -Unknown
The powerful knowledge that controlling insulin is better than steroids for fat loss and body composition was my first big breakthrough and to this day, one of my most significant. This concept, which was new to me, fueled my curiosity. I began experimenting with my diet in different ways. I tried almost every combination of carbohydrate intake; paying very close attention to glycemic index and load, timing, combinations with other foods, pre-workout meals, post workout meals, before bed, days off etc. Then I paid close attention to how these things affected my body weight, composition, strength gains, recovery, mental clarity and energy.
The College Wrestling Grind & Southern Comfort Foods
I became increasingly aware that refined carbohydrates and high glycemic foods were devastating to body composition, unless portioned appropriately to match my activity level. That being said, I was still able to consume a ton of these refined carbs since I usually got in 6-12 hard, intense workouts a week. I lifted for an hour or more on most days. I ran and wrestled with my college athletes in almost every grueling practice. These wrestling and running workouts were huge carbohydrate burners. Basically the more intense a workout is, the higher your heart rate is and the more volume you do-the more carbohydrates you will burn. At least half of my workouts during a week maintained heart rate levels above 85% of my max HR for a significant amount of time.
College wrestling practices often resemble a 2 hour human dog fight. The sport is very technical but very physical. In practices between two comparable wrestlers the final outcome is usually determined by who can withstand intense fatigue just a little longer than their opponent. On top of that I often made it my goal to be the hardest wrestling guy in the room. This ridiculous workout regimen forced me to refuel with a high amount of carbs. At the time I didn’t realize there might be a better fuel than carbohydrates. After workouts and throughout the day I would enjoy foods from the local school cafeteria. Remember, my grad school was in North Carolina and the cafeteria menu had all the customary southern comfort foods you can think of. Many of the breakfasts options carried huge carbohydrate loads. Foods like french toast sticks, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, bagels, muffins, cereal, grits, breakfast potatoes, sugary yogurt, oatmeal, syrups, and fruit juices were always available and tempting. Lunch and dinner weren’t much different; lots of pasta, bread, wraps, pizza, deserts, bread pudding (I sure miss bread pudding), hamburgers, fries, granola, juice, sweet tea, and sports drinks.
I was consuming tons of these high insulin triggering foods but my workouts were keeping me lean and muscular so I didn’t question it. I thought I was doing everything right. I worked out like a maniac, had muscles and a six pack. Once after an arthroscopic knee surgery the nurse praised me for having such a low resting heart rate (a common marker of elite fitness). She said it actually alarmed the nurses during surgery because it had reached about 37 beats per minute. The doctor assured them that it was not from a weak heart or a medical complication but instead due to the fact that I was a college wrestler and in high physical condition. All of these things reminded me how fit I was. Until one day, a surprise attack came out of nowhere and punched me in the gut, hard. The same force that punched me then whispered creepily in my ear,
“Hey dummy, being fit doesn’t mean you’re healthy”.
It was a pain I had never felt before. I thought I was being stabbed with a knife right below my front and back rib cage. It was a sharp pain that made it hard to breath and hard to think. On the evening it hit me I was on a road trip with the team for a tournament we would compete in the next day. Over the course of an hour it went from bad to unbearable. My dad, who had flown in town to visit me, ran to the nearest gas station and returned with his miracle cure, Pepto Bismol. His attempt to help would have been comical, had I not been in mind numbing pain. I think if my dad had been a medic at the battle of Normandy in WWII, he would have brought a bag of Pepto Bismol, ear drops, Gatorade and a couple of rare steaks. Protein and well marketed health liquids weren’t going to cut it.
We drove to the nearest emergency room. I walked in and could hardly talk, the pain was getting worse. They checked me in and gave me a hospital bed. They offered me a drip of pain meds which I originally turned down in belief that the situation would subside soon-Huge mistake. Within five minutes of being too tough for morphine I was calling for the nursing staff, begging them to quickly get the I.V. in my arm to dull the pain. Originally the doc thought it was likely a ruptured spleen since wrestling exposed me to a lot of physical trauma. The problem was I hadn’t even wrestled that day and I couldn’t remember any significant impacts to my diaphragm in the past couple of days worthy of causing a rupture. They quickly ran blood work to see if surgery was needed. The blood panel came back showing that I had a condition called pancreatitis. The staff explained pancreatitis in similar fashion as Webmd does here. “Pancreatitis is a disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Pancreatic damage happens when the digestive enzymes are activated before they are released into the small intestine and begin attacking the pancreas.” In the same article they explain the two main functions of the pancreas.
- It releases powerful digestive enzymes into the small intestine to aid the digestion.
- It releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream.
The same powerful digestive enzymes my pancreas was producing to break down food for digestion were now trapped, essentially breaking down my pancreas as they would a juicy steak.
After a couple nights in the hospital my pancreas adjusted and began functioning properly. I went home with a few pain killers and almost no explanation from doctors of how to fix the problem. The best answer they could give me was- it is common in heavy drinkers, people with gallstones and people with certain hereditary conditions.
Though I was happy that the problem seemed to temporarily fix itself, I was unhappy with the lack of any plan to prevent or fix this from happening in the future. While at the hospital I really wasn’t treated for anything other than pain. All they could do was monitor me, keep me hydrated (because I was unable to eat or drink), and medicate my pain. I didn’t like this feeling of helplessness. So, I began to do my own research.
I read, and what I found was that conventional medicine’s lack of ability to fix or even really diagnosing this problem. The doctors and nurses told me pancreatitis would likely return and that it was basically out of my control. If you don’t believe me check the WebMD article and you will find, conventional medicine doesn’t seem to have much of an answer or cure. It was a condition I would have to manage for possibly the rest of my life. The only areas I found suggestions to reverse this problem was in the world of food science and what I now know as naturopathic nutrition. I didn’t know what naturopathic nutrition was at the time but once I started researching there was more than enough information to get my attention. Much of what I was reading seemed to say the same thing:
Processed grains are extremely detrimental to the digestive system, they wreak havoc on the lining of the stomach, causing malabsorption of essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Grains cause indigestion, chronic inflammation, lowered immune system function and autoimmune disorders. Oh ya, and they also trigger large insulin responses which, not only stores fat, but as I had just found out the hard way, also taxes and destroys the pancreas.
I had read enough, it was time to give it a try. I went gluten-free and mostly grain-free. I gave up grains like wheat, rye, barley and oats. I quit drinking beer and switched entirely to liquor or wine on occasion. I had a few lapses here and there, maybe a brownie or a piece of bread pudding but in time, I became more and more strict. A lot of people comment on my gluten free eating habits and say, I know I would be healthier if I gave up grains. Then they almost always rationalize that by saying something like but I just love sandwiches, beer and (insert favorite food here) too much to give them up. It was hard for me at first too. I, like all of us, grew up eating toast, pancakes, egg sandwiches, bagels and cereals for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta, pizza, hamburger helper, hot dogs and hot dishes for dinner. It was a big change, one that I am extremely grateful I made. This habit was created exactly how OG Mandino, author of The Greatest Salesman in the World, says all habits are formed.
“And soon these actions and reactions will become easy to perform, for any act with practice becomes easy. Thus a new and good habit is born, for when an act becomes easy through constant repetition it becomes a pleasure to perform and if it is a pleasure to perform it is man’s nature to perform it often. When I perform it often it becomes a habit and I become its slave and since it is a good habit this is my will.”p.56
“As a child I was slave to my impulses; now I am a slave to my habits, as are all grown men. I have surrendered my free will to the years of accumulated habits and the past deeds of my life have already marked out a path which threatens to imprison my future.” p. 54
(one of my favorite books of all time, if you need motivation and an awesome outlook on life, give it a read)
A strong habit was formed but at first, I had to rely on my willpower. Since then it has become increasingly easier to make the right decision. The same can happen for you, with any habit you want to create.
Since giving up gluten and most grains I have not had another bout of Pancreatitis, it has been about 4 years. Pancreatitis is not the sole reason I continue to avoid grains. There is an endless list of issues associated with the high grain diets most Americans consume.
The Quick and Dirty on How Grains can Destroy Your Health
Grains cause insulin spike and fat storage. They are high in calories and low in nutrients. You are not what you eat, you are what you absorb. Grains destroy your stomach, they are very hard to break down and digest. This damage to the digestive system leaves it compromised and unable to absorb things like vitamins, minerals and healthy omega 3 fats. Without the essential vitamins and minerals, the natural health and repair the body is capable of will not occur. Lack of vitamins and minerals is a leading cause of disease in our society. Pasta, breads and alike cause gas and indigestion. Irritable bowl syndrome is typically caused by gluten and grain intolerance. When you consume grains your insulin spikes and you store body fat. Grain consumption leads to chronic inflammation throughout the body. Chronic inflammation is a major contributor to almost all age related diseases like alzheimer’s, cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Grains increase acne and poor skin health in two ways; increasing the food source for the bacteria that live on your skin and blocking the absorption of essential nutrients your skin needs to thrive. It is agreed upon in the medical world that roughly 70% of your immune system resides in your gut. If you constantly destroy your gut, your immune system will be constantly drained. Grains also cause autoimmune issues which means they send your immune system into high alert at all times. This autoimmune state causes confusion in the body and is a major cause behind allergies, sinus, and upper respiratory infections. The list goes on and on. The important thing to realize is that all of these things are connected. If you are chronically giving your body a low level poison it will have to fight to thrive all the time. That, combined with a deteriorated digestive system lacking the ability to absorb vitamins and minerals is a recipe for sickness and chronic inflammation.
Grains are Not Part of Our DNA
Many historians and health professionals will agree that humans simply did not evolve on a high grain diet. If our ancestors consumed them, it was in very limited amounts. The people that gave us our genes spent most of their time eating plants, animals, nuts and berries. We are not made to consume high insulin triggering foods and we are not evolved to eat grains. The grains we consume today are far different than the grains people ate three thousand years ago. It has been estimated that there is as much as ten times the gluten (protein that leaves the gut impaired) in the grains we eat today compared to a couple thousand years ago. GMO’s are probably to thank for that. Not only are grains some of the most genetically modified foods, they are also some of the most heavily sprayed with herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
The Long List of Benefits I Have Enjoyed
In one of my last posts I mention how terrible my sinus infections used to be. Since going gluten-free I haven’t had a single sinus infection (about 4 years). I used to go to the doctor about twice a year for antibiotics which would temporarily clear up some of the worst sinus infections I have ever witnessed. The inflammation in my back, neck and knees are much better. I never have the severe pain in my lower back that forced me to put my socks on while laying down in my bed and kept me from wrestling or exercising at times. I have clearer focus and more energy. My digestion has improved dramatically in just about every way you can imagine. I have much better skin, fewer, if any acne breakouts. I used to have little red bumps up and down the back of my triceps and calves, people call this chicken skin, this has also disappeared. I used to get the occasional herpes type cold sore breakout about 5-8 times a year. I now get maybe one a year, only if I get stressed, drink to much booze, stay out too late or eat too much sugar. There are certainly some benefits I have left out but it is enough to say that choosing a diet void of grains has been one of the most helpful life improvements I have made. I challenge you to give up grains for 2-4 weeks. Then, have a day filled with the typical breads, pastas and cereals I mentioned earlier. If you don’t notice a difference, I will eat a piece of bread…. ok, I won’t but it won’t come to that. You will notice a huge difference.