Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 Jul

25 Years of Health Struggles Overcome

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

My story won’t feature dramatic before and after shots. It won’t tell you that this diet will make you buff fast (though I think it will). Instead it portrays another reason many people go Primal – to address health issues – and outlines 25 years of health struggles, overcome.

I’ve never been more than 10 or 15 pounds overweight and I’ve always loved being outdoors and exercising. When I was in my mid-20s I started having terrible pain in the joints of my hips, hands, ankles, wrists and knees. Rheumatoid arthritis. I took a lot of anti-inflammatories and went on with my life the best I could, though I was limited in how much I could participate in the outdoor activities I had always loved (backpacking, fly fishing, swimming, cross country skiing, cycling). Got married, had a baby at age 30, and the joint pain eased up. Thrilled, I got a bike trailer and carted my little daughter all around in it. I had quit my writing job to be home with her and we lived off my husband’s modest salary as a newspaper photographer in Chico, CA. Life was good, despite fairly severe residual pain in my left hip (perhaps related to the fact that I was born with a malformed joint there/dysplasia).

After a few years I went back to school to earn a teaching credential and we pursued our dream of relocating to Oregon. Now I was the breadwinner and my husband stayed home with our daughter. We lived in the country and I worked long hours as I began my teaching career. My weight crept up from 115 to about 125, on my small 5’ 4” frame. I didn’t look too bad in size 10 clothes, but the hip pain was getting worse and I knew I needed to exercise more and take those pounds off. The only exercise that didn’t aggravate the hip pain was swimming, but with a young child, the demands of the job and having to drive a ways to get to an indoor pool, it was difficult to get many workouts in. Added to that were my increasing menstrual issues. I’d always had painful, heavy periods but now I was bleeding half the month. I was hesitant to have the uterus removed because I’d had abdominal surgery twice (at age 18, a doctor thought my pelvic kidney was a tumor and tried to take it out, and I’d had a c-section) so I knew this was not going to be fun. But with four conditions that caused bleeding and pain: fibroids, endometriosis, adenomyosis and a cyst on one of the ovaries, I finally relented and had the hysterectomy (kept both ovaries) at age 41.

A month later we moved from our country property to a nearby town, I took a transfer to a school near there and the three of us joined a gym. For the first time in my adult life I had easy access to an indoor pool, time to swim and no monthly pain and bleeding. My daughter, who could swim across a pool at 18 months (I had spent a LOT of time in the water with her when she was little ☺), was now 10 and on the swim team, so I had to bring her to the gym three times a week anyhow. Two lanes in the pool were reserved for adult lap swimmers. So I swam while she did. I was determined to lose those extra 10-15 pounds to lessen the load on that joint. I asked a trainer at the gym to set me up with exercises to strengthen the muscles around the hip. So at that point I began regular resistance training as well as lap swimming. Apparently pushing off the wall during lap swimming is great for strengthening the muscles around the hip joints. The pounds came off, I got more muscular and within a year the hip pain had diminished to almost nothing. The coach encouraged me to compete in master’s swimming, which caused me to see myself in a totally different light. Swimming salvaged my health. For awhile.

My whole life I’d dealt with constipation, but after the surgery it suddenly shifted the other way. Loose stools. As part of my big health push when we moved to town and joined the gym, I’d cut out a lot of fat and “junk food” and replaced it with more fruits, veggies and grains, which is what my doctor had suggested I do to improve my terribly high cholesterol. My daughter and I would devour a loaf of warm French bread together after our 5,000 yard swim workouts. I was also drinking fruit smoothies, with the protein powder that the trainer advised. I noticed I had really bad gas and looser stools when my husband made our smoothies. The difference was that he was adding wheat germ. Also, at the time I was having more and more sinus and nasal congestion. I was on a treadmill of allergy meds prescribed by the GP for that. I went to see an allergist and he suggested I try food elimination diets. So I tried cutting out wheat and most glutens and my allergy and gut symptoms were vastly improved. Strangely, I did not test positive for celiac and my meticulously documented food elimination experiments showed that beer was not a problem, only wheat. I continued on like that for about a year, but then I started having the same issues with congestion and diarrhea. So I went back to the food elimination diets and experimentation and discovered dairy was also causing me these problems. So I eliminated that from my diet. Good for another year. Same problems again. Back to the drawing board. Sugars and fruit was causing the problem now, too! By this time I was seeing a GI specialist, who was a very good and helpful doctor. I can’t eat like this, I told him. No wheat, dairy, sugar…nothing’s left! He told me I could indeed eat like this and that a lot of people did so by choice. He diagnosed me with SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) and fructose intolerance and told me to look up the Paleo diet. The diet helped, for sure, but I still suffered with many flare-ups of my symptoms.

I continued with my quest for health and outdoor fun, taking up running, mountain biking and rock climbing (my kid got me into rock climbing when she turned 13; it’s an activity we enjoy together). I kept up with my swimming and re-discovered my love of backpacking, skiing, fly fishing and hunting. I started eating more steak and eggs. A LOT more. I started getting a flat stomach and burly shoulders. I started needing much less sleep at night, and catching fewer colds. My cholesterol levels improved dramatically.

I felt good overall but I still was having gut issues at times. Pain, bloating, diarrhea. I saw a bunch more doctors and had a bunch more tests done. IBS wasn’t a really helpful diagnosis, especially since the diets suggested for that were often high fiber and full of foods that worsened my problems. And the bacterial overgrowth – was that the cause of my issue or the result? The doctors couldn’t offer an explanation but the paleo and Primal blogs online (especially MDA) gave me tools and useful information that I used to manage the problem. I studied charts of fructose levels to determine which fruits I could handle, and eventually I realized that limiting my overall carb intake helped. Above all, MDA helped me see that this was a viable and even preferable way to eat. I continued to study and research – Taubes’ book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” aided my learning quite a bit. Still, diarrhea would hit all too often and there’s really no good time or place for that (teaching a class of young children and hanging from cliffs being particularly BAD times and places). What was really frustrating was that I could eat some foods (especially fruits like melon) with no problems some of the time, but not consistently.

This winter, Mark included a link to the Archevore web page on MDA and I learned the term “FODMAP” for the first time. Everything fit and now I finally feel like I have a good understanding of what’s happening with my gut. In a nutshell, my body has a hard time breaking down short-chain carbs, and some of those (the fermentable ones) cause the bacterial levels in my gut to get out of balance, and then I get the symptoms. It all made sense: this problem emerged when I cut back on fat and upped my carbs. The Primal Blueprint diet eliminates many FODMAP foods. Most beer is not a FODMAP, which solves that mystery (happily, since I do like to drink beer). When I eat fruit separated from other foods by a couple hours, as suggested on the FODMAP diet, it gives my body the ability to put all its digestive efforts into breaking those molecules down, so I do OK with small amounts of low-fructose fruits when they are separated from other foods. There were a few foods I was still eating on the Primal Blueprint diet that are FODMAPS, and I’ve been doing much better having eliminated those. I am going to try adding some foods back into my diet and experiment with some new ones after a few more weeks on my strict FODMAP diet. I’m also figuring out how stress plays into my gut issues and working on addressing that. So I’m still learning and refining things to optimize my health and I probably always will be.

The kid is heading off to college in fall; I just turned 49 and am training to climb El Cap. I’m going to do that in one year, to kick off my next decade. It’ll be 2,900 vertical feet of climbing over three days, with two nights sleeping on the cliff. Being lean and strong is certainly nice, but what it’s really about for me is feeling good and being able to do the things I want to do. It’s never too late to get your health back and it’s certainly worth the effort.


The 2006 picture above shows me with my daughter on Mt. Ashland, a year after I had surgery and started swimming. I had just starting changing over to a Primal Blueprint diet. In the 2010 photo above, I am 48 and working a route at Smith Rock State Park. The last pic shows me bolting a new route a few weeks ago in Central Oregon.

More pics (click to enlarge):

On Gray Butte - October Day On Ocelot Flake at J Tree

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I will second the GAPS diet recommendation for all of you still suffering from aliments like RA, IBS, etc. I developed a cascade of food sensitivities and have reversed most of them with GAPS. I have numerous friends that relieved anxiety, healed /lessened IBS and lost weight.

    Jennifer wrote on July 9th, 2011
  2. Never heard of FODMAPS…

    Meagan wrote on July 9th, 2011
  3. Great story, and congrats on figuring out so much of this complex puzzle, your a smart lady.

    A couple things I will mention you might want to look into to ‘complete the puzzle’, from some with similar story here.

    – autoimmunity, Leaky gut.

    You mention role of stress. It can play into these two .. stress can trigger increase autoimmune response, and stomach permeability(leaky gut). Its impossible to eliminate stress, far better to look for ‘stress triggers’ and learn management techniques etc of course FUN/EXERCISE are excellent as your doing! ..but tendancy in people with this problem is to ‘over dose’ on exercise, and tend into an up/down cycle’s – over longtime this will cause more problems ( adrenal/cortisol related).

    As regard candida – I don’t have time to write a thesis but the bottom line its IMPOSSIBLE to eliminate – because even in ketosis, blood glucose is maintained and keeps some candida in body ..and eating ANY carbs it will regrow. IF you have overgrowth, it means you have IMMUNE DYSFUNCTION – could be due to antibiotics, environment pollutants or severe stress – so aim is to REBALANCE IMMUNE System not try to kill all candida ( also look into T1/T2 immune dominance and immune modulators)

    Doc’s – current medical science does not have deep enough understanding of the CAUSALITY of health, heck, it can’t even decide if fat is good or bad! ..let alone the complexities of entire body system and immune system. So, as you’ve found, your kind of on your own, and done an amazing job BTW!

    So there is little ‘hard science’ ( i trained in science, so I know), its mostly an ‘experiment of one’ i.e. form a theory, test it on yourself ..if it works for you, that’s what matters.

    I hope you continue to have improving health.

    Mark wrote on July 9th, 2011
    • The immune system information is interesting–I have had elevated white blood cell counts during every annual physical exam for many years and I could feel my lymph nodes swell up during bad gut events, in the past. Now that I am not having obvious symptoms, it’s harder to know what to add/cut out of my diet to further refine this/improve immune system function. I’m guessing the chips (yucky oils, omega 3/6 balance) would be the first thing to go. Would that impact immune function, if I had a poor omega 3/6 balance? I do eat a lot of fish and fish oil supplements and grass fed beef/pastured eggs. Probably I should lose beer and potatoes. I’m hesitant to give up bell peppers because even though they are a nightshade, when I don’t eat them I get leg cramps. Maybe I need a different source of potassium? And if I give up chips, beer and potatoes, I would be WAY down on my carbs and lose weight. I mean, leafy greens and carrots just aren’t many calories and I am limited in how much fruit I can eat, due to fructose sensitivity. I could keep eating corn, though–maybe just just masa or popcorn made with coconut oil. Any ideas?

      DThalman wrote on August 1st, 2011
  4. AWESOME STORY! Inspirational, from someone in the same agegroup; female & almost 54. I agree it’s sad the medical community isn’t generally on board with being primal. It so easily (duh!)makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. For those of you in Portland, Oregon, my doctor (Dartmouth graduate- I just found out, female, same age group, coincidentally) actually promotes primal, paleo and low-carb. LOVE HER! (google, OMWL.)

    Went in over a year ago for roller-coaster dieting (you know the drill- low-cal, low-fat), found I was in the hyperinsulinemia vortex and now continue improving with much better numbers, more limber joints and a wealth of information. I found Mark’s book(s) and website from her! As well as the Eades’ Protein Power and Fragoso’s Everyday Paleo. Thank you all, and thank you Mark.

    Your RA and gastro info I’m forwarding to my sister and a friend at work.

    tburke wrote on July 10th, 2011
  5. How’s rock climbing with fivefingers? I LOVE climbing in them but I’m still kinda an amateur. What’s the expert’s say on it?

    Vivian wrote on July 10th, 2011
    • 5 fingers aren’t for climbing; we have special shoes. I love to run in mine though, and stand in small trout-laden creeks! :)

      dthalman wrote on July 11th, 2011
  6. Yeah, for sure check into what candida overgrowth is at Bee Wilder’s Natural Healing website. It looks a little hokey and I wish I could personally re-design it, but the stuff I finally learned on that website was amazing – and of course frustrating because I was learning all this so late in life. The symptoms and causes and solutions just made so much sense, I couldn’t believe it. Thing is, it’s still so unrecognized as a serious problem that I personally haven’t told anyone the reason my diet’s been so restrictive is because of this – I’m afraid they’ll all think I’m a hypochondriac. But I have memories of frequent infections as a child, have always been overweight even in very active periods of life, feel incredibly better on an anti-candida diet and my mom told me the first time I had antibiotics was when I was 6 weeks old – which probably screwed me up right then. Everything on there just makes too much sense – check it out!

    MaloryVon wrote on July 11th, 2011
  7. I just finished reading T.S. Wiley, et al’s “Sex, Lies and Menopause,” and cannot recommend it highly enough.

    It has answered almost all of the questions I’ve had as to “what the heck is wrong with me” that I’ve had for nearly 30 years.

    Darleen wrote on July 12th, 2011
  8. One other really great way I found to test for food problems, since I’ve had the same issues for years, is BioSET. It’s a way of quickly testing for food allergies and sensitivities. A trained practitioner has an electrode hooked up to a computer with their program on it, and they wrap the electrode with a moist paper towel and you hold it in one hand while they use a stylus to press on a certain meridian on the other hand. Then they test you on all the foods you question, and can tell what you’re sensitive to. I found that in addition to glutens, which I’d known about for years, I also had problems with dairy, eggs, coconut, and chocolate; but I can keep the wine, especially the red. Who knew?

    Lmyers wrote on July 12th, 2011
  9. Now this might be a strange comment, but I have to say it anyway.

    I have a pound puppy (part hound of some sort and part German Shepherd). At 1 year, he was diagnosed with SIBO after nearly dying when he stole a whole bag of flour one day. I tried so many different diets for him but no matter what he would have episodes of explosive squirts and couldn’t put on the weight he needed to. While he gained about 10 lbs after the diagnosis when he was put on a pro-biotic, he was still underweight at 50-55lb.

    I finally got fed up, and the last straw was my rescue 1 year old lab suddenly dying from potentially contaminated dog food (all 3 of my dogs were on their own special diets-weight management, large breed, and a special food for my SIBO dog). I started doing extensive research on diets and dog foods and everything else. I actually came across MDA during this search.

    My dogs and I have been living primal since October and it’s the best thing that could have happened to us-especially Tucker. He’s now a powerful, cut 75 lb beautiful beast and all his intestinal issues have virtually disappeared. It truly is amazing what this lifestyle can do for both people and animals.

    Amy wrote on July 16th, 2011
  10. Danielle, Thanks for sharing your inspirational story. I’ve been researching FODMAPs ever since I read this. I already don’t eat a lot of the things that are high FODMAPS, like gluten and dairy. Now I understand why things like mushrooms, broccoli, and cauliflower give me problems too. Thanks for turning me on to FODMAPs! Rock on you rock star :)

    P.S. From a fellow climber.

    Claire wrote on July 17th, 2011
  11. For those interested in a Yahoo forum for people who have trouble digesting FODMAPs:

    Kat wrote on September 9th, 2011
  12. It must have been a lot of fun isn’t it. I love adventure sports too, but rarely get the time to do them regularly.

    Vince wrote on March 3rd, 2012
  13. I was sure you were going to realize you may have mast cell activation syndrome. Can’t do most fruits, fermentation, wheat, tomato, spinach, many others.. Also involves bleeding issues.

    Linda wrote on December 4th, 2012
  14. I am so happy I stumbled across this story! I thought I was a healthy, fit person….then at 36 I started noticing (really noticing) bloating and digestive issues. I too thought it was wheat or gluten and for years had experienced random reactions that never seemed consistent. I have been on FODMAP for nearly 2 weeks and I feel so much better! I am still having some issues and am wondering how I can keep things flowing smoothly with no grains or fibrous foods? I miss garlic and cheated and had boring gluten free pizza at a restaurant last week and I felt great after:) Whatever was m the dough must have been to.erable so I’ll need to find out the recipe.

    Jennifer wrote on May 21st, 2014

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