Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
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!
I know I sound crazy. Like, Hare Krishna, ran off and joined a cult, crazy. But this is all true, and I know it is, only because I experienced it firsthand. Am I a good example, or a horrible warning? Hopefully, if I play my cards right, I can be both.
My memories of childhood are hazy. Especially names, places, and dates. I spent a lot of time, just sort of “drifting” with the current. I remember images, and faces. And I remember being sick a lot. Not like “I HAVE THE SCARLET FEVER!” sick, but just a runny nose, and teary eyes. Since I grew up in California’s Central Valley, no biggie: seasonal allergies were legendary there. Hay fever was just assumed. The fact that it turned into sinus infections on a regular basis was just a given- right? As I got older, it would last year-round. Inevitably at the first cold snap, I would lose my voice. There was always a chalky pink bottle of amoxicillin in our fridge door, right below the milk.
I was also prone to ear infections, and vividly remember a procedure at around age 5 where they made me swallow “something that glowed” and then not being allowed to move so they could get a better idea about the bladder infections I couldn’t seem to kick.
I seemed to outgrow most of it: with the exception of the lethargy and the sinus stuff. Poor Mom knew something “wasn’t right” and dragged me to so many doctors: to have my thyroid tested, to check for allergies, and everything came up “fine”. The ENT guy finally just said, “This kid is sniffling constantly because she has teeny nasal passages, and gigantic adenoids. She might grow out of it, or she’ll need surgery as an adult.“ Great. By default, I became a chronic mouth-breather.
School was OK. I was quiet, usually characterized as a “dreamer” and by teachers who paid attention, an “underachiever.” Since I wasn’t a behavior problem, what would now probably be diagnosed as “ADD” was never noticed. I tested well, but in a noisy classroom, I had the attention span of a gnat, unless I could focus on one thing at a time. Two things I was great at: reading books or watching TV. If I was on my own playing with a friend, I was fine, but slumber parties were a disaster: all my high-pitched peers in a room together talking at once were absolutely overwhelming. I viewed these rites of passage with dread, as I knew I didn’t fit in, and my involuntary snoring was something humiliating I would be teased about later on. And I was always tired, so I’d be the first to fall asleep.
The first recollection I had of sneaking food would have been around the age of 10. Maybe it’s just that I was embarrassed to be caught at that age: I think it probably started earlier, but was written off as just being a kid. I was always hungry, and was getting “chubby”. My parents didn’t say anything about it: just implemented family walks after dinner, or I would ride my bike while Dad jogged. It just seemed to make me hungrier.
My first official diet was in the summer between 6th and 7th grade. I begged Mom to send me to Weight Watchers. Kids had been teasing me at school. I wasn’t 12 yet, so I needed a note from my doctor. I remember the scornful faces of the other kids in my group when they heard I only had 10 lbs to lose. They wanted to know just WHY was I there? They had been forced to attend these humiliating meetings, by their parents, by medical professionals. Back in the mid 80’s, there was usually only one kid at school who resembled Augustus Gloop, which was the limit of my experience until then. There they were, all gathered at Weight Watchers in an obese and resentful horde. They had 40, 50, 60 lbs to lose. To this day, I hope I wasn’t smug. I do remember thinking, in my 11-year-old ignorance, “If I ever get that heavy, I would just want to die.”
So Mom encouraged me to fill in my nutritional log. She joined with me for moral support. We went to the store together to shop for special diet food, and I learned to count – this was before points, I think they were called “exchanges” back then. I got more exchanges because as a kid, I was still growing. I checked off my boxes, and rejoiced because I could have peanut butter on my rice cakes for breakfast every morning. Which may be the most depressing food-related sentence ever written.
I lost 8 lbs that summer, writing everything down, checking off boxes, exercising faithfully. Between that and my graduation from thick glasses to contact lenses, I was evidently unrecognizable. When I went back to school, I was like Clark Kent, except my phone booth was a diet center, and instead of spandex and a cape, I had ankle-zip acid washed Guess? Jeans, Reebok hightops, and an Esprit book bag. Mom was excited not to have to shop in the “Big Girl” section, and we had gone all-out.
At my 12th birthday in November, I got a clown sundae from Farrell’s, and devoured it under the disapproving eyes of my father, who said, “You’re not going to eat that, are you?“ And of course, by the time Christmas rolled around, I ate a pizza pocket or three from the snack bar, and had gained all that weight back plus more. Mom was still packing a nutritious lunch: carrot sticks, celery, a sandwich on white diet bread with turkey breast and a slice of low-cal plastic cheese (mustard only!) along with a little bag of pretzels (lowfat!), sometimes a non-fat yogurt sweetened with aspartame and flavored with God-knows what, and a diet cream soda. I would say 50% of the time, into the trash it went. My peers could eat pizza pockets with no problem, and I desperately wanted to be like them. But metabolically, I just wasn’t. At 12, this was difficult to understand.
This is around the time I started having problems with cystic acne. I didn’t know what it was, just told dad that my ear was hurting me. I do remember the look on his face when he peered inside my ear and recoiled. The next thing I knew, there were needles and matches and alcohol and pressure and pain and blood and yelling. OH the yelling! Mostly from me.
After a few more incidents like this, my long-suffering mother took me back to the pediatrician. He peered into my ears with his trusty otoscope, and said, in his German accent: “I don’t like this. Usually, this is an indicator of outbreaks as a teen and young adult.” I sat sullenly through this, and as a gesture of pre-teen hostility, refused to let him draw his trademark duck on my arm with a ballpoint pen.
So I religiously swabbed my ears with alcohol, and tried to avoid chocolate. The acne continued, and worsened, and spread. And inevitably, every summer, and sometimes in-between, I was on a diet. Slim-Fast, Weight Watchers (multiple times), Low-fat on my own, you name it. Some of them worked for awhile, but I would inevitably take a break and get discouraged, and BOOM: twice as much to lose next time around. I remember lying in my bed, listening to my stomach rumble, and looking at the tiny pink hearts on my wallpaper in my bedroom, and just wishing. My weight became something I prayed about, a constant reminder that Something Was Wrong With Me.
As I got closer to college, and gained and lost, and gained it all back plus more, I got more discouraged. I needed to lose 40 lbs, then 50 – my parents got more concerned. Bribery: promises of money, of new clothes, of the choice to attend the private university I had fallen in love with on my visit there – they were all dangled before me. And oh, by God, I tried. When conventional methods failed, I tried to make myself throw up – and am now thankful for the fact that it didn’t work.
I was so embarrassed by my seeming lack of control over my body, of my appetite that strove to thwart me, of the fact that I constantly felt like I was starving, of my figure, which was an exaggerated hourglass that was impossible to shop for in the junior section. It was also impossible to walk to the bathroom in a TGI Friday’s without some dudebro at the bar trying to pick me up. Dad would walk me to the bathroom when we went out to eat. I was 16, and I looked like a 30 year old cocktail waitress.
This is also when the long-awaited facial breakouts started to happen. I ping-ponged back and forth from the allergist, to the endocrinologist, to the ear, nose, and throat doctor. I didn’t get any answers, but actually did lose some weight, due to the mass quantities of antibiotics I was taking, both orally and topically (I constantly had stomach acid). And then on my last checkup before college, I went to see the same gynecologist my mother went to: an old-school gentleman, who ordered my mother out of the room, asked if I was sexually active (NOPE) and gruffly handed me a prescription for birth control pills, with the instructions, “You’re a lovely girl: don’t ruin your life.” Then he added, as an afterthought, “These might help with your acne, too.”
I coasted through college. I was still drifting through life like a jellyfish, but now I was away from my family and still not technically an adult, so I had zero guidance or parameters. Luckily, I made some great friends, and learned how to fake it. I grew up: I got a little edgy. I threw parties, and went to more parties, and then everything just came to a screeching halt.
I just sort of abandoned any kind of responsibility in my life. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what happened. There wasn’t any sense of choice about it: I evidently had coasted for so long, I just traveled straight into a brick wall. I am guessing what I was dealing with was depression, although I didn’t know that at the time, and couldn’t explain it when my parents wanted answers – WHY?!! I couldn’t get enough sleep, and I stopped returning calls. I checked out.
Back to the endocrinologist. Back to a doctor, who was a friend of the family, who had been briefed beforehand. Also, a psychiatrist. My parents were frantic for any explanation. Alien abduction? Hormonal imbalance? I had only ever been marginally present in my own life anyway, and I look back at this entire time through a haze. There is no real answer. I couldn’t tell you if I blocked it out in the interest of self-preservation, but that is a guess. I was in a dark place, just drifting. I just remember the reaction of the endocrinologist the most, when he reassured me that I was normal and there was nothing wrong with me, and I burst into tears. He patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, and said, “I do not think the problem is you. I think the problem is something else.”
I moved back in with my parents briefly, realized immediately that it wouldn’t work, and moved out again as soon as I got a job. A super-cheap two bedroom apartment with a roommate was my salvation. I was half-heartedly attending a local college because I didn’t know what else to do, and somehow ended up playing swing music on the college radio station at 1 AM. This dovetailed nicely with my job doing graphics and filming the news at a TV station. I also started to “wake up” – with a vengeance. I had gone into my coma at 180 lbs, and come out of it at…I would estimate, 260. I don’t know for sure, because I refused to get on a scale. I lost some of it on my own, but the solution for the rest was to go to a “medical weight center” and they hooked me up with a pill called Bontril. They weighed me weekly and took my blood monthly, and for the first time in my life, I could wake up for work on time and lose weight, spend an hour on the elliptical at the gym every day, and clean my grout at 4 AM with a toothbrush. In the plainest sense, it was probably a lot like crack. However, my thoughts had a crazy sharpness. For the first time in my life, I had some clarity. I remember wondering, “If everyone functions at this level all the time, why can’t I?”
I met the man who would become my husband when he called into the radio station late one night. A lot of guys would call: they evidently found my 2 AM rants about Cheez-Its and my husky and congested voice strangely alluring – but he was the only one who had asked me about the music I was playing, not what I was wearing. I remember being shocked when I met him – what I thought would be just a funny story for my friends later, ended up being someone who I hit it off with immediately. We will celebrate our 10 year anniversary at the end of July, 2012.
By the time we had gotten engaged, I had gotten down to 200 lbs, which for me is about a size 12. I’d done it thanks to the looming threat of the impending wedding, my willingness to exercise like a crazed hamster on a wheel, the fact that I had no appetite thanks to chasing the Bontril Dragon, and the fact that surviving pretty much solely on reduced-fat Smart Pop microwave popcorn didn’t kill me first.
I got married. I think I gained back 20 lbs over the course of my Bontril-free honeymoon. My husband was deployed for six months, and when he got back, we started trying to start a family. And trying. And trying. Once again, after a full workup, the doctor said there was nothing technically wrong with either of us, but suggested weight loss would help with my fertility. I tried Bontril again, but it didn’t work. I tried anything and everything I could think of. We went through horrible fertility treatments. At the end, we were emotionally and financially drained. I was back in depression central, and all I could do was eat cookies and cry. I never had much direction in life, except wanting to be a mother, and this seemed like the ultimate betrayal of my body. It could not even do this, something that every woman should inherently have the capacity to do, and what I had always wanted.
Surely, this should be the motivation I needed. Motherhood was my brass ring. But the weight, which once would disappear (albeit, briefly) if I followed the rules, had begun to defy the guidelines I had so carefully drilled into myself. I would get down to a certain weight, 215, and exercise faithfully, lift weights, count every calorie – and gain. I bought a pedometer, I bought a polar heart-rate monitor, I bought a Go-Wear Fit, I tried eating more whole grains, I went to the doctor, I did the math, all to no avail. The doctor I went to actually said I wasn’t being honest with myself, and tried to explain how to do circuit training to me. Me, veteran of many gym memberships, personal trainers, and hour-long sessions on the elliptical! Pfft! But what was worse, I was getting debilitating migraines once or twice a week, crazy PMS, my acne had branched out into rosacea, and my hair started falling out! I blamed stress.
The hard-learned truth: when you eff with Mother Nature, Mother Nature effs right back with you. 25 years of yo-yo dieting and chronic cardio, not to mention a constant barrage of pharmaceutical crap in the name of health, had trained my body to hang on to whatever it could for the upcoming famine ahead. I know that now.
I was at rock bottom, and had been flailing for awhile, when I found The Primal Blueprint.
There’s a sentence in the book that details the many things gluten sensitivity can cause: Brain fog. Infertility. Migraines. Congestion. Acne. Lethargy. Depression. Those are the things I can remember. Because when I read them, I screamed, and threw the book against the wall. It was like opening a dictionary, and seeing my face. All I could think of was all the stress, the doctor visits, self-flagellating behavior, the pills I had taken and shots I had given myself and money that had been spent. Could it really boil down to this? The recurrent infections and depression and congestion and ditziness since childhood? This whole acne/infertility weight loss nightmare? Was it true that a change this simple could have seriously changed my entire life?
I just thought, well, I just thought it was me. But that long ago Indian endocrinologist, maybe he was right. It wasn’t me, it was something else. Maybe grains and sugar were that elusive “something else”?! I looked at myself, a thirty-five year old woman, who loves her technology, her smartphone, her curling iron, high heels, jewelry, and cosmetics. Underneath that sophisticated (albeit, obese) veneer, could I really be a cavewoman?
It was time to find out. I chucked grains. All of them. I cut drastically back on sugar.
Within three days, my rosacea was noticeably diminished. Within a week, my snoring was quieter, and I was waking up refreshed for the first time in years.
In two weeks, my skin was clear. I get the occasional zit, and the scars still remain, but this in itself is a minor miracle. Also, I had lost 5 lbs. And I was not constantly hungry. My eyes, which were always, always bloodshot, like I had been hotboxing in someone’s VW van, suddenly revealed that they had white sclera!
A month in, I was 10 lbs down, and I had my waist back. News flash -you typically look better and it’s a lot easier to wear clothes when you are no longer shaped like a potato. This is also when I realized that my debilitating migraines were blood-sugar related, because they stopped happening. I also was waking up in the morning before my alarm. I had amazing amounts of energy.
Two months in, I could breathe through my nose. This is still something I have to focus on, as I have been conditioned by decades of having to breathe through my mouth. Those teeny tiny nasal passages and giant adenoids? I am guessing that was chronic inflammation, even as a kid.
That winter, My “hair guru” reported that my hair was thickening back up, and no longer falling out. And my seasonal depression just didn’t happen. My husband called me a pet name, his “little black raincloud” – or at least he started to, and then he said “You know, that really doesn’t suit you anymore.” “My little piranha” also seems to have disappeared from the repertoire without comment. Thank God.
Another traditional winter hallmark: my horrible recurrent sinus infections: didn’t make any appearance. And let me tell you, I sure as hell don’t miss them. I haven’t had one since. I have a familial history of high cholesterol: While I did get a big scary number recently, my ratios are good and my triglycerides, after decades of being elevated, are nice and low.
After 6 months, I went home for Christmas, and saw a friend of the family, who asked, ”What are you doing? You look so…healthy. And happy!” And without thinking, I smiled and said, without thinking, “Thank you! I AM happy!” And it’s true. I am. Nobody is more surprised about that fact than I am. When I run into people I haven’t seen in awhile, they will inevitably ask, “What are you doing?!” And I am happy to tell them.
I almost didn’t write this because, well, I didn’t magically get skinny. There’s no “big reveal” with me wearing a crop top to show off my 6-pack abs. I do still have bad days, when I have to remind myself that skinny and healthy are not the same thing. I do occasionally get the “stink eye” from some poor deluded schmoe when I throw uncured bacon into my shopping cart. While I haven’t lost a lot of weight, I am able to eat like a normal human being and maintain. I am repairing decades of damage that I did to myself, and it’s just going to take time – and patience.
By that token, I have been spared adding another 30-50 lbs to my grand total for the 2.5 years I have been eating this way. Which is no mean feat! And I am getting stronger, and exercising more because I enjoy it now, not because it’s a chore. Life is short. I do what I love: Zumba classes, walking, riding my bike and playing active games on the Wii. And occasionally go on new adventures. The last one was going opal mining in the Nevada desert over Memorial Day weekend. My (new, awesome) doc says she will clear CrossFit when I get a little lighter. I know, you can scale, but as she says, you only get one pair of knees. Can’t argue with that.
There are so many gifts I have gotten from following the PB. My health, my motivation, my identity, the ability to buck the system and go with my gut, self-worth, and respect and love for my own body and what it can do. Hopefully, motherhood is next. All of those things are beyond price. Thanks a million, Mark, for what you do!!!