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

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