A Doctor Finds Primal Balance

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!

Dear Mark,

I’m a physician and budding blogger, and I’ve been a fan of MDA for a few years now. You are my blog-crush, always combining the perfect blend of serious scientific information with colloquial content. Primal living is about much more than just what we eat and how we exercise, and your posts always reflect that!

My story begins around the time I found your site and your book, The Primal Blueprint. A bit of background: I’m a very tall (over six feet) woman who was raised on Conventional Wisdom and the Standard American Diet, replete with Oreos for breakfast, bologna sandwiches for lunch, and spaghetti for dinner with Cheetos and Hostess snack cakes thrown in between! In high school, I was heavily recruited for athletics due to my height but was never courageous or confident enough to learn how to play sports. I focused more on my schoolwork and music studies, and I couldn’t have cared less about what was going on with my body. This all changed when I met my husband in my freshman year of college: a very tall and athletic rock climber who inspired me to exercise and learn more about health and fitness. My newfound love of fitness grew through our climbing adventures around the world, and it eventually prompted me to pursue a career as a physician.

Fast forward to 2007 and the transition from medical school to Anesthesiology residency, where I felt the healthiest and fittest I had ever been. The future was bright with possibilities in all sorts of outdoor athletics and my budding career as a physician. As many MD trainees do, I had developed some bad habits related to food – like eating junk because it was free and available at the time you encountered it, as you never know when you’ll again have time for your another meal. Ironically, the medical establishment perpetuates these habits by providing the unhealthiest food free for the taking during our required lectures and call shifts… doughnuts, cookies, pizza, you name it. But for a year or so, this poor eating style failed to affect me much and I was able to keep a semblance of fitness. The Chronic Cardio queen that I had become kept slogging through post-call runs, group exercise classes, or rides in an effort to “stay fit” and counteract my poor nutrition with the math of “Calories In, Calories Out”.

When I started my specialty training in Anesthesiology, I began to feel the effects of chronic stress on my body and mind. While I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time, in retrospect I was not myself. I began to suffer depression, sleep disturbance, and a general lack of vigor that affected my work and relationships. I suddenly hated going rock climbing. My poor eating habits worsened in a vicious cycle of treat/reward and overexercise/remorse, and my then 35 year-old body started to show the effects. My previously “toned” (read: skinny-fat) body that could handle eating a half box of Lucky Charms after each step class was slowly becoming fat-fat. Being tall, this wasn’t too noticeable to the outside world, but I fell into an even deeper pit of self-loathing.

And yet… I continued to chow down on free hospital doughnuts, cookies, and cake at all hours of the day or night. I tried severe calorie restriction with “cheat days”, but the cheats turned into huge binges and the frequency increased from once a week to every other day! My cravings for sugar became insatiable. Any exercise I did in attempts to counteract this out of control situation was deteriorating in quality. In fact, I began to suffer an incredible fatigue that left me needing a nap after even a short walk. Getting up for an early morning cases in the OR became a daunting task.

I knew deep down that something was seriously wrong, but I chocked all of these changes up to my stress level and the general process of aging. The only “medical” manifestation I could report to a doctor was the absence of my period for the past several months. After much laboratory testing, it was decided that I had stress-induced amenorrhea, which was basically akin to saying that I had self-inflicted menopause at age 35. I was devastated! My estrogen levels were so severely low that I had started to show the signs of osteopenia on a bone density scan. A 24-hour urine study revealed high levels of calcium in my urine. My thyroid labs were out of whack. There was talk of scanning my head for tumors, which I immediately shirked. At the time, it all seemed like a ridiculous, far-fetched Zebra chase!

With the blessing of my residency directors, I took a leave of absence from my training program to embark on a mission: to fix my body through effective stress management and self-care. That’s when I embraced MDA, The Primal Blueprint, and other primal teachings from people like Nora Gedgoudas and Robb Wolf. My husband, being the early adopter that he is, was already fully on board with Primal eating… but I loved me some baked goods that I had not been able to part with! I learned meditation, completed a silent yoga retreat, internet/phone fasts, and a Primal 30-day Challenge during this time. I vowed to share what I had learned about the under-addressed areas of stress management and self-care with other professionals through a blog, now dubbed PracticeBalance.com.

After sufficient time for rest and learning these self-care techniques, I returned to work feeling (mostly) rejuvenated. My mind felt much calmer, but my body still continued to battle cravings, fatigue, and weight gain. My period still hadn’t returned, and some of the medical procedures that I perform as part administering anesthesia (especially those that involved visual-spatial skills) seemed to be lacking. I ran into my own doctor one day at work, who upon hearing my persistent troubles, insisted that I finally get a brain MRI. There it was… larger than a marble, a tumor shaped like a little octopus with its head pushing up into my midbrain and its tentacles wrapping around my optic nerve! I was both devastated and elated… maybe this was the key linking my strange, nonspecific chain of problems!

It’s been a little over a year since I had brain surgery to remove the tumor, which turned out to be a benign pituitary adenoma. After a long hospital stay with horrible headaches and even a re-admission for dangerously low blood sodium levels, I was left weak, bloated, and at my heaviest weight ever. My pituitary gland is still unable to signal the correct amount of cortisol production, resulting in the need to take steroid medications, and I have permanent peripheral vision loss in one eye. However, I am so grateful to be cancer-free and have essentially normal function. Being a patient in an ICU is an experience that I will never forget, and it has shaped my practice as a physician. I slowly became stronger while trying to take care to not get sick while finishing the final months of my residency program.

(Before and After pics above. Hover for caption.)

Since graduating from residency and transitioning to Anesthesiology practice, I have renewed my pledges to stress-management and self-care by embracing the Primal lifestyle. My high-protein, moderate carbohydrate Primal Blueprint diet leaves me satisfied and without insatiable sugar cravings, I lift heavy things 2-3 times per week, sleep an average of 8 hours a night, and take long walks with my husband and dog. I started rock climbing again this spring, and I recently completed my hardest climbing level in years! PracticeBalance.com provides me with a creative outlet and a means to share my experiences with others. My weight is down 35 pounds from my heaviest point, my pants are two sizes smaller, and my body fat has decreased by almost 10%. I don’t just feel like my “old self” again; I feel stronger and better than I ever have!

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86 thoughts on “A Doctor Finds Primal Balance”

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  1. Super awesome story! It’s great to hear it from the perspective of someone in the medical field. It just makes me cringe hearing about the unhealthy habits being promoted in a place of “health”…

    1. Unless you work in healthcare, you would be surprised at the very unhealthy habits of most of us in the field. Crazy hours and stressful work environments and an abundance of high carb/bad fat laden foods make for over-weight, unhealthy doctors and nurses.

      1. Who is paying the $$ to provide all these munchies in the hospital lounges? Big Pharma?

        1. Sometimes the hospital provides food as a “treat,” sometimes doctors/nurses/staff buy it, and sometimes sales reps from pharma or medical device companies will bring it. Sometimes food gets ordered for meetings and there’s always leftovers from that.

        2. In most of the hospitals I’ve worked in, the hospital provides food for meals from the previous days ‘leftovers’.

          Same old, though. Everything I’ve attended has horribly unhealthy food provided, usually carb-grain laden.

          I always try to pack my own food as the cafeteria choices are anything but healthy, especially the ones officially deemed ‘healthy heart’ meals.

        3. There are also the grateful patients that will bring boxes of cupcakes or pizza for the floor…this happens on a pretty regular basis

        4. Last time a checked there were either state/local or federal laws prohibiting pharm reps to give ANY freebies away so it not “big pharma”. Its usually the hospital or other employees.

      2. Yup, my Mom’s a kidney transplant coordinator and she, of all people, is pre-diabetic!! Tough job with constant temptation from pharm reps who bring in sweet garbage to “sweeten” the deal and help sell their wares.

      3. although your before didn’t look overweight at all to me. now you look taut.

        my dad is an MD. for many years, he had black coffee + donut for breakfast. he also smoked. (he was not alone in his department)

        that was before he quit then switched to “healthy low fat milk + oat meal + brown sugar” for breakfast.
        Ah! (i did my best to change him to)


        1. Thanks for your comment, and I totally know what you mean about trying to change behavior of family members… I bought my dad (who is not a doctor) the Primal Blueprint, and so far I’ve gotten him to switch to granola bars that don’t have HCFS for breakfast. It’s all small degrees of change, better than none!

      4. I’ve heard about the insane hours that new doctors have to work.

        To me it is just a form of hazing. There is no good reason to run someone into the ground like they do.

        The medical profession in the United States stinks.

    2. There are a handful of medical professionals who truly understand how critical it is to eat right. The person who introduced me to Paleo also diagnosed me with gluten sensitivity!

    3. I agree! I just took on a client in my health coaching practice that is an OBGYN. All his meals (if he eats any during the day) are ordered in and the majority of his staff are overweight. The reality is, there is very limited nutrition education administered in medical school and even if there was, most medical professionals lack proper balance in their lives between the energy put forth caring for others versus caring for themselves!

      Caring for ourselves is the best thing we can do in order to provide the best care for others! 😀

    4. The medical establishment prefers that you be sick. There’s no profit in healthy people.

      1. “The medical establishment prefers that you be sick”

        One of the most idiotic statements I have ever read.

  2. You look amazing! I don’t miss the “treat/reward and overexercise/remorse” roller coaster either. Great blog too!

  3. Congratulations! I love your writing style and your wit. I hope your patients appreciate it too. 🙂

  4. 1001 Congratulations! I was born with Sickle Cell Anemia, something that can’t be solved with an operation.
    Keeping fit and investing in your health is never easy but doing after facing a medical condition is almost heroic.

    All The Best To You

    1. Thank you so much! While I have daily medications and yearly MRI’s, I’m so grateful that I had a “surgical cure”… I wish you the best for your SCA management!

  5. me and my pituitary macroadenoma (prolactinoma) loved reading this. thanks!

    1. Mine was also a prolactinoma, but the weird thing was that my prolactin was normal, not elevated on bloodwork. If it had been, maybe I would have found it sooner! But that would be a different story…

  6. You look healthy and beautiful. Congratulations on turning everything around even in the face of what must have been a scary time for you.

  7. Congratulations on being cancer free, and kudos to you for taking control. My anesthesiologist husband still operates on the “calorie in-calorie out” mantra. I get how ingrained your training really can be… enjoy your healthy life!

  8. Way to go Doc! …and I hear ya about all the crap food around the hospitals.
    Grateful patients families would bring in tons of yummy but carb laden food to the nurses lounge when I worked NICU and at 4am it is hard to resist.

  9. congrats on progressing your career and improving your health!

    As far as your medical issues, many of them mirror what i’ve been going through in the last few years, although Drs told me they didn’t think my adenoma was producing anything, so they left it in. I am currently doing bio-indentical hormones to get my thyroid, estrogen, and all other super low hormones where they should be.

    1. Thanks, Melissa! Weirdly, my tumor was a prolactinoma on pathology analysis after removal, but my prolactin was normal on bloodwork. So even if they think it’s nonfunctional it could be… I have to do the estrogen thing too but my thyroid has normalized. Good luck to you!

  10. Looking great… I jumped on board the primal train several years ago…lean and feeling great… 53 year old radiologist who ate the same trash in medical school and residency.

    1. Excellent! I feel sometimes like I’m the only one In my workplace. Not only are there lots of people who just eat the crap, but there is a big contingent in my department of chronic cardio China Study devotees… ugh!

  11. I had a pituitary adenoma removed at 17 years old (I am 42 now). I have long suspected that my weight issues stem from the HRT that I have been taking for years (cortisone, thyroid, estrogen). For years I have been trying to find the right balance in these medications. I know that PB is the best diet out there for me but I still constantly struggle with the sugar cravings.

    1. I totally know how you feel, as I am also on most of those meds, but definitely I attribute being able to taper my daily hydrocortisone dose down through Primal eating/living. I still have a sweet tooth, but with consistent Primal eating it is much more manageable. Good luck!

  12. Wow, glad you discovered what was making your body acting strange. I resonate with your story a lot, with especially with stress management. I have no problem with exercise and diet at all– the physical discipline is easy for me to follow. The hardest part for me is stress management. Doing meditation and yoga certainly helps me a lot to deal with stress.

    1. Thanks! I will be posting more about specific stress management modalities on my blog in the future, so I hope you will check back!

  13. Congrats! It is heartening to see a growing number of medical professionals embracing the primal lifestyle.

  14. Your story didn’t put me to sleep by any means– and for an anesthesiologist whose occupation is doing just that…er, anyway, great article– great climbing–glad to see you healthy and primal in the land of junk food which seems to be a occupational hazard for those in medicine! God bless.

  15. Wow, wow, wow! This is exactly the kind of transition I am looking for! I am filing your story in the Inspiration Folder!!!!

  16. Well done indeed! What a struggle for you and what hurdles you overcame. Pays to be your own advocate in and to the medical world.

    And …as a patient who has been thru WAY TOO MANY operations – just a big thank you to you and all the Docs who knock us out and wake us up!

    We definitely want you all healthy and well rested so you can keep your eyes on those darn surgeons 🙂

    Again – and inspiring story.

    1. Thanks! I totally agree about being an advocate… I have blogged about this before, in a post about what I learned from being a patient!

  17. It’s always inspiring to hear medical people going the Primal way. Great story.

    1. Agreed! As great as it is for people outside of the system to preach a primal lifestyle, it helps add credibility when a doctor recommends Primal Blueprint

  18. Proof that a balanced approach based on ancestral habits coupled with the best of what modern medicine can offer are our current “keys” to better health and vitality.

  19. An amazing story! Way to go listening to your body and being determined about getting answers! How long did it take you to make your transformation from your before to after photo?

    1. Thank you! The before photo is 6 months pre-surgery, but I pretty much looked like that (or bigger) until 3 months after surgery… the after photo is about a year postop, so 9-ish months or so I would say.

  20. Amazing story! There is a lot of perseverance there – more than most people could have managed! Very inspirational!

  21. Living near the CDC and Emory University, we have quite a few docs in our neighborhood. I am always amazed that when I talk to docs about nutrition, they always say that it is not part of their education. I would be really interested to hear more about the epigenetics – and inflamation as a trigger for disease. At this point, I am so far down the primal path, that I think pretty much everything is caused by a high carb, wheat based diet! 🙂

    I am glad to hear that this Dr. did well with her tumor and surgery. My FIL had the same pituitary tumor that grew into his optic nerve. He has not had the same recovery.

    I know that this tumor really messes with your hormones, and I think that she has done an amazing job of managing it with diet.

    Well done!

  22. Not even dieticians get true information about human dietetics. When I studied dietetics in the’70’s, we were taught that high fat diets were theraputic for siezure disorders. They also said that it resulted in fat people. There were no such endings in the case histories, they simply ended with the improvement of symptoms. They just drew this conclusion from the facts to that point. Kind of like the happily ever after in fairy tales.

    1. I do applaud your recovery. You showed great courage. ALL of my friends have died in the past 10 years of cancer. I’m so happy to have you here with us.

  23. Great job! Beautiful, smart, and tall woman and very inspirational story! You really make me ready to get the last bit of my own story finished up!

  24. Wow – this is a great story! I have a pituitary adenoma as well and it caused some very major hormonal imbalances.

    And guess what – I STILL have it but by eating primally and fasting daily I’ve reversed my testosterone numbers from 12ng/dl a few years ago to my current 1192ng/dl. It’s amazing what happens when you give your body what it craves!

  25. Always nice to come across other rock climbers on MDA. Glad you were able to overcome such adversity with your positive mindset intact. And kudos to your husband for finding such a wonderful, attractive woman for his mate 🙂 I wish you both the best.

    1. Thanks! I’ve recentky been climbing in Rifle, and I’m currently working on a post regarding what rock climbing has taught me about stress management and self-care. So ceck back at my blog later!

    2. +1! I was actually put onto the Primal way of eating from the forums of a climbing website. Still lot of CW to be found on those too though.

  26. Congrats from a Primal PACU Nurse! I know it feels lonely in the medical field, but, thankfully, there are more and more of us getting on board every day! Great job combining stress reduction/management, primal nutrition & lifestyle and conventional medicine to “heal thyself.”

  27. Just wanted to say congratulations and I like your blog. Your results are very inspiring but even more I am glad for another Primal voice in the medical world.

  28. WOW what a fantastic story I’m so glad you have made a full recovery from your brain tumour operation.

    Best of luck in the future

    Best wishes


  29. Go on a ketogenic diet if you want to keep your cancer from growing back.

    Read Nick Lane’s Power, Sex, Suicide if you want to know why (and if you want to geek out on mitochondria); also read Gary Taubes’ modern classic, Good Calories, Bad Calories – chapter 13 he talks about IGF (Insulin-like Growth Factor).
    Taubes is something every MD and health researcher (and every nerd) should read.

    Fruit flies are often studied for their genetic resemblance to humans. Ever heard of a fruitfly getting childhood leukemia? Ever seen a thousands-years-old tree get leaf cancer? Why is it that humans are the only multi-cellular organisms that can die of cancer? How does cancer even manage to kill a multi-cellular organism when making sure cells don’t rebel is a primary function of being multi-cellular?

    Answer: cancers plant the seeds of their own destruction when they deactivate their mitochondria to block programmed cell death. Without the ability to burn fat or ketones… or even sugar at an efficient rate since they only use sugar fermentation (& eat the by-products for a little extra energy), they are doomed to failure and destruction by well-fed white blood cells that use cellular respiration.
    UNLESS… said cancer becomes ultra insulin sensitive by building large amounts of insulin receptors & you eat a shit-ton of carbs and fuck up your carb metabolism, and in the process generate insulin that will degrade IGF-binding protein, ensuring that cancers get enough growth hormones to not die, AND that said cancer is now getting the only energy source it can eat, in spades. This is especially true if, like I said, your carb metabolism is messed up and your non-cancerous tissues are already insulin resistant… because cancers don’t get insulin resistant.

    The radiologists that scanned your cancer injected you with a radioactive glucose molecule… because they know the glucose will be taken up in excessive amounts by your cancer, and the radiation will show them exactly where it is.

    1. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling, wave your fist in the air and yell, “Damn you, Warburg Effect!”

  30. Awesome story, love your blog too. I am curious- I very similar symptoms to you and I had prolactin levels tested that came back normal…but you said your results were also “normal” and it was only the insistence of another doctor to get an MRI that detected the tumor? Did you have headaches along with lacking visual spacial skills?

    1. Thanks for your comment! I did not have headaches, and you are correct I had normal prolactin. So keep vigilance if your symptoms persist!

      1. Thanks for replying- appreciate it. I am still having symptoms so I am going for an MRI next week.

        I feel a bit paranoid but I had some lab tests done and found out the my TSH is back up despite being on meds(I have hypothyroid) and my estrogen levels are low as well as elevated testosterone. My hair has been falling out like crazy, I am SO fatigued and I have gained significant weight in the past few weeks- and still no period for 7 months. I am just beside myself with anxiety which doesn’t help.

        Did you have any of these types of issues? The problem is that I live in Africa where the medical system is severely lacking-so I am going back to the States at the end of the month for more testing.

        I really want to get the most out of my trip back so do you have any other recommendations for me- who to see, what types of tests to have my doctor order etc.? I am going to see a Paleo Doctor and also signed up with a Certified Holistic Nutritionist- but she basically doesn’t think that is is very diet related as I have been extremely clean with my eating, but she wants me to do an Adrenal Stress test as well as GI Analysis.

        Any help or advice on what to look for would be so helpful, thanks again.

        1. Michelle, I recommend you schedule an appointment with an endocrinologist while you’re here, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. I hope your trip to the US brings you the answers you are looking for!

  31. I am a night shift nurse for the last 17 years. I gave up gluten, dairy and soy. Due to health problems. I lost 40lbs and have kept it off for four years. I am trying to give up coffee and sugar. I do exercise couple times a week. I practice meditation and go to Unity church. Most nurses are over weight and have a lot of health problems. I made a diet change. I didn’t go on a diet. Gluten made me sick.

  32. An interesting and inspiring story for sure. I’m going to read your blog now. I just heard about the paleo diet this week so I’m brand new at it. I was pretty much a vegetarian most of my adult life, but my guts were always bothering me. I had sore joints plus I need to lose a few pounds.

    Over the years, I’ve been told by naturopaths and chiropratics to eat meat, but I’ve resisted because of the fat, and the animal cruelty involved. I really didn’t believe that eating meat was healthy, but I’m starting to. The poor little animals though. It’s so sad. But whadda do?

    I think your little belly looks great in both pictures. I wish mine was as pretty as yours! Maybe some day it will be as my carb consumption is almost nil now, except for what I get from vegetables. I’ve been working out with free weights too and in just three weeks I’ve noticed a big change.

    I do crave bread, cheese, ice cream, caramel, you name it, anything that’s sweet and gooey. Thank you