Tomorrow, January 5th, 2015, I embark on my 3rd Whole30. (If you are here and don't know what that is, you can find all the info here or here). The past two times I did it, I admit, I didn't go 100%. I would follow the plan for two to three weeks, and then my thought process would turn to, "well I pretty much eat this way all the time... so I don't need to be so strict." But I have learned since then that 1) "Pretty much" doesn't count, and 2) Yes, for these 30 days I do need to be so strict. Sure, the majority of the time, I eat a diet void of processed food, grains, sugar, modern dairy, and legumes...However, I do include many grass-fed dairy products in my diet on a daily basis. I don't crave sweet foods, but I also don't sweat having some honey or maple syrup from time to time. I will eat gluten-free grains once in a while, a beer here or there, and way too much caffeine (which I have found I do not handle well, yet continue to drink it).
I also don't feel my best either. Coincidence? Not at all. I can go on for hours about how what/how you eat affects how you feel. The ways in which food affects your health are honestly endless. But for me, I know a specific few points that have really been causing the problems lately, so for this round of Whole30 (maybe 45... maybe 60), I am going to pay extra special attention to these aspects. So I had the idea to create this blog of my experience for a few reasons, the first of which I admit, is selfish- something to keep me on track and motivated- to cook (something I have been doing less and less of since I started school and teaching), to try out new recipes, and to do food prep. Secondly, as I plan to have my own Nutritional Therapy practice one day, it will be a place I can point clients if/when they choose to embark on their own journeys to a real food diet.
My main focus over the next month is going to be digestion and gut health. Most people think that if you have digestive issues, you need to have physical digestive upset and other nasty symptoms-- that's the furthest thing from the truth. Digestive problems-- intestinal permeability ("leaky gut), gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the intestines), low stomach acid, and more-- can certainly manifest as physical symptoms, but often arise in other areas. Why? Because digestion affects everything. Thousands of years ago, a smart guy said, "All disease begins in the gut." My experiences and studies have proven just how true that statement is. Good nutrition is a foundation of good health, but if you can't digest and absorb nutrients properly, and/or bad digestion is setting off your immune system and causing inflammation, how healthy can you be?
For me, my gut issues manifest as hormonal issues. Basically, my thyroid isn't performing how it should be. TSH (or Thyroid Stimulating Hormone), which is actually a pituitary gland hormone) signals the thyroid to make T4, the inactive thyroid hormone. With the help of certain nutrients (such as selenium and iodine) and even bacteria, T4 is converted (in the liver and the gut) to T3, the active thyroid hormone-- which affects nearly every cell in the body, but especially affects the metabolism. Without enough T3, we become exhausted. We sleep as much as we can, but never feel refreshed. There’s so much more that goes on, but basically, you feel like crap. [And one of the biggest problems is that the majority of medical doctors only check TSH and T4 when screening for thyroid issues… so for a while, I felt crazy since my doctor continued to tell me I was fine. It wasn’t until I found a holistically-minded doctor who listened to me, until I actually figured out what was going on- my TSH and T4 are normal, but my body doesn't adequately convert enough T3).
To make thyroid hormone, the gut and liver need to be healthy, and the body needs to be extracting nutrients from food. Yet low thyroid causes low stomach acid (hydrochloric acid, or HCL), which is needed by the body to digest proteins and other nutrients, and also to initiate the process of digestion and absorption. If you cannot adequately break down proteins, you cannot adequately get the amino acids you need for numerous important functions in the body (including making thyroid hormone). Without enough stomach acid, pathogens can thrive in the stomach. If food isn't broken down enough in the stomach by stomach acid, it will arrive undigested to the small intestine, where it will irritate and eventually wear down the mucosal lining of the intestines, allowing undigested food and other pathogens to make their way into the bloodstream, which will lead to a heightened immune response, constant inflammation, and eventually, food intolerances and allergies. Since stomach acid also is one of the most crucial beginning points of the digestive process, without enough of it, you just don’t digest and absorb nutrients as well as you should. Without nutrients, your body’s systems cannot function properly (since at a cellular level, we need nutrients), setting you up for nutritional deficiencies and related issues.
What else helps the body convert T4 to T3? Gut bacteria. A million and one things negatively affect our unique populations of intestinal bacteria-- but two of the biggest offenders: antibiotics and stress-- two things I am no stranger to. Without enough good gut bacteria, your health is intensely affected—bad bacteria can thrive and your immune system suffers (the majority of your immune system is actually in your gut). And another note about stress—it messes with your hormones and your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. The Whole30 already takes steps to reset blood sugar regulation by eliminating processed foods, sweeteners, and grains... but did you know that caffeine also negatively affects blood sugar as well? Caffeine doesn’t give you energy. It gives you stress… and therefore, false energy. So if you are stressed out and adding cups and cups of coffee to the mix, you are actually just creating more stress. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!
Ultimately, I cannot really figure out what came first-- the digestion malfunction or the thyroid malfunction. It's a classic "chicken and egg" scenario. But it doesn't really matter, because fixing one will help fix the other, and vice versa. (If you want to read more about the links between thyroid health and digestion, this article written by Chris Kresser, and this article written by Steven Wright are great places to start).
So essentially, I am embarking on this Whole30 with a more motivating purpose than I had the past two times. In the most simple terms, a plan like the Whole30 is meant to be an elimination diet, and a means to let the body get back to how it should be functioning. It eliminates processed "food" (read Dr. Weston A. Price's work, and then tell me processed food isn't the ruination of our society's health), common food intolerances, and foods that cause inflammation. At the same time, you eat whole, nutrient-dense, nourishing foods so that you fuel your body properly and give it what it needs to work properly. Therefore, this way of eating allows the body's systems to heal. It allows the body to get back to (or for many, start getting back to) optimal function. The body is programmed for health. It has innate healing powers—it just needs to be provided with the right tools and environment. (The thousands of Whole30/”real food”/ancestral diet/traditional foods/”paleo” testimonials are proof).
So in addition to the basic Whole30 guidelines (No processed food, grains, dairy, sweeteners, or legumes… and lots of healthy, nutrient-dense animal proteins, colorful produce, & good fats), I also will be taking extra gut & hormone healing steps:
So today, after a weekend (really, a month) of not-the-best food choices, we did recipe research, went grocery shopping, spent the day in the kitchen, and packed our meals up for tomorrow. If you are embarking on the Whole30 for the first time, a few words of advice I can give you are:
Kim Jordan, NTP - Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, health educator, CrossFitter, nature lover, student of life, once-aspiring writer. Owner of Root and Branch Nutrition.