The other day Lauren and I were having one of those fairly common talks people have around this time of year. We were talking about grief, and missing people. She talked about her dad, saying this and that, I was just listening. Then she said, "Well, he basically ate himself to death."
That sentence has been stuck in my mind. Ate himself to death. Now, when many of us hear that, we think of an obese person. Or Willy Wonka. Either way, that's not the case here. Her dad was never obese, or even overweight. He had a physical job. He was a happy guy to be around.
Lauren's dad died, at only 63, from a type of early onset dementia. It began taking his mind when he was around 56, slowly at first, missing a word here and there in a sentence, or getting slightly confused. It progressed quickly over only about 2 years to the point that he couldn't work, and had large lapses in memory with profound confusion. He ended up needing full time care at a facility down the road from Lauren, and in the last few months of his life was nearly completely disconnected and at times, extremely afraid.
So many people will read that and think "I hope that doesn't happen to me/my dad/my mom/my friend", and maybe they feel a sensation of fear or anger at the disease we named dementia. Or Alzheimers. Or cancer. The symptoms Lauren's dad suffered from became common enough in our society that they were given a singular name. That is how any collective recurrence of a string of symptoms comes into being- enough people start being affected in similar ways and we give it a name as a way to identify it and the experience of it in a common language.
So, getting back to Lauren's comment. While her dad had dementia (actually, he didn't exactly fit perfectly into any one diagnosis. Does anyone, really?), dementia isn't actually anything. You can't pull out a piece of dementia, hold it in your hand and say here is dementia. Her dad ate himself into the expression of dementia, then died from it. Her dad died from eating fast food multiple times per week. Her dad died from M&M's and candy every day. From soda every day. From white flour mixed with sugar every day. He ate indiscriminately. He was a very normal guy. He ate dinners at home every night, but they weren't from scratch. Processed and boxed foods were the normal. He didn't have to develop dementia- he could have had a heart attack. Or cancer. Or a stroke. Or diabetes. Or any combination of diseases. His body could have raised any number of white flags to signal it's high level of distress and suffering, but for Mike, it manifested as loosing his mind.
I want to step back for a minute and address a common question that arises when one reads something like that last paragraph. Well, it's not so much a question as it is a defiance. The defiance sounds something like:
Even if I eat really clean, really healthy and deny myself all the yummy things, I could still get sick with something. So, what is the point of denying myself every day the yummy things if I'm just going to get sick and die anyway? I'd rather enjoy my life, thank-you-very-much.
Yep. Absolutely. We all die from something. Yep. Denying yourself yummy things is hard.
However, this is about suffering. Denying yourself yummy things is a form of suffering- an extremely mild form of suffering that over time becomes pleasurable and liberating and happy and (hopefully) contagious. Conversely, indulging in the yummy things in the moment feels like pleasure and liberation and happy times. However I guarantee it will make you feel like crap in some way, and almost immediately. And, when you do fall victim to the white flag your body will eventually wave, you will suffer. and those around you will suffer. Tremendously.
Now, again, look at this; we will all die from something. Imagine if you had been good to your body. Fed your body good fuel that made your mitochondria sing, your liver hum along and your kidneys filter like champs. Now let's say you are diagnosed with cancer. Because you are healthy (no, that isn't an oxymoron nor a typo), whatever experience you have with your cancer will be easier and better. Because your mind is clear and your body composition is good and your blood is clean, whatever treatment you choose will be more effective, and you will suffer LESS. Case in point- I know someone who was diagnosed with cancer. Fairly significant cancer progression. This person isn't what I personally would call a healthy eater, still eating white flour, dairy, sugar and such but they ate more discriminately than Lauren's dad. They hardly drank alcohol and much of what they ate was home made from scratch. The oncologist was thrilled when she saw how healthy their liver and kidneys were! She assured this person they would process the chemo and meds far better than most because their organs were functioning so well. They did, and are currently doing well and enjoying life. Of course this story begs the question of what if this person had actually fully eaten healthfully, would they have had the cancer experience in the first place? It's an impossible question to answer, but analytical thinking would tell us it is entirely possible they may have avoided it.
Let's tie in science-y stuff with Lauren's profoundly insightful statement about her dad, and how his diet influenced his brain disease and subsequent loss of life. We have this protective mechanism in our body called the blood-brain barrier. Imagine a bunch of tiny little soldiers standing guard at the base of your brain. Here is a description from Brain Facts.org:
It took until the 1960s before scientists were able to catch a glimpse of the actual barrier standing between the rest of the body and the brain. Using a microscope that was roughly 5,000 times more powerful than the one Ehrlich used, scientists could see the detailed anatomy of the network of blood vessels in the brain comprising what is now known as the blood-brain barrier.
Similar to all other blood vessels in the body, scientists learned that the brain’s blood vessels are lined with endothelial cells, which serve as an interface between circulating blood and the vessel wall. However, unlike other blood vessels in the body, the endothelial cells in the brain are tightly wedged together, creating a nearly impermeable boundary between the brain and bloodstream.
The over consumption of sugar causes brain damage. Dr. Mercola advises keeping sugar intake below 25 grams per day. Currently it is estimated the average person consumes 75 to 150 grams of sugar every day. It's easy to do this, one can of soda contains at least 35 grams of sugar. The subsequent insult all of that glucose has on the brain is truly damaging! The brain learns better, works better, and remembers better when there is free insulin floating around in there. Excess glucose in the diet can cross the BBB (not Bed, Bath and Beyond people! Blood brain Barrier) and really gunk things up in there. From the Frontiers of Endocrinology Journal:
...insulin in the brain contributes to the control of nutrient homeostasis, reproduction, cognition, and memory, as well as to neurotrophic, neuromodulatory, and neuroprotective effects. Alterations of these functional activities may contribute to the manifestation of several clinical entities, such as central insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM), and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). A close association between T2DM and AD has been reported, to the extent that AD is twice more frequent in diabetic patients, and some authors have proposed the name “type 3 diabetes” for this association.
The food we choose to put into our mouths every single day informs and creates our blood chemistry, our hormonal profile, our mood, our energy, our happiness...It is equally about learning and deciding what not to eat as it is to learning what to eat. For many people, it needs to first start with what not to eat. We are an indulgent society with everything our heart desires at our fingertips, with no parent around to tell us "No! Put that back!".
The point of my sharing all of this with you is not to promise a future with no disease, no ill health, no aging...it's to hopefully drive home the point that if you do end up experiencing some state of health compromise, you can enter into that experience as healthfully as possible, so that your suffering and the suffering of your loved ones is as low as possible, and your recovery from ill health can be as speedy as possible.
You do have a choice; you can choose instead to eat your way to health!