Suffering from chronic illness is not the inevitable price of admission to middle age.
While preparing to write this, I found a list of all my symptoms that I had written in preparation for seeing a new cardiologist and it literally brought tears to my eyes to think about. When I wrote that list I was 49 years old and well into my second year of suffering from angina (chest pain) at the slightest exertion, having periodic spells of heart attack-like symptoms, feeling sick from any kind of exercise and unable to do the activities I loved. I wore the maximum recommended dose of nitroglycerin patches to help dilate my blood vessels to prevent angina, and as long as I didn’t exert myself, they mostly worked.
The first time you have a scary health episode that lands you in the emergency room, you imagine that the diagnosis of your problem will be a priority and that fairly quickly you will have an answer and a prescription or appointment for a procedure that will prevent it from happening again. Well, that’s what I naively thought. Not so. Once it is determined that you are not going to die in the next 24 hours, your chart is updated with the diagnosis of “anxious female” and you are released home into the care of Dr. Google. Thus begins a marathon of appointments, testing, follow-up appointments, referrals to specialists, more testing, more follow-ups, more referrals and no satisfying answers. I endured a lot of diagnostic testing and mostly fell within normal ranges (though often on the left end of the bell curve) but no one diagnosed me with anything treatable.
The one test I consistently failed was the cardiovascular stress test. I did it on a treadmill, a bicycle and with drugs to stress my heart and each time the results were positive for cardiac ischemia, but I was assured that women frequently show false positives and that this was not to be taken seriously.
Even though my expectations for a clear diagnosis quickly became very modest, I was still surprised at how disappointed I was after every doctor’s appointment. On one occasion I broke down into tears at being told I didn’t have the potentially fatal disease I’d just been tested for. Not tears of happiness that I didn’t have a terrible disease, tears of frustration at not having an answer. I can just imagine that doctor’s impression of my mental stability.
…you become just another middle aged lady with a chronic illness and “anxiety”.
Through the process of elimination, it became clear I didn’t have any of the acute illnesses that might kill me in the short term. Once you hit this stage, even though you can think of nothing else but your condition and it affects every aspect of your life, you become just another middle aged lady with a chronic illness and “anxiety”. And that’s when I got depressed.
I couldn’t have been much fun to be around. There was a pretty big, permanent Bev-shaped indentation in the couch and my activities became more and more limited. I needed a day to rest after something big like grocery shopping. I often relied on prepared foods or take-out for dinner because I didn’t have the energy to cook, and my other household duties were even less likely to get done.
I’d left my job as an air traffic controller a few years earlier to simplify our family’s lifestyle. I was grateful not to have to go to work every day, but I felt pretty crappy knowing I wasn’t actually well enough to hold down a job if I’d wanted to. I also felt like I was failing at being the stay at home partner in my marriage.
The turning point in my story is when I saw the movie Forks Over Knives on Netflix.
The turning point in my story is when I saw the movie Forks Over Knives on Netflix. I’d seen a reference to it in one of the Facebook groups I was in and decided to watch it. I even managed to persuade my husband to watch it with me. In the film there is a basic explanation of endothelial function and how it affects our arteries. The endothelial cells are cells that line all of our blood vessels and help them to regulate blood flow. Hardened arteries are caused by calcification and plaques that build up on an unhealthy endothelium. Inflammation and poor food choices damage the endothelial lining and over time the function can be dramatically reduced. From my consultations with Dr. Google, I already knew that one of the causes of angina is endothelial dysfunction, but when I saw the film, I understood the mechanism and that this was very likely the source of my illness. Before the film was over, my husband and I looked at each other and agreed to try the whole foods plant-based (wfpb) way of eating that was described. I told myself I would give it at least 6 months or a year to fully evaluate whether it was working. Little did I know how quickly I would see results.
I would have started eating the whole foods plant-based way immediately, but I had one last cardiac imaging test scheduled for a month later, and I thought that if there was anything to this, I’d better eat normally so I wouldn’t confuse the test results. I used that last month to research recipes and strategies, and even, I confess, to use up some of the meat from the freezer. It didn’t taste as good knowing what I knew and I ended up giving quite a bit away. The morning after that last PET scan, I jumped into the wfpb lifestyle with both feet and never looked back.
It is a way of eating that emphasizes whole plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts.
So what is a whole food plant-based diet anyway? It is a way of eating that emphasizes whole plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts. Oils and refined flours and sugars are derived from whole foods, but leave most of the health promoting parts of the food behind. I eat very few processed foods, though there are some that are helpful. Things like tofu, tempeh, plant milks, nut butters, and some commercial breads are made from relatively few whole ingredients. I don’t eat any animal products at all: no red meat, dairy, chicken, fish or eggs. Luckily, there are many resources available to help with recipes and techniques for eating this way.
So what happened? Well, the first few days I really felt like crap. I was recovering from the heart-stressing PET scan I’d had while at the same time going cold turkey from my beloved coffee cream, cheese and yogurt. After 3 or 4 days, I started to feel “normal” again but after a few more days I got a woozy, headachy feeling that felt very much like the feeling you have when you are adjusting to the extra vasodilation from a new higher dose of nitroglycerin. But I hadn’t adjusted my nitro dose. Once I made the connection and reduced the number of patches I was wearing, the woozy feeling disappeared, and there was no chest pain. Every week this would happen, until after 4 weeks I was using no nitro at all and suffering from no angina. I would have been thrilled had this been the only health benefit, but it was only the beginning.
Some changes were improvements to things I didn’t even really know were wrong with me. I had a lot more energy and felt like I was recovering from a very long bout of flu. My constant winter companion, eczema, cleared right up. Seasonal pollen allergies largely disappeared. My digestion works perfectly. All my stiff and sore joints are pain free. I haven’t had to take so much as an aspirin for anything since changing my diet. My heart rate and blood pressure are both considerably lower than before. My resting heart rate is now in the 50’s and my blood pressure is typically about 110/65, compared to 130/90 before. My total cholesterol went from 238 to 126. I suffered from difficult periods, as do most of the women I know who are in their perimenopausal years, but now they are shorter, lighter and much less painful. I haven’t experienced night sweats in months, though they used to plague me. My mood is much better than before. Ridding myself of so many health problems no doubt played a huge part, but I feel lighter inside as well.
It turns out that a whole foods, plant-based diet truly is the fountain of youth.
One thing I had not anticipated was that by reversing the chronic illness that made me so unwell, I gained a whole new perspective on life. Instead of dreading the future, I now have another 50 years to do anything I want. I no longer feel like everything is behind me (except some youthful foolishness and misadventure) and now anything is possible. It turns out that a whole foods, plant-based diet truly is the fountain of youth.
When I was sick, I was always conserving my energy so that I could continue to function. I minimized the number of trips up and down the stairs, and I figured out that I could clean the tub with my feet when I was in the shower so that I wouldn’t have to bend over to clean it later. What a joy it was to regain some vitality and feel like moving again! After about six weeks of my new way of eating I started working out on an indoor rowing machine. Rowing is an extremely good way to exercise most of the body’s muscles and aerobic system. I started slowly but I was quickly able to build up fitness and strength and even post some respectable times. Now I feel like an athlete and I’m even starting to look like one!
For lots of people, weight loss is their main concern. I had always felt chubby, but I’d never devoted any serious effort to losing weight. I had resigned myself to being overweight, especially after putting on an extra 10 or more pounds when I was laying on the couch clutching my chest for those 18 months. The biggest number I ever saw on a scale was 190 lbs. I figured I was just a big boned gal at 5’8”. Today I am 150, the same as I was in high school. I sometimes catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and surprise myself at my relatively thin silhouette.
I see no reason I will not be able to eat this way and maintain my weight loss for the rest of my life as there is absolutely no willpower or self control required.
My weight loss started at about 2 pounds per week and continues at about 1/2 pound per month 10 months later, as I get closer to my ideal weight. I always eat according to my appetite and I have never been unpleasantly hungry or unsatisfied. I snack frequently and even eat dessert on most days. I see no reason I will not be able to eat this way and maintain my weight loss for the rest of my life as there is absolutely no willpower or self control required. I simply eat whole, plant-based foods and do moderate exercise most days of the week. Neither is difficult to do because the food is delicious and I have lots of energy to move.
It’s not controversial that heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity and other chronic diseases, as well as many cancers are lifestyle related. These are diseases of modern life in developed countries. As people assume a western diet they also assume chronic diseases that used to be limited to the wealthiest among us. Every doctor will advise diet and lifestyle changes to help prevent these diseases, but they are weak on specifics. Mostly they will counsel a moderate approach, left up to the patient to interpret, and will keep their expectations low.
There is an alternative and it seems radical to some, but, to roughly paraphrase Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, it’s pretty radical to rip open someone’s sternum and replace a coronary artery with a vein ripped out of their leg, with no guarantee it will prolong life. Of course, invasive surgery is only available to you if you have a disease that can be seen and diagnosed.
Women’s cardiac health in particular seems to be a mysterious field, even though more women than men now die of heart disease.
So many of us, especially women, suffer from low energy and a million different symptoms and are never offered a treatment that would make us feel better. Women’s cardiac health in particular seems to be a mysterious field, even though more women than men now die of heart disease. It is the number one killer of women, far ahead of breast cancer. I was extremely frustrated with what felt like a brush off from doctors but I now realize that they are much easier to deal with when they feel like there is something they can do to help the patient.
The fact is, there are things that doctors could do that would prevent and reverse many conditions that are only poorly managed with conventional treatments. They could counsel their patients to watch the documentary “Forks Over Knives”, stop eating animal products and start eating whole plant foods.
Suffering from chronic illness is not the inevitable price of admission to middle age. It simply is not necessary and I hope to spread the word about how anyone can take charge of their health and completely transform their physical and mental wellbeing using the power of whole plant-based foods.