Hacking the energy, sleep, focus, depression, headache, body-ache, and mood-swing problem

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and—as with all my content—I am only sharing my experience, not giving medical advice.

Just before Christmas, I got an offer for my first book. I was elated, over the moon, peeing my pants in excitement. It has been the biggest dream of my life to be an author, and something that was impossible to imagine at all five years ago.

But, alas, it came! After many years of stops and starts, writing thousands of words only to can them, and working with my agent for about nine months, it sold! Merry Christmas to me!

We Are The Luckiest will be out in early 2020 from New World Library.

That’s not what this post is about, though.

Because I was about 30% done with the book already, the manuscript deadline set by the publisher was pretty aggressive. And almost immediately, a little voice started to nag at me. It said:

You won’t be able to do this unless you change something.

I’d been battling constant fatigue, energy swings, inability to focus for long periods of time, or sometimes at all—as though there was a thin, cloudy film around my brain—for too long. I was afraid to admit this because it scared me. I craved naps, all the time. Almost immediately after I woke, I would start to fantasize about the break in my day when I could crawl back into bed. Even a few commitments during the day would cause me to panic. The tiredness felt urgent, like something pressing against me, or pulling me under. I’d search for reasons why I could be so wiped: my period, a headache or migraine (those were happening almost daily too), the big projects I was undertaking, winter, something emotionally taxing.

In March last year, I ended my ten year romance with Ambien. I thought this would fix it. Once I learned how that little pill was actually robbing me of sleep instead of allowing it, in addition to the other havoc it was wreaking on my brain, I figured after the initial adjustment period, I would start sleeping for real and have a new lease on life.

Well, it certainly helped. For a time, I felt a marked difference, and the relief of simply being free of it carried me for a while. Pink cloud!

But, when I was still telling myself six months later that my urge to nap was probably a layover effect of my body adjusting to no longer using Ambien, I figured I better do some more investigating.

So I got blood tests. Thyroid was normal. No Vitamin D deficiency or other abnormalities.

I stopped taking the birth control pill.

I tapered the SSRI I’ve been taking for nine years down to a lower dosage, under the supervision of my doctor, because sometimes they can cause fatigue.

I went to therapy.

I spent time in the sun.

I kept exercising (although to be honest, my will for this had plummeted).

I made sure I was drinking enough water.

I didn’t have caffeine after noon, and only two cups in the morning.

But still, nothing. Still, I was dragging. And becoming increasingly worried that something was seriously wrong.

Like many women, I have a history of disordered eating and dieting and obsessing about weight and food and my body.

In short, I grew up with zero shame about my body. I was an athlete. I ate what I wanted. My body size and how that correlated to what I was eating as being “bad” or “good” wasn’t part of my lexicon. But then, sometime around my senior year in high school, it became A Thing. In a stupid challenge to lose weight for my senior trip, I did the Cabbage Soup Diet and lost weight fast. It was intoxicating. So I did it again. Boys started to notice me. Everyone noticed. This was new. I was hooked.

When I went to college, the rubber band of starving myself snapped and I started to binge. I gained all the weight back plus a bunch more. I felt totally out of control, all the time. It was hell.

From age 18-30 my body: its shape, what I was eating or not eating, exercising, all of it, was a ten-ton monkey on my back all day, every day. It was never right, always too big, always the enemy. The only thing I hated more than my body was how exhausting it was to think about it all the goddamn time. 

When I met my would-be husband, some combination of being in love, body shifts, and probably—unfortunately—an uptick in my drinking, I dropped the food/body monkey. Or it dropped me. And once it was gone, I swore I would never, ever, ever pick it back up again.

I stopped weighing myself. I ate what I wanted.

My body evened out.

Save the year after Alma was born, when I had such severe postpartum that I lost an insane amount of weight almost overnight, my body and weight has basically stayed the same for the past ten years. No matter what I put into it.

When I got sober in 2014, I adopted a “whatever works” attitude. Quitting drinking was hard enough, I let myself do basically whatever else worked to stay that way, including eating an unprecedented amount of junk food. Sweets especially. I fully embraced my sugar cravings. 

A couple times, I attempted to clean up my diet, but it was never a wholehearted venture. Even talking about food and eating plans bugged me. I just couldn’t bring myself to care. And again, I didn’t want to slide back into old tendencies. I didn’t want that monkey on my back again.

Which brings us to a month ago. 

I realized it was time to peel back this particular layer. Sobriety is like that, I’ve learned. So annoying. First it was the drinking, then it was my work, then money, then my home, then I did the steps and took care of a bunch of emotional business, then it was quitting Ambien, then the Big Kahuna of my man-stuff, then social media sobriety, and now…I had arrived at the land of my body. Food. Feeding myself.

So, at the beginning of January, I decided—quite on a whim, which is how I do everything—to do Wheat Belly. It wasn’t a total whim, of course, I've been reading and learning and paying attention to food and health-related information for decades. I had read Wheat Belly late last year and found it particularly compelling. I also started following Melissa Hartwig and the Whole30 protocol and it all just makes sense. Eat whole foods. Plants and animals, mostly. Cut out processed junk. Grains and sugar in very limited quantities, or not at all. I chose to go totally grain free because of what I learned about gluten—the symptoms I was experiencing seemed to be directly correlated: fatigue, brain fog, bloating, mood swings, depression, anxiety. And, I wanted to really clean the slate, so to speak, so if I introduced something again I would know very its effect on me.

(To be clear, I followed Wheat Belly Total Health, not the original Wheat Belly book. WBTH calls for eliminating all grains, not just gluten.)

I decided to cut out sugar too, because I knew that it was a real issue for me. I wasn’t just the kind of girl who was eating just a couple sugar-filled yogurts here and there, and maybe a cookie or ice cream cone one the weekends. I was hoovering sugar, daily. I was a stop at the gas station and buy a bag of Peanut M&Ms without blinking type of girl; an ice cream every night woman. Plus, once you start to really pay attention, you see that sugar is added to everything, so I knew I couldn’t just eliminate “sweets” and make a real difference. 

(To be clear, no sugar meant: no sweets/candy/etc. of course, but also no honey, agave, maple syrup, or other “natural” sugars and, for a while, no fruit.)

Even though it was a quick decision, I also knew I meant it. I was too afraid of not being able to finish writing this book to mess around. I needed my brain. I needed my energy.

I decided on the night of January 2 that I would begin the following day. For the first ten days, I documented little updates in my IG highlights, here.

The detox breakdown.

  • Day 1: No big deal. Starting a new thing is always exciting. 4-hour drive to Vermont was not ideal, though—long car rides are a typical signal to snack on crap for me.

  • Day 2: Huge headache all day. Crabby. Tired. No cravings. Taking Ibuprofen for headache every few hours.

  • Day 3: Energy is better, but still a headache, no cravings. I began drinking even more water with sea salt in it and I ordered some supplements based on Melissa Ramos’ suggestion*.

  • Day 4: Woke up with debilitating migraine. Hungry all day for the first time. No matter how much or what I eat.

  • Day 5: Woke up again with awful headache. Attempt to workout for the first time, vomit at the gym and go home (yay!). Too soon. Slept. Headache continued. Worst day so far.

  • Day 6: Begin supplements recommended by Melissa and celery juice in the morning, as recommended by everyone and their brother on IG. Energy better, did a six mile walk, headache better.

  • Day 7: Travel to California. Traveling is hard, lots of cravings on flight, headache is bad, being tired makes everything worse.

  • Day 8: Take my first run in a long time on the beach in California. Headaches intermittently, but energy is much better.

  • Day 9: Almost all symptoms receded; still a little sluggish.

  • Day 10: Travel back home. Feeling great. All acute symptoms have passed, and I’m excited to be home and get settled into my new routine.

*Magnesium chelate buffered 3x body weight in mg, spread out through the day, probiotic in the morning, B complex with breakfast + dinner. I also added L-Glutamine to help with sugar cravings—it works, taken between meals.

Note: Melissa recommended supplements for me based on her knowledge of my history + body composition. I don’t know if she’d recommend these things to everyone, so don’t just take my word for it and copy me! She offers coaching + has tons of free information and resources on her website and Instagram.

The juicer makes a comeback!

The juicer makes a comeback!

A few notes on detoxing.

  • It was hard, but not horrible, and it passed relatively quickly.

  • Ridding my kitchen of all processed sugar/snacks and most grains (I still have a kid who likes Mac & Cheese) felt great. I did it on Day 3, but would recommend doing it before you begin. 

  • Adding the supplements Melissa suggested helped immensely. I’ve detailed them below.

  • Traveling is hard; I should have been more prepared. Nuts and cheese sticks were not enough. Next time I will bring more/better snacks.

  • Bone broth did wonders. I prefer beef, and I bought it from my local butcher and added sea salt. I have it in the afternoon. It’s warming and so delicious. Most grocery stores now carry it too.

  • Adding sea salt to my water sounded gross, but my body loved it. Helped with the headaches.

  • Celery juice should be called poop juice OMG.

  • I had a friend going through a similar thing at the same time. We texted daily and this helped a lot. Solidarity is always good.

  • The first 6-7 days felt like a hangover—I kept marveling at how I lived like I did, with daily hangovers, for so many years.

Typical day of eating.

AfterlightImage 2.jpg
  • Wake between 4:45-5:15 (M-F). During detox, I let myself sleep in later, I needed it. Weekends, I wake up between 6-7. And yes, I go to bed early: between 8:30-9.

  • Glass of water.

  • Celery juice first thing, 16 oz. Making a big batch of celery juice (5-6 days worth) and storing it in the fridge is far better than pulling out the obnoxious juicer every morning + cleaning it daily. I wouldn’t have stayed with it otherwise.

  • Bulletproof coffee (I’ve been doing this for a couple years now and love it, though I just make it myself rather than buy all the Bulletproof branded things, and I don’t put it in a blender, I just use one of these little guys to mix and froth it.) I have two cups between 5-7 am while I’m writing.

  • 7 am: wake the kid, get ready for school.

  • 8 am: gym on gym days (2-3x a week), a walk if it’s warm enough, or just get down to working/writing.

  • 10 am: I am hungry. One of the benefits of Bulletproof coffee is that it’s satiating because it’s dense in fat. I am also not typically hungry when I wake up anyway, have never been.

  • Breakfast is some mix of the following:

    • Green juice from store near house (all the greens + ginger and jalapeno)

    • An egg cup or two - these are super easy

    • Eggs, some other way: scrambled, usually, with spinach or avocado

    • An avocado diced up with lemon, salt, pepper

    • Leftovers from dinner

  • 2-3pm: lunchtime (I’m not trying to eat at a certain time, just when I’m hungry). These have been my go-to’s:

    • A huge salad with some kind of protein on it

    • A Bowl of Stuff (detailed below)

    • A Siete quesadilla (many people brought Siete foods to my attention and OMG). They have an assortment of grain free tortillas and Whole Foods carries them. Quesadilla is just two tortillas grilled, with butter, cheese inside.

Bowl of Stuff.

Bowl of Stuff.

  • 6-7pm: dinner. I’ve been doing one of the following almost daily.

    • A Bowl of Stuff. I got this idea from Melissa Hartwig. Basically, it includes:

      • A vegetable base like riced cauliflower, riced broccoli, zoodles (veggie zoodles: zucchini, squash, beet)—all can be bought pre-made at the grocery store, I don’t have the patience to do this shit myself. Sauté your base in a high-quality fat (I use olive oil, coconut oil, or ghee)

      • A protein. I do grass-fed ground beef because it’s delicious and my body seems to love it. Sautéed with lots of garlic powder. 

      • Whatever extras you want: other veggies, no-gluten + low-sugar sauces, grated cheese (I do parmesan), Cholula, Braggs, whatever your heart desires.

      • The best part about this is you can make a huge batch and just re-heat and add different extras to mix it up.

My go-to snacks.

  • Nuts: cashews, almonds

  • Almond butter: a spoonful, right out the jar—I get the fresh machine-made stuff from Whole Foods, which has only almonds, nothing extra

  • Cheese: any kind

  • Avocado: sliced up, lemon, salt, pepper

  • Nana Joe’s grain-free granola bars. OKAY, THESE PRODUCTS AND THIS WOMAN ARE A GODSEND. I discovered them at the San Francisco airport (it is so much easier to eat well in California than in New England!). I posted about it and the owner messaged me and guess what? She’s sober, too. She sent me the sweetest care package so I got to try some of the other products: spiced almonds, grain-free granola (yes!), and more of the granola bars. The granola products do have a decent amount of sugar in them, so I didn’t overdo it, but they are fantastic.

I asked her if she wanted to partner up to do a special offer for my community and she said yes! So, here’s a little gift from us:

AfterlightImage 2.JPG

15% off Nana Joe’s!

Use the code FOODMATTERS at her shop for a one time 15% off your entire order. AND, free shipping after $30.

In summary, regarding meals: I am learning new things every day, but overall, I am keeping my food very simple and repeating things that work. Why? Because I don’t really have a lot of time to cook right now, and it’s also not how I choose to spend my time when I do. Just eating this way has been a massive enough shift, considering I was eating takeout/in restaurants 70% of the time before (yep!). 

Okay, I’ll get to the punchline.

AfterlightImage 3.JPG

You want to know how I feel, right? Remember, my goal here was to have energy again. To be able to focus, not chase naps, not fear planning things, to be able to write for the 3-5 hour blocks of time that would be required to finish this book, and have energy left to run my business and mother. My goal was not weight loss.

And the verdict is: holy shit, do I feel better. Far, far better than I could have imagined. My friend Meadow said that once she fixed her diet, she felt like she’d woken up from a four-year hangover. I feel the same, but mine is more like a twenty-year one (!). It makes me want to cry.

This is what I’ve noticed after doing this for one month (minus the detox period):

  • I sleep better, and require less sleep. I’m out within 15 minutes of my head hitting the pillow, and once I adjusted to the early wake-up time I get up and out of bed now easily when the alarm goes off. No snoozing. Before, I was sleeping up to 10 hours a night and still felt like I needed more. Now I’m getting a solid eight and feel great.

  • My body doesn’t hurt anymore. My body was constantly achy, especially my head, neck, and shoulders. I was always fidgeting trying to unlock the tension there, especially in my neck, where I thought my headaches were stemming from.

  • My workouts are 100% stronger. I started doing strength-conditioning workouts last October and I had to drag myself through them. Running wasn’t happening anymore. A 60-minute yoga class was even a struggle. I just always felt like my tank was empty. Now, I have energy to burn at the end and my body feels so much stronger. I’m back to exercising 4-5 times a week.

  • My mood is far more even. I have suffered from seasonal depression and good-old depression for a long time. Winter months have always been particularly rough, to the point that I often couldn’t get out of bed. I started to feel it creeping in this December, but I have not felt any of it since I started eating this way. I’m checking myself to make sure I’m not overstating this, but nope, I’m not.

  • Less puffiness. Everywhere.

  • No headaches, no migraines. Another miracle. I had the spidey-sense that my sugar intake *might* have had something to do with my constant migraines, but again, didn’t want to admit it. They’re gone. Just gone. Alma even commented this week that I haven’t had a headache in a while.

  • I’m not napping every day. This really, really, really makes me want to cry. I didn’t realize how scared I was about that until I started doing this. I couldn’t admit it to myself, but I was really freaking out. I have even energy, for the most part. There are occasional dips in the afternoon, or if I’m working crazy-hard for several days in the row, but if I take a break, do some yoga or meditate, or go on a walk, it passes. I’ve also been drinking a lot of Egyptian Licorice tea and that seems to help with lulls, even though it doesn’t have caffeine.

  • Skin is glowy. I’ve always been lucky to have relatively clear skin, but it actually glows now!

  • Most importantly, my thoughts are sharp and my mind is clear. I’m writing 4-6 hours a day and am still able to work and do other things. I trust that I will be able to do what I need to do to finish this book. I trust myself.

Lastly, here are some FAQs.

Q. Will you do this forever? 

Yes, I will never go back to the way I was eating before. But, I have no intention of being perfect either. As Melissa Hartwig says, “Whole30 was never intended to be Rules24x7”. I have no desire in doing this, or anything, perfectly. My intention is to eat this way 90% of the time. Life is vast and wide and I am playing the long game.

On this note, just to be sure I wasn’t conflating how I feel before I wrote this post to you guys—and because I have wanted pizza for a couple weeks—I went and got pizza with a friend last night. Pepperoni, mushroom. And I had two chocolate chip cookies too. The first few bites were delicious. After about ten minutes, I had a headache. I started rolling my head around to relieve the pressure from my neck, just like I used to do constantly. I felt bloated, though not terribly. This morning, I snoozed for an hour. I keep thinking: is all of this in my head? But honestly, even if it was, which I know it’s not: WHO CARES.

Q. Do you wish you had done this sooner in sobriety?

I don’t think I could have. I wasn’t ready until I was. I don’t beat myself up about this type of thing.

Q. Isn’t it expensive to eat this way?

This is always a surprising thought to me, and not because money isn’t an issue for me. Yes, organic, grass-fed, whole foods generally cost a bit more (though not always). But I can’t think of anything more expensive than feeding your body poorly, especially in the long-run?

Plus, eating this way has me cooking at home 90% of the time. Automatic money-saver.

This is one of those thoughts that really needs to be run through the question: is it true?

Q. Is your daughter eating this way too?

No. She’s at her pickiest eating stage ever right now. I plan on moving her in this general direction, but I’m not forcing anything on her. 

Q. This seems overwhelming. Isn’t it overwhelming?

What was overwhelming was how fucking exhausted I had become. It is a lot of information, yes, but the Wheat Belly book really laid it out simply. I found a few meals that work, and I’m sticking to them. And it’s good to remember: it’s supposed to be hard to do new things. You’re allowed to suck at stuff until you get better at it.

Q. I just got sober and I feel like I should do this too. Should I?

Some people may hate me for saying this, but no. Please just stay sober. It’s hard enough. Tackle the issues in the order in which they are killing you, I say. You will know when it’s time. My prior attempts were just a way to distract myself from the work I actually needed to do—emotional work. That said, you do you. Everyone has their own path.

Q. I have a history of eating disorders and it pisses me off that you’re talking about this. Why are you going on a diet?

I get this, and I have the same history, and again—this is my path. It’s not a diet. It’s about giving myself more freedom, not less.

Q. Can you share your strength-training workouts?

I wouldn’t even know how to do that, as I don’t create them! I rely on professionals to do this and I pay for them to do the hard work so I can show up and be mindless and follow directions. There are so many free resources online; you wouldn’t want my advice. :)

Q. Was this similar to quitting drinking for you?

Somewhat, although a million percent easier, because I’m healthier on all fronts now: mind, body, spirit. It is similar in that it took focusing on what I wanted to feel like and live like, versus what I was going to miss out on.

Q. Did you lose weight?

I don’t know as I don’t weigh myself. My clothes fit the same, but I feel stronger and less puffy.

Q. Can you share the exact eating protocol and the science behind it?

A. Read Wheat Belly Total Health. Grain Brain was also an excellent book.

Q. Have you heard of Medical Medium?

OMG this is the question I’ve been asked most often. This dude is doing a brilliant job of marketing himself! I have heard of him, yes. I have not read his books. But I did follow the celery juice craze, which stems from him, not because he said so, but because Melissa Ramos also recommended it for potassium. Plus, it makes me poop and I like pooping!

Q. Are there any other resources you recommend?

My friend Sarah Roberts is a treasure of information about this stuff, too. We interviewed her on HOME podcast in 2017 about sugar detox. I wasn’t ready for it then, but the seeds she planted stayed with me. This is her book.

Final thoughts.

Day 29.

Day 29.

I know there are a zillion opinions and resources on this subject. Please refrain from telling me a better way, or critiquing what I’ve done so far. I am solid in the choices I’ve made and I’m not seeking to be perfect, nor am I looking for coaches :).

That said, this is only what is working for me. I realize this is all an intensely personal journey and each person has to figure out what works for them. I decided to share my story because I was shocked at how many people were interested when I started talking about it, and it’s absolutely a huge part of my growth. I am not suggesting that people follow what I’m doing—I’m only sharing my own experience and providing resources where I can. I would have passed on any kind of post like this before.

You are wonderful.

I root for you.

Keep going.