A change of diet changed my life


MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:Natural cure is better than taking a pill to cure your ills, writes MICHAEL KELLY

THIS IS a tale of two cholesterol tests, three months apart. The first one churns out a result of 7.0 – pretty much off the charts for a guy of my age (I’m 36). The second one, a respectable 5.3 – a dramatic reduction, achieved without taking prescription drugs or one-a-day cholesterol-reducing drinks or spreads.

My late 20s and early 30s are a story of ill health. Not (thank God) chronic ill health, but more like a low-grade, nuisance, hypochondriac’s ill health. I am probably what doctors would call “the worried well”. I joke that I attend my doctor so frequently I have practically put his kids through college.

It all started in my late 20s with stomach problems, undoubtedly stress and diet related. They manifested as severe gastric reflux for which I was prescribed a class of drugs called Proton Pump Inhibitors or PPIs, which reduce the levels of acid by turning off many of the “acid pumps” in the stomach.

In Europe and North America, between 10 and 20 per cent of the adult population suffer from gastric reflux disease. According to Astra Zeneca, the market for gastro-intestinal drugs globally is valued at a staggering $39 billion . In other words, I wasn’t the first person to start taking them, and I won’t be the last.

Though it seemed to me that I was kind of young to be taking a pill every day, they worked. When I took them I could eat and drink pretty much what ever I liked. When I didn’t, I had burning acid coming up in to my throat. So naturally I took one every day for about seven or eight years.

It clearly stated on the packet that you shouldn’t take the tablets for longer than six to eight weeks, but both doctor and pharmacist seemed happy with them as a long-term treatment. The cost didn’t bother me either, but when I look back now, I realise with some horror that I spent a vast amount of money on these drugs during that time.

I look on ill health as rather like a spring popping up out of the ground in your driveway. You cover it with a stone, because it’s annoying and causing floods. But, of course, unless you tackle the spring at its source, it will find a way to pop up somewhere else.

A few years back, I started feeling constantly tired and noticed pains in my joints. I also developed a really itchy scalp, and eventually sores. Again, this wasn’t a major health problem, but it was annoying. The doctor prescribed me some lotions, potions and shampoos, but nothing would make them go away. He did tests to see what was causing the fatigue, but drew a blank.

I was referred to a consultant dermatologist and he scraped a little bit of scalp and sent it to the lab. I was told it was discoid lupus, which is not so much a skin condition but a systemic immune system response to something that’s going on in your body. There’s nothing much you can do about it, the consultant told me. He prescribed tablets to ease the itching. More tablets.

About three months ago, on one of my regular visits to the doctor, he did that first cholesterol test and two weeks later I was shocked when it came out at 7.0. He told me that this was pretty much off the charts for a guy my age, and if I was carrying any weight or if I was any older, he would be putting me on daily medication to bring it down.

That spurred me to action. I was already taking one pill a day, and hated the prospect of taking another one. So I decided to look into what was causing the high cholesterol. I went to nutritionist Catherine Kenneally, who took a look at my diet and made some suggestions. There wasn’t anything majorly wrong with it, she said, but there was too much animal fat in it.

I love eggs so much that some years ago I started keeping hens to have my own private source. And I love sausages so much that I started rearing pigs, so that I would have my own private source. Admittedly, my diet did contain lots of eggs and lots of sausages. In addition, I’ve always felt there is no way that real butter could be worse for you than the processed gunk in spreads. So I stuck with the purity of real butter, applying it liberally to many foodstuffs.

I’m also prone to occasional sweet things. Biscuits, a packet of crisps, some bars of chocolate. I’ve had a 10-year love affair with coffee – blood-curdlingly strong Americanos made on the stove in a proper espresso pot. It’s no wonder my stomach was in ribbons.

Kenneally’s advice was simple. Introduce more variety to your diet. Reduce the animal fat intake. Eat more oily fish. Eat more vegetables. Eat fruit and nuts. Have a few meat-free days each week. Cut out the caffeine. Drink water.

She also suggested that I get a food allergy test done, just to make sure that there wasn’t something in my diet that I was allergic or intolerant to. I contacted the Fitzwilliam Food Test Clinic and got its test done. It’s expensive at €255 but how much money have I spent on doctor’s fees in the past five years? How much on medication?

It involves more than 90 different types of foods and tests your blood against them for a reaction. I was intolerant to dairy and eggs. An intolerance is different to an allergy – with an intolerance you are not going to keel over, foaming at the mouth when you eat the food in question. But it can make you quite sick over time. You can feel lethargic and sluggish and lacking in energy.

I changed my diet completely. I went cold turkey on eggs. I cut out dairy – no great problem with this, since I found a substitute in goat’s milk and goat’s cheese. I reluctantly ditched the butter for a soya spread which tastes of oh, nothing at all. I ate loads of vegetables, we ate fish a few times a week and sometimes had meat-free days. I drank lots of water. I cut out all processed foods. I stopped drinking coffee, and filled a cupboard with exotic sounding herbal teas. I even drank some of them.

The results have been astonishing, life-changing. The sores on my scalp have disappeared. After seven years, I am off PPIs and my stomach is fine. I get heartburn occasionally when I eat something I shouldn’t, but mainly I’m perfect. The pains in my joints have gone, and the fatigue is improving too.

And then last week came the best news of all – my cholesterol was down to 5.3. Not as low as it should be (below 5), but a dramatic improvement nonetheless. It feels like my whole system, after spending years literally in a state of high alert, is getting back to normal.

Clearly, I’m not a doctor and so you should take any advice I give you with a large pinch of salt (blood pressure concerns aside). But here’s what I think. The medical and pharmaceutical professions are too eager to prescribe pills, and we are far too keen to take those pills rather than take the harder course of a lifestyle or diet change.

It’s much easier to take a tablet to reduce your stomach acid, rather than recognise something is causing the excess acid in the first place. It’s much easier to take a cholesterol-lowering drug than to take the steps required to change your diet and lower it naturally. But think about the spring in the driveway – you can cover it with a stone, but eventually it will find another way to the surface.

Michael Kelly is an author and founder of GIY (Grow It Yourself) Ireland