I hope I won't be accused of navel-gazing if I spend a few blog posts on some recent health issues. I think a lot of stressed out people could be in the same boat I'm in. Stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are helpful during short periods of danger (like the proverbial bear chasing after you in the primeval forest). But in the longer term, consistently high cortisol makes your body think you're living through some very bad times-- think famine, or plague, or war. Cortisol may be high for purely psychological reasons, but the body still reacts physically. It only knows that, for whatever reason, you're in distress. So it takes precautions by slowing your metabolism, reducing your energy level, and hanging on to fat. It preserves your stored energy and stored nutrients, in order to protect you.
One of the ways my body did this was by converting my primary thyroid hormone (called T4) into something inert, instead of the thing it's supposed to convert into, called T3. T3 gives you loads of energy and generally makes you feel great. In the early days, when we first discovered my abysmally low T3 levels and I started taking supplemental T3 (Cytomel), I felt frickin' fantastic. I mean, fantastic. I thought the solution to all my problems had arrived and I might be able to feel like I was 19 for many more years.
[Side note: Mainstream doctors do not test T3 and would not have detected my low thyroid functioning. They generally only test TSH (the "go" signal the brain sends to the thyroid) and T4. My TSH and T4 were perfectly normal, not even close to being hypothyroid. You have to demand they test T3 as well, or you won't know squat.]
I don't know precisely why my Cytomel honeymoon didn't last, but I can make a guess. I think my body said "Whoa there.... Nice try, but you're not tricking me into running in high gear when we should be hunkering down and trying to survive," and it found some other way to reduce energy expenditures. The human body evolved in conditions in which avoiding starvation was of prime importance. With high cortisol levels, even when the stress is purely emotional, all those anti-starvation measures get switched to On. Specifically, cortisol inhibits the T4 --> T3 conversion.
In most people who have normal thyroid function, exercise causes them to burn fat more rapidly, at least initially. But many hypothyroid people don't burn more fat. In fact, exercise may actually cause them to acquire more fat, because of differences in catecholamines (stress hormones released during exercise-- another post!). Whatever we have always been told about the benefits of exercise, our bodies perceive it as stress. Just think back on your long-ago ancestor running from that bear, and you can see why vigorous exercise is seen as a stressor, and not a great thing. If you're running from bears all the time (i.e. engaging in intense cardio several days a week), your body may be able to compensate for that in a healthy way. But if you are already stressed, either emotionally or physically, it will likely react quite defensively. Fat burning will drop to zilch, as will metabolism and energy levels. A simple indicator of this "energy conservation" mode is a lower than average body temperature at waking. Here you are trying to lose weight, and your body is digging in its heels like your life depends on it. And, in fact, the threat of starvation is not some prehistoric, long-lost situation we need no longer be adapted to. Laura Ingalls' family was starving. People starve in wars and revolutions and currency collapses and droughts, even in the First World in the past hundred years. This is not foreign to modern human experience. If you don't eat and then you exercise and plus you're emotionally stressed, your body is going to fight every energy expenditure in some very effective ways. If you try to lose weight that way, you're fighting Mother Nature, and studies suggest your victories will be short-lived.
And that brings me to the title of the post. My mom discovered a blog called 180 Degree Health, which is against all forms of restrictive dieting. The author (Matt Stone, no relation to South Park) has done every crazy diet out there, including one in which he attempted to eat over 300 grams of fat per day, and another where he got most of his calories from sugar. His conclusion is that any restriction of nutrients eventually freaks out your body and makes it worry about starving. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Metabolism drops, stress hormones surge, lipolysis (fat-burning) stalls, and so on.
For those individuals under stress for psychological reasons, or due to lack of sleep, lack of nutritious food, and/or vigorous exercise, Matt Stone over at 180 Degree Health recommends something he calls "rehabilitative rest and aggressive re-feeding." (The acronym RRARF is a little unfortunate....) The idea is to take a month and not exercise, avoid stress as much as possible, and eat and sleep "like it's your job." Not just any food, but anything healthy. The goal is to convince the body that everything is okay, there's plenty of good food, there's plenty of time for rest, stress is manageable. Cortisol levels should come down, anxiety should decrease, thyroid function should improve, energy should increase, metabolism and lipolysis should speed up, and body temperature should rise. People who are part of Stone's blog community have reported these sorts of successes after a month or two of this program.
I'm doing the aggressively over-eating thing and will let you know what happens. Although what I eat is generally pretty healthy, I don't always eat very much. When I stop and think about it, I'm usually concerned with what the kids are getting to eat, but not myself. We left for a play date last week around 1pm and I realized I had forgotten to eat anything that day. When you're hypothyroid you can suffer from little or no appetite, which I do... and that's a vicious circle. My goals are normal cortisol, more energy, less anxiety, fewer viruses, and (longer term) normal thyroid function without medication. I'll let you know how it goes.
Stuff I ate today in no order: juice from 2 grapefruits and 1 lemon, 3 clementines, 2 sm. apples, 2 fried eggs, pomegranate juice (8oz?), aloe vera juice (1oz), sm. baked potato, 2 ears corn, chicken & cheese quesadilla with sour cream and salsa, several tablespoons butter, plate of pasta with sauce and parmesan, lg. italian sausage, 2 cups of black coffee. (I'm not supposed to have the coffee because it raises cortisol. Wish me luck with that.)