It was a celebration meal so I let myself off the hook and succumbed to the kind of self-indulgent chocolate dessert that I seldom even consider these days; well, why shouldn’t I just this once? Not very deep beneath the surface, I knew what I was doing, which was a calculated risk; and so I wasn’t really surprised when my body reacted the way that it did, which was with massive heat and hyper-sensitivity. It didn’t spoil my day, not by a long shot; but it made me think very hard about doing it again any time soon. And it was a very interesting experiment for flagging up, with even more clarity than before, just what it is that processed sugar does to the nervous system and why it is that I knew I had to alter, almost cease, my relationship with it in order to repair my health.
Because it was the relationship I had with sugar that came under almost closest scrutiny of anything in my diet when I completely altered the way I ate over the last three to five years. Even before that, I wasn’t in possession of what you could call a particularly sweet tooth but I enjoyed the kind of carefree, don’t give it a second thought, consumption of “sweet things” (which, these days, includes commercial bread, salads, sauces, pizza…) that most people tend to practice. Gradually, I came to realise that sugar – above all things – exacerbated the excruciating pain I was experiencing in my tissue and nerves. The slightest amount seemed to turn up all the volume dials on my hyper-sensitivity; as though my nerve fibres were suddenly on red alert for every kind of sensory message that they could pick up on their radar from my environment and each one of those messages was screaming to my brain as though under attack. Teeth and facial nerves would feel brittle and painfully overstimulated, presenting like a toothache or lock-jaw, the kind of tension that feels like your lip wants to curl, your teeth are clenched or your face is being pulled into an involuntary grimace. Stomach nerves would flutter like a sea anemone and my innards would feel acidic, windy, my bladder and bowels a painful mess. I would feel hairs on my arms and legs registering everything going on around me…too much; every noise or smell (especially chemical ones, under arm sprays, cigarettes, alarms, raised voices…) would make me wince in the kind of agony that felt like I was being pulled inside myself in recoil, like a sock turning spontaneously inside-out. I would hide under the duvet from morning light, shrill noises and my husband’s aftershave wafting around the bedroom like I was being attacked by a barrage of glass shards and my unfounded irritability, my snapishness, with everyone would bespeak the “fight or flight” state that my body was dragging me into against my will. I would burn up like I had a fever or severe hangover and interstitial cystitis would have me doubled in pain, unable to go out. Headaches were out of this world, brain fog came on and my vision would deteriorate into fuzz and terrible eyestrain. With every temporary sugar-lift came a crash so exhaustingly final that I would be flaked-out in the middle of the day and, of course, inflammation ran riot like a forest-fire in all of my body tissue so pain was literally everywhere.
These are the things that sugar triggered for me, so I all but completely gave it up and it had nothing to do with “dieting”, everything to do with self-preservation. The kind of reactions I already have to electricity, wi-fi and other sensory stimuli in my environment would become acutely heightened by it…and these are all things that temporarily switched back on for me yesterday after that dessert. Within a few minutes, I felt electric, blur-eyed, super-sensitive, hot, stomach sore and exhausted walking around shops and crowded public places after my lunch. It was as though a layer of skin had been removed and I was feeling everything in the raw. But here’s what is also so very interesting; these same reactions also switched on for my husband after that sweet dessert – a man who has none of my health issue but who has also been eating a next-to-no sugar diet for well over a year along with me. Almost before I did, he was complaining of experiencing weird electric tingles coursing through his legs and hands, blurred vision and near toxic feeling of sensory overwhelm inside the kind of security-wired and well-lit shops that have me feeling weak at the knees. He was running hot, had a fermenting and bloating kind of acid-burn going on in his stomach, not to mention the instantly recognisable sugar exhilaration followed by the wave of crashing exhaustion that I know so well. By mid afternoon, we were both yawning tears down our face and needing caffeine (something I normally avoid after lunch) just to keep ourselves upright. These are the commonplace effects that sugar has on our biology…yet most people hardly notice them apart from the weight-gain they lament, which is the body’s attempt to build up a barrage of protection to help cope with all the other toxic effects!
What this episode reminded me of was how these effects are the normal outcome of sugar consumption for all people; and that the variance isn’t in the biological effects but in how much they notice them or have adapted to shield themselves from, or absorb, the backlash (though the resultant health issues are seldom avoided so much as redirected into another form of expression; often a more severe health issue, further down the line…a long list that includes diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer). In fact, I have learned how to be really grateful for my heightened reaction to sugar since I suspect it has probably saved my life. Most people push on through the effects of sugar without really acknowledging that they are there; as I know I did, for years. The more we consume the crazy amount of sugar our modern diet makes almost compulsory and extremely (shockingly) normal, the more we become – ironically – immune to it as the nervous system is pushed over the limit to where it has no choice but to turn down its own sensitivity to everything, even those things we want to experience, in order to cope; like a form of self-created paralysis. Its as though sugar only knows one setting – one that makes us receive more intense levels of sensation, delivered in the most abrasive way possible and it is more than our nervous system, which longs to experience many things but wants to be way more discerning than that about when, why and how, can cope with. We become over-stimulated…and so we break down or are forced to buffer ourselves like we are under constant attack and, of course, some of us stop feeling at all.
In other words, our overwhelmed senses turn down their own dials in order to survive the barrage of data that sugar seems to attract in such an over-stimulated way; and so we feel, generally, less and less of life’s experiences. The process is similar to how a smoker eventually stops tasting and smelling without really noticing what they are missing and so our world becomes bland and we only seek more and more of our sugar-fix in an attempt to feel something at all. Or we self-anaesthetise with other methods such as massive gluten consumption and alcohol, both of which cushion and dull the effects of sugar; though, another irony, alcohol is yet another major source of sugar in our diets, thus I gave that up too since it became one of the worst triggers of the symptoms I’ve already described. Once I realised all this, there had to be no compromise if I wanted to bring down my sensory over-reaction to my environment in order to get well again and the last year or so of doing this has allowed me to make huge strides in my health; but my diet looks very different to that of most people. I admit there are times – though they are infrequent now – when that is quite difficult to deal with, sat side by side with “normal” people in a restaurant and seeing what they are eating without a care in the world. For me, yesterday’s indulgence was a carefully deliberated one-off yet, all around me, giant desserts were being consumed without hesitation or thought and we see it everywhere; extraordinarily sweet things without nutritional value have become our comfort, our nostalgia, our way of celebrating, commiserating, being with others in the communal act of eating and so the list goes on… but at what cost to our long-term health?
For me, yesterday’s step back in time was more interesting than long-term detrimental though I am still burning through the heat, the sore stomach and the profoundly acidic feeling in my body a day later (and my energy equalibrium has yet to land on steady ground). Above all I still feel very…very…very deeply tired to my core (is it any wonder after all that over-stimulation) and will probably have to curl up for a nap after I publish this post; not like me at all. It feels somewhat like the hangovers of old and I am countering it with alkaline foods and green juices; and a resolve not to go there again for some time. Its a case of knowing where you are on the sugar dial and where it is that your body feels best; then living to that rule of thumb without compromise but many people are in denial or never even ask the question, such is the cultural drive towards sugar consumption wherever we turn. What I have learned in the last year or so is that it is perfectly possible to enjoy a sweet indulgence without resorting to cane sugar or manmade sweetners and that these alternatives are alright (like any food) in moderation. My sweet treats now consist of dairy and sugar free chocolates and ice cream made from coconut and agave or other natural sources of sweetness (products such as Booja Booja, which really are so delicious that you wouldn’t know the difference). I get sweetness from food such as beetroot, sweet potato or carrot, I eat honey in moderation, dried fruit, jams with no added sugar and also enjoy eating much more fresh fruit than I used to (though I even had to be cautious with this while my body was healing its way back to equilibrium).
All of this will become so much easier once restaurants and cafés are prepared to risk those initial popularity points by sidestepping towards the healthier options and the kind of portions that are far better for health; and consumer demand for these alternatives will be a driving force behind them catering for this new trend. Another trip wire is that shop-bought gluten free products seem to overcompensate for lack of wheat with even more sugar, caramel and other addatives than other food, which forces me to make all my own. Supermarkets are starting to catch on, which makes the home-eating of healthier alternatives easier by far than it was even five years ago, though you still have to be extremely vigilant for hidden sugars in all kinds of unlikely places. While the market catches up (and we vote with our feet), the most important thing to remember is to take the time to get to know your own body and its limitations then stand by this without compromise so that only you get to choose what you put in your body, nobody else. Eat mindfully and knowingly (taking that all-important pause to consider what your intuition has to say on the matter), even those few times you might feel like saying “hell, just this once won’t hurt…”, and you will never go far wrong or do any long-term damage to your health.