In fact, we've all heard it so long that we don't really believe it. I mean, each and every time you've eaten anything with sugar in it, grabbed a Coke out of the machine on your way to the train-o, picked up a KitKat while you're waiting for the guy in the tabacchi to ricarica your phone, stopped by the Frigidarium* for one little gelato after the Sunday post-Mass lunch - you've known. And the thought process for every one of those times is the same: "Just this one isn't going to kill me; it's not like I make a huge habit out of it; and besides, I eat pretty well most of the time anyway, you know, chicken and green veg...I deserve a little treat now and then..."
Here is what I have found after entirely giving up processed sugar for nearly two months now: even a little affects my brain, and there is no way to stop or even mitigate the chemical processes - read 'avalanche' - sugar sets in motion.
Basically, it's this. Only for 24 hours.
The only thing to do is ride it out and renew my vows to give it up entirely. The only things I get out of these occasional lapses are about 90 seconds of pleasure, immediately followed by 24 hours of discomfort followed by a renewed determination to stop eating sugar.
Since early March, and in much more earnest since April 1st, I've been conducting a meticulously recorded experiment using myself as the guinea pig. I wanted to know if I could, essentially, 'cure' chronic depression and anxiety using basically what my friend Tony has always called the "green vegetables and exercise cure". I wanted to see what effects a very carefully controlled diet has on mood, affect and will and recovery time from cancer treatment.
To do this, I've been tediously tracking the nutrition, carb and calories content of every single thing I put in my mouth, restricting myself to about 1200 - 1500 calories a day and entirely eliminating processed sugars as well as those foods that get turned quickly into glucose in the blood stream, breads and pasta, anything made with grains and potatoes. I've been adding regular exercise as my strength comes back, first just doing a few girly wall pushups, jumpies, and minimal weights (actually my two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary in shopping bags) in the mornings, combined in the last two weeks with about an hour of brisk walking five days a week.
The results have been nothing short of astounding. Of course, I don't have a control group, so I'm making guesses about how this programme is affecting me. And as scientific experiments go, you can't make any sort of conclusions without a control and without repeating the process several times, which because it would involve getting cancer and taking the same kind of chemo and removing the same organs that I've already had removed, is something I don't think I can manage. But I've been able to glean an idea about the "standard" recovery time from the internet where there are lots of support websites for people who have undergone more or less the same treatment, and the indications are that I'm at least four months ahead of the normal recovery time.
(This by the way, is the reason that all research into cancer treatments and recovery/remission/recurrence rates are at best only close guesses. Even the fancy scientists with degrees and lab coats can only study the results of volunteer subjects and draw very tentative conclusions from the statistics, which is one of the things that makes cancer treatment so difficult and so scary. There is no way medical science can predict, even vaguely, whether this particular treatment will cure this particular patient.)
The hysterectomy alone, combined with the artificially induced menopause, was supposed to leave me totally flattened. And it did for a while. It was just six weeks ago that I needed an escort if I was going to go into the City for Mass on Sundays, and the one time I tried to go to a museum exhibit with friends after lunch left me unable to walk and in bed for three days. I couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without someone's arm to lean on and had to take a rest between each step. I had to limit myself to doing one thing a day, which was mostly work. If I wanted to go visit friends down the street, about a ten minute walk away, I had to have someone come with me and bring the wheelchair in case I couldn't make it home.
I wasn't too put out by all this because I'd been warned and had read that it was totally normal. And it was sort of comforting to let myself off the hook. I didn't have to run around doing Important Things because I was just too sick. And I was confident that things were fine. I was seeing my local GP regularly and had been tested by oncologists and gynecologists and was told that I was just fine, and coming along nicely. And it was really nice to have people helping me, honestly.
(I really can't see the reasoning behind the argument that we need to euthanise dependent people because being dependent on other people helping is so humiliating that it makes life not worth living. I like being independent too, but I don't remember the last time I felt so safe and loved as I have after being looked after so well by my friends over the last year. It's really gone a long way to reversing a bunch of long-term head-shrinky problems.)
Of course, the insidious Sugar Logic that I've nutshelled above is actually true. One little bit now and then isn't going to kill you...right now. But a steady intake of even a little sugar, a habit of buying a KitKat on the way home from work a couple of days a week, a teaspoon in your three cups of tea every day, a gelato after a hard hot day wandering around Roman ruins, adds up to a steady and dramatically increased blood sugar level that certainly will give you serious health repercussions, some of which might very well kill you.
But apart from the long-term effects, sugar does things to your body instantly and once you've got it in your bloodstream, there's not a thing you can do about it. Within five minutes of sugar intake, the chemical processes, none of them good, are irreversible. It has to be just endured.
Here are some of the things I've learned from the internet about sugar:
- it has no nutrients. None. Nada. It is good for absolutely nothing in your body and you are losing absolutely nothing valuable by not eating it... ever.
- it suppresses the immune system, and does this immediately after you eat it. This is officially called neutrophilic phagocytosis, which means the white blood cells that are supposed to eat pathogens before they hurt you, die or stop working
- it produces an instant insulin spike, which, if it happens a lot, can lead to insulin resistance, making your pancreas produce more and more and that leads to... guess what...
- it makes you fat by lowering your metabolism, which means the rate at which your body absorbs nutrients and turns food into energy, leading you to store more food energy as fat and making it harder to lose the fat
- it can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- it aggravates cellular inflammation, which is related to a snarling host of orcish diseases; the kind we fear like rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease and yes, cancer
- it aggravates, or even causes clinical depression and anxiety disorders. This comes largely from what it does to your insulin levels, with the mood swings directly related to the spike-and-trough results of sending processed sugar through your liver and pancreas, but it also plays havoc with your neurons and the ability of your brain cells to uptake serotonin
- it counteracts a bunch of the chemicals - the ones we usually call vitamins - that make your brain and body function properly, including things like your endocrine system which is incredibly complex and delicate and which you need to work properly for nearly all aspects of your health
- and perhaps most terrifyingly for me, it is the favourite food of cancer cells
So, when people tell you that sugar will kill you, they're right. And you are right in thinking that it won't do it right now. But the time in between it starting to kill you and being actually dead will be filled with misery, pain, disease and awfulness, which seems to me a lot worse than being actually dead. And no, a little bit of sugar now and then isn't OK. It's this line of thinking that will result in long-term awfulness leading to permanent death. Just stop eating it. Stop drinking it. Ever. At all.
I've been learning a lot about the relationship between health and nutrition, and am amazed that medical science is only now figuring out that what kinds of fuels you put into the machine directly affects all of its systems. I've never been a chronically unhealthy eater, as are many, if not most, North Americans. It's a hold over from my hippie upbringing that I was raised on fresh fruit, veg, fish, chicken and meat, have never been all that interested in processed foods and have always known how to cook well enough to keep myself going. But sugar has always been my downfall.
I had always assumed, however, that my general good habits more or less counteracted the sugar habit, and it is true that the doctors said they were so positive about the outcome of cancer treatments because of how good my health was in general. (I've also never smoked, which they said was the most important contraindicator for chemo... in other words, they won't give you the thing that will save your life because smoking makes it too toxic. This is true even if you only used to smoke a lot and now don't.) But eating sugar a lot, and there were times when the habit blossomed into full blown addiction, is like eating a good healthy diet with only a minor problem with arsenic. Adding a teeny bit of poison to your food won't necessarily kill you, at least right away, but will certainly make you regret being alive.
Until this experiment, I have never, in my whole life, entirely gone without it, and to say that I've noticed the difference would be quite an understatement. Depression and anxiety used to rule my life. I would wake up every morning and have to convince myself that there were good reasons to get up and do things and carry on my life, that the vaguely imagined Scary Badness was not coming for me to ruin my life. Now I wake up every morning with an almost miraculous feeling of happiness and well being. My whole life, I've been used to waking up in the night with nightmares at least two or three times a week. Night-waking is a common symptom of clinical depression and the sleep interruption makes you miserable. But it's not happening now. Even if I'm waking up in the night, I just turn over and go back to sleep.
Lifting depression is often described as the difference between a sunny day and a day of heavy overcast, it's the same world, but everything is darker, gloomier and harder to deal with. I won't say that sugar was causing it; I know too well where the depression comes from in my past, but I'm pretty convinced now that bad nutrition was making it actually impossible to beat it.
And as for physical abilities, it's absolutely amazing. Starting April 9th, I've been back to art classes five days a week, as I think I mentioned. The whole point of changing diet and exercise was to be ready to go to class and keep up my full work schedule. I had April 9th as the Officially Back to Life date.
Since then, I've been getting up at six, getting the 8:09 train into the City, walking across the Centro to the studio, standing through a three-hour class, walking back to the bus and spending most of the afternoon and part of the evening working. And doing all this five days a week. The first week was quite difficult because I failed to change my sleep-schedule to accommodate a six am alarm. But I could do it, and function at an amazingly high level. After that, I've been conking out decisively by ten every night, and when I wake up, I feel not only physically refreshed and ready to do things, but happy and eager to do them.
I realised I had made a dramatic turn-around the other day when I was a couple of minutes late for the 7:47 train. I was at the bottom of the little road behind the copshop next to the train station that has a sharp hill at the end of it leading up to the station parking lot. I heard the train coming when I was about 300 yards, one steep hill, and two staircases away, and I made the train. Admittedly, I nearly threw up after the sprint up those stairs, but I actually ran up the hill, and up the stairs in the sottopasaggio. Remember when I had to take one step at a time two months ago?
The treatment I've had takes at least a year to recover from. That is what everyone says. And it's true that there is still the neuropathy to deal with, for which I'm still on very stiff painkillers and will be for a long time, and I do have limits in the day. I can't write coherently after eight o'clock and this means that my days are very rigidly scheduled to get all the work and study time I need to get in. But I can do it. I am back in life, and back in it to a degree I don't think I've been in since childhood.
Try quitting sugar for a month and see what happens. You'll be amazed.
Also, am I turning into one of those annoying health-nut people who survived a disease and forever pesters people about it?
Why yes. Yes I am.