Today’s post on drbriffa.com is its 1000th. I’m marking the occasion with a personal account of my health and wellbeing transformation over my life.
Many people who don’t know me imagine, given my profession, that I’m a naturally health-conscious and relatively clean-living individual. Actually, that’s not true at all. For long periods in my earlier life, particularly as a student, I was famously unhealthy. For instance, I started smoking at 13 and by the time I stopped I was puffing my way through more than a pack a day. I also drank 10-15 mugs of coffee a day, each with two sugars, for years. I used to drink (alcohol) a fair bit too.
Getting from there to here has been a progression over many years, but certain landmarks punctuated the journey. Big shifts took place with specific changes in my thinking or behaviour that I chart here.
1. 1987 – Stopping smoking
I think I was one of the worst addicted smokers ever. Honestly. Lighting a cigarette would be the first thing I’d do in the morning and the last thing at night. In between there I’d smoke more than 20 others. I would never, ever, not have cigarettes on my person. I regularly fantasised about waking up one day and just not wanting to smoke.
One day, while I should have been writing a thesis for my BSc degree, the postman pushed a book through my letterbox. The book, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr, had been sent by my older brother who had used it to quit himself. Keen for any distraction, and with no real intention of stopping, I read the book in its entirely that day. That night lying in our horrid brown plastic bath, I smoked my last cigarette. You can read more about this here. I still feel warm about stopping smoking. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
2. 1993 – Waking up to my food sensitivities
Throughout my childhood, I suffered with a rash on my torso and under my arms. Sometimes, it would flare up quite badly and lead to flaky, sore, bleeding, itching skin under my armpits (sorry, if that’s too much detail). In later life my self-diagnosing led me to believe I had fungal problems, though antifungal creams didn’t help.
One day, I was in my university medical centre getting the required vaccines for a trip to Thailand when the doctor announced ‘You’ve got eczema’. I can’t tell you how resistant I was to that diagnosis for some reason. I retorted ‘No, I haven’t’. The doctor said, ‘I’ve done training in dermatology and that is eczema.’ I was dispatched with a prescription for a cortisone cream (naturally) and an emollient. I didn’t fill the prescription and struggled on.
Soon after having my interest in nutrition piqued, I cut milk out of my diet and, bingo, a week later the ‘eczema’ had disappeared.
Subsequently, I realised I don’t do so good with wheat, either. The main symptom I get is fatigue (not uncommon in practice, I’ve found). Almost eradication of it from my diet had led to a step-wise improvement in my energy levels and general sense of vitality.
3. Mid-1990s onwards – an ongoing low-carb journey
‘Carbs are king’ was certainly a belief I had in my head at one time. The fact that I enjoyed sport (including running – see below) may have been a factor here too. When it dawned on me that wheat didn’t suit me, I had to rethink a bit. And then I started to learn more about the impact of starchy carbs on blood sugar and insulin and how destructive they can be.
I had a personal wake-up call many years ago when I decided to spend a weekend ‘detoxing’ on fruit and vegetable juices. I felt awful. Who knows whether I was ‘detoxing’ or not. But now I realise that all these juices had led to episodes of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Also, at the end of the weekend, after dumping all these ‘healthy’ juices into my body, I was 4 lbs heavier.
As the years have gone by, I have become increasingly and steadily less enthusiastic about carbohydrate. I don’t believe all of us need to cut carbs to Atkins-esque levels to be healthy. But my experience tells me the less of this stuff people eat in the long term, generally the better they feel, the better their markers of disease are, and the less excess fat they carry.
4. Late 1990s – More water
Remember my 10-15 mugs of coffee a day habit? If that was not bad enough I compounded it by drinking practically no water. My girlfriend in those days was an enthusiastic drinker of water and referred to me (sometimes) as ‘the camel’.
I’m not sure what changed my thinking here or even when it happened, but as some point I stopped resisting my girlfriend’s advice and just started drinking water. I never looked back. I think it’s made a big different to my energy and vitality, and I’ve seen the same effect very consistently with hundreds if not thousands of people over the years.
5. 1998 – Learning to swim
I’m not a natural water person. I prefer being by water or on water rather than in it. I never really learned to swim when I was young. And my problems were compounded when, at school, I was ‘taught’ by a swimming ‘teacher’ who got a kick out of humiliating non-swimmers like me. By the time I left school, I had some serious mental barriers to swimming.
In 1998, I spent a week teaching on Sanibel island, Florida in the US. One of my colleagues was an accomplished triathlete and coach. He also was also and old school friend. I decided to get over myself and asked him to teach me to swim.
An hour each day, we’d go to a deserted outdoor pool where he would patiently coach me. At the start of the week, I could barely manage 25 metres without feeling like I was going to die. By the end of the week, I could swim with good form for as long as I liked. Even though I say so myself, my breaststroke is a joy to behold. Thank you Chris Williams.
6. 2001 – Stopping intensive running and (eventually) discovering walking
I like sport. At school, I loved playing rugby, but also ran (athletics and cross country). Things slipped a bit (a lot, actually) during my time at medical school. But a few years after qualifying as a doctor, I resumed running, and in quite a big way. At one point, I was running 40-50 miles a week. And not gentle jogging either – it was full on running.
I had the mindset that I was ‘born to run’ and nothing was going to stop me. My body, on the other hand, had other ideas. I picked up injury after injury, and ended up spending way too much time getting unbelievably painful sports massage (no pain, no gain), or having osteopathic adjustments. I refused to accept defeat for some years. Then, finally, an ankle problem forced me to stop. For two years I did practically nothing. Then I discovered walking. I feel it gives me almost all (maybe all) the benefits of running, with none of the downside. It’s been my mainstay exercise ever since.
7. 2006 – Major cutbacks in my TV viewing habits
In 2006 I had an idea for a book in my head that I wanted to get out onto paper. I was contemplating where the time for this project was going to come from. Around this time I took a flight to Canada for work and got chatting to the person next to me. I can’t remember how we got onto the subject, but he told me one of the bone’s of contention he had with his girlfriend was the amount of ‘rubbish TV’ she sat through. The truth was, I was watching a lot of rubbish TV myself at the time. I watched TV quite indiscriminately, and late into the night too. I think I was kinda addicted to it. It suddenly occurred to me where the time to write the book was going to come from.
When I had checked into my hotel outside Toronto, I promised myself I would not turn on the TV. I didn’t. When I got back home a week later, I unplugged the aerial lead from the TV and put it in a kitchen drawer. Pretty soon, I was ‘cured’. I hardly ever watch TV now (though I make an exception for international rugby which remains a passion). I wrote about this here. I have no idea how much time this freed up, but it must run to literally thousands of hours.
8. 2006 – Going to bed earlier
Kicking my TV habit was a prelude to sorting my sleep out. For years, I would go to bed late (usually after midnight) and struggle to get up. With TV out the way, I started to go to bed earlier. Now, I’m rarely up after 10.30 unless I’m on holiday or have been out. I seem to have gone from being an owl to a lark. I have much more energy at 45 than I did at 30, and I reckon at least some of this has to do with me getting to bed earlier.
9. 2009 – Vitamin D
For the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in vitamin D, and it’s links with enhanced health and lower risk of disease. In 2009, I decided to have my own vitamin D levels checked, and found them to be extremely low. You can read about this here. I was stunned, as I am a sun-worshipper, and when it’s warm and sunny wear as few clothes as I can get away with. I started supplementing with vitamin D to optimise my levels. I really don’t know what benefits this is having, if any. Intuitively, though, I think it’s the right thing to do and sense I’ll look back at some point in the future and be glad I did it.
10. 2010 – Random acts of kindness
In January 2010 I decided my new year’s resolution would be to practice a ‘random act of kindness’ each day. The thought was triggered by seeing a man vault a railing in the centre of a stairway to help a woman with a pram going in an opposite direction to him. I wrote about this here. To this day, my aim each day is to perform one random act of kindness. I’ve written about some examples here. I’ve found that although my aim is to complete one act of kindness a day, I’m unconsciously looking for possibilities here much of the time, and this affects my mindset and behaviour in a very positive way.
Finally, I’d like to thank the readers and commenters at the site. I don’t always have as much time to interact personally with you as I’d like. But trust me when I tell you I do appreciate you.