Monday, 31 August 2015

Gut healing diet

I stumbled across a book called Gut Gastronomy in my local library, which offers a two – three week programme of meals to heal the gut. The meals are all gluten, soy and dairy free and have little refined sugar. There’s quite a bit of meat in there, offal and bone broths - a bit daunting for someone who for the last six years has been pretty much vegetarian! And the most worrying was the half-day fasts drinking only bone broth. All I will say is that I tried my best to stick to the programme but fasting is not an option for me at the moment with a slightly haywire blood sugar response and exercise fueling needs.

The first hurdle was getting past the reduced sugar intake as I’m a bit of a sugar junkie - I love fruit, chocolate and biscuit snacks. The first three days of the programme really highlighted to me how strong my snack and sugar cravings were, especially when I’m at work and mainly in the afternoon. I also cut out my regular cups of tea due to the caffeine, milk and sugar content. Thankfully I’m happy drinking herb teas so although I occasionally miss a good brew it’s not too much of a hardship.
I’ve experienced blood sugar issues in the past (which may or may not be related to the developing thyroid condition) where I’ve felt faint trying to do any form of exercise before breakfast and irritable or anxious if I miss meals. Nutritional advice had previously been to reduce my starch/grain carbohydrate intake and have nutrient dense foods at the heart of my diet (i.e. less reliance on muesli, rice and pasta to bulk up meals and more vegetables). So I was already heading in this direction, but the shock of suddenly cutting out most sugar was quite sharp. But by day five it became much easier.
The next issue was coming back to meat. My reasons for being vegetarian have mainly been for easier digestion and because I feel ‘lighter’ eating meat-free meals. However over the years I’ve eaten the odd bit of chicken or bacon here or there, and continued to eat fish. Going back to red meat, however and especially offal is another prospect altogether! But I committed to giving it my best so I cooked up some chicken livers with pancetta and apple salad and actually it was really delicious! Since then I’ve also had kidneys made into a chilli and livers cooked with onions in white wine. To make sure I’m digesting my food better, and therefore absorbing the nutrients, I’m also taking digestive enzymes with acid which seem to help me process the meat a little better.

Lamb Kofte
Coconut & almond flour pancakes

Homemade sauerkraut
The third biggest influence of this programme has been to introduce my own fermented foods. I’m half Austrian and this Germanic influence has meant I’ve always quite liked sauerkraut! However I had no idea that shop-bought sauerkraut is pretty much empty of any nutritional benefit from fermenting bacteria which act as probiotics for the gut. So to increase my levels of good bacteria I was going to have to make my own. 

So far the sauerkraut I’ve made has worked out well – one with savoy cabbage and fennel, another with beetroot, carrot and caraway seeds. I have no idea if anything good is growing in them, but there doesn’t seem to be anything bad in them so I’ll continue producing festering pots of cabbage behind the sofa, much to the bemusement of my boyfriend!
At the end of two weeks I went away to Cornwall for the weekend and had little choice than to dabble in some gluten foods or else starve at the seashore (the little canteen at the dive centre didn’t look like the kind of place to ask for a gluten-free pasty!). I thought it might be a good test to see if adding gluten back in might cause a reaction. I’ll describe my results in the next post.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Initial research

I’m grateful for a friend with the same condition recommending two great books to get started with – Living Well with Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis – The Root Cause. Reading these gave me many insights into my condition (see My Thyroid Story), including;
  • My daily symptoms aren’t so bad compared to what some people suffer, so perhaps I’ve caught this early
  • Mystery psychological problems going back years could be attributable to the early stages of Hashimoto’s/auto-immune
  • A bout of gastroenteritis last Christmas may have triggered this condition to show itself
  • My gut health could be quite poor and I’m not properly absorbing important blood-building nutrients that I need for freediving such as iron and B12

When my doctor diagnosed hypothyroidism and prepared the prescription to begin me on a low dose of Levothyroxine, she said that very little could be done about the auto-immune aspect of the disease. Now I’m quite stubborn and I don’t believe that that is strictly true. Saying that, I’m not entirely convinced by the wealth of ‘evidence’ presented on the internet and in books about the influences of food intolerances on auto-immune conditions – such as gluten, dairy, soy, nightshade plants etc.. However I’ve met several people who swear by certain food eliminations to manage their illnesses so although I’m thoroughly confused and overwhelmed by information I do wonder if it’s worth a try. In my next post I’ll describe how a planned two week elimination/gut health diet goes.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


Three weeks before I went to the pool freediving World Championships I was told by my doctor that I was borderline hypothyroid and anaemic, but it was something to monitor rather than a major concern as I was feeling OK wasn’t I? A bit tired – yes, struggling to recover – yes, but I’m swimming OK in the pool, right?

The answer to that was yes and no. It’s taken a bit of time over the summer to look back and see how my training was unravelling for months and that my pivotal moment of ‘failure’ was just the full stop at the end of the first paragraph. 

Preparing for my dive
That ‘moment’ was losing consciousness (known as a black out) in my favourite event at the World Champs and then feeling too unwell to compete at my next best event the day after - nine solid months of training ending in complete disappointment. It’s quite common for this to happen to freedivers pushing themselves, but unusual for me as it was my first ever in competition and ten days earlier I’d swum significantly further and ended the dive very cleanly. I felt no more nervous than I do at any other event, so there had to be something else that wasn’t quite right.

It would be too easy to explain away that moment with a doctor’s prescription and not learn anything for it, and the preceding months leading up to it. Being honest with myself I see a role for stress and intense training in developing the most noticeable phase of this condition, even though it was probably triggered by something out of my control and had been worsening over many years.

186m DYN National Record
I was at my athletic peak in November 2014, achieving my fifth dynamic National Record in my home town pool (Stockport, UK) and feeling really confident about the coming year. I had a forced break over Christmas with a sore back and a bout of gastroenteritis, but was keen to get back into training in early 2015.

Although I tried out a few new techniques, my training programme hadn’t changed much from the previous year in terms of volume or intensity, and it improved in places where I could train and fuel myself a bit smarter and recover better. But alarmingly my ability to bounce back from training sessions declined, my sleep was suffering and eventually I blacked out swimming a distance which would normally be achievable. It felt like I'd hit an invisible wall in the pool, more a physical hindrance than a mental one, and this time recovery wasn't just slow it was pretty much non-existent and I felt fatigued for many weeks, missing the UK Championships in March.

Once I'd got back into training in April I felt as if I was barely maintaining, and even back-peddling on previous results. I'm proud that I kept plugging on through this, turning up to train even though I'd started to hate it and felt miserable although perhaps I should have stopped there and then to rest. My body began to reject evening training even though we’ve had late night sessions for years, which haven't posed much of a problem.

From then on I was just fire-fighting - switching as much training as I could to daytime and being fastidious in recording recovery statistics to make sure I was only training when I was fit to, adapting over and over again. But the love for diving had gone and I was buckling under pressure and negativity.

Moments before my WC dive
In a cruel twist of fate I began to feel more myself at the start of June, my results and recovery improved and I began to hope that I'd be OK for the World Championships after all. 10 days out from the trip to Belgrade I matched a previous PB in DNF, super clean at the end of the swim and recovered fine by the next day. Unfortunately at the event itself I met that invisible wall again in the pool, blacking out at 135m.

I made mistakes on the day, which I've noted and chosen not to use as a bat to beat myself with.  I surprised myself by not being utterly devastated - of course I was gutted in a way I can't put into words but I also had a deep and comforting sense that I’m learning the really important stuff. It's at our most vulnerable times, when our soft underbelly feels raw and exposed that we can choose to stay open and feel the burn of disappointment, until it wipes you clean of all the non-essential stuff of who you are.

What I know I love about sport is the way it brings you to look at the really tough stuff inside - the parts of ourselves we either don't know we have or keep hidden. Being competitive brings a host of ego faces along with it and the best divers have found ways to let go of ego-driven thoughts and behaviour. And so that's a new training goal for me, along with trying to find a way to train more sustainably, taking account of the days when I’ll feel under the weather.