The Gulag Diet: 2 Years of IF

I meant to publish this post in May, and then completely forgot, so I deleted it and started it all over. I feel a bit weird sharing this, but it’s been an interesting series of lessons and people have asked me over the years, so I figured I’d share.

I embarked on an experiment a few years ago in an effort to dodge some genetic curses:

  • I developed plaque psoriasis at 13. Before I was 20, I developed early onset psoriatic arthritis in my small joints, namely my fingers.
  • Psoriasis is super inconvenient, especially when you’re an insecure teenager.  Developing autoimmune arthritis at such a young age doesn’t bode well for the future.
  • I spent quite a few years working with a brilliant dermatologist to figure out what treatment(s) would work, and found a topical steroid combo that, to this day, is worth its weight in gold (or money, as the retail cost of this medication is nearly $1400 per bottle). In my 30s, I developed a secondary form of skin psoriasis, which requires a different topical solution. I spent years trying all kinds of wild shit to manage this disease, and most therapies were not effective (for me).
    • My options after this medication’s efficacy wears off are grim, to say the least: methotrexate, then biologics. This has been a huge motivator.
  • At 30, I had my first bout of autoimmune thyroiditis. At 34, I had my second one. There is no treatment. My immune system will eventually kill off my thyroid. Key word being “eventually.”
  • Autoimmune diseases have high comorbidity, so if I have a few of them by 35, there will probably be more to come.
  • Apart from this, I have great genes: I have no diabetes, heart disease or cancer in my family. However, my parents and siblings are all overweight to various degrees, and we all have big bones and athletic builds (my father, formerly a college football player, looks like the Slavic Sgt. Slaughter). I’d say my immediate family members are strong and pretty fat. I’d like to be strong, and not fat.

Autoimmune diseases are aggravated my stress. My teenage and college years were horribly stressful for me, and my first thyroid issue arose during a crushingly stressful situation at my last job; my second one, while caused by a viral infection, was aggravated/prolonged by an unstable relationship. Last summer when I was struggling with hyperthyroidism, I felt like I was going to stroke out at times during arguments. As I’ve grown older and learned these things the hard way, I’ve managed to remove any and all work, financial and interpersonal drama from my life. Eating healthily and exercising are also important. Not using tobacco is probably a plus, and I’m sad to say drinking is probably not ideal, though anyone who knows me knows it’ll be a cold day in hell before I am 24/7 sober. My doctor last year told me the best natural treatment was to lead a boring, consistent life… in other words, a life that sounds nothing like the one I have or intend to. However, fostering universal security in your own life goes a long way: unstable partner? Dump him or her. Shitty friends? Say goodbye. Dramatic family? Minimize interaction. Crazy living situation? Move. Find supportive people who can be reliable and help to mitigate stress instead of add to it. The greatest curse of these diseases is that your emotional problems convert to physical pain: people who aren’t good for your life are dead weight. Let them go.

Even so, what else could I do, other than pity myself for being in my 30s and occasionally feeling like a busted piece of shit? I decided to try intermittent fasting, as it has shown some promising results with controlling immune response. I conveniently began this at a time when I had chunked up after a long winter in Fairbanks; I disappeared 25 lbs in the first two months, and have largely hovered around the same weight for most of the rest of this time, minus the hypothyroid phase of my last incident, and the beginning of this pandemic: I’m currently a few lbs outside of my ideal threshold right now. It’s a fight, as your body becomes increasingly efficient and it learns to live on much less food. I take breaks for vacations and trips on occasion so I can blitz my metabolism when I resume. I harbor no delusions… I will never be thin, but I feel pretty amazing nearly every day.

The more miraculous outcome is that I barely use any medication anymore, and the affected skin patches have shrunk by about 1/5th: I’ve cut topical application on the remainder by 50% or more. I have zero joint pain, 99% of the time (I track this all, and my weight, and alcohol consumption, and exercise in a trusty Excel spreadsheet… nerd life). This obviously changes in stressful times; at the front of this pandemic, my skin was a mess. My joints hurt. I was afraid my thyroid was going to crap out again. I doubled down and got my shit together. I will likely continue some iteration of fasting for the rest of my life; I don’t lift weights (currently), but I do cardio regularly, hike a lot and am pretty active. I don’t eat much red meat, and I’ve never been much of a processed food person. Moreover, 2 to 3- 36-hour fasts per week are enjoyable, and I believe it’s because I chose a very loose set of rules:

  • Eat whatever you want on eating days. This was super important. I can’t see myself spending my eating days on Oreos and Doritos, but if I wanted to, I could. There is no deprivation in this lifestyle; just delayed gratification. I have shamelessly eaten mac & cheese pizza on my eat days. You feel a lot less guilty about what you eat when you know you’ll not be eating the next day.
  • Do not do this every other day (not for 36h at least). I tried this and it was too much. It makes you too weak, no matter what you eat on your eating days. Besides, weekends should be weekends. 2-3- 36 hour days is enough, with an occasional prolonged fast (I do one 60h fast every month or two) thrown in to see what I’m made of.
  • I struggled initially to balance mineral intake. I started with drinking a cup of broth (mostly salt and flavoring), sometimes ate a can of “healthy” soup (220 cal) and bone broth, and I’ve graduated to drinking Yassentuki mineral water, which is absolutely disgusting but certainly tastes like it has the sodium I need. Magnesium staves off brutal headaches. Take vitamin D. Always, always, always take vitamin D, every day of your life.
  • It is virtually impossible to sleep after you don’t eat for this long. Your body will not let you go to bed. You might get sleepy in the afternoon, but I’ve taken to dosing myself with CBD/melatonin gummies on fast nights. They work perfectly.
  • If you eat too much the next morning, you will probably shit yourself. You will feel terrible. Start with something probiotic. I eat a yogurt with almond butter mixed in usually, and go from there. You’ll be surprised to see you’re not that hungry the next day. In fact, during a longer fast, the first day is typically the hardest. The second day your body seems to quietly eat itself.
  • Do not drink too much on nights before fast days, or your stomach will burn ALL day. You obviously lose more weight when you don’t drink; this is not rocket science, as much as the Internet is full of convenient articles about how drinking is good for weight loss. I’m a big fan of drinking; I still drink 2 nights or so a week. Sometimes more. Mostly wine.
  • You’ll be hungrier on your fast days if you fill up on starch when you can eat. This also is obvious. I’ve recently swapped all of my crackers out for tasteless cardboard Scandinavian bran crackers, which has helped. Expect to be hungrier if your eating days are filled with bread and spaghetti.
  • Working out is a thing, even on days you don’t eat. Will you be hungrier? Yeah, duh. My typical workout is 50min on the stair climber or alternating between 35 min/climber and 2 miles on the treadmill in the winter / outside stuff in the summer. Your body will work just fine with no food in it. The fact that people think this is impossible shows how brainwashed people are by constant food advertising.
  • You’ll laugh when people talk about how they’re “starving” when dinner is late. Western people know nothing about starving. We avoid hunger pangs like the plague. It’s quite comical when you spend a few years powering through hunger and realize that feeling subsides.
  • Fasting saves money, obviously. People eat a LOT of food. Take 3 days of food out of the equation, and you’re buying a lot less shit. Pretty cool.
  • I was surprised to see that my concentration and focus are just as strong if not better on days I don’t eat. A lot of energy goes into digestion; when you don’t use it, it goes to other places… like your brain and cognition. Hunger made people good hunters, not only due to the result. A fair amount of research points to greater awareness and better cognition in a fasted state.
  • I never bothered with macros or anything. I don’t want to be one of those annoying people preaching about keto, Crossfit, whatever else. I never counted shit. The beauty of fasting is that it’s so straightforward and simple. Eat / don’t eat. That’s it. I enjoyed keeping it that way. You will lose weight faster with keto, if you choose to do that.
  • Fasting is a pretty historically relevant tradition that encompasses many religions and ethnic groups, not to mention our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Powering through a long fast with the right mentality is a good skill to have. You never know when you’ll be caught without food; it’s good to know how you’d deal. The clarity you gain and the things you realize (the power of food advertising, the way we waste food, the indifference we typically have to the act of eating) are amazing byproducts of the process.
  • Even at 3 days a week, I’ve been able to flex. Sometimes I shift days. Sometimes I’ll double the time and do one more, but you need to give your body time without food. I’ve been lax lately, but I’ve been more active. I use how I feel as my primary cue, not the scale.

Anyway, that’s it, I guess. I started this post before summer arrived here, and between the remodeling of my house and hiking up a mountain a few days a week, I’m pleased by how well my body has dealt with world events as of late. One of my larger internal struggles has been trying to figure out how to remove stressors that hurt my health, as I have a more sensitive connection between the two than most people do.

All in all, IF has become a trend, and I’m surprised companies are able to make money on a diet plan that requires one to eat LESS, but this is America after all. Part of this has doubtless been changing my lifestyle in terms of removing things that stress me out; my life, as a whole, is higher quality, happier, and better than it was one year, two years or five years ago. I do believe despite all of that, that fasting has added another dimension of (a) control (or the perception of), (b) clarity and (c) physical health. As I’ve aged, I’ve wanted to take more time back from things that waste it, and 2-3 days a week, I don’t think about food. This has also given me a lot of time back.

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