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.

Caucasian Tales

So long is liberty oppressed by laws,
so will the tribes resist until they’re free:
at length the smoldering Caucasus will be
unburdened by this monstrous foreign cause
Pushkin

Our Free City Tour guide in Tbilisi, the lone local guide who was not an actual local but a Dutch guy who fell in love with a Georgian girl and relocated, warned us toward the end of our lengthy walk around the city to be careful: crazy things happen in this country. He meant this not in a “jihad in the mountains” kind of way, but in a “you might wander through and stay here forever” kind of way.

And so, a strange thing or two did happen in this unique and rugged country, and I left with a long to-do list of things I did not have time to fully explore.

The day we drove out into the mountains to Kazbegi, I felt as though I was on a time-warp road paved with nostalgia. To explain it would be to fail immediately. I spent my week in this country floored by the experience of being surrounded by others with strikingly similar facial features (I had never experienced this before to this degree, Georgian people are unique genetically and I am not one, though we share a diverse yet heavily Slavic contemporary blend); being out in the mountains forces you to fully appreciate the incredible falsehood of the word “Caucasian” listed on American documents. Caucasians are pale, with light eyes and dramatic features; often large aquiline noses and dark hair. This is the land of white exotics.

I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone in this place; a beautiful albeit steaming hot one (Tbilisi means “warm place” for its natural hot springs) filled with bread and cheese and dumplings stuffed with mushrooms you know someone picked with his or her bare hands. The ruggedness of the Caucasus reminded me in many ways of Alaska: the primitive individuality of the land and the people. Over 300 kinds of wine call Georgia their home; and much like Bosnia, I could have happily stayed forever… except with Georgia, I would be a face the same as everyone else’s. I have always loved the idea of absolute anonymity, of no one looking twice. Of being a ghost. I thanked my bizarre good fortune every time a street hawker harassed my Mexican companions while ignoring me entirely.

I remember reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them and chuckling often at her commentary on the ‘Stans. I’ve spoken many times with a friend of mine often about our diverging ideas of beauty: mine is crumbling, decrepit buildings and stray dogs, bright clothing strung over errant clotheslines. His is more the clean lines and what to me has always been overwhelming orderliness and sanitized existence of a city like Boston. Boston always felt like a sterile cage to me; at night, it seemed as though no one lived there, especially downtown. Tbilisi is its opposite.

Tbilisi’s old town is what is supremely beautiful to me: periods of time and style built atop one another… the Eurasian-Persian-Byzantine-Soviet aesthetics all smashed together into a hot decrepit mess, though a mess that is cared for with tremendous love… winding streets with the odd can or bottle, dust flying around in the breeze, and panting dogs and lazy cats lounging in the shade. I would come back here again, with my DSLR.

With all the rugged landscapes and the country’s oppressive history (the Russians most recently invaded and reclaimed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008), Georgians are incredibly kind, gregarious and welcoming people. They have a cultural tradition of sharing homemade wine on their beautiful balconies with neighbors and strangers alike and helping visitors and newcomers get around and learn about their country. The protective but individualistic culture that is so well-known in Alaska exists here as well: live and let live, but always lend a helping hand. The country is extraordinarily safe. My friends commented that Bosnia (we had flown to Tbilisi from Sarajevo) was a lot more questionable comparatively. I initially scoffed, though by the end of the trip I concluded they were probably right.

Georgia has built a robust tourism industry, though their tourists are primarily Russians. And their food is to die for; one of my regrets (other than not staying longer) was not eating more. I had wanted to try legit khachapuri for a long time. Life can be a real let-down sometimes when you have great expectations… khachapuri is not, nor is their homemade wine, which has a sort of thick, mead-meets-raw apple cider taste and costs practically nothing (even their “good” wine is a few dollars a bottle at the most).

We found a bizarre tour of the old mining town of Chiatura, which has fully in-tact cable cars from the 1950s and ventured out to ride them. The country is riddled with monasteries and Orthodox churches (the country is 90% Orthodox, so they lack the kind of internal friction you can feel in every waking breath in Bosnia). The Stalin Museum in Gori (Stalin’s hometown) eluded me, and I was sad to hear it will likely close as the tone of the museum is a bit gauche for what they’re going for tourism-wise. As our guide said, “There’s no Hitler Museum, so there probably shouldn’t be one for Stalin.”

I don’t love every country I venture to; I wouldn’t return to Macedonia and definitely not to Albania. I could leave Serbia, Western Ukraine and Romania indefinitely off my re-visit list as well. I’ve long grown bored of Western Europe. Georgia, I will go back to. The Caucasus are wild, and real: an amalgam of familiar things from different stages of my own life.

In these past two years, two countries have far exceeded my high expectations: Bosnia, and Georgia, for entirely different reasons. It took a long flight on a vintage-upholstered plane and one in my party being detained for awhile for having a terrorist-looking neckbeard. He swears he won’t go back, but I surely will.

Bonus: they’re big on importing cars, and there’s a pretty solid rally culture, so there were quite a few WRX and STI spottings throughout the country.

Bonus reading: How Russia’s writers saw the Caucasus, Financial Times
Up next: back to Bosnia

Czechmate

Oh hi, me again. Just returned from my second year of Brutal Assault. Having sufficiently horrified my coworkers by attending such a festival (‘Brutal Assault? OMG’), and arriving in possession of one Forever 21 panda suit (I pledged to wear a panda suit if we went back for year 2), I’m sad it will be nearly impossible to convince anyone to attend for a third year.

I’ve been to a lot of metalfests; Brutal Assault is my favorite. The disappointment in Diablo Swing Orchestra and Ihsahn canceling was fresh in our minds, but despite the searing heat and smelly campers, it was great. The lineup wasn’t as good as last year, though Arkon Infaustus alone was worth the trip; I chose to fly 10,000 miles to see them without the fast food smelling smog and 100% humidity of Baltimore at Maryland Deathfest. I felt like there were too many people, but I would go again. Just ask. I’m in.

This festival overall is (a) cheap (b) well organized (c) seems to attract metalheads that have grown out of the puking and shoving phase of metal fandom. This year had a bit too many huge metal bands, though I will say even I was charmed by tens of thousands of people tribal-jigging and bellowing ‘rooooots…. bloody roooooots’ at the end of Sepultura’s set.

The venue, Fortress Josefov, is beautiful. 100 Euros, deposited onto your RFID bracelet at the beginning of the festival, will buy you four days of beer and food (and maybe even some merch). The lodging package comes with four-star Eastern bloc accommodations, complete with windows that don’t stay open, questionable carpet stains and shower heads that sear the first few layers off your skin, ensuring you are super clean and fresh for another day of fighting the bourgeoisie. The best thing this hotel has to offer is the incredible disparity between its online photo and real life.

cernigov

Overall, there is something special about this country. City-wise, Prague is different than the slowly reforming grey spiritual necropolis I remember from my youth (at 34, I’m a huge fan of acting like I’m as old as time, but what I mean is, this Prague is so different than the city I initially visited in the very early 00s). Albert Camus wrote a lot about Prague, and his portrait is in some ways more the city I think of, although in a more endearing way. Some of us just like to travel to ominous ‘Eastern Europe.’

I will keep my hipster ‘Prague is too touristy’ whining to myself, though friends echoed my complaints this year; more positively, it’s been a pleasure to watch the capital and much of the country grow and prosper. There are vacationers everywhere, although perhaps a few too many who complain that Czechs don’t smile enough (Slavenka Drakulić actually said some funny things about Westerners expecting people in Eastern European countries to smile for no reason). You can buy a beer for less than $2. Prague is rapidly approaching Western Europe for Eastern European prices. The expanding homogeneity of European capitals is pretty lame; the cost is not.

But what makes so-called Czechia different?  The country joined the EU in 2004, alongside the Baltics, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Many of the former Eastern bloc countries are prosperous (some are backsliding, like Poland and Hungary, though those two are regressing in different ways). After a fair amount of time spent in each of these countries, it’s tough to think of one that is doing better. What is it that makes this country so prosperous? Maybe location, sandwiched partly between Germany and Austria. Maybe they are just West enough that they’re better by osmosis. I asked this question to some other people I spoke with, and was told by one person that Czechs are never satisfied with their own performance, which was demonstrated later at the festival when the shuttle admin guy told me that he was happy I liked the festival, but ‘things could be better.’ Maybe it’s just that good ol’ Protestant work ethic seeping over the border.

This blog is not about serving up answers, because I don’t have any, so that’s what I spent some time thinking about. That, and where to get my next plate of schnitzel. I happened to tag along to Český Krumlov before flying home, as well, which was a pretty charming little medieval town, albeit crammed with tour groups for the day (at night, it empties out). The town reminded me in many ways of Salzburg, which will always be superior because they have the Sound of Music Tour. (I’m not kidding: I took that tour twice. In one day).

cesky

And that’s a wrap. Next up on Post-Communist Adventure Travel for Entitled White People: Bosnia and most of the rest of those bloodsoaked, brutal Balkans in September.

Aaand… one finale-worthy meat plate for good measure. Schnitzel has its own tag in this blog, and I expect to utilize it.

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