Last week, I flew to Montreal to be with my mom in the last days before her death. While it was hard to see how much she had changed, it was sobering to be reminded of something I started to realize six years ago — that the death of friends and family should change the way we live.
The untimely death of two college friends in 2017 was the impetus for me to finally change my own diet and lifestyle. One of my friends died of a stroke and the other of a massive heart attack and both worked in healthcare their entire lives. As mentioned several times in “A Dietitian’s Journey,” I knew that my death would be next if I didn’t lose weight, lower my very high blood pressure and blood sugar.
While it took me twice as long as it should have to accomplish my health and weight goals due to undiagnosed hypothyroidism, I was successful in losing 55 pounds and taking a foot off my waist, and in putting my hypertension and type 2 diabetes into remission. Many times I was asked why I took accomplishing my goal so seriously and my reply was always the same, “I am doing this as if my life depends on it, because it does.”
When my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I once again made some lifestyle changes. Even though I had put my type 2 diabetes into remission with diet, I began taking a low dose of the prescription medication Metformin preventatively, while continuing to eat a low carb diet. But, like many people, I became somewhat complacent and maybe even a little bit smug that diet alone was enough, and in the years since my dad’s death ended up discontinuing my medication, with my doctor’s knowledge.
Something that I was missing in my decision to discontinue this medication that I took prophylactically was that my health had changed, and I didn’t know it yet.
When I was diagnosed with profound hypothyroidism a little over a year ago, my doctor told me that even with taking thyroid hormone replacement medication that it would take a year and a half to fully recover due to how advanced it was.
I wanted to understand how my body had changed, so I did lots of reading in the scientific literature and learned about how hypothyroidism affected my heart rate, my blood pressure and cholesterol and wrote about it here. For a while I took a “baby dose” of blood pressure medication and made hypothyroid-specific dietary changes but eventually stopped taking it, and waited for the thyroid medication to reverse the symptoms. In retrospect, that may have been a bit naive. I was assuming these metabolic markers would return to normal in time, thinking that all I needed to do was wait the full year and a half to fully recover.
Recently, after an increase in thyroid medication I noticed that my blood sugar was significantly higher than it had been in years even though I had been compliant eating a low carb diet. Once again, I turned to the scientific literature to determine why. It was then that I discovered that all thyroid hormone replacement — even the “natural ones” raise blood sugar, and I wrote about that here.
Given my higher blood sugar and my late dad’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, I started back on the half dose of metformin, but it wasn’t until my recent visit with my mom, that I became less complacent.
Around the time my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my mom was diagnosed with vascular dementia secondary to some mild strokes, known as TIAs. At first, the signs were subtle — things like difficulty organizing things she wanted to do into a list, but over the past few years, she lost the ability to read and write, and sometimes couldn’t organize her thoughts into coherent sentences. My mom didn’t have high blood pressure, but struggled her whole life with being overweight and was sedentary.
The important things for me — and that I wasn’t factoring in before was that my mom having had mini strokes, and later developing vascular dementia put me at risk because I now have moderate hypertension as a result of my thyroid condition. As well, my dad having had type 2 diabetes and developing Alzheimer’s disease increased my risk now that the thyroid medication wasn’t keeping my blood sugar in the non-diabetic range, as it had been for two years with diet alone.
It’s all nice and fine that I continue to eat low carb and workout at the gym, but in light of my thyroid meds raising my blood sugar, taking Metformin only makes sense. Likewise, it’s great that I achieved remission from hypertension with diet alone, but things have changed. My blood pressure has been moderately elevated since last year and discontinuing the low dose blood pressure medication hoping improved thyroid levels will normalize them is a bit naive. They may, but they may not.
While I was away in Montreal visiting with my mom, I made a phone appointment with my doctor. I told him about my mother’s diagnosis and my current blood pressure, and said I think it makes sense to take some blood pressure medication and to monitor it regularly. I also told him that I think given my blood sugar levels are higher even though I continue to eat low carb, that I think it only makes sense to begin taking Metformin again, and continue to monitor them regularly. He agreed.
Today I buried my mom.
While she died due to pneumonia and not vascular dementia, her death has changed how I will live. I realize that I can no longer be complacent that eating a good diet, and going to the gym several days a week is “enough.”
My dad is buried beside my mom and visiting his grave reminded me in a fresh way that his death was related to him having Alzheimer’s disease, and that he had type 2 diabetes for the last 40 years of his life. While my elevated blood sugar is a side-effect of the thyroid hormone medication that I have to take, taking Metformin and continuing to eat a low carb diet and exercising only makes sense. His death has changed how I will live.
Dietary and lifestyle changes are very important and can effectively put both type 2 diabetes and hypertension into remission, however when circumstances change, it is necessary to consider medication as an adjunct.
I have no choice but to be on thyroid medication in the same way that someone with type 1 diabetes has to take insulin. Given my lack of thyroid function, as well the side effects of taking thyroid hormones, I have chosen to let my parent’s deaths change the way I live. It may not be forever, and it may be — only time will tell.
In the meantime, I will continue to eat a low carb diet to control my blood sugar as best I can, and to go to the gym several times a week to lift weights and do resistance training.
Taking medication is not a “failure”. Dying an unnecessary or premature death like my two girlfriends did, is.
And if taking medication, in addition to eating a good diet and being active helps avoid, or significantly slow dementia, all the better.
To your good health,
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