In my 20s, I felt like the world was my oyster. I had just graduated a year earlier from Columbia, earned a coveted job at a bulge bracket investment bank during the midst of the financial crisis, and was ranked at the top of my training class. Everything was going my way.
As far as my health was concerned, I knew I was fortunate. Throughout my life I never had any health concerns — no pills, no allergies, no food sensitivities, no headaches. I never felt the need to take naps. On weekends I would stay out late, eat a lot of red meat and drink too much beer with my friends; but I was always fully functional the morning after. I would frequently run the seven-plus miles across the Williamsburg Bridge and back from my apartment on Sundays.
Despite the long hours at work, I had little concept of what feeling poorly all the time was actually like. I completely took for granted my healthy circumstances and how quickly things can change, which they did in the summer of 2010 when I was diagnosed with a flare-up of Epstein-Barr virus (the virus that causes mono). The acute symptoms of mono quickly passed, but the chronic Epstein-Barr has lasted for five years. It has taken a significant toll on my physical and emotional well-being. For the first three years after the diagnosis, I felt completely hopeless for the first time in my life. Nothing I did mattered, because I couldn’t do anything.
Prior to my illness, I used to wake up every morning and read a quotation by John Stuart Mill that I kept on my dresser next to my bed. It said, “A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” I used this quotation to motivate me; to remind me that the physical discomfort of sleep deprivation and the emotional pain of deteriorating personal relationships were worth it in the long run. The nature of my fight was not uniquely uncommon: to be successful at my job by helping my clients, to pay off my student loans, to support my father who was severely in debt, to find a wife, to save enough to support my future family, to move up in the company or start my own in order have a positive impact on the people around me, and dare I say, make America and the world a little better. This was my fight for which I was willing to sacrifice my personal wellness for. I figured if it was just that I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I had it pretty good.
After the acute symptoms of mono subsided, the doctors told me I may be tired for a “few more weeks,” so I returned to work and, just as before, I continued to grind away 14-hour days, six to seven days a weeks. However, I was in severe pain, feeling more tired in the morning after sleeping eight or nine hours than I had before going to bed. I could barely think or remember anything I read. I was blindly going through the motions.
I broke out in frequent fevers and cold sweats, had multiple rashes that my immune system couldn’t fight, was constantly congested, and my digestion was a mess. My appendix almost burst and I had to have surgery to remove it. All I ever felt like doing was sleeping.
I went out of my way to avoid friends and family. In isolation, it was less apparent how the fatigue and brain fog were impacting me. My sudden retreat wasn’t particularly starting to them, though, because I had just started a job as an investment banker. I lied, using work as an excuse to skip parties and get-togethers in order to stay in to rest and sleep. I often pretended like nothing was wrong, partly because I was told exactly that by many medical professionals, so I saw my fatigue as something to power through, and also because I thought that if I acted as if nothing was wrong, I would get better.
The daily anguish of seeing my future dreams vanish a little more everyday was the hardest part. I was functioning at only a tiny fraction of what I was capable of, spending all my willpower just on trying to get through each day. And I was doing it all alone.
I went to four different primary care physicians and the official prognosis from all was that the mono was working its way through my system, that there were no issues with my blood work and I should recover soon. When I brought up diet or supplements, two doctors gave generic “eat healthy” responses, one said to eat salmon, and the fourth said diet wouldn’t have much of an impact. I knew at that point, which was more than a year after the flare-up, that I would have to truly take my recovery into my own hands.
Diet was an obvious first step to taking control of my healing process. What exactly a healthy diet looks like has taken me some time to figure out and I continue to refine to this day. But the highest impact changes to my diet have been to eat more healthy fats, grass-fed proteins, and organic vegetables; restrict dairy, sugars, carbs and gluten. There are infinite permutations to any diet and it can seem overwhelming at first. I try to keep it simple.
The Epstein-Barr virus wreaked havoc on my digestive process, my adrenals and my whole endocrine system. Through various therapies, diets, and protocols I’ve attacked these maladies head-on. For example, a candida diet for my gut overgrowth, thyroid medication for hypothyroidism, mitochondrial supplements for ATP depletion. However, a monumental shift in my approach to recovery occurred after reading CFS Unraveled by Dan Nueffer. Nueffer posits that the root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a dysfunction autonomic nervous system (ANS) which at the conscious and subconscious levels the body reacts negatively to stress, both perceived and actual. Calming the ANS through daily activities such as meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga puts the mind and therefore body in a better state in which it can heal. Indeed, calming my ANS has helped tremendously over the last year. Breathing exercises, in particular, have gotten me over a major hump, and I’d like to think that I am close to fully recovered as a result.
That moment four years ago when the doctor told me diet wouldn’t impact my recovery is when I knew that I needed to be the quarterback of my wellness. Since then, every six month increment I have felt better than the prior six months. I try to remind myself that this experience will make me stronger or direct me down a better path I wouldn’t otherwise have followed. That is still yet to play out but I’ve learned a lot about food, alternative therapies, and the human body’s ability to change and heal, which will certainly benefit me now and in the future.
What has undoubtedly changed is my outlook on life. My goals are essentially the same, but my approach is much more selfish. You can’t help others effectively if you can’t help yourself. If you focus on optimizing your health and taking care of yourself, the rest will follow.
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Note: PLEASE consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or medications. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only, and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.