The Story of How I Went from Sick, to Curious, to Getting My Mind Blown
Four years ago I was diagnosed with a neurological deficiency that would change my life and send me on a relentless crusade for a solution in the years that followed.
This deficiency caused low energy, poor sleep and regular mood swings. This little crusade of mine had me devouring dozens of books, research articles, scholarly journals and consulting with a variety of professionals seeking a “cure”.
This is a story of years of failure, wasted money, bogus advice, various diets and finally after plenty of blood, sweat and tears (literally) — a eureka moment.
This story starts several years ago with my visit to an alternative medicine physician in Washington, DC. Although I have much respect for general practitioners I find that most “ailments” seem to result in a “take one of these and call me in the morning”. I also tend to ask too many questions for having to share my life’s history in 15 minutes.
I chose this physician based on her reputation for root-cause analysis and personalized health diagnostics and no affinity or incentive to prescribe me some big name pharmaceutical drug. She also loved data.
We instantly hit it off. I’ll spare the details on the months of various testing that I underwent including exams for allergic reactions, vitamin deficiencies, MRI, physicals, hereditary factors review, various blood tests, etc. Yeah, I wanted them all if there was even the smallest chance of uncovering a key insight that would make me feel better.
It didn’t help that my diet was worse than I thought. The sugar, fried and processed foods were taking their toll. I’ve been lucky to never have a serious issue with obesity and in fact on the outside could not have been called what most people would consider overweight. Perhaps this made things worse.
My old thinking was along the lines of “I can eat what I want as long as it doesn’t make me fat”. The sad reality was that there were many overweight people that were in better health than me!
My Journey Begins
One key factor, for example was my cholesterol levels. It was through the roof and without a test I may not have known until it was too late. The “bad” cholesterol known as LDL was severely out of the recommended range:
My white blood cells seemed to be rebelling too and were also far out of range than normal:
It did not help that I was addicted to sugar. In fact I couldn’t have a cup of coffee without dumping in six to seven packets of white granulated sugar.
I almost paid dearly for that sweet tooth of mine. In fact I was diagnosed as borderline prediabetic. If I had continued for a few more months a battle with diabetes was certainly nothing I would have been prepared to deal with:
It short, I looked normal on the outside but inside I was a hot mess (not a technical term).
Within a few weeks my naturopathic physician and I had a plan of attack involving some dietary changes and an arsenal of various supplements and nutrients:
The above was only the tip of the iceberg in all the therapies and supplements that I tried back then. However an emerging pattern was that for some unknown reason I was seriously lacking in nutrients and key neurotransmitter levels in my brain.
Let’s just say once I started this barrage of dietary restrictions and supplements my eating-out social life was not among my favorite memories. I had also cut out meat from my diet during this time too, which meant that I needed additional supplements to satisfy my necessary levels of protien and amino acids. This lasted for months and was not fun. Sometimes I felt numb and zombie-like, other times I went through struggles with my body craving all the “good stuff” that I had to give up.
Man, what I wouldn’t have done for my go-to Carl’s Junior Western Bacon Cheeseburger!
Sh*t is Starting to Get Real
Then it happened. I took a more comprehensive test that measured the levels of key neurotransmitters in my brain. As it turned out my new diet should have gave me the nutrients that I needed but there was an even bigger problem — my body was not breaking these nutrients down properly which in turn meant that the necessary key neurotransmitters that I required were simply not being produced adequately in my brain.
In fact ALL of my key neurotransmitter levels were low across the board! This included the primary ones responsible for mood and feelings of well-being such as serotonin and dopamine, not to mention PEA which could hardly have been lower. Low PEA is associated with difficulty paying attention or thinking clearly, and in depression.
Whew. Let’s take a second to review my situation at the time for a moment:
- Bad diet
- High cholesterol (LDL)
- Low levels of key nutrients
- Low levels of key neurotransmitters
- and I still craved a Carl’s Jr. cheeseburger :(
I later took a test that would measure many other vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as this one which verified that I needed more B vitamins, particularly B3 (Niacin), B9 (Folic Acid) and B12 (Cobalamin):
The Plot Thickens
After more testing and trial and error it was determined that I had a “mythlation” problem. Without getting into the technical nitty gritty, think of the body’s methlation process as billions of little on/off switches inside your body that control everything from your stress response and how your body makes energy from food, to your brain chemistry and detoxification. This is known as methylation and demethylation.
If you have a shortage of “methyl groups” or a complication with your methylation process — all of the following processes can become compromised and lead to sickness:
- The stress (fight-or-flight) response
- The production and recycling of glutathione — the body’s master antioxidant
- The detoxification of hormones, chemicals and heavy metals
- The inflammation response
- Genetic expression and the repair of DNA
- Neurotransmitters and the balancing of brain chemistry
- Energy production
- The repair of cells damaged by free radicals
- The immune response, controlling T-cell production, fighting infections and viruses and regulating the immune response
I’ve highlighted the three issues that I had been struggling with: neurotransmitter imbalance, energy production and low white blood cell count (impacting my immune system).
We ordered a test through BioReference Laboratories which revealed a mutation in a gene known as MTHFR (a hell of an acronym, I know) — specifically with the C677T allele:
To summarize, MTHFR is an enzyme necessary for an important metabolic process called methylation. It is this natural process that converts folate and folic acid into an active form the body can use. The MTHFR gene produces this enzyme, but a genetic mutation can inhibit its function.
A Deeper Dive Into My DNA
Some years passed with me going in and out of diets and nutrition plans. Recently I finally purchased a genetic test from 23andme.com. The good news is that I came up negative for the MTHFR gene mutation (known as the “e4” variant”) which would have put me at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease:
So then what’s all the fuss about the MTHFR C677T gene mutation that came up positive in my report? Well the bad news is that this combination does have a direct connection with my B vitamin deficiencies and unfortunately 23andme.com did not tell me this.
It wasn’t until I investigated deeper and cross-referenced the data from 23andme.com with a new service called DNAFit that allows you to upload your 23andme.com data and recommend your optimal diet based on your genetic background — all done in one click and gives you the results online in less than 30 seconds!
What made me take this investigation further? Well honestly I was not impressed with the 23andme.com results. Great data but useless for the most part in terms of actionable information that I can use to influence my diet, health and nutrition. So just like that cheeseburger that I used to crave for, I wanted more.
As a biohacker, or a person that gets a kick out of researching personalized diet and nutrition based on personal data, I’ve been relentlessly searching for the “holy grail” in my diet. In other words I want to know not only which foods, nutrients or supplements are good for me, but which ones I actually need and make a significant difference in my health.
As I mentioned earlier I’ve been in and out of diets and other “biohacks” for years. Even the new meal services that help you pick the optimal diet based on your lifestyle or what foods are generally “good for you” still seem a bit impersonal.
Don’t get me wrong — many of these services are not only tasty and nutritious but also super-convenient. I’ve tried some too, most recently InnerFueled which prides itself on premium ingredients, no added sugar, gluten and dairy-free. The issue is that while it's generally nutritious for most people, it's not specific enough to cater to my personal needs.
My mission is to find the most optimal personal diet that is 100% based on my physiology and lifestyle and that helps me compensate for some of my body’s genetic limitations.
My limitations specifically are the suboptimal production of neurotransmitters due mainly to B vitamin deficiency. So what would a personalized “diet” plan look like for me? Why don’t I just swallow a B vitamin pill and call it a day?
The Quest for a DNA Diet
B vitamins are synthetic and there are more natural ways to supplement. Which brings me back to the report that I recently got from DNAFit. Not only did DNAFit identify my MTHFR mutation but it mapped it to the B vitamin deficiency and recommended a game plan for natural B vitamin supplementation. Here’s just a part of my report:
If I took a synthetic B vitamin supplement, such as for B9 (Folic acid) I’d have to be careful to keep within the right dose as excess B9 can led to health issues, whereas too little would leave me insuffiencient. Natural sources such as liver and spinach (according to DNAFit) appears to be the solution.
There is a problem however. Those with C677T MTHFR mutations do not process folic acid into methylfolate well. Without getting out of my league here (as I am not medical doctor just an amatuer “citizen scientist”), note that those with a C677T MHTFR mutation do not process folic acid into L-5-MTHF. If folic acid does not turn into 5-MTHF, folic acid levels build up. Elevated folic acid has potential to stimulate pre-existing cancer cells.
WTF is L-5-MTHFR?
What is this “L-5-MTHFR”? This is the key to this entire article.
Spinach, liver and natural folate source are ok but would not meet the production deficiency that my mutation requires. So we’re back to a synthetic supplement. Again, I needed a more in-depth consultation. Per Dr. Joseph Debe, a board certified nutritionist:
“Folic acid is the synthetic form, which is used to fortify foods and used in vitamin supplements. L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate (L-5-MTHF) is the metabolically active form of folic acid, which is found in nature (certain whole, unfortified foods)…”
(So far so good — this is in line with the DNAFit recommendation of increasing dietary folic acid in the form of natural foods. But wait, there’s more…)
“The “folic acid” found in food has to be cleaved (digested) from protein carriers in order to be absorbed. This process is inefficient in some individuals. Once absorbed, folic acid has to undergo several biochemical conversions in the body to become L-5-MTHF. Roughly one in two Americans have genetically inefficient enzymes that help create L-5-MTHF.”
In other words eating spinach and other natural forms of folate would be helpful but more than likely not enough for my imbalance. Bingo.
The DNA + Lifestyle Diet
My knee-jerk reaction was to now just get some L-5-MTHF supplements and call it a day. No sir. It's not that simple. In fact it blew my mind what would be necessary to “hijack” my system to get the methylation process going again.
Until now I have not discussed my current diet much, and recently after making the above discovery I’ve turned my diet on its head. I have spent many, many late nights and weekends working out a system based on the above information and some other data that enabled me to craft my own personal “DNA + lifestyle diet”.
This diet has so far accomplished the following for me:
- more daily energy
- require less sleep
- better focus at work
- stabilization of my mood
- require less food (about 40–50% less)
- 50% reduction in food budget
- no expensive meal service
- no hours cooking or preparing my personalized meals
- no indigestion or acid reflux
- nutritious and tasty meals everyday
In my next article I will outline step-by-step how I put together this “DNA + lifestyle diet”, what’s in it and how you can do the same thing relatively easily.
If you are interested in joining me on my journey to personalized wellness (where I take the best from paleo, keto and other diets to create my own DNA-based plan) — please ♥ this article and share with anyone who you think would like more energy, better sleep, more focus and a smarter way to eat.