These three recent changes profoundly improved my life8 min read

By day, I work as middle manager driving technology modernization in the US healthcare industry. A big part of my daily routine, what keeps me successful, is a regular cycle of inspection and improvement. If you’re a fan of Lean, Agile, DevOps, or the Toyota Production System, you might think of this in terms of hansei/retrospective and kaizen. I apply this not only to the teams that I lead and the organization above and around me, but also to myself. I’ve made some changes in the last couple of months that have really just been too good to keep to myself and I wanted to share.

There are three challenges that have plagued me my whole life. I’ve tried so many things to improve in these areas and have been met with little more than mild success in any one area.

  1. Poor sleep / insomnia.
  2. Deep depression.
  3. Trouble with my brain being too busy on two many concurrent thoughts without being able to easily consolidate to one simple, linear thread.

I should mention, I’m autistic and some combination of these challenges are common complaints with many other autistic adults. But I don’t think you have to be autistic to identify with one or more of these.

There’s a fourth factor that led into the changes I’m about to discuss: heart disease runs in my family. And I’m overweight. I’ve probably already done a lot of damage, and that damage can likely never be undone. But I should be able to slow or halt the progression of the damage with lifestyle changes.

The changes I’m about to discuss were all made in close proximity in early October, so almost two months before writing this.

The Payoff

This is what you’re here for. I can’t pinpoint any one change to any one payoff. I’ve tried some of these changes in isolation before without seeing this kind of payoff, so I really think there’s a combination of inputs at play here.

If I’d realized any one of these payoffs alone, this all would have been worth it. Gaining all three is pretty profound to me. And I really wanted to share in the off chance it might help some of you.

  1. I’m sleeping through the night. This means at least seven hours of sleep every night, but often I’m getting eight or even nine hours.
  2. I’m not depressed. My baseline mood most of the time before this change was one of hopeless depression. I was going through the motions every day in the hopes that my partner and my children might enjoy a better life than I’d gotten a chance to. After this change, my baseline mood has come way up. Now I’m hopeful, I’m grateful, and even when life has thrown me some real curve balls, I bounce back to an elevated mood relatively quickly. Some of these curve balls included a suicide in the family and being passed over for a really well-earned promotion. Either one of these things would have plunged me into a deep, dark, long-running funk before. This time, the span of my grief measured in hours. Not days or weeks.
  3. I’m more focused. Before these changes, my brain would get so busy with ideas flying off in different directions that the best way I could describe the inner workings of my mind would be “angry bees”. It took a lot of effort to focus on just one bee and keep my mind focused on it long enough to see a challenge through. These “bees” are also what would snap me out of REM sleep into a conscious state in the middle of the night almost every night. Now I’m much more level, much more focused on what I need to do.

But enough of that; let’s move on to what I changed.

Coffee

Somewhere along the way I got into coffee as a way of staying awake during the day when I was not getting enough sleep. But I was drinking enough coffee that it was almost certainly contributing to my sleep problems, creating a vicious circle. It may also have contributed to depression.

I stopped drinking coffee cold turkey. The first week or so was really hard, and I definitely went through some withdrawal symptoms. Coming out the other side, I feel much better.

Coffee has been replaced in my life by tea. I have two black teas in the morning, and one in the mid-afternoon. There’s a little caffeine in that, sure. But I’m getting less caffeine from all the team I’m drinking in a day vs what I’d have gotten from just one of the four to six cups of coffee I was drinking per day every day before. The rest of the day, I do drink herbal teas. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Irish Breakfast Tea – Higher in caffeine, and helped me to break away from coffee, but I don’t drink it much at all now.
  • English Breakfast Tea – Moderate caffeine (for tea), and it’s where I get most of my baseline caffeine from today.
  • Tumeric Ginger Tea – I try to have one or two cups of this every day. It’s yummy (but perhaps not at the first go if you are not big on tumeric or ginger). And it’s allegedly very healthful.
  • Lemon Ginger Tea – I’ll often have a cup of this every day. Again, it’s yummy and healthful. And, if you can’t tell, I’m a fan of ginger.

Vitamins

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a blood panel done, but I remember my old doctor telling me I was very low on D3, as many middle-aged men are. I started with a supplement and he said my D3 levels were improved, but not nearly enough. I went up to a much higher daily dose for awhile and he said they were finally in the healthy range. I don’t know how or why, but at some point I stopped taking these. I’m back on them now, every day.

D3 deficiency may contribute to depression.

In addition, I’m taking a chewable multivitamin every day.

Finally, I’m taking a B12 supplement daily. This is an important supplement to go with the dietary changes I’m about to mention.

Here are some links to sources for these:

Vegan Diet

Before you leave in disgust, I’m not here to pull a “meat is murder” condemnation on you or anything. I tried this out for a number of health-related reasons, as well as trying to make a more mindful lifestyle change to reduce livestock impact on the environment.

Ingesting animal products does contribute to bowel inflammation, arterial damage, and some potentially serious long-term issues. I’m already facing one of those issues now: gout.

So I made the decision to make a serious go of eating a 100% plant-based vegan diet for a while. Yes, I’m using moderate amounts of fake meats and fake cheeses. I’m also eating some microwave meals that are vegan. But I’m also trying and enjoying new recipes and new-to-me vegan options when eating out at restaurants and cafes. And I have to tell you, I’m really enjoying my food.

Until yesterday I wasn’t reducing my caloric intake. So in a period of almost two months, eating 100% plant-based foods, I lost about five pounds. That’s not a huge achievement, and not something I was even trying for, but I thought it worth mentioning as a fringe benefit.

What’s next?

The benefits I’ve realized have been very consistent. Even the couple of “off” days that I’ve had, like after some of the hard life events I mentioned, or after getting a flu shot, I was still in a much better place on those low days than my highest days before these changes. So I want to keep the momentum going.

I also want to make some tweaks to get more out of it.

  • Reduced calories. I was eating 2200-2500 calories per day and it was maintaining a fairly substantial excess of body mass. Starting yesterday I dropped my target to about 1800 calories per day. I’ll drop a little further as my weight comes down more. I ultimately want to look good in skinny jeans. I think that’s the litmus test for success instead of some arbitrary number. Though I think my goal is probably about 100 pounds of weight loss away.
  • Increased exercise. This is such a tough one for me to do consistently. Being autistic, I’ve found the gym to be too chaotic, too much of a sensory overload, and I’ve not been able to keep up with it. While I like going for walks when the weather is nice, living in the southeastern United States the weather is often very much not nice. I’ll need to be innovative to find something that sticks here.
  • Experiment in the kitchen. I think if I have fun and make healthful meals that I love to eat, I’ll be a lot more successful in sticking to the strict plant-based diet. I think part of that can come from learning some of the cultural cooking patterns from cuisines I enjoy, and riffing on them using seasonally fresh local ingredients.