mental and physical health

Psychiatric Medications and Weight Gain: Can They Be Controlled?

A reconstructed Hotel and Canada Place. Both have meaning to me, the one in the background (Canada Place) is where I worked myself half to death helping my Dad paint stairwell doors for untold hours each day when I was in High School. The hotel, according to legend, is one that Leonard Cohen stayed at after being kicked out of the Hotel MacDonald, just up the street.


So here is how it went: I was a skinny kid when I went into the hospital 17 years ago. I think after making an effort to fatten myself up, I was about 170 pounds/77 kg. I got out of the hospital and life seemed pretty bland, but I enjoyed my freedom. I enjoyed it so much I nearly lost it just a few months after getting it back. I would eat three meals a day, then late at night go buy a large bag of chips and a submarine sandwich. If I had the money I would get a pizza. What I remember is that I was so ravenously hungry that if I didn’t have any food I wouldn’t sleep that night. So I ate and ate and ate. The more food I took in, the more food I was able to take in. I was exercising, but mostly just light walks through the river valley with my dad. Time passed and before I knew it I was 260 pounds/118 kg. By some miracle, if I got much higher than that I was able to fast my way back down. If something happened, I would drop a few pounds but they always seemed to come back.

The first thing I wanted to mention is actually really sad. My mom had a mental illness. She was such a sweet, kind, and caring person and she tried so hard to lose the weight that three kids and a bunch of pills made her get to. After years of trying various diets, she decided to try walking. She ended up walking about five miles each day and the pounds just came off. But maybe she did too much. Maybe she had the early signs of osteoporosis. We don’t really know. What we do know is that she ended up with a crushed vertebrae in her neck. The stress of surgery for it messed up her diet and exercise and not only did she gain weight rapidly, her mental health became very poor and she had a few admissions to hospitals. She spent the rest of her life overweight.

What happened to me was that I moved into my own apartment and was able to cook any type of food I wanted. Thinking that if the Irish people could do it, I could do it, I ended up eating way more potatoes than was healthy. I would bake two of them in the microwave, slather them with butter and salt and gobble them up. I started in on easy, deep fried or fast food. I stocked up on chips, pretzels, cheese puffs and all that. And I ate out a lot. It didn’t seem all that bad. I wasn’t having that much sugar–or so I thought. I was exercising a lot, though just hovering around the same weight. I was also eating a lot of TV dinners. A good friend was appalled because he used to be a prison guard and that was what inmates got.

So one day I ended up having a pretty bad stomach ache. I went to a walk-in Doctor and he prescribed some pills and sent me for some blood tests. When I came back expecting to be complimented for my fitness, he told me that I had diabetes, I didn’t believe him. Even with all the eating and the rolls of flab on my midsection I really thought diabetes was impossible. So I asked for another test. For this one I had to fast for 12 hours. I should have known the night before what the results were going to be. I nearly went mad with hunger. I drank all kinds of water (the only thing allowed before the test) and my whole body screamed out for something fatty or salty or crunchy. Despite staying up all night I made it through and the test was that I had to drink a large glass of sugar water with some orange flavouring in it and then wait for two hours for them to re-check my blood sugar level. I failed. It all seemed so surreal.

I had heard and read that type two diabetes can be reversed, but a doctor assured me that if I reverse it I would still have to stay on a special diet for the rest of my life. Of all the people in the world, the one person I needed most to be able to talk to was my Dad, but he told me in no uncertain terms that diabetes was something that Doctors make up to sell pills. He practically made fun of me. I didn’t hold it against him but I kept it clear in my head the old men I saw in a hospital I worked in who had limbs missing from the same illness. Or the teacher from my junior high who taught us about diabetes and how it greatly shortens a person’s possible life span.

So I had to dig in and form a plan. All sugar was now out. All white food, and fast food was out. Snack food–gone. I did decide that I could eat popcorn but my teeth aren’t in all that good of shape either so it had to be in moderation. On top of all this, I had to start reading every ingredient and every nutritional label on any product I planned to eat. For the first while this was really hard. So many things have high levels of fat. So many of the foods I loved from tomato soup to submarine sandwiches were off the scale for things like salt in the soup and fat in the submarine sandwiches. It seemed there was nothing I could eat. And as an added bonus, I had to start taking a pill for cholesterol and another pill called metformin to regulate my blood sugar level. I also got a kit for testing my blood at home and actually I kind of found it a bit fun–until I had to prick the same finger a dozen times and it got sensitive. The metformin caused me dizziness and tiredness. Fortunately, like many of my psychiatric medications, after time it started to work and the bad side effects mostly went away. I did notice that the metformin seemed to make me extremely jumpy and my nerves were on edge.

And as time went by, I started learning about what my body needed when my blood sugar level was low or when I couldn’t sleep. My Psychiatrist had approved certain pills for use when I needed to sleep and I hate to admit I took more of them than I absolutely needed.

What really seemed to save me though was walking. I have always done a lot of walking, but now I started to take it to almost extremes. My moms record of five miles a day didn’t seem like much at all. I would walk four miles, go for a swim, then walk four miles back. I always felt so anxious about getting to a scale at a pharmacy or a doctor’s office just to see if I had lost another pound. A few times I worked way out in the West end of Edmonton and walked for around three hours to get home. Now I don’t know what to do.

I did something significant. I lost 30 pounds. I found I slept better, I could bend over and pick things off the floor when it used to be a very hard thing for me. I also saved a bit of money because I wasn’t spending cash on fancy restaurants or garbage food. I have to admit I don’t get all of my vegetables. When I cook up a supper though, I often add in frozen peas, broccoli, green beans. I actually like the taste of them now. I have been doing so much learning about food and nutrition it has been a lot of fun. Who would have thought an illness that threatened life and limb could be described ‘fun’?

So here’s the sad part: a lot of people I know who have mental illnesses and take medication have diabetes. One of these people has it because of overeating and inactivity. His culture, the way he was raised, was that one ate until you were full. I will never forget going for breakfast with him one day and watching him clear his plate, then order another special. Another friend who is on even more medication than I am had some incredible success with a system I am trying to do myself. One plate, four sections. One quarter is your meat, one quarter is a vegetable and the last two are some kind of greens.

Gaining weight, having diabetes, and many other issues from heart disease to colon cancer are serious issues for people with mental illnesses. What I have found though is that if you can just somehow tough things out for a couple of weeks you will start to change how you taste things and you will almost miraculously be tuned into eating healthy food instead of junk or fatty and salty food. I would so much rather go to my fridge and get a navel orange or some grapes than pretzels that are doused in salt. I will admit though, as I mentioned, I do love popcorn. It is incredibly cheap, has great aspects to it like its high fibre, low-fat content, and there are things one can add to it like nutritional yeast that make it taste divine. I do still add melted margarine and a little salt, but I make sure it is non-hydrogenated, low calorie margarine, and I go as easy as I can on the salt. Remember that your body does need some salt and some fat. The trick is to exercise it off.

So are there any alternatives if you feel your situation is so far gone even a diet won’t help you and you don’t seem to be able to exercise? In most countries my blog is read in, there is an option called bariatric surgery. There are actually a few surgeries, but bariatric is the only one I know anything about. There is a waiting list to have the surgery done, which is time you spend acclimatizing yourself to having a much smaller stomach and learning how to keep up a healthy diet and other factors. It doesn’t work for everyone, but I have seen it work. If this situation sounds like you, talk to your MD.

Well Dear Readers, this session of blog writing seemed to go a little long. I hope some of it helped some of you in some tiny way. I encourage you to make comments when you read this, it really would help me keep coming back to write these knowing there are people out there who are being helped by it.