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My Love Affair with Sweeteners

The original title of this article was “How I Cured My IBS” but a couple of pharmaceutical companies would not appreciate what I have to say, so it seemed appropriate to re-title my story as “My Love Affair with Sweeteners.”

I grew up in the Midwest. When I was 16, I spent the summer caring for my German grandmother who used a wheelchair for mobility in her home in San Francisco. What an adventure I had! Five cents and any bus, streetcar, trolley or other form of public transportation would take me from one end of this fascinating city to the other. (I know, I know. In this day and age, a teen exploring a big metropolitan city alone would not be safe, but it was a simpler time, or a more-naïve time and I ran footloose.) At that time, the mid 1970s, Tab diet cola was the beverage of choice for teens like myself. Tab? Yes, Tab. Tab was the Coca-Cola Company’s prequel to Diet Coke. You would see the hot pink aluminum can everywhere. The Coca-Cola Company marketed flavored Tab, too, and 3 or 4 flavors I remember were available in the San Francisco area: Lemon Lime, Orange, Root Beer, and Black Cherry, each in their own vividly colored can.

In our junior year of high school, back in the days when gasoline was $0.52 per gallon, my best friend, Vicky, and I would sneak off campus for a trip to McDonald’s, Mickey D’s as we called it.  Our order was always the same: “A quarter-pounder with cheese and a Tab, please”. Tab was sweetened with saccharin, the small pink packet you find on the table in restaurants. By the time we graduated from high school (and mind you that I thought I was fat then but looking back I would love to be that nice, comfortable, average size again), I had subconsciously chosen sodium saccharin as my first choice for sweetener. My father used a liquid version of saccharin, Sweet 10, to add a few drops in each cup of his daily coffee habit.

Saccharin, in this case Sweet ‘N Low, was the first “sugar substitute” I tried. Some sugar substitutes are natural and some are man-made or synthetic, hence the current label of “artificial” sweetener. Goggling the word artificial, you find this definition: made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, typically as a copy of something natural. Over the years, other types of sugar substitutes were marketed with the explanation of how bad the one we were using was for us. Kind of like the “eggs are high in cholesterol” debate: No, they aren’t, Yes, they are… My love affair with sweeteners was as engrained in me as my constant battle to lose weight.

Along came aspartame, an artificial non-saccharide sweetener used as a sugar substitute in some foods and beverages. Wikipedia tells us that aspartame is a methyl ester of the aspartic acid/ phenylalanine dipeptide, a.k.a. chemical-based, manufactured, and “artificial.” Fatty acid methyl esters are used to produce detergent and biodiesel. Equal was the most common brand of aspartame available. Our post-college days found me and my friends talking about the effects of Equal, such as headaches, cravings for more sugary foods and drinks. I had none of these symptoms, or at least was so far in denial that I would never have admitted it if I did. Giving up my little blue packet of Equal was not going to happen.

Sucralose was discovered by researchers, i.e. man-made, chemical, and artificial. The Splenda brand, in the little yellow packet, became my best friend. I wasn’t the only one either as, in the turn of the century, Splenda took over a larger percentage of the U.S. $1.5B artificial sweetener market from Equal. Incidentally, saccharin (remember the pink Sweet ‘N Low packet), had been listed since 1981 as a substance reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen (a substance known to cause cancer), but was delisted in 2000 from the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens. Now we fast forward again to current time and are talking about the little yellow packet again, noting that in February 2016, The Center for Science in the Public Interest downgraded Splenda’s safety rating from “caution” status to “avoid” status.

You may be thinking, “Thanks for the history on artificial sweeteners but wasn’t this article about IBS?” Well, you are right. Since the time I was in 8th grade, I had suffered with stomach and intestinal problems. The doctor performed tests and labelled my condition a spastic stomach. I was told not to eat or drink highly acidic foods, like citrus fruit and chocolate. No more OJ in the morning and carob from the “health food” store became a substitute for chocolate cravings. A few years later, the doctor advised me that the list of foods to avoid included dairy because of the lactic acid. Well, it would’ve been nice if you’d told me that initially as I was the typical glass of milk during dinner kid who woke up in the morning with terrible stomach cramps. I missed about a third of my junior year of high school because of this pain which could easily have been avoided.

Fast forward to my 20s and 30s and I could occasionally enjoy a grapefruit or orange but not cow’s milk, cottage cheese or even later as yogurt became more mainstream, I was unable to enjoy that either. Other foods upset my digestive system, and the reaction was often spontaneous, but I never paid much attention to what or why. I simply knew I was identifying the restroom location in any building I entered long before I might need it.

Then sometime in my 40s, I saw a TV commercial with a group of people at a party and squiggly lines were drawn on their stomachs. The commercial talked about IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Hmmm, I thought. I wonder if that’s what I have? At my annual physical, I ask my internal medicine physician and my hopes are dashed. No, no, she tells me, IBS is constipation not the diarrhea you experience. Like a deflated balloon, I left disappointed and without any relief from my unpredictable unhappy intestines. My friends are now at this age when they think doing a “cleanse” is a great idea and I cringe at the thought. Why would I need a digestive cleanse when my body does that for me naturally any time it wants?

Now I’m in my 50s and it’s time for my first routine colonoscopy. Oh, joy! Of course, I am so worried about the product you have to drink the day before that I won’t even think about scheduling one. My doctor advises me to consult with a gastroenterologist and see what they say. Low and behold, one conversation with this amazing doctor and I have a diagnosis: IBS-D. Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Diarrhea. But I had been told…. Well, that doctor didn’t know what she was talking about. Here’s a Low FODMAP diet that should help you. Fiber supplements will help, too. Fiber for diarrhea, really? Yes, really. Oh, and by the way, let’s get you on my calendar for your colonoscopy. Oh, well, okay… I think.

So what’s a FODMAP? Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides And Polyols. That just sounds like more chemicals, right? These are short-chain carbohydrates that if not digested properly ferment in the large intestine or bowel, resulting in chronic gastrointestinal symptoms such as recurrent bloatinggas, cramps, diarrhea or constipation. Check, check, check and check. So, I’m off to study the “Eat This – Not That” list. And no one mentions to me that this diet might be needed only temporarily. I presume I’m looking at having to give up onions and garlic forever! The 5 fiber caps I down each morning, with lots of water for fear that I might choke if they start to dissolve before entering my stomach (I recall that Mama Cass Elliott died from choking on a sandwich and how embarrassing would  that be?), work for me and most of my problems are gone.

When I have to have the colonoscopy, though, I have to stop taking the fiber 5 days beforehand and that immediately causes me to have explosive diarrhea again. By the time I get to drink the lemonade flavored potion, my system has cleaned itself out and it’s no problem for me. Actually, the symptoms I experience routinely are what the average person experiences with the liquid laxative requirement. I am happy with managing my symptoms on my own from there.

Then we see the deluge of commercial for medications to treat Crohn’s disease and IBS. In one, a woman is being seated at a table in what appears to be a nice restaurant to enjoy a nice meal. She hasn’t even sat down yet and her stomach takes over and you can tell from her expression she’s not feeling so great. Why would this be, I think? She hasn’t even eaten anything. Well, smells play a big role in my IBS, too. I literally cannot walk into a candle shop without my stomach revolting. So, the fragrance of cooked food can irritate me, also. And next TV introduces us to Irritabelle, your irritable bowel sidekick, an actress dresses in a nude unitard who joyfully plops down on your desk or next to you on the sofa whenever you think about going to a meeting or going out with friends to eat. Hmmm. Okay, stressful situations and the unknown may also be a trigger. Good to know.

What did it for me was when I recognized I was leaving my home around 8:00 p.m. most nights to go to the drive through for the $1 any size Coke Zero. Was I addicted? I think so. Why else would I do this? I decided in March 2017 to stop drinking diet soda. Then I took it a step further and, for no particular reason that I can remember, I decided to eliminate all artificial sweeteners from my diet. I went through the frig, the freezer and the pantry cupboards throwing things out, one by one. When I was done, I could not believe how much of my daily diet included this crap! Splenda in my coffee or iced tea, diet juices, diet flavored water, diet soda, sugar-free syrup, sugar-free jam, sugar-free candy, ice cream, o my goodness, the list went on and on. I had been eating CarbMaster yogurt from Ralph’s (a Kroger store) because at Weight Watchers they told us it only had 4 carbs per container, but it, too, is artificially sweetened. I read up on artificial sweeteners and decided I had had enough of that.

I had tried stevia years before and complained that it tasted bitter. You too? Well, stevia became my new best friend. Stevia was often coupled with erithryol, so I read about erithryol and all of the cautions about man-made erithryol versus plant-based erithryol. I read, too, that most of the erithryol sold or used in foods in the U.S. is man-made. So the plant-based erithryol is okay for daily human consumption, but not so much the chemically manufactured kind. So, I started reading labels looking for stevia without erithryol. I also started to reduce how much sweetener I used in food and drinks so I was no longer craving sweet tastes.

And the side effect of this lifestyle change?  No more diarrhea! No more IBS-D! For 40 years, I had been drinking and eating artificial sweeteners and the resulting symptoms had dictated my life. For 40 years. But no more. I keep thinking I should let my gastroenterologist in on this discovery, but I am sure he’ll remind me it’s time again for my next colonoscopy, and I’m in no hurry to do that, so mums the word! Sometime this year, in 2018, I will schedule it, but I’ve got two-thirds of the year remaining, so what’s the rush? I no longer need to take daily fiber, so a couple of days before my procedure, I plan to enjoy a diet soda (or two!).  Maybe you’ve decided to take better care of your digestive system, too. If so, nix the artificial sweeteners and take back some control of your life.


My disclaimer: None of the information I refer to in my story is fact-based. Please do your own research if you are interested in what I’ve told you here in my story. All I know is that this worked for me.  I wrote about it because I hope it helps others, too.



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The Block Home Generation

I’ve purchased my plane tickets, reserved a rental car and am thinking ahead to my trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for my high school reunion this summer. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been back there. Many of my friends will return, too, from all points of the U.S. where we’ve scattered to over the past decades. I’m looking forward to reconnecting and laughing hysterically over shared memories. I guess it’s my plans for summer vacation that have me thinking about growing up in the Midwest and how different it is growing up, just about any place, these days, years later. My older brother returned more recently and he and I were talking about the changes. GoogleEarth shows us the home we lived in for so many years and I am surprised by a couple of things. First, the house seems so much smaller. Of course, I was a child, so some of that is a perspective thing. Second, and what my brother commented on, is how all of the trees have grown. I remember that we started out with a row of poplar trees that defined the back property line. And there was the weeping willow in the back yard separating our neighbor’s back door two-step stoop from our clothesline. Plus we had some bushes alongside the front of the house.

After several years, our father planted some new trees in a few random spots in our yard. I never understood why he chose those locations. I thought it made the yard more difficult to mow and when they moved, the front yard was no longer the best on the block for yard games like Red Rover. When we lived there, you could see the entire neighborhood from the freeway. Now, decades later, the trees have grown, taken root and are all you can see for miles and miles. I was in second grade when we moved into that home and it was, in the late 1960’s, on the outskirts of the city. Now, that house is literally in the middle of town as the city has grown and spread out enveloping smaller nearby suburbs.

There is a FB group titled Forgotten Omaha which I’ve joined because people will post old photos of the Omaha I remember. I asked the group whether anyone had a photo of a Block Home sign. Not the kind of block home you would get as the result if you did a Google search, which would show a block design for a house or a separating wall made of glass blocks or decorative cement blocks.  There was much discussion about Block Homes where a window sign designated that there was adult help available in the neighborhood if you needed to get away from a bully or were simply lost. Before there were McGruff houses, neighborhood safe houses were called Block Homes.  Our neighbor across the street was a Block Home. Of course, this, too, was during a time when leaving the doors unlocked in your house was not uncommon.

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The Never-ending Challenge of Family, Part 1


As it is Memorial Day, and we stop to thank our veterans and those who have selflessly served us and given for us, I can’t help thinking of my younger brother who passed away about a month ago.

This post will be a bit off from my usual subjects of art or food, but don’t let that stop you from reading! I think many of us will admit to having grown up in a dysfunctional family. I know I will! I still remember my Abnormal Psychology class where the first discussion was to try to define normal. Okay, so we learned there is no “normal” and applying that to my childhood there wasn’t much “functional” in our family life.

My younger brother was diagnosed with juvenile-onset (Type I) diabetes when he was 10. I remember that it was at the holidays because they let him come home for Christmas morning with the promise that he not eat anything while there. Well the story goes that, during his hospital stay, the doctor and our mom were talking outside my brother’s hospital room and my brother overheard their conversation. The doctor supposedly told mom that my brother would most likely not live past 30; now remember, this was the early 70’s. The story my brother tells is that he decided to enjoy his life while he was here and he used this to substantiate not taking care of himself, not eating right (he would drink a Big Gulp of Pepsi – no, not diet – most mornings), not exercising, drinking and doing drugs… a cautionary tale, for certain, when one has access to syringes for insulin use, they can also easily double for drug use.

This past decade showed the results of his lack of care, and lack of accountability for his health and his situation. He was on dialysis, then he was blessed with a kidney transplant, then if his MediCal had been in effect he could have had a double transplant and received a new pancreas (wow! what a difference that would’ve made).  Then he had one leg amputated below the knee and about 6 months later the other leg, too. He was wheelchair bound and unwilling to help himself in any recognizable way. Due to neuropathy, his hands became useless curled-in claws; he was for awhile able to use a spoon to feed himself, but mostly needed round-the-clock care.

Throughout this time, he was to put it as politely as possible: a curmudgeon. No one, and I mean, no one wanted to be around him. He was a victim and he made sure everyone was as miserable as he was. In many respects, he because the junior version of our father. He was also in a lot of pain as he had wounds that were not healing and spent the majority of these past couple of years in the hospital. The care facility had, with this last trip to the hospital, informed us that he was no longer welcome there and could not return.

Growing up, I found myself being a die-hard optimist. Whenever I would get into a pity party, I would think about how lucky I was; I wasn’t, for example, in a wheelchair, blind, deaf or suffering from any other inability to care for myself and others. There were times I wanted to shake my brother and yell at him Cher’s famous movie line, “Snap out of it!” I still recall the Christmas Eve dinner out at a local Chinese buffet with mom and my brother when I repeated the infamous Dr. Phil line to him, “And how’s that working for you?” Surprisingly, that stopped his whining in it’s tracks (at least for the remainder of the meal)…. on an aside, he later starting attending NA, which help him build friendships and gave his life some purpose.

He was the type of person who had always been bailed out by someone and never took responsibility for his own life or actions. I had loaned him money, given him advice, and even gotten a lawyer acquaintance to take on a case to defend him when I later learned he was guilty and had lied to me! My parents, too, had gotten him out of every conceivable situation he could get himself into, giving him money or letting him move back in with them for the last several years.

And he was cantankerous, obnoxious, and had reverted back to a child in many ways; throwing temper trantrums from his wheelchair like he was a 4-year-old. In the end, he managed to push everyone away from him. My sister, who lives in Omaha, was the one to tell me he was back in the hospital and not doing well. I was his only living relative in the San Diego area. So, guilt, I guess, made me and my son drive to the hospital to see him the night they decided to take him off life support.

I’d spoken to the nurse caring for him and she knew we were on our way. His heart was not going to keep him going much longer and they were discussing a move to hospice. It was a Sunday night and hospital visiting hours were ending at 8:00 p.m. however she said we could come and stay as long as we wanted. When we arrived one of the nurses asked when I had last seen my brother. This took me back and with a lump in my throat I said that it had been about 2 years. The breathing apparatus was horrible, keeping his jaw propped wide open so that he could breathe. I know that he recognized my voice, although I still wonder if the fact that as I age I sound more like our mother and maybe he mistook me for her. I know that he recognized my son’s crazy afro curls. But, he could not speak.

He could express pain, which he was in a lot of with wounds on his leg stumps which weren’t healing. He was being given morphine, which we knew gave him hallucinations, making him think people were going to throw him out of where he was living or that he was being kept against his will, etc. But at this point, I don’t know how much he knew about what was going on with him. We talked to him and went with him as they changed floors for the continuous care making him as comfortable as possible.

Seeing my brother this way broke my heart. It’s hard to be angry with someone you love when they are this helpless. Also, the fact that he could not talk back, made him easier to be around (wry smile here while wiping tears off my face). I had so many emotions coursing through me all I did on the drive home was cry. I took the next day off and stayed in bed grieving. Tuesday night after work I wanted to see him again. They had decided he would not make the transition to hospice and were keeping him in the hospital.

I kept thinking I would not want to die alone and knew that none of his friends had gone to see him. I have to admit the shock when seeing him. He was wearing a green hospital gown that I can only describe as “fresh” green. It wasn’t a pale, washed-out hospital gown but a cheery color against the stark white sheets and pillowcase. He was asleep, unconscious, unresponsive, and heavily medicated. As I sat on the hospital bed with him, his breathing would stop for what seemed like long periods of time and my eyes would widen wondering if he was gone, but then he’d gasp and start breathing again.

He did not respond to my voice, as far as I could recognize, or my touch. I started to tell him stories of our childhood growing up in Prairie Lane, an Omaha neighborhood. Remember when we used to play Red Rover using the sidewalk in the middle of the front lawn as the dividing line in any yard game? Remember, back before childproof lids, we would mix baking soda and vinegar in empty pill bottles, put them in the middle of the street and then run like mad to get away before they exploded everywhere? Remember when you took my bike and wrecked it, losing your 2 front teeth? Remember when you shot a bottle rocket off from a soda bottle you held in your outstretched hand and it boomeranged back at you, burning you in the stomach? Remember the animals we had, what a menagerie! Remember when I realized what was actually in that foil-wrapped package in the freezer labelled “Snake Food”… well, you said, what did I think you were doing with the mice? Ewwww.

By this time, tears were streaming down my face and I no longer tried to stop them, just let them fall. My brother seemed so child-like laying in the hospital bed and peaceful. All my anger and resentment towards him evaporated; forgiven.

I don’t know whether it was for him or for me, but I sang lullabies to him, the ones mom used to sing to us at bedtime, starting with his favorite: Puff the Magic Dragon. Then, I Gave My Love a Cherry, 14 Angels Guard My Sleep, All the Pretty Little Ponies, and yes, Twinkle Twinkle. I have no idea if he heard, sensed, or even knew I was there, but that was the last time I saw my younger brother alive. His heart stopped the next morning. The hospital never called me as the written directions they had were to let mom know. My sister then sent me a text.

Rest in peace, little bro.